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Chicago Fun Times: Milly's Orchid Show turns two

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What this town needs is a good variety show, thought performance artist Brigid Murphy. And next week Murphy celebrates the two-year anniversary of her own rowdy and raucous, intelligent and provocative Milly's Orchid Show.

After studying choreography and performance art at Columbia College, Murphy was tempted to move to New York City. "I was tired of everything being all separate," she says. "Film people in this corner, dance people in this corner, with everyone being so fucking precious about their work." She adds that anything "alternative" has gotten a bad rap in this town. "Or in any place, for that matter. Because it isn't fun. It's too 'ommmm,'" she says, stretching out her arms, eyes open wide, and wobbling her neck back and forth. "A lot of performers don't take into account the audience."

At the other end of the spectrum is comedy, whose sole purpose is entertaining the audience. Murphy doesn't mince words: "Comedy is really gross. A lot of it is, anyway. Because it has no depth to it."

Murphy's dream was to get the whole spectrum of arts and entertainment together onstage. An unpretentious, even amateurish vaudeville show seemed the answer. "I've always loved vaudeville," Murphy says. "And vaudeville makes [the performance] more palatable. It's a way of sneaking in alternative stuff to an audience who might otherwise be intimidated by alternative stuff."

It almost sounds like Murphy is mixing the medicine in with our favorite foods. She points out that "I have a format that is like a contract with the audience from the moment they walk in. If you don't like what you see, hang out, it's gonna change shortly."

Some of the acts in Murphy's show have been: the magician who can break dance out of a straitjacket, an opera singer, a band that sings songs about necrophilia, lariat acts, a woman who recites Shakespeare with a spoon on her nose, a Frank Sinatra impersonator, short experimental or documentary films, readings by Lynda Barry, rap singers, and even comedy acts.

Murphy uses the persona of Milly to pull the hodgepodge of acts together. Milly wears a piled-up-high wig (Murphy's own long, brown hair sticks out the back), a sequined tube top, and polyester bell-bottom pants with "Milly" in sequins on the front and "Howdy" across her butt. Murphy pads her hips to give Milly a middle-aged spread. She adds false eyelashes, outlandish jewelry, and copious makeup. She guzzles a concoction of tequila and orange juice, which she calls Milly's Mix-up, but blames any actual mix-ups on the Motrin.

Milly usually begins with a song: "Corporate ladies prefer a man in a tailored suit / But I prefer a man in tight jeans and Tony Lama boots / Society ladies go crazy for a family crest / But I want a man who'll tattoo my name on his chest." Some of the audience--her cult following--sings the whole song along with Milly.

Murphy says she came up with the idea for Milly when she went to Nashville, Tennessee, for a visit. "Nashville is so weird," she says. "Since the Grand Ole Opry moved out of the heart of Nashville, what's left is skid row. It's a small town that a lot of famous people go to and live in, so people are obsessed with fame.

"I went to this bar called World Famous Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. It used to be real famous, Willie Nelson and all of them would go there after their gigs. But it closed when the Opry left. When it reopened, they didn't touch anything." One-man bands, men wearing cheesy polyester outfits and singing cover tunes, would set up in the storefront window. "They had a sign that said, 'Band Plays for Tips.' The bartender with the beehive hairdo and jeans would come over and sing some like, 'Crazy,' really badly . . . they were like Nashville ghosts."

She went home and wrote three songs for her newly created character. One is "Raising a Little Hell on My Way to Heaven," about hypocrisy. "In Nashville there's this whole society thing against the other part of the south that's seedy and sleazy."

Murphy titled her original work "The Band Plays for Tips" and performed it as part of a Women and Comedy show at the Organic Theater. She realized then that this honky-tonk singer with delusions of grandeur would be the perfect hostess for her dream variety show. To get the acts, she advertised and passed the word to friends and acquaintances.

For the past two years, the Milly Orchid Show has been playing at Lounge Ax the third Wednesday of each month. Murphy's plans for the anniversary include an extra night of performance plus the release of her "hit" song, "Sucker for a Trucker," on a Flexidisc record. "I can have fun promoting Milly," Murphy says. "I couldn't do that for myself. I'd be totally embarrassed."

To Murphy, Milly is more than just high camp: "She says something about the entertainment industry, too--the hopes and dreams people live and die by, which is what a lot of my work is about. People being 50 and obviously their dream hasn't come true, but they're still there." Part of Milly's shtick is that she thinks she is, or is about to be, famous. She tells the audience she's friendly with a bouncer at a George Jones concert. "He said he might be able to make something happen for me, you know what I'm saying?" she says with a wink.

"Milly totally believes she's going to make it," Murphy adds. "And the cool thing is, it's starting to happen. She's got herself a show."

Milly's Orchid Show celebrates its two-year anniversary with performances Wednesday and Thursday, December 20 and 21, at 8 PM at Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; admission is $6. Call 525-6620 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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