The Salmon Awards

Spawning was the perfect metaphor for Les Nickelettes. We were always hatching new ideas, and continually giving birth to new members who embraced our off-the-wall sensibilities. The dauntless annual swim upstream of the salmon also seemed to match our struggle up the raging river of show biz – always going against the current. When we decided to produce our own “Oscar-like” show it felt natural to adopt these two metaphors, and so, The Salmon Awards were born. As I describe in Anarchy in High Heels, we started out thinking we would spoof the awards by giving ourselves trophies. But that was too self-indulgent. We hit on the idea of rewarding the people behind the scenes that made our zany escapades possible. So, we bought second-hand trophies, decorated them with glitter, sequins, and feathers, and passed them out at a faux award ceremony to producers, journalists, set designers, costumers, graphic designers, composers, and back stage crew who helped us during our swim upstream. But in the book many details about this annual event had to be cut out.

In a 1977 Berkeley Barb article titled, “Salmon Eggs”, Nickelette member Ellin Stein wrote this insight into the annual event: 

If the Salmon Awards sounds like an intensely in-group cult phenomenon, it is. But the audience is as much a participant in the event as the winners or performers. The Nickelettes are not only a women’s group, they are a feminine group. That is, their creativity springs very much from the feminine principle. Thus, instead of being only an object piece to be judged and evaluated by the audience, Nickelette shows are also a process which depends on the rapport created between audience and performer. The audience must be prepared to give something rather than just watch passively.

Or, put another way, by outsider Sandra Rider, Call Board, 1978:

The need to placate the audience with psycho-social messages and droll comic patter is absent. And it is that same disregard for audience approval which made me a friend of the Nickelettes. It was refreshing to see performers unconfined by substance, form, theme, or for that matter, talent. Their primary message remains: ‘Who cares! Have a good time!’ 

Like Sandra Rider suggests, The Salmon Awards got a reputation in the underground counterculture that it was a rollicking party not to be missed. After swimming upstream all year, these girls were ready to SPAWN! But it was also a performance-art kind of event where the recipients of the awards were moved, touched, and/or truly honored. Jan Edwards, one of our costumers commented: “It was the first and only awards I’ve ever received in my life for anything.”

Of course, Les Nickelettes always kicked off the show with the signature song and dance routine: “Come to the Salmon Awards”: 

What good is sitting at home on your ass

Playing with yourself all day

Go play with someone else just once

Come to the Salmon Awards

…The Nicks have been around for about 10 years

And lots of times it’s been only doubts and fears,

But mostly all this weirdness gets us high.

Though there are times we hate each other,

The audience is filled with zombies,

The critics think we stink,

And we wonder why?

Through are hands the money isn’t flowing

In spite of that, something keeps us crowing.

Are we just building swimming pools in the sky?

Or were our friends right from the start,

Could it be that this is art?

Start by admitting from cradle to tomb

Virtue is its own reward.

You’ve been wasting time my friends

Life isn’t worth a dime my friends

‘Till you’ve won a Salmon Award.

The audience reacted with raucous shouts of “Spawn!”

Over the years, interspersed between the presentation of awards, Les Nickelettes brought in well-known, and up-and-coming acts from our counterculture tribe to perform at the event.  Paul Krassner (publisher of the satirical rag The Realist) performed his stand-up comedy routine, The Fabulous Frambesi Sisters (Nickelette Priscilla and her gay friend in drag) did a parody of ‘40s female duets, Sharon McNight debuted her cabaret chanteuse act. Scrumbly Koldwyn (from The Cockettes) brought his new group The Distractions who were a huge hit with their eclectic eight-part harmony and twisted take on reality, not to mention a bit featuring Nickelette Jane Huether singing Stormy Weather in French); Ral Pheno (sometimes described as a Godfather of punk rock) pounded out on his guitar the demented tune I’m On the Ward Again from his Greatest Fits record; and Leila the Snake (Jane Dornacker) disguised as an demented bag lady sang Getting Rid of Your Baby, an irreverent satire on the sappy Paul Anka top 40 hit of the time, Having My Baby. There was also comedienne Carrie Snow, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre, and Sando Counts (aerialist from The Pickle Family Circus) who stole one show with a tightrope act that featured enlisting volunteers from the audience to anchor both ends of his huge rope. Later in the show Sando did a brilliant performance of a couple dancing a waltz to classical music. Except it wasn’t a couple, it was Sando in a masked suit and a cleverly devised marionette that was attached to Sando in a way that looked like a live dance partner.

We gave names to the awards that both parodied and described the intended recipient. Some of my favorites: The Tanya Hearst Memorial Journalist Award, The Louis B. Mayer Mogul Award, The Rocketfeller Space Cadet Achievement in Corporate Leadership Award, The Pat Nixon “Good Taste is Timeless” Award, The Larry Flynt Achievement in Publishing Award. And, The Martyr of the Year Award, which went to the Nickelette who whined loudest about how much she suffered for her art. I recall I won three times.

The annual Salmon Award event was our biggest fundraiser of each year. Once we got non-profit status (1976), we were able to augment ticket receipts with revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages. Members of the board of directors took on bartender duties, and hawked to thirsty patrons a potent concoction of vodka, rum, with just a dash of fruit punch, we dubbed: “Jungle Juice.”  The sign above the bar, featuring a fish merrily jumping up river, guaranteed that downing multiple glasses would lead to spectacular spawning. Revelers responded by emptying the punch bowl. For us, the additional revenue spawned deposits into the Nickelette coffer – all for the preservation of the species.

The audience came to participate in the annual Salmon Awards not just watch passively. And although it was a Les Nickelettes inside joke, the audience got to feel they were in on it.

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