GENTLEMEN, START YOUR engines! The countdown for Tucson's third annual Hot-Rod-O-Rama has begun. This Saturday, the barricades will once again bookend Congress Street for a wild night of rockabilly revelry, joining the pack of national gatherings like Viva Las Vegas, San Francisco's Grease Ball, and the annual Hootenanny in Bakersfield, CA.
Like the sweet rides that inspire these high-octane '50s fests, the music-minded greasemonkeys at downtown's Rialto Theatre continue to hammer out the dents and lube the machinery to make this a fine celebration of all that's pure, fast, loud and real.
Two stages indoors and two outdoors feature 11 bands, a tattoo contest and the crowning of Miss Hot-Rod-O-Rama 2000.
The fun starts at 8 p.m. on the Congress Street stage with Mario Moreno and The Ramblers. The lead Phoenician is no stranger to rockabilly fans. He used to play with Billy Bacon, and in his own band works those contagious Mexican cumbias into his American rock roots.
Following him into the night are L.A.'s Three Bad Jacks ("Elvis is in the house!"), Tucson-by-way-of-Texas Teddy Morgan, with his contraband Pistolas, and San Diego stalwarts the Paladins at 11:30 p.m. Morgan recently emigrated to the Old Pueblo, newly married but far (musically speaking) from settling down. Word on the street is that he and deceptively sedated King of Pleasure Mike Hebert (another former hot-link in the Billy Bacon brigade) are making plans for a badass local band. Let him know you're listening.
Down at the west end of the block, Tucson's most daring ink exhibitionists command the spotlight from 9 to 11 p.m. on an all-tattoo stage, with judging in both black-and-white and color categories.
In that storefront space just inside the Hotel Congress, downtown Bill Workman's new band, the Honky-tonk Hopefuls, kick things off at 9 p.m. They'll be followed by the swing Kings of Pleasure, with Las Vegas' Dragstrip '77 at midnight. (An unnamed band of surf rockin' Bettys has been penciled in for the canceled Exit 56 slot at 11 p.m.)
Inside the Rialto Theatre, Bill Haley and the Comets return from the land of lost vinyl in the form of Chadd Thomas & the Crazy Kings, a five-piece out of Houston playing '50s-style rock with as much spark and polish as a '56 T-bird. Tucson bad boys Al Foul lug that crazy-ass bass center stage at 9:30 p.m., followed by the Miss Hot-Rod pinup girl contest at 10:30 p.m. The new reign will be ushered in by San Francisco's Rockin' Lloyd Tripp and the Zip Guns at 11:30 p.m. Tripp, the burly bass player fronting this rock-n-roll outfit, ensures neither man nor music will soon be forgotten.
CONFESSION: FIFTIES FASCINATION, for me, has been slow to sink in. In my unexamined life, I preferred horses to horsepower, gee-tars to Gibson electrics. But earlier this year I had a dream. A revelation, really, borne of synapses popping like breakfast cereal, a marrow-deep need for harmless drama, and my rock-n-roll mentor Ang, mother of three, who has never failed to throw her expansive energy behind any harebrained scheme executable in front of a large, public audience.
This dream fluttered in our stomachs like a battalion of migrating Monarchs, and burned just below the surface of our mild-mannered civil obedience with a metallic sort of hum. We became devout as pilgrims, as full of schemes as Capitol Records execs, and as certain of victory as the Spanish Armada. Our dream? To vanquish the Rodeo Queen, and in her place install the new Miss Hot-Rod-O-Rama.
This was not an idle, self-indulgent fantasy. This was not (exactly) a desire for vicarious living. We envisioned the dawn of a new era: a new, fuel-injected engine in the conservative social machinery. At every Kiwanis Club ribbon-cutting, at Mayor Walkup's inauguration, in every celebrity golf tournament and parade wave, we had a sexy message to inspire the unsuspecting masses: Turn the dumb beast of history out to pasture! "Embrace the power, not the flesh!" That was our motto.
Alas, we have day jobs. Fomenting a revved-up revolution takes time, and careful planning. We are waiting, much as you, for the pinup girl who can make all our dreams come true.
It only made sense, then, to take a retrospective look at the lamentably underutilized Miss Hot-Rod-O-Ramas thus far. Even on paper, these amazing women raise the two-dimensional parameters of the traditional pinup girl to the tenth power. Real life, to paraphrase a gentle aphorism, opened up a can of whoop-ass on fatuous fiction.
THE PREMIERE MISS Hot-Rod is 26-year-old Jennifer Caple, a blond beauty self-described as "the epitome of a '50s girläI cook, I clean, I sew and I bake." She's serious. Pastry artist and sole-proprietor of Blondie's, her self-started, industrial-housed commercial bakery, Jen granted us an impromptu interview in the middle of an order for 400 cheesecakes.
Interrupted by frequent bouts of laughter, she recounted her equally impromptu entry in the inaugural 1998 contestäabout two hours before show time: "Jeb wanted all the bartenders dressed up pinup-style, so all the girls were looking for cute little '50s swimsuits. I was like, 'Nnn-uh. No way.' So I dressed up like a cigarette girl, with the pillbox hat, the doorman's jacket, short skirt and spectator shoes. When I got on stage there were all theseäI guess, exotic dancer people? They were like, 'Look at my boobs! Look at my butt!' I had boxes of candy cigarettes in my cigarette box, and when I got out there I just threw them at the guys in the audience. Which just proves my whole point: It's all in the sugar. That's how I won."
This, however, was not Jen's first encounter with subverting the sexpot myth. During her brief day-spa career, she was twice approached by a couple of "yakety schmakety Playboy people," who promised her 36 triple-D bustline "free money." She laughed in their faces. And in an industry where surgical excess is practically de rigueur, she went the other route, with a breast reduction for her naturally ample "assets." That's what she told me when I asked her measurements: "Before or after the surgery? Now I'm a 36 B/C." You gotta love that.
Though born in the '70s, she happily says she's "stuck in the '50s." I used to call it 'the disease.' I tried to fight it. I went to art school, but it just wasn't me. I'm a big huge nerd."
Yeah, right. A 5'10" nerd with a booming business, a well-stamped passport, an exotic pet (pig), and a German-engineered hot-rod of her own (the brand-spanking new, candy-apple red, '00 VW Bug). She's currently learning French before attending renowned Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Her portfolio of custom cakes made her a shoo-in. "It's more just to live in Paris than to go to pastry school," she says. "I read cookbooks constantly, I have like 500 of them. I read them up until I go to sleep."
Ambitions in life? "What I really want is a family--a cat and a dog, a boy and a girl. I want to be a housewife and stay at home with my kids." As a successful young entrepreneur, she stands to do that in style, with or without some sugar daddy. (Biggest turn-on: "A guy who eats sweets.") "I've had the same boyfriend for eight years, the only guy I've ever been with. He's an artist," she says knowingly, "so he's not looking to get married any time soon."
For now, she revels in her independence, which includes hanging with her own parents (still married, and retired at an enviable age 50 here in Tucson), annual vacations overseas, and indulging the pig--a four-legged named Rudy with a penchant for birthday cake.
"You're supposed to not feed them, just to keep them small," she says of her two-foot, 175-pound, pink-and-gray house pig. "But that's me and my sugar-coated philosophy: fat satisfies! Whether it's on a woman, or in a cupcake!"
IT ONLY GETS better. The reigning Miss Hot-Rod not only falls at the opposite end of the blond spectrum, she's an honest-to-God rocket scientist.
Amelia Nash doesn't have the slightest interest in her own measurements, but she knows a thing or two about calculations. With majors in engineering and mathematics, and a minor in computer science, she's spent a chunk of her undergraduate years as a research assistant to the Mars Pathfinder mission. I asked her to explain in layman's terms, and then I asked her to explain again. Then I just wrote down what I think she said:
"The professor I worked for had a theory about dust devils on Mars working as heat engines. They like, took in heat and put out work, by spinning, to get vortices. All I did was take the Mars Pathfinder data they had for pressure depression, wind velocity, temperature, and used his equation to calculate if dust devils could exist; and if they did, how fast they would be. Now they're looking at the red eye of Saturn, which they think could've been a huge storm caused by a dust devil."
Grad school is a given for this eldest daughter, and she's got her eye on Cal Tech or UCLA. "I grew up in a small town," she says of her native Tucson. "I want to be in a city with lots of stuff and noise and pollution. And I want to learn how to surf."
When she needs a break from making sense of a vast and improbable universe, she reupholsters '50s furniture for her apartment (note the zebra-striped chair), serves cocktails at Club Congress, shoots zombies, and blows up psychedelic mushrooms on a computer screen.
"Right now I'm really into ambrosia.com, which has a shareware hippie version of the Centipede game. I also love that zombie game House of Dead at the Foothills Mall arcade. You can literally shoot half a zombie's face off. It's very violent and gory."
Her hot-rod of choice is the '64 Karmann Ghia. "I had a hardtop white one with a black interior, but I crashed it. Seven a.m. on my way to school, and this Jeep was just stopped in the middle of the road. I ran right into the back of it. Now I drive a Honda Civic."
"I love old cars," she sighs, "but they can cost you a lot if you don't have any experience with fixing them. I don't have the space or the tools to do any of that. I took shop classes in high school, but that's about it.
"My first car was a '77 Malibu Classic that my mom got for 100 bucks. It was just like the one in Say Anything. Huge! I used to fix that. I put in a new starter," she says modestly. "That was fun. I never did any major overhauls, but I turned little cranks on the cherry picker. That's when they wrap a whole engine up in chains and jerk it out. It's like a car giving birth, it's pretty weird. I helped do that on my Honda."
Though gorgeous (she dismisses the compliment), Amelia, "Mimi" to her friends, is about as likely a candidate for catwalk queen as the Playmate of the Month is for a Nobel Prize. So we asked who put her up to it.
"My friend Leah was trying to start this company, Mose Halters. She wanted me to enter the contest, and we collaborated on my outfit. She made the top, and I made the skirt. We wanted something reminiscent of Carmen Miranda--something funny and fun. It was very shiny, a silver-white, ankle-length wrap that had big cherries on itäand I wore a fruit basket on my head.
"My friend Tangie Doerck competed with me, also in Leah's fashions. Black satin, with red-sequin flames. Very cool. She came in second place." This Saturday's event falls on Nash's 23rd birthday, and she'll go out in style in a another Mose Halters original.)
Bolstered by the diversity--from bikinis to long, fitted skirts--she nonetheless remembers her initial 15 minutes of fame in May of '99 as "harrowing."
"There was one girläI guess she was an adult entertainer. She came out in a G-string and a T-shirt, and she ripped it right off," she laughs in her smoky voice. "She obviously knew what she was doing, but it was a little weird. Then the same topless shtick that got whoops and hollers in round one got booed off the stage in round two."
"The clothes and the music are my thing," she says. "Carlos and the Banditos, Three Bad Jacks, the Hillbilly Hellcats--it's good, fast music. As for the look, I love that it's more about voluptuousness."
The highlights of her reign (a hearty laugh followed the question) are also the only events: "I got to do a fundraiser for the HazMat Gallery, calling Bingo numbers with (deejays) Kathy Rivers and Hot-Rod Ron. And I wrapped presents for the Clovenhoof Holiday Bazaar at the Congress last December."
Caple commemorated her experience by putting a genuine '50s pinup on her bakery business cards, and making a sparkly banner for her successor. "I was working on a crown with a hot-rod on it, but I was so involved in the kitchen I didn't finish."
No crown, no official duties, and no holds barred, this year's contest starts at 10:30 p.m. and is open to all. A panel of judges and audience applause will decide the winner. She has big shoes to fill.
Any sage advice for Miss Hot-Rod 2000? "Well, let's see," the reigning Miss quips. "It's a tough crowd. Keep your shirt on."
Doors open at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 20, for the third-annual, all-ages Hot-Rod-O-Rama. All the action takes place on Congress Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Tickets are $7 in advance, $10 at the door. Outlets are Hear's Music, Zip's University, CD Depot, Congress Street Store and Guitars, Etc. For recorded information, call 798-3333.