Tito Bonito, “the Cuban Missile Crisis of Burlesque” as his mother dubbed him, propels himself across the dance floor of a former speakeasy in a pair of light-up sneakers. With his chiseled face and dark hair, he’s got the audience in the palm of his hand.
A middle-aged guy who’d been firing bills toward female dancers all night now unleashes dollar bombs in the boylesque performer’s direction. And the women in the crowd wave bundles of singles like little white flags with every article of clothing Bonito removes. They’re all ready to surrender to the dark-haired dancer with the chiseled face before he’s even reached the finale. When Bonito does discharge his ultimate weapon — a set of tassels spinning from his hind cheeks — the crowd explodes.
Born Anthony Carasa, Bonito grew up in Miami but dreamed of Los Angeles. He loved movies and thought he would become an actor. While he did eventually make it to L.A., his purpose now is slightly different. Bonito is a rising star in the city’s burlesque scene, where his off-the-wall comedy and smooth dance moves elicit roars of laughter and cheers.
Bonito attended theater school in Chicago and spent several years there auditioning, but couldn’t land a gig. Meanwhile, his best friend had started performing burlesque. “I was hella judgmental about it,” he says. Bonito wasn’t being uptight; his gripe was that the friend would make less money in the burlesque world, where tipping is uncommon, than she could at a regular strip club. But when Bonito did his duty as a friend and checked out the show, the supportive community of dancers impressed him. When he learned that men could perform too, he wanted to be a part of this world.
His first gig was a free show inside a biker bar. When Bonito threw a shoe in the air, it hit him in the head. Despite that, he quickly made a name for himself. Two years later, he was ready to hit the road for a tour that would lead him to his new home base.
Bonito, 31, has thrived since the move. He emcees and performs at Bootleg Bombshells, a weekly, free burlesque party at Venice’s century-old Townhouse & Del Monte Speakeasy. He also has performed at a number of other popular local events and documents the progress of his career on YouTube.
“I’ve been showing my butt since I was a little kid.” —Tito Bonito
His routines vary, sometimes including elements of political satire and nods to his Cuban heritage. He’s taken on a bevy of pop-culture figures; in fact, he and fellow dancer Nikita Bitch Project won the Best Duo award at the Hollywood Burlesque Festival for their Super Mario Brothers sendup.
In a way, burlesque has been liberating for Bonito. He learned how to dance by copying artists like Madonna in private, but now he’s known for voguing and even teaches others the dance style.
While burlesque isn’t the most lucrative career, it’s one that has been personally fulfilling for Bonito. Perhaps it’s something he was born to do. “I’ve been showing my butt since I was a little kid,” he says. “Had I known I could have made a career off of that, I probably would have started a lot younger.”