Put Mexican wrestling masks on the men. Outfit the women with fake eyelashes, sequins, fishnet stockings, and hats tall enough to intimidate Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Add surf-style Christmas music and choreographed dance numbers, and you've got yourself one unique rock-and-roll holiday pageant, Los Straitjackets style.
According to Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel, it all came together one fateful night in New York City three years ago.
"We met the Pontani Sisters at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center," he says. "They used to have the '60s go-go night there, and that's where we met them, because they were there dancing every Friday for a couple of years, so we got to be friends. I guess we recognized a kindred spirit or something and started doing things together. I remember, we all came away from that show thinking, 'That was one of the all-time-best gigs.'"
Eddie's on the phone in Nashville, but Angie, Tara, and Helen Pontani are in New York City -- specifically, in a corner booth at Marion's on the Bowery, an East Village restaurant where the World Famous Pontani Sisters have just concluded the last in a series of Monday-night floor shows.
"Tara and I saw Los Straitjackets open up for Link Wray probably two or three years prior to that," says Angie, the youngest Pontani Sister. "And then we performed together at Windows on the World. It was packed, and everybody loved it. I remember walking out of the building and saying goodbye at the revolving door, and they were like 'We're going to go on tour. We're going on tour.' And we were like 'All right. Let's go.'"
So tour they did. The current sojourn is their second holiday excursion; it's the fifth or sixth time (Eddie's lost count) that the Straitjackets/ Pontani tag team has hit the road together.
"I remember the first time we did a tour with them," Eddie says. "It was like touring with the Ronettes. The three of them were always together. They'd walk in the club together, and they'd leave the club together. They just looked like a real unit, like the Ronettes would be. There was always an aura of coolness and showbiz glamour about them. That's one thing that they bring to the table, man, is this real showbiz-glamour thing.
"You've got to understand, when they come into a club, the dressing room is just taken over. There's outfits and boots and feathers everywhere. This looks like show business from the '30s. It's great. People instantly recognize and respond to it. I mean, even if they've never seen a Busby Berkeley movie or a Vegas show, they respond to it. We love the Pontani Sisters, man. We're big fans."
Los Straitjackets aren't the only ones. The World Famous Pontanis have appeared on national TV (Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Caroline Rhea Show), released an exercise video (Go-Go Robics), and danced across America, including show-business hotspots Vegas, Atlantic City, and Times Square.
"We're bushwhacking," Angie says. "I think we're creating our own path, because we're burlesque, but we're a completely new burlesque, and we all have role models, but a lot of them were along traditional lines. I don't think we're along traditional lines."
The sisters began dancing as toddlers, taking all manner of lessons -- tap, ballet, and jazz -- from any teacher they could find near their childhood home outside Trenton, New Jersey. They continued through junior high and high school, before moving across the river to New York.
After dropping out of NYU, Angie landed a few gigs, then called in older sister Helen to help with the choreography; the pair then coaxed middle sister Tara out of Columbia University's graduate program in social work to complete the ensemble. A show here, a show there, some word of mouth, and all of a sudden, being a World Famous Pontani Sister was a full-time profession.
"This is harder than any job I've ever had," Angie says, "because it stays with you. You're a Pontani Sister. You're always a Pontani. It's you."
"Before we started doing this, I enjoyed wearing eyelashes and a lot of makeup and stuff," says Helen. "And now I'm like 'I don't really want to wear makeup tonight, and I don't want to talk about performance.' And people always seem to want to talk about that. Like when you go to a party or hang out with other friends outside of the circle. That's all they want to talk about, and sometimes you're like 'Okay, well, you know, this is now my job.' Before, we used to talk about this stuff as dreams and hopes. Well, now I am living my dream, and that's a wonderful thing. I wouldn't take it away for the world, but you have to realize that this is how I'm bringing in the bread and butter, so I don't want to talk business and shop when we're hanging out."
So, while sipping red wine and anticipating their soon-to-be-delivered fried calamari, the Pontanis pontificate on more personal matters.
Tara claims addictions to knitting, reading, and running (she recently completed her first New York City Marathon, finishing a full 17 seconds in front of Sean "Puffy" Combs). Helen, the least-tattooed Pontani, loves to cook, teaches hip-hop dance when she's not on tour, and admits, with some guilt, to being a regular viewer of MTV's The Real World. Angie, once banned from her father's garden for pulling expensive flowers instead of weeds, has since developed a green thumb of her own; she's also into crocheting and watching old Westerns on television.
By the holidays, hobbies are cast aside in favor of a rigorous work schedule: The Pontanis have 17 shows before Christmas. Dressing rooms in 13 states and Canada will burst at the seams. Eyelashes and makeup will be applied. Costumes will be changed. When the lights go on and the music starts, three brightly smiling sisters from New Jersey will take the stage alongside their masked compadres and dance their childhood dream again.
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