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SOCIAL CLIMES : Tray Chic : Miss Kitty updates the '40s cigarette girls with campy costumes. Among their wares: candy and condoms.

March 06, 1994|HILLARY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Karen Hallock chirps in a cartoon voice that makes the Simpsons sound like summer-stock Shakespeare.

"Cigarettes? Candy? Condoms?"

On Saturday nights, Hallock is a big, beautiful Kewpie doll selling lollipops to the Hollywood hip-hop boys who flock to the Gaslight. She's wearing fishnet stockings, high heels, a pink and blue crinoline, and a headdress crowned with a working jack-in-the-box that her boss, Miss Kitty, played with as a child.

It's 1 a.m. and a neo-grunge youth approaches Hallock.

"How much are the cigarettes?" he shouts over the din.

"Three-fifty," Hallock sings back in her Minnie Mouse falsetto. He recoils. A dreadlocked young man in need of candy shoulders past. He pays, tips and goes on without a word, sucking on a sour-apple something.

It's been a good night for Hallock, who will take home from $90 to $130 in salary, commission and tips after working the Gaslight from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.

A student by day, Hallock, 19, is one of a cadre of young women (and men) who ply the clubs, parties and concerts in the employ of Miss Kitty's Koncessions.

Miss Kitty is the invention of Katrina Kaye, who started her career as a '40s-style cigarette girl in 1989 after dropping out of the pre-med program at UC Berkeley.

Using an antique candy tray she found at an auction, Kaye donned a costume and a campy persona, named after the saloon hostess in the TV series "Gunsmoke," and took to the clubs of Los Angeles, working out of the trunk of her car.

Now, at 25, Kaye is headquartered in New York and commands a battalion of 65 concessionaires in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas. Her empire is soon to expand into Miami.

On a recent weekend, she is visiting her Los Angeles outpost, where she parties hard by night and runs the business side by day, saying she gets by on four to five hours of sleep.

She is not easy to keep up with, and it isn't easy to land a job as a Miss Kitty girl. "They have to be performers and salespeople. First I make them sing," Kaye says. "I don't care if they can sing, but if they're game to try, that's what I'm looking for.

"Then we do a lot of role playing, to see how they handle different situations--like how to approach a couple that's starting to get into it in a booth and probably could use a condom (packaged in confetti with part of the proceeds going to the Los Angeles AIDS Hospice)."

At 10 on this Saturday night, the Miss Kitty Koncessions dressing room on La Cienega resembles Disney's psychedelic dream sequence in which Dumbo gets drunk and learns to fly. The otherwise utilitarian accommodations are littered with flounces of hot pink, silver, black and peacock blue, with the occasional spray-painted polka-dot. Kaye is busy cinching Rolanda Davis into a strapless pink leather corset. "It hurts already," Davis complains to no avail. The outfit is topped with a tall striped satin cap straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Kaye pushes back the marabou sleeves of her black '70s-vintage evening gown and says she used to make all the costumes herself. "Now my aunt makes them, but I still do the designs. Whenever I'm in L.A. we go out looking for new stuff. That one's a shower curtain," she says, pointing to the plastic tutu printed with old movie stills worn by tonight's "Hollywood" girl, Shauna Jackson.

Each costume has a name. There is "Michael" and "LaToya" and "Silly."

"All the costumes are my size, and everyone has to fit in them, except for the guys," says Kaye, who clocks in at five feet, four inches, although tonight she's wearing black leather Converse high-tops to which she's added four inches of striped-foam platform. The shoes are prototypes for her line of rave clothing called Soap Dodger.

A felt-tipped pen is handed around the dressing room to dab on the obligatory beauty marks. Helen Heaven, clad in a leopard print trimmed with hot pink satin and a pillbox hat, writes "Tip Me Please" on her palm. "It actually helps a lot," she says.

Jennifer Williams rushes in late, and Kaye whips a blue satin number off the rack. Williams groans. It's the dreaded "Arena" outfit.

"Do you have a small car?" Kaye asks. "Because it's hard to drive with these." "These" are foot-long exaggerations of the stylized conical breasts Gaultier and Madonna copped from New York performance artist Jack Smith. "They used to have red nipples," Kaye says, "until some woman in a club bit them off."

By 11, the dressing room is empty and Kaye sets out to inspect the troops in the field.

The first stop is Tatou, the ever-so-chic Beverly Hills supper club run by New York's Rudolph. Jacqui, a dialogue coach by day, works the floor, resplendent in "Michael Jackson," a black and gold sequined Sgt. Pepper number.

"I've been with Kitty since the beginning," Jacqui says. "Four years now." She and Kaye squeal, hug and catch up. "I got that job on Ed Asner's show," she tells Kaye.

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