The clock struck 6 p.m., and with the gliding of the little hand to the top of the hour, a transformation was in the air.
Sometimes when the sun goes to bed, the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts comes to life.
On Feb. 6, “PAFA After Dark” hosted a program full of “scandals and successes” for those brave enough to come out.
“Peep Show 2.0” was on the bill for the night: a culmination of hidden gallery secrets, cabaret solos and enough drinks to go around inside a house of art and culture.
Hors d’oeuvres of pasta and pita and hummus were served, paired with a selection of craft beers and wine for the more than 200 guests.
Pin the ivy on the Greek mannequin and a design-your-own Valentine’s Day craft station were set up in one gallery, and a peek into the production of an artist painting a still life in another were provided to suit the diverse crowd.
A half-hour later, the gallery talks began. Leading the talk was Bob Cozzolino, senior curator at PAFA, who helped patrons delve into the personal lives of Gertrude Abercrombie and George Tooker in the Vivian O. and Meyer P. Potamkin gallery.
Abercrombie was revealed as a woman who believed in magical talismans and was viewed as a witch by her neighbors. Tooker’s not-so-secretive erotic photography was revealed to be an inspiration to both the art and public sphere in expressing homosexuality in photography.
Knowledgeable on the painters’ secrets he was spilling, Cozzolino captured the audience’s attention.
A man behind me stood listening to the presentation with a strong presence about him – not just in his tall stature, but also in the energy he emitted.
This man, Donald Carter, a Temple alumnus of the Class of 1971 and founding member of the Barnes Foundation, said he attends as many PAFA events as possible.
“[PAFA] represents the new mission of art,” Carter said. “I have a connection. I am the audience. I am the public, and that is what art needs. As a Philadelphian, I have an obligation and I must support my city. That’s why I am a fan of the academy. And they throw good parties.”
I said there were going to be scandals, and PAFA certainly didn’t fail to deliver. As the crowd dispersed, people were gathering in the room next door. It was time for the fun to begin.
Out walked Count Scottula, played by Scott Johnson, host of the show. His entry was received with applause and stares of anticipation.
Clad in seasonal Valentine’s lingerie with oversized heart-shaped lollipops in hand, a group of burlesque dancers strutted in. These ladies, from Peek-A-Boo Revue, were the main focus of the peep show. Cabaret in an art museum may sound a little off, but the talented ladies kept it relatively PG-13.
This has to be a quite different atmosphere than these women are used to, I thought to myself. So down the great staircase and past an auditorium of sorts I went, seeking some answers. Count Scottula gave me the behind-the-scenes PAFA experience. In preparation for act two, the troupe was in its dressing room getting into costume.
“She can come in. It’s not like it’s anything she hasn’t seen before,” an indiscernible voice called out from behind the door.
Not shy at all, the ladies went about their preparations as I asked what it was like to prepare for a performance in a fine art museum compared to a more casual venue.
“The main thing I have noticed is that we have to practice not taking off too many clothes,” Ginger Lee, co-director of the troupe, said.
“We have many different pieces, where some material is more – well, not necessarily family-friendly – but tongue-in-cheek, and others are more risqué,” dancer Rosalee Sweet said. “During the performance is where things are the most different.”
It became obvious from their exchange of experiences that a museum setting draws a much different crowd. Past performances at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa., along with the reception of the first act helped draw these conclusions.
“They’re more into art, and burlesque is a form of art,” Temple alumna and dancer Tracey Todd Superstar said. “The audience tends to be more quiet, and they all hold their applause until the end.”
“I think by the end they loosen up, though,” Cherry Bomb, director of the troupe, added with a wink.
Satisfied with the perspective they gave me, I left the troupe to prepare in peace.
To close the night’s festivities, the ladies were back, in significantly more risqué fashion than their first performance. They danced through solos and, as Cherry Bomb predicted, the audience seemed to loosen up as the show moved forward.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the night rolled around when songbird Tracey Todd Superstar entered. There she was singing “If I Only Had a Brain” from “The Wizard of Oz” in a less-than-provocative scarecrow getup. In the nature of burlesque, she quickly lost the costume as the song progressed, and elicited cheers from the audience.
“PAFA After Dark” only makes its way to the museum six times a year, and if the remaining exhibitions resemble the hoot and a half that was had at “Peep Show 2.0,” it is a definite must-see.
“Thank you for coming out to the peep show,” Johnson said as the event came to a close. “We love the arts, because the arts save lives. Goodnight everybody.”
Brianna Spause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.