During the 19th and early 20th centuries, so-called snake oil salesmen sold mysterious and unproven, often fraudulent medicines to a captivated public.
To pay homage to the unknown and unquantifiable that these peddlers hawked, three members of the New Orleans burlesque and variety community — Ben Wisdom, Little Luna and Ginger Licious — have come together to produce three days’ worth of burlesque, variety, sideshow, music, comedy and art.
The festival at the Howlin’ Wolf will feature shows, workshops and vendors June 19-21.
“It’s a real buffet of the senses,” Wisdom said.
Friday night, dubbed Carnival at the Crossroads, will focus on circus and sideshow and examines New Orleans as an intersection of the arts.
The night’s performance will be hosted by nationally acclaimed burlesque performer and tarot reader Madame Onça O’Leary.
Saturday is Hoochy, Coochy Babylon, headlined by the well-known local burlesque artist Bella Blue. Luna and Wisdom said the show mixes the typical glamour found in burlesque with a heavy dose of grit.
The final night hosts New Orleans’ own Unholy Roller Revival, led by the organizers and featuring Wisdom and a live band led by Dr. Sick and St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus, among many other performances.
All three organizers are local entertainers who wanted to produce a festival that didn’t harbor the stereotypical form of burlesque shows, shifting the gaze from its focus on striptease.
“With ours, you’re not going to come to a show and it’s going to be striptease, striptease, striptease, one sideshow guy, striptease, striptease, striptease,” said Wisdom, who has performed in variety shows throughout New Orleans since 2009.
“This is going to be striptease, a sideshow guy, a musician, a comedian, another sideshow person, another killer striptease artist, and so the emphasis is really on the variety, which isn’t always the main thrust of burlesque festivals around the country.”
The daily workshops are open to the public and taught by renowned members of the national burlesque and variety community.
Burlesque MC Armitage Shanks teaches how to be a jet-setter on a budget; Angela Eve, a New Orleans and Chicago performer, explains how to produce your own show; Bella Blue’s class focuses on how to impart sexual energy in your performance; and Madame Onça’s course will divulge the history of fortune telling and tarot.
The typical aesthetic found in burlesque is the classic ’40s, ’50s pinup theme, a point of nostalgia for many participants.
Most emulate this era, but not the Snake Oil Festival. Organizers plan to bring people together in the same old-fashioned, communal sense that tent revivals, circuses and carnivals used to while updating their form to something called neo-burlesque.
“Neo-burlesque is more burlesque as social commentary or cosplay,” explained Luna, referring to costumed role-playing.
“The costuming is weirder, and people take different chances and explore different ideas with it,” she added. “Classic burlesque is really glamorous, but the neo version is more playful, topical and narrative driven.”
The organizers hope to draw between 700 and 1,000 people throughout the three days of performances but said this isn’t necessarily about financial success. They also hope to use this as an opportunity for the performers who are coming across the country to participate to learn from one another and network.
“Our first gauge of success is whether the audience who came enjoyed it,” Wisdom said. “Second, did our performers feel like it was worth it to donate their time and skills? Did they learn something or gain something? Because a lot of them are performing for free.
“Our third measure of success is if we break even.”
Luna and Wisdom both stated their appreciation for the New Orleans community, as it has always supported their artistic pursuits.
“New Orleans really appreciates burlesque,” Luna said. “In other cities, you have to explain what burlesque is, and you still are misunderstood. In New Orleans, people know it’s a traditional American form of entertainment.
“When you tell people you’re a burlesque dancer here, their face lights up.”