By Maggie Grainger | Photos by Calibree Photography
The lights dim as the sounds of big band music swell up. A hush falls over the audience as they
clutch their drinks in anticipation. For the next few hours they know they will be transported to
another world–a circus of glitter, glitz, and more than one or two tassel twirls.
Welcome to the magical world of burlesque.
For Jim Sweeney, 49, it’s just another day at the office. As the producer and mastermind behind the
popular Hubba Hubba Revue at the DNA Lounge, he’s been showcasing some of the world’s best
burlesque acts in the world since 2006-quite the juxtaposition for a man who, when he was a boy,
toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. Suffice it to say he never thought he would one day share
the stage with a bevy of beauties every week.
As a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Outer Mission
neighborhood, Sweeney also never thought his name would one day be synonymous with Bay Area
burlesque. However, thanks to his fun-loving parents, a life full of costumes and color seemed
inevitable. “My parents are very fun, active, party and costume people,” he says with a smile.
“Getting dressed up in elaborate costumes and going to events was part of my life from early
childhood.” He adds that if you want to live in San Francisco, you’d better have a costume trunk.
His first exposure to the allure of dancing dames was actually at Disneyland, where he became
mesmerized by the antics onstage at the famed Golden Horseshoe Revue. “In those days, Disneyland’s
entertainment was a little less sanitized, and although it was still ‘family entertainment,’ the
old Golden Horseshoe was very much burlesque,” he says, looking back.
Sweeney always identified with the emcee. “Add to that the corny jokes by the Jungle Cruise guides
and I think that’s where it all started.” He chuckles. During the 1980s and ’90s, Sweeney hung out
at various nightclubs in The City, and people began to notice
his loud personality. Soon, friends were asking him to host
everything from fashion shows to band nights.
So when the neo-burlesque movement started taking off around the country, it was a natural
progression for him to get involved with the San Francisco scene. “Back in those days, there were
only a handful of people performing, and only a tiny number of shows, scattered here and there,” he
explains. “It wasn’t like it is now—you could seriously meet 90 percent of the entire Bay Area
burlesque community in one person’s living room.”
Sweeney believes San Francisco and burlesque go so well together because of the free-spirit nature
of The City. “I want Hubba to be a wild, sensory overload, and when [people]walk away from it,
they’re smiling and happy and maybe a little stunned.” He laughs.
“Everyone, including me, was terrified about San Francisco losing its character to these [Silicon
Valley] invaders, but I think maybe we might have failed to account for The City itself in that
formula. It’s mighty hard to resist joining the “fun freak parade” when the, freak flag, is going
back and forth right outside your office window.” Sure, being the producer of an ever-evolving show
has its high and low points. Sweeney is the first to admit financial stress has threatened to close
Hubba’s doors on more than one occasion, but he says it’s the strong community support that keeps
the show going. It’s the same tight-knit community that came together when Sweeney lost his good
friend and co- founder Sparkly Devil (Sarah Klein), who died in a car crash while on her way home
after a Hubba Hubba performance last year.
“Sparkly was here one moment; we were literally all together, on stage with her. And in the next
instant she was gone. Not a single person got to say goodbye.” However, he says with each low comes
a new learning experience. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s: don’t waste your skills, your hard
work, and your sleepless nights adding your few pennies to some faceless company’s accounting
ledger,” he emphasizes. “Follow your dream! The worst fate imaginable would be to wake up one day
and realize you spent your whole, vibrant life doing your part to make Crate
& Barrel just a little bit richer.”