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Stage Review & Interview: Batette Follies of 1939 (A Dark Knight Parody)

Note: Since we originally posted about Russall S. Beattie’s unauthorized Batman musical revue, several details have been updated, and a review has been added at the bottom.

The Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder are invading the Montalbán in June!

That was the news back in March when Hollywood’s Montalbán theatre hosted Russall S. Beattie at a press event to announce an unauthorized stage production of Batman, titled Gotham Follies of 1939 (A Dark Knight Parody). Since retitled Batette Follies of 1939 (presumably to placate DC Comics and Warner Bros.), the show was conceived as a fictional version of an old-fashioned Broadway musical revue, a popular form of   live entertainment in the ’30s which featured song-and-dance satires of current events and celebrities. The conceit was that Beattie’s pseudo-historical picture book, Gotham 1919-1939, presented the true story of the Dark Knight, which would be spoofed on stage while the audience was invited to imagine they were literally in the year 1939, watching a parody of contemporary events.


Batette Follies of 1939 Interview: Philosophy of the Dark Knight Parody
Batette Follies1939 Interview
Russall S. Beattie talks to the press at the preview, when his Batman musical revue was called “Gotham Follies of 1939.”

During his March 7 appearance, Russall S. Beattie, who staged The Empire Strips Back at the Montalbán in 2022, spoke extensively about the strategy behind what became Batette Follies of 1939.

“They used to create…variety shows themed around what was in the news at the time. We’re doing the same thing, but what we’re reviewing is a fake alternative history of Gotham City.”

Batette Follies 1939 review
Props on display in the lobby

“It’s very important to me to have philosophy when I start doing shows,” he explained. “For The Empire Strips Back, the philosophy was that it’s Star Wars characters putting on a show, so they’re not allowed to take their masks off; they’re not allowed to break character. It had to feel in-world. That’s what we’re doing with this show. When you arrive at our production, the foyer is going to be turned into a natural history museum: props, costumes, and things from my book will be on display. They’ll be presenting it as if the book is the real thing, and when you come through the doors, you see a revue show based on that. I don’t know how many people know what the revue format is these days. They used to create a combination of vaudeville, burlesque, and show-girl type variety shows themed around what was in the news at the time. We’re doing the same thing, but what we’re reviewing is a fake alternative history of Gotham City.”

Beattie was careful to draw a distinction between Batette Follies of 1939 and other recent attempts at staging an old-fashioned musical revue: “You get some of that entertainment but not at the same scale, and it’s presented like a tribute,” he said of those efforts. “I don’t want to present this show as a tribute. I want that legit feeling it was from the ‘30s. We’re going to give you everything aesthetically that you want from a show set in that time period.” (Ironically, the music in Beattie’s Batman musical revue is largely contemporary, but most of the songs were rearranged to emulate sultry jazz and big band sounds of the era.)

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One aspect of a revue that Batette Follies of 1939 never planned to include was a Master of Ceremonies; instead, the performers on stage would be introduced by film clips of their “real life” counterparts. (The concept is that the cast are portraying 1930s performers impersonating the Batman characters, with the exception of the Joker, who according to Beattie “hijacks the show because he won’t let anyone play him on stage.”) Beattie described this approach as “more theatrical” than Empire, adding that he was not promoting Batette Follies as a burlesque because “it’s sexy without being sexual. There are some acts that have striptease in them, but it’s more about the characters being true to themselves. We want to show a lot more skill sets than what I traditionally show, so there’s gonna be a huge film element in between [acts] – no intermission, no curtain breaks, and no MC. It’s going to run more like a theater show but still have what I call the circus entertainment factor – that danger of going to the circus. You go, “Holy shit, that guy’s on meth – should he be running the trapeze?” You have to have that nervous energy with these shows; otherwise, they lose the specialness and they become safe. I used to really like circuses, but I don’t connect to the performances because it’s too much of a spectacle; I don’t know who to focus on. I want to make [Batette Follies] about the performance we have on stage.”

“It’s going to run more like a theater show but still have what I call the circus entertainment factor – that danger of going to the circus. You go, “Holy shit, that guy’s on meth – should he be running the trapeze?”

At the time of the press event, Beattie was conducting workshops with his cast to hone the performances. “I said, ‘Just see what’s fun, cuz the audience isn’t going to be excited unless you’re excited.’ So a big part of this week was just getting them excited, and I was showing them old musicals like Singing in the Rain – trying to get a concept of what performance used to be in this town. I said, ‘Look at Gene Kelly: you have to sing; you have to dance; you have to do comedy; you have to act; and you have to look good doing it.’ That was the benchmark for our show. We want those triple threats, and we want to present entertainment which might be considered old, but a lot of that entertainment people just don’t get exposed to anymore, especially live.” The effort paid off performers not only singing but also doing aerial work, playing piano, and tap dancing.


Batette Follies of 1939 Interview: Going Bigger with Dark Knight Parody
Batette Follies1939 Interview
Preliminary versions of costumes at the preview, when the Dark Knight parody was titled “Gotham Follies”

Besides ramping up the performances, Beattie wanted to “go bigger” with Batette Follies of 1939 than he had with Empire Strips Back. The previous show had been created with a view to touring from city to city, so the production was relatively scaled down. Batette Follies is the first of four planned shows designed specifically with the Montalbán in mind. Originally, the first project was to be Marvel by Night (inspired by Marvel Comics from the ’60s and ‘70s), but the scale of production was so daunting that Beattie decided to start with Batette Follies, hoping its success would justify a bigger follow up.

“This is probably the biggest show I’ve built. We used to go to films, for example, in these churches of light and sound. Now we watch them on the same devices we watch porn. We took the magic away from it. I just want to bring back the magic that I fell in love with on a ridiculous scale.”

“This is probably the biggest show I’ve built, but it’s the smallest out of the four,” said Beattie. “I’ve got no desire to tour these outside the Montalban or outside of L.A. It’s made for L.A. people; I’m not making it for the rest of the country. A big part of that is we want to be creative for the creators here in this town. I’m sure all of you are disheartened by the entertainment industry of the last few years. It just feels like you’ve kind of painted yourself into a corner. We used to go to films, for example, in these churches of light and sound where we used to watch gods forty feet tall, and the opening of a film used to be fanfare – the lion roaring and Pegasus running across the screen. What we do now is watch them on the same devices we watch porn. We devalued the actual format itself, so we take the magic away from it. I just want to bring back the magic that I fell in love with on a ridiculous scale.”


Batette Follies of 1939 Interview: Putting Passion Back into the Arts

“We used to use words like passion to describe what this town did: now it’s content; it’s influencers, and things like that. I’m trying to change that, and hopefully that kind of passion and excitement will translate to the audience.”

Beattie was “blown away by the staff and the community” assembled by Gilbert Smith, the Montalban Company president assigned with maintaining the legacy of the theatre’s founder, actor Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn).

“Gil has actually put his money where his mouth is, because this is a self-funded show – there’s no investors apart from me and Gil. I’ve never had that kind of support from a venue before,” Beattie said. “We’re on a mission to reignite a little bit of passion in people. We used to use words like passion to describe what this town did: now it’s content; it’s influencers; it’s things like that, and there’s no magic in those words. I’m trying to change that, and hopefully that kind of passion and excitement will translate to the audience. I felt it with Empire because the audience were just so receptive, and that’s what we’re trying to do here as well. A big part for me is focusing on making sure that we deliver a show worthy of the history of this town. A lot of people here want to do new things; it’s just the Gatekeepers hold us back. They control the formats, so I’ve picked live entertainment because I can control this here. I don’t need anyone’s permission to do what I’m doing – maybe DC and Warner Brothers – but if they want me to stop, just make better shit. That’s what it comes down to. I was never getting a Batman story I wanted in the films. They just kept retelling the same stuff. So I made a book that was the closest thing I could do to a film.”

Batette Follies 1939 interview
Russall S. Beattie’s book which inspired his Batman musical revue, beside a themed cocktail inspired by the show

Financing his Dark Knight parody independently entailed risk, but Beattie proclaimed he was willing to take the risk in order to do give audiences something outside the current norm.

“I don’t need to be any richer than what I am now,” he explained. “That kind of freedom allows me to take chances on these shows. I made a little bit off Empire, but all that’s going into here. I’m risking 100%, because I believe in it, but if I lose it, I don’t mind because it’s my show. If I had to listen to someone else tell me how to do it and I lost the money, then I would be. I generally believe we’re at that point now where every 20 years or so we have that kind of revolution in art. In the ‘80s it was Punk and Hip Hop and New Wave and all that kind of stuff. Then in the ’90s it was independent cinema, Grunge, things like that. So every generation needs that kind of injection of creativity from people who just got sick of the status quo, and I’m hoping we’re riding that wave.”

“It’s a very funny thing picking a Batman show to bet on, because we’re not doing anything that the industry is not doing. We’re just trying to play the same game but a bit different. I’m trying to do a Batman you haven’t seen before.”

The irony of this iconoclastic attitude is that Batette Follies of 1939 is another iteration of a familiar I.P. that has been exploited by corporate Hollywood to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, Beattie said he was taking a different approach that eschewed comic book superhero aesthetics (“Superhero’s got nothing to do with my show”).

“It’s a very funny thing picking a Batman show to bet on, because we’re not doing anything that the industry is not doing,” he admitted. “We’re just trying to play the same game but a bit different. I’m trying to make it progressive and make it feel new and do a Batman you haven’t seen before. It’s just got to be this fun experience for people. You can escape the world for 90 minutes – no politics, no arguing. It’s just you’re coming to see a night of entertainment. I try to do a roller coaster experience where I give you something beautiful, absurd, funny, sexy, and grotesque all in one, but it’s all on point.”

Update: At the time of Beattie’s press appearance, opening night of his Dark Knight parody was scheduled for June 1. After the title change to Batette Follies of 1939, the opening was pushed back a week, with the official premiere taking place on July 7 (a day after an invitation-only dress rehearsal on July 6). Also, Empire Strips Back will be returning to the Montalban in October. Check out our review below…

Review: Russall S. Beattie's Batette Follies of 1939 (A Dark Knight Parody)
4

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

Batette Follies 1939 Review

Batette Follies of 1939 (A Dark Knight Parody) is not quite the Batman musical revue that was promised – there is song and dance but no skits and barely a monologue – but that matters not at all when the show delivers a spectacular series of musical vignettes bringing the Dark Knight and his rogue’s gallery of opponents to life in a way we have never seen before. The eccentric premise (a musical revue of fictional events) provides a lens through which familiar songs are filtered, yielding memorable new interpretations, both vocally and visually. You don’t need to be a fan of Batman or musicals to enjoy the results, but you will get an extra kick out of seeing your favorite comic book characters vent their souls for your entertainment.


Batette Follies of 1939 Review: The Show

Batette Follies of 1939 turns out to be virtually a non-stop series of songs, performed sequentially by famous characters from the Batman universe (who seldom share the stage together): Dr. Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow), Oswald Cobblepot (Penguin), and of course the Dynamic Duo. Most of the tunes are instantly recognizable, though rearranged to suit the 1930s time period – with one or two exceptions, such as the modern hip-hop rhythms used to capture the bouncy energy of Harley Quinn.

Most of the cast sing live to recorded playback (Catwoman silently performs aerial gymnastics in time with background music). The vocal performances and choreography, backed by wonderful art deco settings, engage the eyes and ears from the opening number to the final curtain, but a few stand out for special mention. Mr. Freeze offers a heart-rending rendition of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence,” sung to his wife, preserved in an upright glass case. Batwoman turns Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” into a sultry torch song, with an expressive vocal range far beyond the original. Perhaps most memorably, Harvey “Two-Face” Dent expresses his dual nature via two pianos, a concert grand and a jazz hall upright, alternating between majestic (“Time to Say Goodbye”) and sinister (“Red Right Hand”). He caps it off with flourish worthy of the late Keith Emerson, playing both pianos at once as his dual personalities war with each other. After all this, it’s difficult for Batman and Robin (who ride in on the Batmobile for the finale) to outperform everyone else; nevertheless, their dual tap-dancing routine provides an energetic climax featuring the entire cast.

There is no Master of Ceremonies nor any comedy sketches. The only spoken dialogue we heard was from Edward Nygma (The Riddler), introducing his song. Otherwise, the characters are introduced by videos projected on screens beside the stage.  The black-and-white photography and dour narration mimic an old-fashioned news reel, suggesting the grim reality of the supposedly real-life characters being portrayed in more colorful form on stage. To some extent this distances us from the characters, but it does keep the show rolling along without unnecessary patter. (At least on premiere night, there seemed to be one or two glitches, where the “introductory” videos played after a character’s performance.)


Batette Follies of 1939 Review: Amenities

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To immerse the audience in the world of Gotham 1939, the lobby of the Montalbán has been decked out with display cases featuring props, from the “real” world of the Dark Knight; likewise, poster artwork outside depicts the “true” appearances of the characters. Before the curtain rises, videos depict the backstory of the city and its residents; the narration is drowned out by the chatter of people taking their seats, but at least the imagery provides some sense of the alternate history supposedly existing outside the theatre.

Batette Follies 1939 Review
The Pale Smile, inspired by the Joker

Helping the audience get in the mood, the Montalbán’s second-floor bar is serving a trio of themed drinks: The Dark Knight (vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, cranberry juice); The Cat’s Meow (Tequila, margarita mix agave, sweet & sour, lime); and The Pale Smile (vodka coconut rum, peach schnapps, orange juice, pineapple juice). At $15 a pop, they are not a bad value. We sampled The Dark Knight and The Pale Smile; both were good though we slightly preferred the former.


Batette Follies of 1939 Review: Conclusion

Although Batette Follies of 1939 is not exactly the Batman musical revue we expected, what it actually delivers is very good. Audiences may or may not grasp the concept that they are supposed to be watching performers impersonate real-life characters from an alternate history; even if they do, without any kind of sketch material, there is little sense that the show is spoofing events taking place in this imaginary world. Moreover, the notion that the Joker “hijacks” the show to play himself does not come across; he feels no more authentic than the other characters (though perhaps this conceit is intended to justify the song he sings about his discomforting transgressions, which only the man himself would brag about).

Ultimately, Batette Follies of 1939 is a theatrical concert – an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. With no storyline and only a concept to tie is acts together, the show works overtime to render each vignette ovation-worthy, augmenting the music and choreography with projected animation, flashy costumes, and sultry suggestiveness. Maintaining maximum energy for 90 continues minutes can be exhausting for the audience if not the cast, and not every gag lands, but there are more than enough peak moments to make this show worth a trip to the bat cave. Everyone knows bats can screech; who knew they could sing?

Batette Follies of 1939 runs on Thursday-to-Sunday at the Montalbán from June 7 through July 14 Update: the show’s run has been extended through July 28, including a Wednesday show on July 17. Performances start at 7pm on Sundays, 8pm on Thursdays, and 7:30pm & 10pm on Fridays & Saturdays. Tickets range from $39 to $154. Admission is restricted to ages 18 and up. The address is 1615 Vine Street in Hollywood. Get more information here.

March 7 Preview Photographs: Gotham Follies of 1939

June 7 Premiere Photographs: Batette Follies of 1939

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.