‘Real magic’: Terlingua Burlesque lights up Cinnabar Theatre

Bryan Devonshire strikes a pose as Michael Oxlong while performing with Terlingua Burlesque at the Cinnabar Theatre. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

TERLINGUA — People started lining up hours before the doors opened, cracking beers from coolers tied down to the beds of dusty trucks. As the sun set behind Bee Mountain, the crowd got wilder and the line got longer. Boatmen in ballgowns still sporting muddy Chacos rubbed elbows with Ghost Town old-timers in their Sunday pearls. When the doors opened, not everyone could fit inside the theatre. “Come back tomorrow night!” someone called out to a chorus of groans. 

An outsider might take one look at the crowd assembled and assume Beyoncé had announced a one-night-only show in Terlingua. The star power inside, however, was all homegrown. It seemed like everyone within 30 miles had come out to see the post-pandemic return of Terlingua Burlesque, a local phenomenon celebrating South County talent and lots of glitter. 

“It’s a form of real magic I haven’t experienced with anything else,” said Courtney Farmer, the person who brought burlesque to Terlingua in its contemporary form. “You bring people to the room and they don’t even know what it is, but they get caught up in the energy.” 

Farmer, a raft guide from Fort Worth who’s called Terlingua at least part-time home since 2012, left for a year to spend time in Telluride, Colorado, which has its own small-town burlesque troupe. “I just kind of realized like, ‘Man, I can bring this back to Terlingua — that’d be a great place for it.” She started an informal troupe with her friends called the Desert Blossom Pearls. In 2018, she opened up burlesque classes to anyone interested, and a movement was born.

Binky Sartain, an artist and stay-at-home mom who does brisk business selling eggs from her homestead in the shadow of Willow Mountain, remembers talking with some friends that year about a desire for more forms of expression. The ladies were all part of a workout group at the community center and felt like it was time to shake things up. “Not two days later, there was a flyer at the post office for free burlesque classes,” she remembered.  

Terlingua, a sprawling community near the entrance to Big Bend National Park, fluctuates in population with the seasons. In the 80 miles between Alpine and Terlingua, there are no gas stations, and — until recently — there wasn’t a wisp of cell service on the hour-and-change drive. Old-timers remember the days there was a single telephone in town at the Study Butte Store. 

The region’s quicksilver mines shuttered in the 1940s, but a new crop of Terlinguans in the ‘70s and ‘80s quickly realized they had been blessed with a different kind of natural resource: creativity. In 1989, Last Minute Low Budget Productions got its start behind the Terlingua Store, where homemade sets had to be annually deconstructed to make way for the famed Terlingua Chili Cookoff. Despite their self-deprecating name, the LMLB crowd put together sophisticated renditions of plays like David Auburn’s “Proof” not far behind the Broadway circuit. Last Minute Low Budget brought literary legends like Sam Shepard, David Mamet and Carson McCullers to a South County audience, directed by local icons like Catfish Callaway, a storied boatman and dramatist. 

Much of the offstage fun and frivolity at that time swirled around La Kiva, a bar and restaurant on Terlingua Creek helmed by Gil Felts and later by his nephew, Glenn. Glenn Felts was responsible for helming a series of infamous “Mad Hatter” parties, themed after Alice in Wonderland. “Party” is perhaps too casual a term for Felts’ events — these were major undertakings requiring months of preparation. At one point, there were so many themed parties regularly hosted in Terlingua that a transient community of a few hundred people was able to support multiple costume shops. 

The revelry was interrupted in 2014 when a grisly tragedy struck the small, close-knit community – Glenn Felts was found dead outside La Kiva, the result of blunt force trauma that would be ruled a homicide (a local river guide was charged with Felts’ murder, but was ultimately found not guilty). Another local watering hole tried to continue the tradition of the “Mad Hatter” parties, but it just wasn’t the same. In order to carry out Felts’ last wishes, his friends put together a party he was never able to throw: Alien Fest, an alien-abduction themed bash at the Goat Pens, a campground and goat farm with a large outdoor stage. The party is now an annual event, and as part of a shift toward COVID-conscious outdoor programming, Terlingua Burlesque has become an intrinsic part of the festivities. 

In the storied history of Terlingua residents coming together to put on a good show, burlesque has carved out its own niche, performing a few times a year in multiple local venues. “I think it’s a new tradition,” said Bucky Love, self-described “master of the ceremony” for Terlingua Burlesque.

Love got his start in 1997 as a guest on the Austin Music Network and debuted in Terlingua around 2010 at one of Felts’ “Alter Ego” parties, where guests were encouraged to take on new personas. “They were really unique, probably the highlight of the year,” he remembered. Love, known for his acid tongue, Jersey accent and ‘70s polyester flair, made quite the impression at the party. “The locals loved Bucky Love. Some tourists did not. But [physically imposing local bartender] Gumby had Bucky’s back that night.” 

Though Love was the only member of Terlingua Burlesque to remain fully clothed at the end of the performance, he captivated the audience in his own way. The official bouncer for the weekend’s burlesque performances was Eric Poling, a former football player and MMA fighter turned boatman, but no muscle was necessary to control the rowdy audience with Love at the helm. Fearing a verbal lashing, everyone stayed in their seats and no one violated the “no cell phones” rule. “That’s what Bucky’s job is,” Love explained. “The show will have moments of going out of control, and Bucky brings it back. He makes sure that people keep focused on the stage, that they show respect to the performers. And if you don’t, you’re out.”

At the return of Terlingua Burlesque, the Cinnabar Theatre, the physical home of Last Minute Low Budget Productions, was abuzz with energy as Bucky introduced each dancer. With the exception of Farmer, most of the performers don’t have dance backgrounds. Many of them are raft guides or waitresses, working to make ends meet in the service industry grind of South Brewster County. Many of them are moms. “I think the uniqueness of it is that there is no type,” Farmer explained. “It’s just whoever decides they want to do it.”

For Sartain, burlesque has become a family affair. Her husband, Jeff, is the supervisor of buildings and utilities at Big Bend National Park, a role that he describes as “a glorified janitor.” He brings professional experience to the stage as Troy Cop-a-Feel, donning a custodian’s outfit and sweeping the black box between acts. At Terlingua Burlesque, that’s no small task — by the end of the night, Sartain had neatly disposed of scattered Doritos, packs of playing cards, counterfeit hundred-dollar bills, pounds and pounds of glitter and a wild array of undergarments.

Multiple members of Terlingua Burlesque tapped Sartain as the major creative force behind the troupe’s costuming. In a place as far flung as Terlingua, where 48-hour Amazon delivery is a fever dream, outfitting the troupe isn’t always as simple as clicking a button online — in past years, members have taken to Facebook in a last-minute panic, looking for items like fake cheese heads and dinosaur onesies that never arrived. Complicating matters, the troupe’s performances skew toward the avant-garde. Sartain took The Big Bend Sentinel on a tour of her wardrobe, which includes a giant papier-mâché sandworm head, old park service uniforms, stereotypical French maid regalia and a prosthetic third breast. “I need my own storage unit,” she said. “It’s all just stuff I scrounge up. Even if it’s just a scrap of cloth it might come in handy for something.” 

Through years of trial and error, she’s discovered that double-sided toupée tape is the secret to making pasties last through a sweaty performance: “It’s pretty gnarly stuff.” She’s made a name for herself as an on-site tailor, preventing wardrobe malfunctions at every turn. “I made an emergency bag that has extra pasties, eyelashes, scissors, needles and thread, which I have used a lot this go-around.”

Sartain took to the stage twice each night of the weekend’s run under her stage alias, Miss Savory. The second performance was a more traditional burlesque performance, featuring fishnets and pasties with a bee theme. The first was notable in that Sartain wore a ball gown throughout and bared no skin, mesmerizing the audience instead with the metallic fluttering of her cape. “I wanted to do something a little more old school,” she explained.

For Sartain, performing onstage as Miss Savory is a rush like no other. After the show, a young woman approached her at the Starlight Theatre. “She was like, ‘You were so sexy and empowered up there, it makes me want to be empowered,’” she recalled. “ I think it’s a way to get together and share something that’s truly fun and beautiful. I mean, who doesn’t like to watch a good show?”

The women of Terlingua Burlesque have experienced surprisingly little community pushback given the nature of their performance. Before she started participating, Sartain shared some common misconceptions about the craft: “I always thought it was just clothes coming off, the typical stuff. And then I realized, no, it’s not like that. It’s theater.”

Farmer has noticed what might be mild criticism, mostly in the form of light vandalism. “Someone keeps taking our posters,” Farmer reported. “But we’re not sure if they just liked the poster and they want to keep one or if they’re tearing it down.” She also recounted an incident where the troupe approached the school about doing a fundraiser, and the school politely declined. “We got them some money so they could build a garden for the kids, but it was totally under the table.” 

The weekend’s performances were classic Terlingua: the town postmistress strutted her stuff for a “Best Dressed” competition. Someone’s dog wandered in from outside and got onstage. Expletives were slung liberally and a good time was had by all. Even as the troupe’s leader, Farmer is continually stunned by the creativity of her neighbors. “I was telling everyone this the other day. I was like, ‘Man, I know you people. You’re all my friends. And every year, you just weird me out with this s —.’ It’s pleasant surprises all over the place.”

“I think it’s just so wild and independent down here,” she continued. “It’s such a happy little ‘let your freak flag fly’ community. It’s kind of a metaphor, just like the desert. Some people don’t see anything, but it’s actually teeming with life.”