Mike and Ikes, video games and prayer: Strip performer rituals
Relax: No one sacrifices chickens, bathes in Crisco or snacks on chocolate-covered grasshoppers … that we know of. (And if they do? What’s sacrificed, bathed in and digested in Vegas, stays in Vegas.)
Like most of us, Vegas performers run through their pre-work routines—the rituals, habits and even superstitions they cling to before emerging from the safety of the dressing rooms and the darkness of the wings as the spotlight floods over them onstage.
“A lot of people have these long, drawn-out rituals,” says ventriloquist Terry Fator, a Mirage headliner. “I was sitting in the dressing room with Jerry Lewis right before my show and he started getting agitated, looking at his watch, getting all nervous. He said, ‘You have a show!’ He told me he has an hour-long ritual, standing in front of a mirror, preparing for a show.”
Entertainers pray, stretch, shun carb-loaded pig-outs and frequent the Porcelain Throne—common themes, we found—and some indulge more colorful quirks to keep their equilibrium, well, equalized. To wit …
“There’s a thousand things I have to turn on before it’s right,” says perpetual-motion prop comic Carrot Top, a.k.a. Scott Thompson, about his Luxor digs, a marvel of mood-setting madness.
“There’s 30 different lights and lava lamps, and I light candles and incense and put on music, and every night the selection of music is different,” Thompson explains. “Some nights it’s rock ’n’ roll, some nights it’s country, Pet Shop Boys, it just depends on my mood. Then I do a double shot of espresso to get my energy. Then I go upstairs to the stage to go over everything. Then I do one shot of Crown Royal with my opening act. It relaxes me and opens up my vocal cords and warms me up.”
Seriously, though: Who doesn’t do a shot or six of Crown Royal before work?
While Thompson’s routine is atmospheric and a touch boozy, it’s deeply personal next door at Excalibur’s Tournament of Kings, where Antonio Restivo literally brings the heat while portraying Mordred, the evil fire wizard in the medieval-style, sword-and-slay spectacle. Unsurprisingly, he prays before his entrance—you would, too—but note the amulet.
“I wear a pendant around my neck that has my father’s ashes,” Restivo says, pausing as emotion briefly overtakes him. “He passed away just before I started working at Tournament of Kings. I always felt that loss. Of all the things my father had seen me do, this would have been his favorite.” However, should spiritual vibrations flag during his flame act, Restivo falls back on a physical gesture. “I will actually spin three times, counterclockwise, to change up my energy,” he says.
Co-star Shayla Rodriguez, who plays a maiden, prefers “pop” psychology. “I have a strange superstition,” she says. “If I can get both of the arches of my feet to pop or my sternum on my chest to pop, I really believe I’ll have a more balanced show.”
Youch! … hey, whatever works, right, Nikka Wahl? “I always have to crack my back, and I mean violently,” says Wahl, who performers as Francine, Frankie Valli’s daughter, as well as other female roles, in Jersey Boys at Paris Las Vegas. “I’m in costume and I’ll do a violent twist to my left and a violent twist to my right and then interlace my fingers behind my back so I can crack my upper back.”
Good for kickin’ out the kinks, but what about a psychic boost? Before curtain up, Wahl revs up to show-readiness with the Jersey Boys “female power circle” comprised of female cast members and several women in the crew. “We are in our places, we make this really big circle as we hold hands, and the show opens with Bom-Bom-Bom-BOM-BOM,” she says, mimicking the “(December ’63) Oh, What a Night” opening beats.
“It bonds us. Sometimes we’ll throw some of the guys in the show in the middle to give them our female power.”
Female submission is more the backstage (and onstage) mojo of 50 Shades! The Parody, the mock-u-musical at Bally’s that satirizes BDSM-obsessed novel/movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Star Maren Wade, who portrays Anastasia, the young lady schooled in restrictive, ouch!-inducing lovemaking, is amused by her pre-show rundown. “Part of our ritual is to check all the props,” Wade says.
“Backstage you have everything you need in one spot. In another show, it might be, ‘My costume is here, my shoes are here, my wig is here.’ But in 50 Shades! it’s, ‘Okay, my handcuffs are here, my (let’s call it artificial genitalia) is here, we’ve got the (um, male release) ribbons here, the S&M masks are here, the collar here, the choker there, and the harness.’ The prop list is very funny.”
And sexy—though not any sexier than at Sexxy. “I have to touch my pole,” says Jennifer Romas, star/creator/choreographer of the adult revue at Westgate Las Vegas, who executes a slinky, sultry pole dance. “I clean it with rubbing alcohol and make sure it’s safe and secure. Even if my tech guys clean it, even if I don’t do anything on it, I have to climb on it or touch it or grip it before I perform on it.”
Don’t discount the pre-show powers of a good joystick, either (sort of speak) as video games are the path to show-time Zen for Fator. “I have a video game setup in my dressing room, although my wife didn’t understand it when we first got together,” says Fator with a chortle.
Once a Wii bowling devotee early in his run, he has advanced to tougher pre-show challenges. “I’ll use my Sony PSP or my Nintendo. Now I play Destiny (an online, first-person shooter game). I’ll play a mission, and even if I can’t finish the mission, it’s fine. It’s a reset for my mind—now I’m ready to rock.”
Think he’s alone? BZZZT!—a video game demerit for you. “Were first-generation gamers, so we do our gaming thing,” says Shawn Stockman, who contributes his creamy vocals as one-third of R&B seducers Boyz II Men, Fator’s Mirage showroom bunkmates. “Right now it’s Star Wars: Battlefront—like Call of Duty but in the land of Endor. It just occupies your brain—gets you normal before the show.”
Preferring a psychic soother of another sort is pop icon Olivia Newton-John, who loyally eyeballs one TV show before stepping onstage at the Flamingo’s Donny & Marie Showroom. “We love to watch Say Yes to the Dress,” says the Aussie songbird about the bridal-salon, TLC reality series. “It’s so sweet and funny and innocuous, there’s no drama.” Not Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars? How … refreshing.
Let’s talk food. And whether to eat it—which is literally a matter of Stayin’ Alive. “Singing is a lot of lung movement, and the more that’s in your stomach the harder that is, and some foods come back up on you, so you’d feel like you want to burp and belch,” says Michael Clift, a.k.a. Barry Gibb in the Excalibur’s The Australian Bee Gees Show: A Tribute to the Bee Gees. Adds Wayne Hosking (he’s Maurice): “Avoiding food is important. You don’t want to be spitting things at the audience.” Speaking on behalf of the audience: Thanks.
As for Robin, the other Brother Gibb—a.k.a. David Scott—the menu is limited. And strange. “I have a fast metabolism, so before the show I’ll have a banana while putting on my makeup because that digests pretty easily but gives you energy as well,” he says. “And a cup of coffee, because the caffeine rush is good.” Coffee and a banana? Hmmm.
Also, factor your stage foundation into your culinary calculation. “Dancing in the dirt is exceptionally hard as opposed to dancing on a stage,” says Rodriguez of Tournament of Kings, who prances around a brown dirt arena. “That extra weight of having a meal after 3:30, it makes you jump a little bit lower. But I’m guilty of eating an In-N-Out burger early in the day.” Now that’s more like it.
Split the difference for Wahl at Jersey Boys. “Act I is my heavy period of costume changes and I also have to wear lingerie, so you’re baring everything out there, and you don’t want to feel loaded for that,” Wahl says. “But my Act II, I get to wear comfy clothes, so I’m not worried about my food intake after Act I.” Settling for a light nosh is Fator’s preference. “I will have my assistant get me those 200-calorie peanut butter crackers. I’ll eat them about 20 minutes before a show for energy.” Just wondering: Doesn’t peanut butter cling to the roof of a dummy’s mouth?
Our favorite of their food fetishes: candy cravings. Especially if they add even a trace of average-guy fat on sculpted Adonis bods. “This is a very important part of my ritual: I eat some jelly beans just before my performance,” says Michael Jackson ONE aerialist Julian Aldag, who performs to “Stranger in Moscow’ in the “Beggar Boy” segment. “I swear it makes a difference. I eat three before the performance and it gives me enough of a sugar rush going through the bloodstream. I don’t like the black ones so I give those to other people. Red is my favorite. And I don’t want to eat different ones and have a blue tongue onstage.”
Others relish their own sneak-a-snack moments. “It’s always good if you need that lift to have a little hard candy around so I do the Mike and Ike candies,” says James Davis, a Chippendales the Show at Rio stud in the same candy mind-set as Sexxy siren Romas. “I eat almost no sugar at all, but I’ll have five almonds or 10 Skittles before showtime and pop ’em really quick,” Romas says. “It’s a sugar rush thing. That’s my quota.”
Sugar treats add a kick for some. Vitamins and supplements are the preference of others: ginger root for Scott, the Aussie Bee Gee (“I chop off a few pieces and chew on it and it cleans everything out and makes it sharp”); EHP tabs for Deidre Lang, the ex-In Living Color “fly girl” who plays the sexy strip club owner in the Rio’s Rock of Ages ( “it’s an anti-aging brain supplement and I just love it—it helps with clarity and focus and puts you in a really good mood”); green tea for Boyz II Men’s Stockman (“good for the throat, those antioxidants”); and a keep-it-in-the-family favorite for Newton-John (“about 45 minutes before the show, I take Warrior, which is an herbal product formulated by my husband”—eco-entrepreneur John Easterling—“that gives me energy. I do an hour and a half without a break, so that gets me through”).
Then there is seriously rigid adherence to routine. “I get ready in the exact same order when the half-hour call comes,” says Rob Lyons, who rocks on as Million Dollar Quartet’s Carl Perkins at Harrah’s. “I do things down to a 15-second window. Putting on my shoes at exactly the same time. I haven’t been diagnosed with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) but there’s a kind of OCD behavior I exhibit.”
Worrying about clothing items would seem anathema at Chippendales, but … not so. Ask Davis, who has to wear kneepads for 50-foot slides across the stage. “It messes up the whole opening of the show if all the buckles aren’t clamped,” he says. “They all have to be tucked in. There’s no real functional reason it’s a problem, but if one is out it drives me absolutely insane, I go nuts. The whole time you’re doing your choreography, you’re thinking about it.”
Most common of the backstage commonalities? There’s a whole lotta prayin’ goin’ on. Newton-John does it with her band. Tournament ladies, including Rodriguez, engage in “sing-along chants.” Using it as a performing signal, Aldag at Michael Jackson One clasps hands together in prayer when he steps into an onstage elevator, his “centering moment” when he transforms “from a guy just warming up to a guy who’s performing.”
Some prayers address humility. “Praying keeps you humble,” says Steven Arlen, who does double duty as Merlin and King Arthur in Tournament of Kings. “A lot of times you’ve been doing a show for so long and you think, ‘Why am I here, I’d rather be home,’” he says. “But you have to stop and say, ‘I get to perform right now, I’m not in a cubicle, I’m so grateful for this.’”
Before an evening of gyrations, veteran Thunder From Down Under at Excalibur gyrator Matthew Fardell emphasizes his devotion by repeating a simple phrase. “Before I go onstage, I say out loud, ‘I love my audience,’” Fardell says. “That always puts a smile on my face and reminds me that I have a very unique job, and I’m just a country boy from Australia who got very, very lucky.” Calming anxiety is the more meditative goal for Davis of Chippendales. “I’m always very still before a show,” he says. “Since I was a kid I’ve had bad anxiety. My preparation is managing it. I just focus on breathing, which really helps your body relax.”
Over at naughty, bawdy 50 Shades! it’s prayer by way of cheerleading for Wade and company. “Before we all go on, we say, ‘Let’s go change lives tonight!’” Wade says. “On one hand, we’re playfully joking because our show is a parody. But on the other it’s a really funny show and the best form of therapy is that people want to forget everything and enjoy a show in the moment.”
Prayer is spiritual and otherworldly. Other rituals are, well, earthier. “I’ve heard some guys gotta have sex right before they go on, they just gotta get some—none of my guys, for the record,” says Stockman, safeguarding the images of his fellow Boyz. “And one strange thing that’s been happening with me for 20 years is that every time we pray, I go to the bathroom—‘Amen!’ and then I gotta pee. It’s the weirdest thing.”
Quirky, maybe, but not weird. Relax. Have a chocolate-covered grasshopper.