By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Courtney Cruz, the brains and buxom beauty behind performance troupe and burlesque sensation Devil's Playground, is having a serious guest-list problem. Just one month after her cult production of Star Wars Burlesque premiered at tiny downtown club Bordello and became an overnight Internet sensation, Cruz has been overrun with requests for press and VIP passes for the likes of Nathan Hamill (son of original Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill) and major media outlets, like Access Hollywood. They are all clamoring to catch the intergalactic striptease's second installment at the much larger Henry Fonda Theater before it sells out — again.
"My in-box is insane," Cruz says, excited and a bit exasperated after a week of meetings with promoters and potential new sponsors. She orders another round of celebratory Jameson shots at Stinkers, the now-closed Silver Lake watering hole. Her petite frame pressed against the wooden bar, Cruz beckons the bartender, who delivers the shots so fast it could have been a personal record. With her wavy, jet-black hair, hazel eyes, perfectly arched brows and signature red lips, the pale, tattooed beauty is both classic Hollywood glamour and straight-up rocker. "These are on the house," the grinning bartender insists. Of course they are.
"It's a trade industry," Cruz says of her years spent scraping by as an alternative model before she became a performer and started Devil's Playground in 2007. "I realized after a few years in the industry, unless you're doing hard-core pornography, you don't make much money."
Sure, modeling earned her an incredible wardrobe, great shoes and plenty of pretty pictures, but trade alone wasn't enough to live on.
Over whiskeys at the bar, and later cozied up on her living-room couch, she tells the story of a girl from Costa Mesa with "Paris dreams," who ran off and married a rock musician at 18, divorced young, and got back on her feet as an ambitious but small-time performer at local venues, like Miss Kitty's Parlour and the Derby. Now 31, hers is the story of a woman who, after eight grueling years hustling the club circuit, went from model to dancer to nationally in-demand theater producer with Star Wars Burlesque, the show that catapulted Devil's Playground into the mainstream.
"Burlesque used to be so taboo," Cruz recalls. "For the first two years Devil's Playground wasn't profitable. There was a lot of overhead because I pay my girls fairly. I wasn't able to turn it into a profitable situation until now. The Star Wars show really put it over the top."
Devil's Playground goes beyond the cardboard of cosplay and the martini bathing of traditional burlesque; it is Warholesque, pop-art theater. Cruz highlights the kitsch in topical events, pays tribute to films, video games and comics that influenced her while she was growing up, and uses parody to reinvent fan favorites via character-driven performances and the art of undressing.
While the Star Wars installment is a great stage show, the space-opera striptease is only one of Cruz's creations. Other shows include Video Game Girls, Comic Book Vixens and the carnival-freak favorite Sexy Sideshow Girls. Forget fan dancing; sliding a power drill up your nose and chewing glass without so much as smudging your lipstick takes real talent.
"Bordello has been a great place for us to discover ourselves as performers, and discover what themes and characters people respond to," Cruz says of her troupe's monthly downtown residency over the last two years and its concurrent move into bigger venues. "Now we can expand upon it, up the production value, add more characters and really blow it out of the water."
So when can audiences see the next performance of Star Wars Burlesque? Maybe never. Aside from those lucky enough to have caught the first two performances this year, Cruz's most popular show has already become the stuff of legend. In March, Lucasfilm's antipiracy department issued an informal cease-and-desist letter, asking Cruz never to repeat the show.
"With the Star Wars show there were people who said, 'This isn't burlesque! These are strippers with fancy costumes!' But if you read the definition of burlesque, it's about parody and mockery. Humor is a superimportant part of it," Cruz explains. "Me and my core group of girls, we're like a gang. None of us are divas."
Thinly veiled threats from major studios aside, Cruz won't let this crimp her career. After all, the great show woman Mae West had many performances censored in her day, and she made a fortune out of it.