I See London, I See France: The Panty Party puts the MuuMuu Back on MuuMuusic
(Or: One Leg at a Time)
Dateline: The East Village, NYC. Sound check at Baby Jupiter on the Stanton Street strip, Wednesday night, a short sprint before showtime. Keyboard: check. Guitar DI: check. Keyboard vocal: check one two. Center vocal: check one two. Stage right vocal: check one two. Lights: check. Wigs: check. Boas: check. Negligees: check. Panties: check, and strewn all over the house. Mr. Cyrano: check. Musicians: check. Except Leif Arntzen, but he'll turn up sooner or later. Won't he?
Panty Partier Pilley as Rapunzel: Lord of the Ringlets
The Panty Party is a giggly downtown pageant of mix-and-match lingerie, girlie-girl paraphernalia, nudge-and-wink risqué humor, and panoplied music and songwriting. It unfurls on the third Wednesday of every month. A celebration of the slinky and the slapstick and all points between, it's an easy mix of femme fatale splendor (gotta love a good chance to show off the more unusual fringes of the wardrobe) in harmony with happy frumpiness and mock-horrified drag grotesquery. It was aptly summed up a few months back by visiting Finnish singer Markus Nordenstreng, who scored a Panty Party slot during his trip through town and took the stage made-up and bewildered and in a pale stringy nightie, guitar in hand, looking a bit dazed. "This is the strangest gig I've ever played," he said. And he said it with feeling. (Subtext: those crazy Americans...) With each artist doing two stripped-down numbers (full bands are allowed, but discouraged), 8 to 10 talents are, er, exposed during each monthly two-hour Panty Party set.
Markus Nordenstreng Being a Sport
The rules are simple: you have to be terrific to get a booking, and you have to be a girl or wear something girlie to get on stage. Every now and then an embarrassed guy will skulk up into the lights wearing -- quelle horreur! -- pants and a showy slick shirt, hoping that leopard print or a leather vest will bluff him past inspection. It doesn't work. "Panty Police!" comes the cry from the house, and Panty Party hosts Ivy, Pilley and Nancy race up bearing wigs, boas, and hunks of frilly ... well, your Mr. Cyrano doesn't actually know what all those things are. But girls wear them. It's part of the Mystery. There's a blur of draping and placing and in cases of extreme violation arms may go up over the head for the good-natured application of a negligee, and then, with the miscreant suitably adorned, the music continues. Is Leif here yet?
Sean Altman: Red Wig and the Angry Inch...?
Dangling from the mike stands and festooning the light fixtures are panties, panties, panties. Each performer is asked to contribute a signed pair, and the Panty Party collection at this juncture runs varied. There are brand-new ones out of the discount bin (this month Mr. Cyrano's regular Indie Spotlight favorite Tricia Scotti hands over a tangled pair and, asked about the story of these particular undergarments, announces firmly, "These panties cost 99 cents, and they've never been worn"). There are "band shorts" ("Uh, yeah, we've all worn 'em, yeah"). There are memorable-moment panties (less said about this the better, perhaps, but thanks for sharing). There are thongs and slips and briefs and boxers, patterned ones and red ones and jungleskin ones and black ones. And there's a special pair of annotated white briefs supplied by Panty Party mainstay pop singer Sean Altman (ex of Rockapella), which diagrams Sean's general layout: "I hang a bit to the left, so you can see that here," he explained during the presentation, "...and here's a drawing of my anus." ("How heinous was that?" laughs Panty Partier Nancy Magarill, long after the fact. "He's so funny.") Sean, who is sort of a Panty Party founder, is a cut-up all around, towering and lean and with a big, precise, sweet voice, and he turns up at these shows singing backing vocals and holding forth at the head of things with songs ranging from hysterical ("Chanukah with Monica" [Lewinsky]) to heartbreaking ("Unhappy Anniversary," which is featured on the current Vitamin C record). Let us know when Leif comes in...
Tricia Scotti: In Red
Tonight we have the usual dazzle of music. Tricia blasts through her two songs in a long black wig, looking a bit like she's trying her best to ignore the red bedtime outfit -- special mention to bass player Anne Husick (also lead singer of Shameless) for the good-time gauzy black negligee. Deadpan Cindy Kaplan is on hand with a cautionary ballad ("Gingivitis Can Kill") and her belly-laugh single-girl song "Who Do I Have to Fuck to Get Laid Around Here." Is Leif here yet? Yes, Leif is here. On soft, eloquent trumpet, gruff vocals and acoustic guitar, Leif Arntzen quiets the house with his jazzy and determined candlelight numbers and a brief ramble about trying to explain to his wife what that sultry-sounding message on the answering machine was all about: "Leif, we want you to come to our Panty Party ... we're really looking forward to it. Call me." The Panty Police are called out a couple of times, which is part of the fun, and the room fills full for appearances by Jolie Rickman, Jake Stigers and Keith Cotten of DoubleWide, and Jordan Kaplan and the Half Naked Fakers, in a rule-bending appearance with a beret as the requisite item of female attire. (Well...) And then, of course, there's Zelda. These days it wouldn't be a Panty Party without Zelda.
Nancy Magarill, Undercover
Zelda unites the three Panty Party organizers, Ivy Markaity, Pilley, and Nancy Magarill, in a girl-group Total Kitsch experience. (Each of the three will also appear solo at the gig.) There have been a couple of Zelda numbers, but the crowd favorite is "Zip It Up" (written by wags Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum), a raucous outing that tackles a particularly brief and underblown sexual interlude ("You aimed and fired / And then you expired / It was the worst ten seconds of my life / Zip it up, Big Man"). And that's what we get, to whoops and applause. Tonight Pilley is ravishing in denim and leather chaps, Ivy's sporting white frilled full-leg bloomers, and Nancy's in sheer black, and they wriggle and fetch to their cheesy backing tape, vamping through hilariously unfortunate choreography. The three swap lead vocal places on the verses, each of which is essentially a setup for one or another punch line. In some ways Zelda is the heart of the Panty Party writ brief and tawdry: it sounds a bit shocking, it's certainly outrageous, and at the finish line it's grand good fun, in poor but winning wacky tacky taste.
In the Ivy League: Ivy Markaity, Girl with a Curl
A Brief History of Panties: The Panty Party began as a small great idea in the tiny basement East Village venue The Den of Cin(ema) on Avenue A back in December of 1998. It's grown since then. At first it was an informal songwriting showcase circle put together by Ivy, whose debut album on the now-defunct National Records had recently been released, and Pilley, whose band Ila's Dress was attracting a passel of Industry intrigue. Ivy was booking the Den after stints at other New York clubs (including the lamented Hotel Galvez), and the show was a relaxed way to share new material -- and new fashion fantasies -- away from the madding crowd, with friends and a well-clued family of audience members. Mr. Cyrano caught up with the fun early in 1999, and after thrilling through a closing solo piano first performance of Pilley's angelic song "Born in New Orleans" that night he's hardly missed one since.
Singer Nancy Magarill settled into the form in September that year, and the three recognized that they had a good thing going. Next step: more. The move to Baby Jupiter came about the same time that the ASCAP performing rights music organization began to sponsor the monthly Panty Party doings. Side-by-side with the regulars, acts with more promotional history behind them began to turn up, and so performers like Patti Rothberg and Julia Darling joined the Panty Party fold. Booking is done by consensus among the three founders, and is trim and varied. For every Julia Darling who plays there's also a new unknown writer, or a singer drawn from the cabaret circuit or theatre circles -- there is very little regular crossover between these camps in New York, and the Panty Party has drawn widely from many of the City's musical cells.
Patti Rothberg & the Big Pink Panty
As with any enterprise, some people get it and some don't. At most Panty Party shows a couple of performers will make a half-hearted stab at dressing up, while others go for the brass ring with an admirable lack of shame. When Rob Schwimmer of Polygraph Lounge played the Party last fall, doing a theremin piece and his "In the West Wing" satire on Monica Lewinsky (clearly a potential Panty Party poster girl), he showed up in his usual ensemble of t-shirt and trousers. Well, shorts, it was warm. The Panty Police pounced gleefully and decorated him with gusto. Noel Cohen, a songwriting partner to Ivy and Sean who often accompanies Ivy on guitar, tries to slip in with boy clothes every session and wears a long-suffering look when the inevitable accountrements descend. John and Steve Conte of the New York band Crown Jewels, on the other hand, have parlayed their full-tilt drag appearances into good press complete with cover-spread pix. When they do their duo spots they come charging out in sexy slips slid over hard-built bodies, bursting all over with alarming quantities of body hair. "John in his teal negligee," sighs Nancy, describing one magazine photo from the Panty Party, "...it's beautiful. Two gorgeous guys in lingerie. What more could a girl ask for?" Ah, the perks, the perks.
Rob Schwimmer: Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma
The Panties in a Wad: Will it play in Peoria? They're about to find out. The Panty Party has just hooked up with a new sponsor, the big media Web company Music.com. This happened via an unlikely tangle of sublets, neighbors and roommates -- in other words, only in New York -- and it comes at a fortuitous moment: the girls are ready to take their act on the road. Next month they're moving digs from Baby Jupiter to a larger space, The Cutting Room, one of the City's newest venues. Music.com is looking at future webcasts and other promotions; there are plans afoot to tour the show to cities like Los Angeles, San Fancisco, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston. In each city they're hoping to bring a few stalwart NYC acts out to join forces and undergarments with likely Panty protagonists from the target region.
That's only the start, but it's enough for now. The Panty Partiers are confident about their success, and the coterie from Music.com is blissfully happy and full of plans for merch and publicity and parties and toys (Mr. Cyrano wants Panty Party boxers, thanks). "There's something for everyone," says Nancy. "That's the beauty of the Panty Party. That's the whole point of it." Judging by how it's gone from incept to present, she's not far off the mark. From folk to jazz to the many flavors of rock, from novelty and humor to confessional explorations to slam-bang love/life songs, from an hallucinatory floor-show appearance by Mr. Polka to French chanteuse accordion stuff by Marni Rice, the Panty Party has been a many-splendored thing, and it shows no signs of stopping.
The Conte Brothers: "What More Could a Girl Ask For?"
The next Panty Party takes place on Wednesday, June 21st at 8pm, in its first outing at The Cutting Room at 19 West 24th Street. Call (212) 691-1900 for more information on the venue. If all goes as planned, your Mr. Cyrano will read poetry that evening as part of the festivities. And yes, I'm told I'll be dressed for the occasion. Check the Panty Party Web site for the rest of the performers, and for news on their travel and tour plans. And as they say on the site, lay down your arms ... and show us your panties.
In a Nutshell: The Panty Party is fun. It's up-close and personal, it's silly and self-indulgent, it presses extraordinary artists against rougher acts that still need some fine-tuning, and it turns out a hot dish that will satisfy nearly any appetite. You'll laugh, you'll cry, it was better than Cats. You won't wish you had your money back like if you'd gone to see Battlefield: Earth instead. It's a recommended date (object of desire should have a sense of humor), tourists will love it, and in a pinch you can bring Mom. Something for everyone.
Because of the upcoming EAT-M music conference in Las Vegas, this column may be delayed next time out. See you in two, or three, or four.
Number of wigs owned by Nancy: "Only two."
Number of wigs owned by Pilley: Three.
Number of wigs owned by Ivy: The rest.
Fave moment at the Panty Party: Unnamed male bass player takes the stage done up in huge false breasts. Moments into the song they begin to move around; soon enough the right one is pointing skyward and the left one is in his armpit. Gyrations ensue. At the end of the song he turns to his bandmates: "How do girls play with these things?"
The Panty Party: http://www.thepantyparty.com/
Caution: pantyparty.com without the "the" is a porn site.
Sean Altman: http://www.bigsean.com/
Leif Arntzen: http://www.leifarntzen.com/
The Crown Jewels (Conte Brothers): http://www.crownjewelsnyc.com/
Markus Nordenstreng: http://www.zengarden.fi/markus/markindex.html
Patti Rothberg: http://www.pattirothberg.com/
Tricia Scotti: http://www.triciascotti.com/
Remembering Sir John Gielgud, one of the most elegant men in theatre, who shuffled off this mortal coil at 96 on the deadline day for this column. MHRIP 2000.
Photos and On-the-fly Fact Checking by Pierre Jelenc. Whatever it may look like, that's mostly not their real hair.
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