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Cheap Glamour 

Blue Canary and the art of thrift-store cabaret

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
Behind a pink door, just off Valencia Street, is a flashy little movie palace called Junko's. The theater is a menagerie of stylish salvaged couches, an Astroturf garden strewn with glowing lawn ornaments, and beautiful, complicated little toys from the late 1950s circused along a shelf in the corner. Up front, a screen; below, a circular black stage like a plastic mushroom flattened across its crown.

The converted storefront theater belongs to James Diguidio and Derek Felten. The latter lives upstairs amid a pile of costumes, a seersucker suit, and a pink satin tuxedo hanging on the wall. Diguidio and Felten built Junko's from scrapped and stolen materials, crafting it into a remarkable place -- a romantic room, richly textured, finely detailed. Novel and special.

Diguidio, 32, and Felten, 30, are obsessed. And they are proud. Here, their vision is tangible, visceral: They want their visitors to feel shine and velvet cush. Glamour. Cheap glamour. On Sunday nights, when they invite friends and guests to watch Passolini movies and the like, Diguidio and Felten want their visitors to relax, as if at home. The guests -- stiff whiskey sours in hand -- are supposed to slouch into overstuffed chairs with wings, maybe wonder why they never noticed the deco nude photograph that sits on a mantel near the living room bar.

Here, inside of Junko's -- for the first time -- the musical act Diguidio and Felten call Blue Canary begins to make sense. See, they are musicians, performers. Entertainers. They've played together for two years. Practiced five days a week. Honed an act of Gypsy songs, lonely ballads, soundtrack numbers, and vocal standards. They have studied Fellini movies, particularly the house band in Variety Lights, and probably tracked each guitar note that the wild-eyed Brazilian woman in the film plays, convincing a down-and-out comic to start his own traveling show. They've never recorded, but last summer Blue Canary toured Europe. They started on street corners; they finished on Spanish television.

Diguidio, who is handsome and wears a pencil-thin mustache, handles a Harmony acoustic guitar like a young Django Reinhardt, the famous Gypsy player from the 1930s. Felten, a caricature with a cocked bowler hat across his brow who goes by the name Mr. Razzmatazz onstage, sings. He loves the sound of a man's man breaking down. He also plays a chromatic harmonica, an almost rare instrument that has more in common with a saxophone than the hunk of tin that rock musicians blow. And he tap dances -- well. Together, they are magical.

Felten calls Blue Canary a juggling act: If one of them drops a pin, the entire performance falls apart. "What both of us want is to have a special moment," he says. "Those old films, they hit so many different levels. You see a performance and you're moved. We want to show that's not dead."

Their act is unlike any other in San Francisco.
There is a bar just off the main room in Junko's. They call it the Gold Lounge. One wall is covered with squares of mirror. The other is curtained with thick crushed velvet. A fake log in a phony fireplace glows false orange. There is a B&H speaker that could have been stolen from an old Katharine Hepburn movie set. Sammy Davis Jr. is singing -- "If you should fall in love with me" -- over the crackle of vinyl. Felten is drinking a beer. Diguidio sips on something with ice and a lemon. "We don't know what goes on in the real world," says Diguidio, easing into a slung-back vinyl chair.

"We don't fit in," pipes Felten. "That may sound indulgent, but when I leave the house, I don't see anyone who I identify with. When I go to a club, I don't see anyone."

"That's why we built this place," says Diguidio, glancing across the room. "Where else are we going to go out to on a Sunday night?"

Diguidio is uncharacteristically exaggerating. He's the solemn man who sits in the background strumming guitar chords. His partner is the one who emphasizes a syrupy lyric, who throws his arms out for balance, who spins, who kicks the floor. The pair have found appreciative crowds and venues to play in San Francisco -- mostly nontraditional places like the Cell warehouse and the Jewelry Store, the Mission space known for its lavish theme parties and ornate living-theater events -- it's just taking some time. "The best audience we have right now is the underground art scene in San Francisco," says Felten. "That's the most responsive, best audience. Those people are really open to a performance like ours."

"There is something happening," concedes Diguidio, "but it's really underground."

"When the swing scene dies out, I think cabaret will be the next new art form," says Felten. "In Los Angeles, a lot of the swing clubs are having cabaret nights."

"I hear the Viper Room has a cabaret night," Diguidio says. "Even on cable television you have shows like Viva Variety. Something is going on here."

"I've been interested in cabaret for years, trying to perfect it. But I feel like things are premature," says Felten. "It's a natural progression. People get into swing for the quality of the old music and the quality of the performance as well. But that swing genre is really limited."

Felten won't say it directly, but he and Diguidio have a problem with the swing scene's style fascism, the rigid adherence to codes of dress, behavior, and, most importantly, music. The way they see it, the swing kids have found a niche, and they're exploiting it. Most swing acts, with few exceptions (like Lee Press-On & the Nails), are careful not to match a '40s tie with a '30s suit -- much less toss a torch song into a jump swing set. Blue Canary, on the other hand, thrives on hybridization, both within songs, and within sets. "Most of the songs are like three in one," says Diguidio. "It's never obvious, we just do what works."

About The Author

Jeff Stark


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