In November, Sacramento burlesque troupe The Darling Clementines celebrated its 10-year anniversary. To celebrate, it held a blockbuster show with visiting acts like Frankie Fictitious and Banbury Cross, both from the Bay Area. Frankie rode in on a hobby horse with a red bedazzled fringe cowboy hat and flowing red feathered chaps to match; flirtatious Banbury Cross was decked out in pink gems. But these nationally recognized burlesque stars couldn’t compare with what was to come.
The crowd went wild as host Cha Cha Burnadette was led to the stage blindfolded, wearing a Hugh Hefner-inspired silk robe. Members of the troupe placed fluorescent letters behind her that spelled “Marry Me!”
Cha Cha Burnadette’s partner stole the show as she proposed in front of the sold-out audience, which included the troupe’s most committed fans. Queer love took center stage while the power of representation, safety and inclusion reverberated through the venue.
Producer, host, performer, burlesque maven and queer rights advocate Camille Adams, whose stage name is Cha Cha Burnadette, has spent the last decade supporting Sacramento’s burlesque community. Adams, originally from New Mexico, founded The Darling Clementines after she moved to the capital city. Every month she hosts and produces the troupe’s flagship variety show at the music venue Harlow’s in the heart of Midtown. The show centers queer and marginalized performers of all shapes, sizes, gender identities and colors. Tickets sell out often, and the most devoted show attendees will show up hours ahead of time, waiting for the doors to open just to secure a good seat.
Historically, burlesque has always created space for queer people and others who don’t quite fit into the mainstream. “Burlesque has always been known for being political and poking fun at those you shouldn’t,” says Sacramento historian William Burg, who profiles a few local leading lights from this world in his book “Wicked Sacramento.” One standout is Oak Park-born strongwoman Laverie Cooper Vallee, who went by the stage name of Charmion and was called the “mother of striptease” by theater critic George Nathan. She made her debut at age 22, on Christmas 1897 at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York, with a trapeze act that involved her disrobing from full Victorian wear to just her chemise — all while swinging in mid-air. Thomas Edison recorded the act for posterity in one of his early short films, released in 1901.
Sacramento was also home to Tamara Rees, the paratrooper turned burlesque dancer who drew headlines when she became the third American “to ever receive gender affirming surgery in the Netherlands in 1954,” Burg says. A native of Kansas City, she moved to the California capital after her transition and “would perform at the Alameda Theater on L and 3rd, sharing her experience.”
In their own journey, The Darling Clementines find personal empowerment in burlesque and use the stage to uplift those around them. Adams says she found burlesque when searching for body acceptance.
“When I first arrived in Sacramento, the burlesque scene was just getting started. I had found community and acceptance through burlesque in New Mexico, and I wanted to bring that energy to this city,” she says. “There was one troupe, The Sizzling Sirens, who were successful here. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. As a result, the two troupes flourished.”
The Sizzling Sirens were established in 2008; Adams started The Darling Clementines in 2014. The two troupes’ emphasis on community over competition helped create a thriving burlesque scene in Sacramento. Both troupes stopped performing in 2020 because of the pandemic, and The Darling Clementines stayed on hiatus for almost two years. Today, Sizzling Sirens’ Instagram points to The Darling Clementines for people in search of burlesque in the Sacramento area. Dancers from The Sizzling Sirens can be found in the audience at Darling Clementines shows, and occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a Siren performing a solo act.
In 2021, with Adams at the helm, the troupe came back to a sold-out room, hitting the stage with an even clearer vision and mission for the show. This round, they plan to lean into their commitment to queer advocacy.
The troupe is made up of six core dancers. Performers like Deaja Mkhallati, also known as Deaja Girl on Fire, have been performing with Adams since the onset, starting out as burlesque babies, a term of endearment for beginning burlesque dancers. After a decade of practicing their craft, they are clearly seasoned performers at the height of excellence. Many dancers under Adams’ mentorship have enjoyed success far beyond the city of Sacramento; Deaja Girl on Fire spent last summer touring Spain with her performances.
Mkhallati calls Adams “a life-changing mentor, friend and a pivotal force in preserving burlesque in Sacramento.”
“Their influence on the queer community and commitment to providing spaces for queer BIPOC artists are crucial for sustainability and increased representation,” she adds. “By uplifting the community and advocating for more venues to recognize the value of live entertainment, they continue to create vital platforms for full-time artists. I’m deeply grateful to call them my best friend and muse in this industry.”
On stage, Cha Cha Burnadette towers over the enthralled audience at 5-foot-10, shooting beguiling looks and bouncing her luscious hair back and forth, with flirtatious glances ricochetting across the room. While she often hosts a cheeky set — pun intended — it is made clear at the onset of every show opening that this space will be a safe space. There is no tolerance for bigotry, judgment or any hateful “isms.” All the performers on stage identify as queer and are predominantly people of color. As the show takes shape, the body positivity in the room is palpable. Drag queens, couples and even male performers are regulars at the show.
But The Darling Clementines aren’t exactly raking in the dough. The economic challenges local burlesquers face is a story that plays out time and time again for many artists who are invested in staying in their local community. In a recent podcast for Solving Sacramento, Adams and Danielle Mercado, founder of Hummingbird Theatre Company, discussed the financial challenges they face as leaders in the local performing arts scene. Burlesque has its own challenges because it is entertainment exclusively for adults, while performing arts organizations like the Sacramento Ballet can bankroll their whole year on kid-friendly performances like The Nutcracker. Over the last 10 years, many of the spaces The Darling Clementines previously performed at have gone under, including Marilyn’s on K, Blue Lamp and Holy Diver.
Costuming alone can be incredibly expensive, and most performers custom make their pieces. Every bedazzled jewel is meticulously placed by hand on the corsets, and oftentimes they need unique alterations for easy removal on stage.
Despite the post pandemic economic challenges of the last few years, Adams is going all in. At 38, Adams is committing to her artistry full time. The new bride-to-be recently launched another show at Solomon’s called Freshly Squeezed.
“The Darling Clementines have come so far in the last 10 years. We are at the top of our artistry. However, I don’t want to gatekeep,” Adams says. “We needed a space to cultivate new burlesque babies, and we are excited to carry on the tradition of burlesque in the Sacramento region.”
In some ways, Adam’s work is a call to action: an invitation for Sacramento to invest in its wide range of performing artists and create a renaissance that undoes the damage done to local arts by the pandemic.
If you’re up for a fun, vivacious time, be sure to catch The Darling Clementines Show this month on Jan. 18 at Harlow’s, or go to Solomon’s on Jan. 27 to support Sacramento’s up-and-coming talent.
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