Transformed by tango:

🕔Jan 30, 2007

Imagine: Dozens of down-and-out men crowd around a smoky bar in a working-class barrio while a band knocks out a tune. The night is too hot to be inside, but there are deals and petty crimes to plan as the guitars vibrate and the room resonates with percussive bursts from an accordian-like instrument, the bandoneon.

When a woman walks in wearing a dress that sticks to all her curves, eyes turn. Her lips are painted red; a white carnation is tucked into her black hair. All the men want her, but only one, with a pencil-thin moustache, hair slick and combed back, breaks away from the crowd. He grabs her hand and twirls her into the crook of his arm. She spins away and they clasp hands. Their cheeks brush as they begin a passionate march across the floor.

By the time a new song begins, everyone is dancing and the bar has been transformed.

On a cold February night in northern BC, this scene may seem like a dream, but a sleepy, snow-covered valley will soon be transformed. Valentango’s, which hits the stage in a country hall near Smithers on Feb. 9 and 10, is the latest dress-up cabaret night in a series that started heating up the community almost 20 years ago.

This year’s show will celebrate the origins of tango, turning Driftwood Hall into a Buenos Aires bordello circa 1920. Those who attend the party will be encouraged to dress in theme—think Latino revolutionaries and ladies of the night; think seedy and sordid—and two full nights of musical theatre and dancing will ensue.

It may be cliché to say the tango was born in a brothel (serious musicologists will look to its African-Argentinean and rural-cowboy-turned-inner-city-criminal roots), but with the heady mix of seductive women, swarthy men and suggestive overtones included in a show the setting is all-too-perfect for the now infamous Bulkley Valley party.

“Despite our best attempts to keep it a family show, it inevitably turns into a steamy event,” says Ivan Thompson, one of the instigators of the party first known as Valentino’s.

The tradition started with “flappers, flubbers and flaunting floozies” as local impresario Monty Bassett wrote of one of the first Valentino’s cabaret nights put on in the 1980s.

Rather than suffer cabin fever alone, several friends considered it crucial to inject some heat into the frozen winter social scene. Casino nights and other costume-driven house parties had been fun, but Thompson wanted to take things a step farther.

He’d been inspired by the Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, a show he happened to catch on a trip to Vancouver in 1986. Once he heard the swinging tunes of Fats Waller, he knew he wanted to bring the vitality of a prohibition-era Harlem speakeasy to Smithers. He decided to transform Driftwood Hall for a few magical nights during the deep, dark of winter.

Looking around the community, Thompson spotted several talented folk he could enlist to help. These included the musical couple Gail and Richard Jenne. Recently arrived from Edmonton, the Jennes—who met and fell in love in music school—they had the drive needed to make the valley fall in love with this demanding musical genre, too.

Thus was Valentino’s born.

What started as a celebration of the jazz era later morphed into a Carnevale/Mardi Gras festival complete with Carmen Miranda wearing bananas on her head. The “club” has often been run by a robust madam named Mama; one year she burst out of a cake wearing purple balloons. Another time, gypsies were supposedly prohibited from the party (which only served to encourage more of them), and in 2005 a 1960s-era Motown-style show hit the stage.

Richard Jenne is the man in charge of the musicians, and he says many locals get their first shot at a professional gig during a Valentino’s show. Some even become local legends, like the group of players who crawled out of the woodwork at the first cabaret to become the Dixieland Band, a group that is still around today.

Audience members may think the event is geared towards them having a good time, but the musicians see it differently. One of the great things about each Valentino’s, says Richard, is that local musicians get to zero in on different eras or ethnic styles of music, thus expanding their own repertoire.

Even guest artists like Daniel Lapp, Oliver Schroer, and bluesman Tom See have been inspired by the show, especially because the community puts the whole thing together for fun and not for profit. Any proceeds earned above and beyond the expenses are invested back into the hall.

Thompson says he often gets undeserved credit for the whole event, but it is the creative genius of all involved who make the show. The event lets a lot of people fly loose with their creativity, and that’s one reason people are willing to work so hard to make it happen.

The event started in 1987 and ran until 1992, transforming into a Mardi Gras theme for two of those years. After a seven-year hiatus, Valentino’s resumed in 2000. Now the show runs most winters, but Thompson says the event evolves out of the energy that is around in any given year. After he and Richard have a preliminary chat earlier in the year, each wanders the byways of the community assessing what everyone is into and whether the show will go on that year. If the consensus is yes, one meeting is held around the end of December. Marching orders are given, and by early February a stage show has been written and rehearsed, posters are up around town, and a band (or two or three) are ready to play. A flurry of lighting, decorating and hall set-up, food and drink preparation and more takes up most of the week before the event. And then: SHOW TIME!

The inspiration for this year’s event—dubbed “Valentango’s”—comes from Facundo Gastiazoro—an Argentinian-turned Smithereen—and his band Los Gringos Salvajes. Gastiazoro cut his musical teeth in the modern tango bar basements of his hometown of Buenos Aires before moving to the valley five years ago. The show is also a CD-release party for the band, as their album 6000 Semillas de Manzana, packed with gritty Latin sounds, is being launched that weekend. Jordy Walker is this year’s special musical guest.

Although the Valentino’s concept is fluid from year to year, the basic elements are always the same. The night begins with time for mingling, so people can get in character and indulge in the club-like atmosphere of the evening. Soon the music starts at a side stage, and then the mainstage drama begins. This year Nicole L’Orsa is in charge of this part of the show and, although we don’t know what surprises lie in wait, we do know it will at some point ignite, leaving the crowd burning with energy for their turn on the dance floor.

One thing to remember is the audience members are not passive players, says Thompson. “Once you enter the building, you too are part of the show.”

Some will cruise the web looking for inspiration; others will hit the local thrift store. Some may even dig costumes out of their own tickle trunks. But even the dress code is up for interpretation. “Some will be dressed in “early Argentina,” others will be looking good and wearing masks. It exists differently in everyone’s minds. But at the end of the day, it is just a good party.”

Tickets are on sale at Mountain Eagle Books in Smithers. Doors open on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and the show starts around 9.

© Larissa Ardis 2006