Entertainment :: Theatre

The Robin Byrd Show Live!

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Sunday Dec 23, 2012
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Performers at the Robin Byrd Show Live!
Performers at the Robin Byrd Show Live!  (Source:Michael Mallard)

Most New Yorkers assume that all local public-access programming across the country is as raunchy as Manhattan Cable’s Channel 35, but in fact, the presence on the small screen of various soft-core programs was the result of an odd loophole in the cable TV contract with the City of New York. So, believe it or not, you won’t find "The Robin Byrd Show Live!" or its equivalent in Los Angeles, San Francisco or pretty much anywhere else.

Not that you would find anything like "The Robin Byrd Show" anywhere but in New York. The former porn star, best known for her role in cult favorite "Debbie Does Dallas," has the kind of moxie that thrives in our fair city. For many of us, tuning into Byrdland late at night was the adult version of a glass of warm milk and a cookie.

Who can forget the cavalcade of male and female porn stars and "exotic dancers" who would take it off, backed up by hot pink lights (which got hotter and hotter as the endless reruns burned slowly through the videotape).

Nearly as much fun as the performers, who -- let’s face it -- ranged from somewhat talented to the downright weird, were the commercials for phone sex lines, many of them Byrd’s own, that gave us such immortal lines as "chicks with dicks" and "the extra E is for extra pee."

Whatever the quality of her programming, Byrd herself loved her mini-fame, judging from her gorgeous oceanfront house in Fire Island Pines, all those dollar-a-minute phone calls from lonely men or drunken frat boys instructing women to insert various objects into various orifices were pretty lucrative.

Now, Byrd has taken her cable show and turned it into a live version that "airs" every Saturday night at the Cutting Room in the Flatiron. The results are at best a mixed bag.

The performers rotate each week, which means that you might get some hotties who also happen to be great dancers. Having taken a few classes in "strippercize" at my gym, I can attest that these dancers should not be dismissed as talentless nothings. While it might not be on the level of the New York City Ballet, a lot of these moves are quite difficult, and it’s easy to believe that many strippers have received formal dance and theater training.

The night I saw the show didn’t begin well, with the crowd cooling its collective heels outside the cavernous cabaret room for an hour before allowed to enter. The delay didn’t exactly play well with the crowd, which seemed to consist mostly of straight couples in their 30s and 40s, with a few groups of guys out on the town. This is one cabaret where the drinks skew heavily toward domestic beers. Feinstein’s at the Regency it ain’t.

The performers that night weren’t the types to give the casts of "Burlesque" or "Mighty Mike" much competition. Byrd herself has an infectious personality, and when she gives off her signature line, "Relax. Get close to a loved one. And if you don’t have a loved one, you always have me," you believe her.

After some banter with the crowd, Byrd introduced the first performer by noting a "trend" toward female dancers with non-enhanced boobs. I guess that was to prepare the crowd for her being flat-chested. That said, she was a good dancer, but probably no more erotic than the contestants on "Toddlers & Tiaras." Still, she does get points for not having those artificial door knockers that look like helium balloons.

Robin Byrd herself has an infectious personality, and when she gives off her signature line, "Relax. Get close to a loved one. And if you don’t have a loved one, you always have me," you believe her.

There were two male dancers. One was on the thin side, but with a tight, chiseled physique, and he was a hell of a dancer. The other male, paired with a woman, gave out condoms to the crowd (Byrd, to her credit, brings in several mentions of "wearing your rubbers"). He was more of the street-skinny types who were a mainstay of Byrd’s show.

The one standout was a woman (Audrey, I think) who didn’t take off much of her Leather Man-meets-Victoria’s Secret outfit. But she was the one dancer who gave the audience what it had come to see -- raunch. When she got on the floor to do her "happy baby" spread, the beaver had finally entered the room.

Since the live show follows the TV program’s format, there was the inevitable chatter with the performers, which was every bit as interesting as you’d expect; which is to say, not very. But Audrey’s revelation that she had appeared on Byrd’s show 20 years before only emphasized that beauty and, yes, talent in the stripping field isn’t limited to those in their 20s.

The weirdest and most unfortunate performer didn’t perform at all. David Drake came on in a drag persona Tawny Heatherton for an upcoming show. Drake is a good memoirist and great director, but the banter with Byrd was manic and failed to secure the audience’s attention. It came off too much as a blatant plug.

The only concession to changing times was in the musical choices; instead of House and dance-pop, hip-hop ruled.

I should mention that, yes, there was a respectable smattering of gay men in the audience. Byrd has remained a camp favorite. But I found the show only more proof that what is gloriously silly fun on the small screen may be boring and even depressing in real life. Still, no one is going to go into this show expecting a Broadway performer singing from the Great American Songbook.

Anyway, it was nice, for at least one night, to be reminded of a New York where Times Square was avoided like the plague by Midwestern tourists, stripper bars weren’t relegated to the edge of town and escort services still advertised themselves as classy. And yes, you get to hear "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box."

More importantly, there was a moment reached a sublimity with the kind of cultural juxtaposition that keeps scholars of New York’s Downtown scene busy. For no apparent reason, about 12 young women in pasties and g-strings came out and sang "O Holy Night." Perfection.

The sound of this really rather lovely, most serious hymn (way beyond a Christmas carol) being sung so sweetly by these nubile women doing a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction times ten just appeared out of left field. No introduction (none that contained complete phrases, anyway), no comments, no nothing.

It’s moments like these that keep the hope alive that the artistic anarchy that had made Greenwich Village the world’s epicenter for new thinking about art and culture, high and low art, craftsmanship vs. mass reproductions, and everything else.

That’s almost all gone now. The West Chelsea galleries have regimented the way incoming talent must move through the art-industrial complex. It’s been long-aborning, of course. Silyoti

"The Robin Byrd Show Live!" enjoys an extended run, Saturdays at 10 p.m. (give or take an hour) at The Cutting Room, 44 E. 32nd St., between Park and Madison. For info or tickets, visit www.SpinCycleNYC.com.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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