The Crazy Russian brings the aura of old Europe to Route 40
Published: February 12, 2014
The Weimar Republic might have ended in Germany in 1933, but remnants of its cabaret culture flew out of the Ukraine 25 years ago, in the mind of a young, ambitious woman from the Soviet bloc, and ended up on a dark strip of Route 40 near a chintzy Kenyan bar called Bobby’s and row of renovated fuck-pads. There, the spirit of the naughty, gaudy Weimar cabarets continues to play out every weekend at a red bunker called the Crazy Russian. And its proprietor, Valeria Torchinskaya, though older, is still the young girl with a dream.
“When I was a girl in Ukraine,” Torchinskaya says, “I would make all these drawings of women in beautiful clothes dancing seductively. Drawings like that were not allowed in my country, so I kept them from the world.”
Torchinskaya grew up in time when words like “stylist,” “fashion,” and “artist” were not part of the vocabulary of Jews living under the red heel of the Soviet jackboot. She was forced to keep her dreams of owning a theater where women “danced seductively” tucked inside her notebooks and drawing pads, and instead become an engineer without hope. Until she met Vladimir.
“He asked me to marry him,” says Torchinskaya in a thick Ukrainian accent that takes the “h” in “him” and rolls it into a soft “ch,” smooth like the Dnieper River in the fall. “He said that if we ever had the chance to go to America, would I want to go. He was very adventurous. I never thought I would leave Ukraine, but I said yes.”
The young couple did just that and headed for the States, leaving a trail of tumbling Lenin statues and crumbling walls in their wake.
America was good to them, she’ll tell you. Talking to Torchinskaya at her club on a cold Saturday night, she skims over the parts about her owning a pizza joint in Lansdowne and graduating from the prestigious Von Lee international beauty school. Her full lips do not part into a smile until she gets to the part about the club. Then she beams and her eyes light up.
“My dream came true when I found that JK’s Playroom was closed,” Torchinskaya says. “When I saw this building, I knew that it would be mine.”
The Crazy Russian was ahead of its time, at least in Baltimore and especially for a Route 40 peppered with cheap motels, strip joints desperate for customers, and makeshift pit beef stands. “Dancers would call her a crazy Russian when they heard what she was trying to do,” her husband says.
“We came before the burlesque craze,” Torchinskaya says. “When we first opened, no one knew what to make of us. We didn’t do lap dances, never hosted bachelor parties, or had ‘Champagne’ rooms. I made [the Crazy Russian] the place I always dreamed of, with exotic dancers and the music of the world. Like something in old Europe.”
Though it has only a few customers, the Crazy Russian has an air of extravagance. Feather boas, kitty costumes, sparkly pasties, and outrageous outfits bedazzle strutting women as Torchinskaya chats with longtime dancer Darlla Princess.
“I met Darlla after I graduated from bartending school on Ritchie Highway,” Torchinskaya says. “She calls us mama and papa. She’s a very important person in my life. She’s stuck with me through it all, despite not making much money. She could have gone anywhere. Darlla is a very sensuous dancer. Exactly what I imagined when planning for the club.”
Princess, who insists that’s her real last name, has been with Torchinskaya, since the beginning—the whole 10 years.
“I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Princess says. “Why would I? I mean, I could. I love the burlesque aspect of the club. It’s not slutty. It’s gentle teasing. Working for mama is great.”
The club is a red cube that feels like the dream playroom of the girl who left the Ukraine so many years ago. There’s a closet full of fluffy costumes to try on and show off. And there are ceramic theater masks, pinup posters, thick red lips, and mannequin legs sticking out of various walls. It’s as if we’re all just a part of that little Ukrainian girl’s drawing pad. And she’s still sketching.
“It’s always changing here,” Torchinskaya says. “As an artist, I’m never satisfied. I never stop creating.”
Torchinskaya admits that the days of a house packed with customers from Virginia to New York started to wane when the economy took a dive in 2008.
But the resourceful mama Torchinskaya has a plan for her club. Empty barstools aren’t getting her down. That’s not in her nature.
“In the future, what I really want,” Torchinskaya says, “is for people to produce shows in the club. For us to survive, we need artistic people. They’ll come. I’m not going anywhere. I’ve survived worse.”
> Email J.M. Giordano