"I love Lucha VaVoom. It's seriously crackers and great fun. Everyone should go." —Eric Idle
For the seven of you who've never heard of Lucha VaVoom, the name says it all:
Lucha — meaning "fight" in Spanish, from the phrase lucha libre, a term used to describe Mexican professional masked wrestling, a combat sport that can be traced back to 1863 and developed out of the Greco-Roman version by probable tough guy Enrique Ugartechea.
VaVoom — meaning "titties."
But it's so much more. Throw in professional comics, and you have what has been called a "nonstop, action-packed scream-a-thon" where the Mexican masked wrestlers pounce and pulverize, while in between matches stunning professional burlesque dancers beguile and bowl over the crowd. For the price of one ticket, you get a heaping portion of "sexo y violencia."
Rita D'Albert and Liz Fairbairn are Lucha VaVoom's co-producers. [Editor's note: Michelle Carr should have been credited as a co-founder of Lucha VaVoom. We regret the omission.] The pair met when D'Albert was producing the successful burlesque show Velvet Hammer, where Fairbairn designed and made costumes. "Liz took me to a Mexican wrestling show at the Olympic Auditorium," D'Albert recalls. "She was dating a Mexican wrestler, and she was trying to get him a visa. And there weren't a lot of wrestling shows and she thought, 'Well, if I can put on a show, then I can get him a visa.' The things we do for love."
A special-effects costume designer, Fairbairn had met the wrestler when she was on location in Mexico for a film she had made — what else? — baboon costumes for. "He was one of the stunt guys," she says. "We dated for the next 10 years and I followed him into his crazy world of lucha libre."
A self-described "song 'n' dance gal," D'Albert was a member of The Pandoras and an integral part of Andy Prieboy's much-loved rock musical White Trash Wins Lotto. She also might be the coolest chick in the room, with a sexy, smoky voice and a serious knack for lipstick. In 2002, she was working as a costumer for porn movies three days a month. "As you can imagine, it's not a big demand," she quips.
For that wrestling show, "Liz had to talk me into it," D'Albert says. "I was never into sports. I felt that was a different world than the one I inhabited. I am firmly in the rock & roll world. Any of that physical stuff is not for me. I was really close-minded about it at first. When I think of wrestling, I think of bullies. Guys with giant necks shouting through the TV."
But after that match at the Olympic, her view of wrestling changed. "In the early 2000s, there wasn't a lot of theatricality or physicality in rock. There was a lot of shoegazing stuff going on, so this brought the energy that I was missing so much," she says.
"It was an all-Hispanic crowd, except we ran into Tom Kenny, who does the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. He was a huge Mexican wrestling fan," D'Albert recalls of the comic and actor who would host Lucha VaVoom early on. "It was mostly families. I really loved that. It's pretty violent but has physical humor that transcends any age. Everyone was having this great shared experience. "
D'Albert treats the wrestlers like the celebrities they are. They arrive for the show in lowrider cars. "I thought these guys are rock stars. Just that Iggy Pop, putting yourself in danger and harm's way without regard for your own safety — that is just a turn-on. I can't do a cartwheel. I can barely complete a somersault. People who can do those things, I have the utmost admiration for. And they're doing this with giant guys who can really hurt you. There's a really balls-out attitude that I'm really drawn to. I think we're all drawn to fearlessness. It's super sexy, especially right now when everything is so safe."
D'Albert's work with White Trash Wins Lotto and Velvet Hammer had her cross-pollinating with the comedy scene. "I thought, why don't we have the comedians that I work with come do it in the Mystery Science Theater style," she says. She and Fairbairn teamed up, and Lucha VaVoom was born in 2002.
D'Albert envisioned a spectacle for modern audiences raised on MTV. At that Olympic Auditorium show, the matches were three-fall. "Sometimes I felt like they were milking it, and our crowd wouldn't have the patience," she explains. "I said, 'Let's do one fall instead of three; you've got 15 minutes max, no resting, just boom boom boom." Some of the colorful (that's an understatement) wrestlers include Magno, Chupacabra, Green Fuzz, Chocolatay Caliente and Dirty Sanchez, a comically nasty fellow who proudly sports the mirkin to end all mirkins.
D'Albert had the wrestlers, along with dancers "as a palate cleanser" and comics in place, but how would L.A. audiences react? "We thought it was going to be a one-off," she says. "L.A. people — any band can and will tell you — are the worst audiences because we're pretty jaded. In The Pandoras, we'd go to San Francisco and we'd say, 'This is the best!' and we'd come back and see arms folded doing the same show with the same energy. So when I looked around at the first Lucha crowd and I saw people going crazy, it was a pivotal thing for me."
Blaine Capatch, a comic and TV writer who had been in WTWL, was on board from the beginning. A revolving slate of co-hosts included Fred Armisen (who hosted the very first show), Ron Lynch and Craig Anton. Later on Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, Drew Carey, Jeffrey Ross, Chris Hardwick and Bobcat Goldthwait would take on commentator duties.
"When the matches started, it was dead air, so I just started making jokes acting like a sports announcer," Capatch recalls. "It was super organic, but you couldn't sit down and create — it just happened in the moment." Such as the time the legendary exotico Cassandro jumped off the balcony onto a rudo (villain) in the crowd. "It was a pretty startling drop — and I said, 'He's OK, folks, he landed on some old ladies.'?"
A hit was born, and Lucha VaVoom made downtown's Mayan its home. "When the show happened and was successful, it seemed really easily laid out — that this would become a regular thing, and it almost seemed to me that it would be very easy, given my contacts and Blaine's contacts, that we could just parlay this quickly into a TV show right away. We could franchise it and be in Las Vegas and we would be the next WWE. It seemed like that would be — ha ha — easy," D'Albert laughs.
Before the Whistle
About a week before each show, all the players gather for a meeting. After "a lot of food," D'Albert and cast look at ways to "make things pop." She's strict that "there can be no downtime in the show." Does she have to crack the whip? "Sometimes — because we all love each other, and it's the only time we get together outside of the show as a group, so of course we want to talk about everything."
"You won't find a weirder cast get along so well. Hugs, kisses, insanity and tequila," co-host Jeff B. Davis says. "My favorite part of the show is backstage. The men's dressing room is crammed with giant and tiny dudes who smell of Icy Hot and Ben Gay, talking a mixture of languages, dressed like chickens, skeletons and piñatas, happily figuring out how they'll beat the shit out of each other in the ring. The women's dressing room is an ongoing party, open to anyone in the show, male, female or otherwise. It's a jumble of hot, naked people and stylists, champagne and rock stars. Showbiz at its swinging-est. There really is nothing like it. It's like Cirque du Soleil except more fun and less French."
Ask the regulars what their favorite part of the show is, and many will mention the dressing rooms. "It's like the opening scene of Goodfellas where you're walking through the kitchen, and then into the dressing room, where there are all these girls in amazing outfits and everybody in costume and Aztec dancers and wrestlers everywhere. There needs to be a show where you see all this, but nobody can find a way to bottle that. There's a lot of liniment going on," Capatch says. "I usually just try to make sure I have my tie the right length. It takes eight or nine tries."
"Fellini-esque doesn't even begin to describe it. For a guy like me with responsibilities, it's as close as I can be to running away with the circus," Kenny notes. "In the dressing room, you see the toll it takes on the wrestlers. I saw Cassandro jump off a balcony and I thought I was going to have to file a police report. It still feels dangerous and illegal. Me and Blaine are just sitting on a perch cracking wise, like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets. It gives me such deep respect — way deeper than I have for anybody on a sitcom."
A thrill for Kenny was the time he "got thrown around Andy Kaufman–style" by a wrestler known as Dr. Wagner. "He grabbed me and threw me down. The closest I have even been to being in a fight. It was like going to Space Camp for me."
"You'll see a very harmonious dressing room with people helping each other with their costumes or somebody forgot a thing and everybody has an extra one," D'Albert says. "We don't do a prayer circle. We don't need to. Everybody's so excited for each other."
Viva la Lucha
D'Albert and Fairbairn pick a different theme for every show. "The girls do really cool amazing aerial stuff. There's a dude on a pogo stick with glitter coming out of his g-string," Capatch says. "There are some maniacs in the audience dressed like a Juggalo family. There's always something to look at. I'll look over and go, 'Oh wow, there's Gary Numan.' Eric Idle shows up. He's the sweetest guy on two legs, that guy. And everybody on the show is somebody you could be in a van with for 15 hours. The Valentine's shows have Ron Funches. He is a huge wrestling guy, but he watches it with a completely different viewpoint."
"We realized that people really want to identify and have contact with the wrestlers," D'Albert says. "They fly out of the ring into those front rows, and those are the seats that cost the most and sell out first, because I think people are so hungry for something physical and dangerous that's not really that dangerous."
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Ring girl Bonita La Belle came on board after contacting D'Albert through MySpace. "Liz and Rita have not only managed to stay relevant in the entertainment industry but have also succeeded in empowering other young women, myself included," La Belle says. "The show is constructed through a feminist lens, therefore the machismo often erroneously associated with Mexican culture and lucha libre appears to be the running force — it is in fact quite the opposite. Lucha VaVoom challenges all heteronormative expectations of both wrestling and burlesque."
One of La Belle's favorite memories: "Being on morning TV and having Cassandro create hairspray clouds all over us — including the anchor and camera crew — while Leigh Acosta was upside down on a pole and Dirty Sanchez was running around being his dirty self. In my head I just picture a person waking up to this and being confused out of their minds. It still makes me giggle thinking about it."
After 15 years, Lucha VaVoom is practically as historic to Los Angeles as the Moulin Rouge is to Paris. When you ask D'Albert if she can see herself doing this for another 15 years, she gives a hearty laugh. "I guess I have to. I have no choice."
LUCHA VAVOOM | The Mayan, 1038 S. Hill St., downtown; Wed.-Thu., Feb. 14-15, 8 p.m. | $40 | luchavavoom.com