Time Out New York - August 15, 2002

Cirkus of the Stars

New Yorkers love to spout off about how corporations ruined the old Times Square, but Keith Nelson and Stephanie Monseu actually did something about it. At the beginning of August, these impresarios—the founders of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a troupe of clowns, magicians, acrobats, burlesque dancers and sideshow acts brought vaudeville back to Times Square. Inspired by the legendary 47th Street Palace Theatre, which served as vaudeville's capital from 1913 to 1932, Nelson and Monseu opened the Palace of Variety and Free Museum of Times Square, the first continuous vaudeville venue in the area in 70 years.

"Vaudeville was invented by entrepreneurs like B.F. Keith and E.E Albee, the team who ran the Palace on 47th," explains Robert W. Snyder, author of The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. By the early 1930s, however, a combination of talking pictures, radio and the Depression effectively killed the commercial viability of the form. Consequently, performers were relegated to outposts like Coney Island, and Times Square lost part of its cultural heritage. "Bringing vaudeville back to the neighborhood may help it recover some of its heterogeneity," Snyder says.

Sandwiched between low-rent fast-food joints and office buildings, the Palace of Variety is housed in one of the four buildings that comprise Anita Durst's alternative-arts collective, Chashama. The venue has been redesigned with a new facade, a revamped 70-seat theater and a ceiling rigged for aerial stunts. An informal art gallery was converted into an intimate museum, and the storefront-window performance space is where the troupe hopes to entice pedestrians with free previews.

Despite being influenced by the past, the shows aren't just a retread of vaudeville days of old. "We have some acts that hearken back to vintage vaudeville," says Nelson. "But we have a pretty modern rhythm. We plan to do three, four, maybe even five variety shows a day. Everything before 9pm will be family-friendly, but later we'll showcase racier fare." G-rated spectacles include Adam Gertsacov's Acme Miniature Flea Circus on weekends, multi-instrumentalist Sxip Shirey's Wednesday-night novelty music show and a weekday 45minute variety show at noon. Adults-only material includes Porno Jim's lecture on the history of pornography, an "anything goes" Thursday open-mike night hosted by vaudevillian emcee and TONY contributor Tray S.D. and, on the weekends, the Bindlestiffs themselves perform a variety of sexy stunts.

Nelson also offers history with his hokum. Along with the Palace will be the Free Museum of Times Square, which chronicles the history of the district, from its rural roots to its new-millennium makeover. His impressive collection of vintage Times Square photos and memorabilia was culled from the New-York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York and the Coney Island Museum. Interested onlookers can view the exhibit at no charge whether or not they watch a show.

Just as the show is markedly different from neighboring fare, so is Bindlestiff's marketing. "We're going to put jugglers in the window, performers in sandwich boards on the street and send stilt walkers over to the TKTS line to flyer," promises Nelson. In fact, the schedule is being developed specifically to accommodate theatergoers who may want o catch a variety show before or after they see, say, The Producers. "Our shows are staggered, and our top ticket price is $15. That's less than a hamburger in Times Square," brags Nelson.

Nelson and Monseu see their "Broadway run" as a way to attract new fans. "The exciting thing about Times Square is that the people here aren't the audience we know from downtown," Monseu says. "We will be able to interface with people who normally wouldn’t come downtown to see a show. We hope they will come see our act and get excited and check out what else is happening downtown."

Above all, Bindlestiff hopes variety performers from all over the world will consider the Palace of Variety a place to perform, experiment and learn. "Over the years, we've been involved with some really amazing artists, like Scotty the Blue Bunny, bearded lady Jennifer Miller, aerialist Una Mimnagh," says Monseu. "They have all grown and forged their own paths. Now we have a space seven days a week, 24 hours a day to fill up with our friends and colleagues. We can do shows at 3am if we want to. We have the keys."