Arts December 8, 2008

Funny Girls

Behind the scenes with The Fabulous Vuarnettes

At first they hid behind sunglasses, afraid that friends would recognize them on stage. Over the years, however, the girls have grown more brazen. Now, nothing and no one is safe from these four outrageous dames wrapped in miles of petticoats. Not telemarketers. Not one-piece Bogner ski suits. And certainly not Hollywood action stars turned politicos.

“If we haven’t offended you yet, we will,” Callie Galpin is fond of telling audiences. “The list is long and it covers everyone.”

The Fabulous Vuarnettes have been a fixture in Sun Valley’s après-ski scene for 20-plus years—a third of Sun Valley’s storied history, when you stop to think about it. After the lifts grind to a halt, skiers flood into Sun Valley’s Boiler Room to sip libations such as Kitty’s Furball and Cheetah’s Bushwacker, inspired by the gals.

Then, just as the liquor starts giving everyone that warm, fuzzy feeling, the girls appear, decked out in glittery platform shoes, Bavarian dirndls covered in sequins, and poodle skirts so stiff they could be used as chairs. Above it all, teetering hats are crowned with Tweety Birds, ski figurines, Easter
bunnies, and other gizmos—more plastic than Minnie Pearl ever thought of sticking on her head.

The outfits are but a prelude to a riotous mayhem of male bashing, celebrity trashing, and PMS gnashing as the girls sing and dance their way through parodies of popular ’50s and ’60s songs. With a few deft twists of the tongue, “Surfin’ USA” becomes “Ski Trip to Hell.” “My Guy” becomes “Midol.” “Stand by Your Man” becomes—yes, you’re catching on—“Stand on Your Man.” And “He’s a Rebel” metamorphoses into

“He’s a Local”:
“He’s a local ’cuz he’s been in town for 90 days.
“He’s a local with his waffle hammer and Vuarnets …”

“They’re hysterical—the best show in town,” says Ketchum resident Peggy Dean.

“Total entertainment,” adds Hailey resident Roger Roche. “They make you laugh. They make you smile. They make you drink way too much.”

The Vuarnettes’ humor, originality, and perky, cheerleader-type enthusiasm earned them their fifteen seconds of movie fame. In Warren Miller’s Extreme Winter, they sat on Sun Valley’s chairlift in their short skirts, freezing their tushes for the camera.

Their act has taken them coast-to-coast and even to the Bahamas, via private jets and limos. (They’re always careful to pack their delicate hats under three feet of popcorn, of course.) They did a gig for the opening of the contemporary art museum in Oahu, Hawaii, before an audience dressed to the nines in tuxedos and evening gowns. They revved it up for a bunch of liquor salesmenat an Absolut Vodka convention in Florida. They even played for a convention of Republican governors in Laguna, California:

“Heard it through the grapevine, the Democrats are asinine …”

Perhaps the Vuarnettes’ strangest gig was for the Balboa Yacht Club off the coast of Newport Beach, California, where they were the only women in a private cove full of drunken yacht owners. It looked as if things might go a bit over the edge when, at one point, a small man resembling Truman Capote and wearing a white sailor hat banged on their dressing room door and shouted, “I come from the crew of the Good Ship Vamanos, and we’ve got jewels for you!”

“One of the girls was like, ‘Oh, cool, you’ve got jewels!’” Galpin recalls. “But another was paralyzed with fear. Next thing we knew, the promoters were saying, ‘You’ve got to get out now!’”

That scene took place long after the night Galpin and a couple of friends, bored with watching their husbands play in a band, got up on stage and did a few songs as a joke.

A year later, in 1980, audiences were lining up at the door of the Creekside Inn in Warm Springs Village four times a week to catch the Vuarnettes in their carhop outfits, ’50s prom dresses, metallic jumpsuits, and go-go-girl miniskirts.

“They were a huge hit,” recalls former Creekside Inn proprietor Kathy Wygle. “The girls in the audience all wished they were a Vuarnette. And the guys all wished they knew one.”

The 200-plus songs the Vuarnettes have rewritten with their own zany twists fill several notebooks. Thumbing through them is like rewinding through many of the news items that were once the stuff of Tonight Show monologues.

They wrote “[My] Achy Breaky Part”—a take-off on Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart”—in a distorted nod to Lorena and John Bobbitt. They composed a raucous toast to Osama bin Laden when United States troops entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. They made note of O.J. Simpson and his gaggle of lawyers by rewriting the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” They toasted Sun Valley homeowner Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor of California. And they did a good-humored spoof on the stock market downturn via Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools." >>>



Over the years, the Vuarnettes’ songs have evolved—or should we say matured?—from songs picking on men to songs lamenting midlife crises to songs bemoaning the ravages of age.

Just look what they did to the song “Hair,” for instance:

“I’ve got hair in my nose. Hair between my toes …”

Or “Kokomo,” retooled from their already retooled O.J. song:

“Chronic gas-teritis. She has paddlitis.
“Nocturnal emissions. Can’t stand that condition.
“Cere-beral thrombosis. Arterioschlerosis …”

When one of the Vuarnettes became frustrated trying to figure out how to use a computer, she did more than gripe about it. She wrote a song about it, transforming Herman’s Hermits’ “(What a) Wonderful World (It Could Be)” into “(What a) Wonderful Nerd (I Could Be).”

“Don’t know much about cyberspace
“Don’t know what it means to interface
“Got a virus thought that I was sick
“All I had to do was drag and click …”

When another had had it up to her quirky little brain with telemarketers, she retaliated with:

“Don’t hang up. Oh no.
“Don’t hang up.
“I called to help you lose some weight.
“I know your dinner will be late.
Don’t hang up.”

“We get our ideas from girl talk. Generally, one of us writes a song and the group tears it apart and makes it a song again. And then we all nitpick at it until we’re so tired of it that we sing it,” says Linda Badell, who joined the group in 1986. “Actually, our best material never makes it to the stage. We take it all the way to the place it shouldn’t be and then we dial it back.

“After all, we do make an effort to be semi-politically correct.”

One thing’s for sure. The girls never lack for material.

They poke fun at Sun Valley’s mountain-high real estate prices via Smokey Robinson’s “(Better) Shop Around”:

“Unless they have a million-two, drive them down to Belle-vue.”

And when the Ketchum City Council began debating the merits of paid parking to discourage down-Valley commuters from driving to Ketchum, the Vuarnettes reached for the Beatles’ “Drive My Car”:

“Baby you can park your car.
“But you’re gonna walk real far …”

In between songs, the Vuarnettes volley jokes around stage like ping-pong balls, addressing such universal concerns as big butts, receding hairlines, flabby arms, plastic surgery, and hair coloring.

“Know how many divorced guys it takes to change a light bulb? None. They don’t get the house.”

“You can tell he’s a local by the $3,000 mountain bike on top of his $500 truck.”

“We swear by the five basic food groups: Fat, sugar, alcohol, anti-depressants, and caffeine.”

And, “Girls, there are enough roots out there in the audience to make Alex Haley roll over in his grave.”

Their props are just as outrageous—and certainly not for those prone to blush. They’ve used a giant slinky to represent an IUD. And they’ve turned a garbage can lid into a diaphragm—or, as they call it, “a manhole cover.” Even metal walkers adorned with Vuarnette license plates have been worked into the act, promoting “better living through chemistry”—Metamucil, that is.

Despite the group’s tight harmonies, Badell is the only one who had ever sung professionally before becoming a Vuarnette. A realtor whose stage name is Fern Fein D’Buck, she performed in a folk-singing group called The Tribe at coffeehouses and other venues in California during the ’60s.

Galpin, or Cheetah Velveeta, sang in her high school choir, but has since made her living by teaching snowboarding and as a monotype artist. Cherie Kessler, who goes by the pseudonym Kitty Litter, has spent her time raising two children, acting in a few community plays, and singing in the Valley’s select Anam Cara chamber choir and Caritas Chorale.

And Heidi Bates-Hogan, alias Ruby Rose Hips, is a headhunter-turned-mom. But she has good genes backing her up—her grandmother was longtime Sun Valley resident and TV star Ann Sothern. The newest member of the group, Bates used to sneak into bars to see the Vuarnettes when she was just 16.

When she auditioned to fill an empty poodle skirt a few years ago, the gang’s first impulse was to reject Bates for being “too young.” But she won them over by returning for a second audition in a huge padded foam butt, a bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, a gray wig, and granny glasses. Her shaking hand held a list of the Top 10 reasons why she should be chosen, à la David Letterman: “Choosing me would be better than getting hit by a bus,” she opined.

That did it. She was hired. And, as a reward, the others made her perform a parody of a Britney Spears song: “Ooops! I did it again. I sure do believe I need some Depends.”

Bates found that a small price to pay. “It’s a very special act to be part of,” she says. “I don’t think any other act in town has lasted this many years.”

Badell was just glad to get the act up and running again. “It was depressing when Viagra came out and I had no venue to sing my retooled version of Three Dog Night’s ‘(It’s Not) Easy to Be Hard.’”

Galpin says she’s “beyond amazed” that a younger set hasn’t come along to usurp the Vuarnettes: “I wanted to quit when I was 30—after all, I can’t be an embarrassment to both my kids and my parents at the same time.”

But Badell is just happy that the V’s are still getting up on stage, playing to Sun Valley’s après-ski crowd. “For me, this is anti-aging therapy. Actually, it’s cheaper than therapy. And, besides, where else can you get paid for offending people?”


Karen Bossick wishes she could be a Vuarnette. But, alas, she can’t carry a tune, and couldn’t wear a cornucopia of kitsch on her head without tipping over. Bossick writes about the arts for the Wood River Journal and is a frequent contributor to Sun Valley Magazine.



This article appears in the Winter 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.