The Ice Cream Blonde’s Last Sunday
It was a chilly December night in the Pacific Palisades when an intoxicated “Hot Toddy,” screen actress Thelma Todd, stumbled to her door after dismissing her driver, only to find herself locked out of her own home. Apparently her lover had had it with her drinking, and thought a night out in the cold might really sober her up. She had been out all night at a star-studded Hollywood party, thrown in her honor at the famous Trocadero nightclub. But as the party progressed, Todd quit drinking for fun and started drinking to forget after a spiteful fight with her ex-husband, Pasquale “Pat” De Ciccio. De Ciccio, with a new ingénue on his arm, left the party after placing a phone call, but Todd stayed on till the wee hours of Sunday morning. And that fated night of 1935 proved to be her last. Or was it?
Thelma Todd had come to Hollywood after winning a beauty contest in 1925, leaving behind a teaching career and a Miss Massachusetts title to become an actress. Known as “The Ice Cream Blonde,” Thelma got her big break doing slapstick comedies for Hal Roach. Todd proved that she could clown around with the best of them, making movies with the likes of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and The Marx Brothers. She made a total of 120 pictures in just less than 10 years, and was at the height of her fame when she met her untimely demise. Todd didn’t show up on the set of her latest Laurel and Hardy vehicle, The Bohemian Girl, Monday morning; after her house and haunts had been searched her body was found slumped over in the front seat of her Lincoln, the ignition still on, but the motor dead, and the garage door closed. The official decree was simply “death due to carbon monoxide poisoning,” but the stumped jury was unable to sort out a more specific verdict. Much like Marilyn Monroe’s greatly-debated death, it could have been suicide, murder, manslaughter, or just plain carelessness. There was no shortage of theories, some more fantastic than others, and the evidence was all contradictory.
Although the police proclaimed the death time was early Sunday morning, at least one witness claimed to have seen Thelma driving through town on Sunday afternoon, and another claimed to receive a phone call from Thelma that day. Was it a phone call from beyond the grave? A look alike hired to throw the cops off a murder trail? Did her business partner/lover, Roland West (acclaimed filmmaker and married man) end their ambiguous relationship in violence, angered by Thelma’s incessant boozing? Did her gangster ex-husband, De Ciccio, terminate their tumultuous relationship with something more final than divorce? Or was it, perhaps, a mob hit that had no more to do with De Ciccio than a phone call? Rumors about Lucky Luciano abounded, with many theorists claiming that he had decided to teach Todd a lesson after she refused to let him run a gambling racket in Joya’s, the speakeasy she had opened on the second floor of her home.
Some sources claim that there was an abundance of blood at the scene of the ‘crime,’ signs of a struggle on the scene, and signs of abuse on Todd’s body. Yet, other sources claim that none of these were present. What is certain is that Todd’s body was cremated after her highly-attended funeral, preventing another autopsy from ever happening. Although Todd’s attorney petitioned for a second inquest, with thought to lay the blame on Lucky Luciano, the District Attorney decided to close the case, leaving it one of Hollywood’s most mysterious unsolved fatalities.
Many of the details don’t add up, and the evidence points in all different directions. From what I’ve read in books and articles, the case for suicide seems the least likely. Accidental death, while wholly believable, is still awfully suspicious, depending on which set of ‘facts’ you’re considering. It seems probable that, if Roland West was to blame, it was the result of negligence and rash actions after a lover’s spat, rather than premeditated murder. It doesn’t take a very far stretch of the imagination to believe that Luciano had Todd rubbed out when she refused to cooperate (and again, depending on the source, there are accusations of an affair between the two, and also of him using amphetamines to control Todd). But I can’t seem shake the feeling that De Ciccio was really bad news; and, after all, he was the most intimately involved with Todd. Right hand man to Luciano, De Ciccio was purportedly a bootlegger and a pimp. Todd ended their marriage due to cruelty and incompatibility after two years of drunken brawls, and De Ciccio went on to swindle 17-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt into marrying him, only to divorce him on grounds of extreme cruelty. Just two years after Todd’s death, De Ciccio was implicated in the brutal beating, and death, of Ted Healy, original leader of The Three Stooges. But then again, maybe it was just a tragic accident…
Sadly, this cold case will most likely always remain a mystery, but the charismatic work of Thelma Todd will live on. And so will the stories of Todd’s ghostly visitations. The spirited comedienne’s spirit has been seen by many gliding down the steps outside her home and café/speakeasy-turned-religious-film-production-company. Others have been alarmed at the smell of exhaust fumes and the sound of a car running with the garage door closed, but upon closer inspection, they always find the ill-fated garage to be empty.
It’s All Hedy Lamarr’s Fault
By: Hella Goode
Anytime you text during a class, a conversation, a drive or take a picture of me with your phone or drunk dial me from your butt, thank Hedy Lamarr. Hedy Lamarr, known as the “Most Beautiful Woman in Films” was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria to Gertrud, a pianist and Emil, a bank manager. From early on, she turned heads so hard they ached.
She began her film career early at age 17. By 19 she had already done her first nude scene in the 1933 Austrian film Ecstasy, shaking up the still young film industry as she ran wet and naked through a field after a horse. Eyes opened in amazement at this green-eyed brunette’s stunning prowess and grace, including execs from MGM Studios who couldn’t wait to sign her on. Her first Hollywood film of many was called Algiers in 1938. She went on to star in films like John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat (1942), White Cargo (1942), Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Female Animal (1957) and shared the screen with the biggest names in the industry not excluding Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable.
Her personal life, however, was not as glamorous. In fact, Hedy once said “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Maybe Hedy was tired of pretending she was less than a genius. Maybe she was tired of losing husbands to their own inferiority complexes. Maybe she discovered she did not have to juggle everything and could choose what was more important to her. Really, it was her decision.
The decision to leave Hollywood and the stupid glamour behind allowed her to devote more time to her children, James (adopted with John Loder), Anthony and Denise (biological parent, with John Loder). She was hardly as successful in marriage, wedding and then unwedding five husbands: Fritz Mandl, Gene Markey, John Loder, Teddy Stauffer, W. Howard Lee, and Lewis J. Boies.
Despite her familial struggles, Hedy’s brilliance continued to shine. She always had a new invention up her sleeve. Her big bang came in 1942. Along with musician George Antheil, she patented something they called the ‘secret communication system,’ a technology which allowed users to change frequencies at will to keep enemies from intercepting messages. At wartime with the Nazis, this development was used to dodge torpedoes and keep intelligence secret. They may not even realize it, but the military and cell phone companies should be paying a little gratitude to Hedy Lamarr.
She wouldn’t be credited much with it during her lifetime, but Hedy would see what her original idea would grow into before her death on January 19, 2000, at her home in Orlando, Florida. And yes, next time a beautiful dark-haired girl catches your eye as she cuts you off in traffic and you notice she’s jabbering on the phone, you’ll remember Hedy Lamarr.
Herstory of the Merkin
By Hella Goode
If you thought the merkin was invented to make your lady-business sparkly, colorful or express your religious beliefs, you were wrong! The merkin has a recorded history dating back to at least the 1400’s when it had the less subtle title of ‘pubic wig,’ as documented in the Oxford Companion to the Body. But hey, weren’t we au natural until like the 1970’s? Wasn’t it was easy back then to hide in the bushes? Don’t tell me Lady Gaga is trying to take credit for this one after that curly bluish merkin she wore at the Much Music Awards in 2011!
This invention most likely goes back to the needs of the world’s oldest profession, prostitution. To put it delicately, beachcombers who had taken long strolls with ladies of the night often found themselves infested with a less succulent bucket full of crabs. The ladies suffered from this sickness of the surf and turf often enough that many of them began to shave it all off and then don a pubic wig for decency’s sake. These pubic wigs were often made from real hair, many times from the hair of the wearer to appear more genuine. Other times they were made from goat hair, horse hair, or hair recovered from corpses. The wigs could be boiled and cleaned to prevent re-infestation. Not so glamorous now, is it?
There was another common use for the merkin-to hide the fine print. Most STDs were untreatable back in the day, so afflicted prostitutes used merkins to cover up the signs of STDs which would prevent them from working.
The term merkin has a number of explanations, few of which are well-recorded enough to prove to be the true root of the word. Some tie the merkin to the term ‘malkin’ which at the time pubic wigs became a brothel fad, meant a woman of little class, or basically, trashy. Another clue comes about in the 18th century Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which defines a merkin as “counterfeit hair for the monosyllable.” Still others, refer back to similar terms that mean stormy. Incidentally, did you ever wonder why the term “beaver” is a nickname for a ladies’ vagina? You guessed- it goes back to England and the 18th century merkin- which were often made of beaver pelts.
Later as Hollywood began to blur the line of decency in more and more graphic sex scenes, the industry found that many actors and actresses were still not ready to bear all, thus the merkin was introduced during sex scenes to prevent junk from showing or in the case that they no longer have hair, conflicting with the hairiness of the era in which their character lived. Merkins have helped many films escape that pesky NC 17 or X rating. Many, many actors have worn them when doing frontal nudity, so the joke’s on us, apparently.
Dallas Burlesque Gal’s Claim to Fame
What Dallas burlesquer has a famous family history?? That would be our very own Appaloosa Red! And which of Hollywood’s elite was married into Miss Appaloosa’s family during Hollywood’s Golden Era? None other than The King of the screen, Clark Gable!! (Pause for squeals and sighs of jealousy.) Yes, that’s right- and she showed me the monogrammed linens and original photographs to prove it! I even saw photographs of little Miss Appaloosa in front of the couch that Clark slept on when he was in trouble for staying out chasing skirts!
Although Appaloosa was born too late to meet her in person, she’s always loved hearing stories about her great-grandmother, Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham Gable, the Houston, TX socialite who spent nearly a decade married to Mr. Gable. Auburn-haired ‘Ria’ was 5’2” and full of sophistication; she had perfectly smooth, creamy skin which wrinkles dared not cross- she swore till the day she died that her flawless face never had any surgical assistance. Ria always presented herself in an immaculate manner, had a flare for picking the perfect hat, and was known to chastise, “Dear, either you wear nail polish or you don’t!” if she caught you sporting a chipped paint job. Chic designers clamored to give her clothing and she, in turn, promoted what and whom she fancied.
When Ria and Clark met, and became involved, in 1929, he was estranged from his first wife, Josephine Dillon. Dillon was an acting coach 11 years his senior who had taught him how to act on the stage. But it was Ria who taught him how to act in polite society… and how to dress, even how to write a check! Of which it seems she wrote several on his behalf, fixing up those signature teeth and grooming young Gable for the career she believed he was destined for. The two took up with each other when Clark was new to New York, just another Broadway hopeful. A fellow actor, and family member of Ria’s, first took her backstage to meet the dashing man who would come to rule Hollywood. It didn’t take her long to fall madly in love with his good lucks, irresistible charm, and intoxicating masculinity. A double divorcee and one-time widower, Ria already had 3 children and a swell bankroll from her previous marriages. No doubt, she knew that the 17 year age gap between herself and Clark would one day cause problems, but she had already married a man who was her caretaker, and, as biographer Lyn Tornabene puts it, “at this stage in her life she needed to give, and she adored this moody, beautiful young man with whom, as she envisioned it, life could never be dull because it could never be easy.”
She couldn’t have been more right. Ria was a fabulous hostess and mingled with everyone who was anyone in Hollywood, manicuring Clark’s social circle and standing, while Clark preferred blue collar company. Tornabene wrote, in Long Live the King, “Clark didn’t mingle with big shots at the studio, and didn’t see why he should at home. At work he was happiest with underdogs, not only in the early thirties when he identified with them, but throughout his career.” But social sets aside, it seems that life with Clark was never easy for anyone, even the ones he loved the most; he was a passionate man in every aspect, given to brooding, and frequently indulging in affairs. His magnetic appeal drew women in, and he didn’t like turning them away.
Gable began his long-term, on-again-off-again affair with Joan Crawford during this time, but Ria took it in stride. She said, “I was smart- had her over for breakfast, lunch, and dinner- till they were sick of each other!” It was also during his marriage to Ria that Clark sired his ‘secret daughter,’ Judy Lewis, while having a dalliance with co-star, Loretta Young. Although it was a well-known secret in Hollywood, Miss Young hid their daughter away in orphanages and other homes for the first year and a half of her life, after which Young ‘adopted’ the girl. Judy’s resemblance to Clark was so pronounced that Miss Young even had the child’s ears surgically pinned back when the girl was just 7 years old. (Incidentally, Miss Lewis eventually became an actress herself.) While Clark was not involved in the life of his doppelganger daughter, he did share what little time he had free with Ria’s daughter, Jana, and son, Al. Jana was his
secretary and fielded all of his fan mail, while Al accompanied Clark to ballgames and picnics. Clark was a father figure to Al, whose own had father passed away while Al was still a toddler, and more of a protective older brother to Jana- although he did walk her down the aisle. But, sadly, when the marriage ended, so did Clark’s relationship with Ria’s children.
The last affair, with screen star Carole Lombard, prompted a divorce at last, in 1939. Ria demanded a large settlement as she had supported Clark and paved his way to fame; as she said, “It’s only fair. I gave him a good many years of my life and taught him a great deal.” So, MGM made the divorce possible by giving Clark a princely advance on his contract to secure him for the part of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, and preserve their big star’s reputation. Three and a half weeks after the divorce was granted, Gable and Lombard were married, making one of Hollywood’s legendary love affairs legal at last…but that’s another story.
Ria maintained her dignity as always, and often said, “Clark never did anything to embarrass me. Our marriage was one of mutual respect.” She dated actor George Raft for a time, but left Hollywood for Houston a few years after the divorce. She never married again, and remained Mrs. Gable to Houstonians until her death in 1966, 6 years after Clark’s. The scrapbook in which she continued to paste all of Gable’s press clippings remains in Appaloosa’s family, and Maria Franklin Gable rests in peace at the illustrious Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, TX.
A self-made woman, ‘Texas’ Guinan created a mythology around herself, much like Mae West or The Great Ziegfeld. It’s hard to tell how much of her autobiographical storytelling is based in truth; as Tex said herself, “Exaggerate the world!” What is definitely true is that Texas Guinan was a character, a cowgirl, a silent film actress, a syndicated newspaper columnist, ‘Queen of the Nightclubs’ during Prohibition, and a natural-born hustler.
Tex was born in Waco, Texas in 1884, and given the name Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan. Raised with the social grace of the Victorians, she still turned out to be a tomboy and a troublemaker at her Catholic school. Tex was a full-blooded Irish and a force to be reckoned with; it seems that she most always did exactly as she pleased, and what pleased her most was adventure. She told tales of joining the circus as a young girl and, being an excellent trick rider, they may have been true. Her skills as a horsewoman certainly served her well in tinsel town.
After spending some time as a socialite in Denver and two years married in Chicago, Guinan took off for New York City to make a career for herself. Her big personality and quick wit made her a vaudeville star in no time. Then, during WWI, she toured France, entertaining the troops, after which she relocated to Los Angeles to make a name for herself in the movies. Eschewing the traditional female dichotomy of roles (damsel in distress or femme fatale) she brought her own boisterous character onto the big screen, and made two-reel westerns where she was a heroine and rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl, but also a romantic.
After years of a successful film career, and less successful production company, Tex tired of the cinema life and returned to the lights of Broadway. With Prohibition now monitoring the city’s night life, it didn’t take Tex long to find a new niche. What began as merely outings for her and her showbiz friends, evolved into a hostessing position, and before long, she had a partnership with a bootlegger in her own nightclub. In fact, she played a big part in the development of the modern nightclub. With a $6 cover charge and $1.50 drinks (in the 1920, mind you), it’s no wonder Tex coined her infamous phrase, “Hello Suckers!” Although Tex herself was never a drinker, she could spot a good business opportunity, and put Prohibition to work lining her pockets. A brassy blonde with a big heart and a big mouth, the customers warmed up to her easily, and she was quick to learn every patron’s name. She said, “A nightclub hostess – if she is successful – should make people forget they have homes. This proves the old theory that an indiscretion a day will keep depression away.” Tex’s easy banter even turned police raids into just another dog and pony show. The frequent raids and closing of clubs also spurred her to produce a Broadway show, Padlocks of 1927.
But she couldn’t’ keep the cops at bay forever – in 1928 she was jailed as part of the biggest nightclub raid in New York history, and was charged with being a public nuisance. However, a couple of the arresting officers had been frequenting the club, on the taxpayers’ dime (doing undercover work, of course) and the charges against Tex were dropped. Soon after, she filmed Queen of the Nightclubs, cementing her status as a Prohibition legend. She later stated, “I have been credited with much and charged with plenty…Whenever they have a new law they try it out on me.”
Although she passed away in 1933, just one month before the repeal of Prohibition, she was known to say, “They will have to padlock my coffin if they expect to keep me in it.”
Highlighting the Burlesque Oral History Project:
An Interview with Elsa Sjunneson
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
We’ve told you a little bit about the Burlesque Oral History Project before, but now we’d like to tell you more – and appeal to this fabulous community for some much-needed assistance. Founded by Dr. Lukki, the Burlesque Oral History Project endeavors to preserve the history of burlesque by gathering and archiving memories of yesteryear from the remarkable ladies (and gents) that lived it. There is a great deal of work to be done and, as you can imagine, very little resources with which to do it. Therefore, it is my pleasure to introduce to our readers the woman who is taking on the task, burlesque historian Elsa Sjunneson. I had the pleasure of meeting Elsa last year in Las Vegas at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Reunion, when I volunteered for the Burlesque Oral History Project. A performer herself (Lydia Ransom), she is the daughter of world-famous Paula the Swedish Housewife, and has grown up in the world of glitter and garters. Elsa graduated from Sarah Lawrence with a Master’s degree in Women’s History, and wrote her thesis on burlesque and censorship – she is a personal hero of mine.
Elsa, won’t you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your research, and your passion for burlesque history? Also, what is your role with the project?
I am a historian working for the Oral History Project. Right now I organize all the interviews, I interview legends, and I make sure that the legends are comfortable with volunteers if volunteers are being used. And after the BHOF season ends, I’ll be editing interviews, and making them into useful documents. I love what I do because this community is family to me, and as a historian who came out of that family, I feel a deep obligation to directly participate in the documentation of our history. Art history, specifically the history of art made by women, has been systematically ignored or put down, and it is a goal of mine to be able to continue to push forward the history of burlesque, and of women doing burlesque in particular, to the minds of other historians.
What are the most pressing goals of the Burlesque Oral History Project at this point?
Right now I really need to get transcriptions happening. The thing is, when you take an interview with a tiny microphone, there has to be a transcript so that future scholars can actually utilize the information. If (knock on wood it doesn’t) the audio dies and we no longer have the original audio file, we’d still have the transcription to create our archive, and to tell our story.
What work is there to be done and how can we help?
If you find a new legend, tell us about it. If you find a new Legend who REALLY wants to talk to us? Seriously. Tell us about it. The more people we interview, the fuller picture that we can paint of our history. Furthermore, if you have old audio equipment, or old video equipment, that you’d like to donate to the program, we really need better equipment than we have. This is a project, again, for after BHOF.
Would you please share some rewarding moments with us from your experience working with the Burlesque Oral History Project?
It depends on what you mean by rewarding. I’ve heard stories in interviews that made my skin crawl, and it was rewarding because I felt like I was getting the true story, and not just the sparkly story. I’ve also had rewarding moments like this one, knowing that there are people in the community who ARE interested in hearing about this work and how to get involved.
After the interviewing, transcribing, filming, etc. has been done, what will happen to all the material that you’ve gathered? Will it be available to the public as well as archived?
We’re still in the process, but it is my hope that the community will be able to access documents online. The notion of an archive for an international community that doesn’t utilize the internet makes little sense. There might be a fee in order to keep the archive and the museum going. Until I have transcription done, I can’t really begin to know what the archive will look like.
How do you hope to see the program grow in the upcoming years?
I’d like to create an oral history corps. Essentially, you – the reader – can join the oral history corps and take interviews too. The way it would work is that I would present workshops at BurlyCon, BHOF, maybe other cities and programs, and I would train people in basic oral history interview tactics so that we could take more interviews from legends. I’m not ever going to be able to fly from one city to the next just to take interviews, but I CAN create a system by which we’re able to gather more interviews through education and training.
Is there a website or blog where we can follow the progress being made by the Burlesque Oral History Project?
We’ll likely make posts about things through the BHOF blog.
I believe in telling other people’s stories. By gathering stories, we create a vibrant and real history for ourselves. I’m really honored that I get to work with the Legends so closely, and that I have the opportunity for 4 days out of the year to really work as a historian. The rest of the time, I’m doing some historical work and a lot of other stuff, but for four days every year, I really get to do what I set out to with my MA. THAT is what’s rewarding to me.
If you have information to share about a Legend, please contact Elsa at: email@example.com
Thanks to Miss Mina Murray, Headmistress of the Boston Academy of Burlesque Education, we found out about an amazing burlesque costume exhibit going on now in Boston! We’ve got all the info from her right here, and even if you can’t make it to Boston to see it for yourself, she’s provided some lovely photographs so that our readers can enjoy the exhibit right here on the pages of Pin Curl!
Interview by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
How did this exhibit come about?
Since 2008, there’s been a costume exhibit at The Great Burlesque Exposition. Scratch, the conference organizer, is always on the look-out for ways to educate the mainstream populace about burlesque and to promote burlesque to the general public.
In 2010, plans were made to open a small, permanent museum dedicated to Boston’s West End, a neighborhood which was destroyed as part of a massive urban renewal program in the early 1960s. The West End included Scollay Square, which was the center of burlesque in the city and home to several theatres, nightclubs, supper clubs, and hotels popular with burlesque performers.
Scratch reached out to the museum about hosting an expanded, and more Boston-centric, version of the exhibit from The Great Burlesque Exposition after the Expo closed. The executive director is a big fan of burlesque and it just took a little while to get approval from their board of directors, arrange the loan of the costumes, and – of course – raise the money to mount the exhibit.
Start with the library and the local historical society. Check in with your chamber of commerce. If there are organizations dedicated to historical preservation, especially of old theaters, reach out to them. If there’s a local university or college, see what they have in their collections. If you’re lucky enough to have someone who performed locally back in the day, by all means, talk to them.
We were lucky in Boston. There are a couple of noteworthy burlesque performers associated with the city. One of them is still alive, and living in Florida; the other one has a niece who is a friend of Scratch’s. Boston was also the home of Jess Mack, who was a major producer and promoter, and his papers and effects were left to a library in Las Vegas.
Is there anything that you would like to add about the exhibit?
The exhibit would not have been possible without a lot of help: first, all the groundwork done by Scratch. He came up with the idea, negotiated with the museum, did the initial contact with the costume owners, and very importantly, acquired all the mannequins we needed.
Betty Sioux Tailor, a burlesque performer and costumer from Rhode Island, not only curated the exhibit at The Great Burlesque Exposotion, but loaned her artist’s eye and MacGyver-like jury-rigging expertise to setting up the museum exhibit. We needed a special mannequin to accommodate the tiny corseted waist on Dita’s costume and Betty Sioux built one!
There was a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for things like insuring the costumes and shipping them (not to mention all those mannequins). We had a lot of support, but I’d like to single out The Burlesque Hall of Fame, Miss Kitty Baby, and Lee & Susan Weiner for their particularly generous donations.
The core of the exhibit was the costumes:
l There is no burlesque performer more tied to Boston than Ann Corio, the Queen of the Old Howard. We were fortunate that a number of costumes that Miss Corio wore in her burlesque revival show, This Was Burlesque (which had its try-outs in Boston before opening in New York) still survive. Those half dozen costumes became the centerpiece of the exhibit.
l Boston native Lily Ann Rose began performing in burlesque as a teenager just after WWII. She started as a chorus girl at The Casino in Scollay Square and soon became the protegee of Sally Keith, Queen of the Tassels, at the Crawford House. After her retirement and marriage, she kept her career a secret from her family for more than 40 years. She has just one costume left from those days and we’re so pleased to be able to display it.
l We were also extremely fortunate that Dita Von Teese was willing to lend one of her amazing costumes. Although the costume stands on its own merits, Dita has some ties to the Boston area. She was a performer and Mistress of Ceremonies at the annual B & D Ball, held at the now vanished Goth nightclub ManRay (like the burlesque theatres of old, a victim of urban renewal).
l Miss Exotic World 2008, Angie Pontani is not only an amazing performer, she’s also a talented costumer in her own right. She provided the costume she made and wore for her farewell performance at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in 2009. The costume is lovely on a mannequin, but it should be seen in action to really be appreciated.
l April March, The First Lady of Burlesque, loaned an entire costume set which was made for her by designer Simon Sorr. It consists of a robe, gown, bra, garter belt, panties & g-string. This costume is paired with a reproduction that I made myself for the first tribute act to April March. There’s more information about the costume on my website: http://minamurray.com/tribute.cfm
Besides the costumes we are also displaying some burlesque ephemera that comes from the personal collection I share with Scratch. We have a lot of This Was Burlesque memorabilia: programs, souvenir pictures, the book Ann Corio wrote, and the “How to Strip for Your Husband” record. Even more precious are the items from the Old Howard: some fragile programs and a couple of rare photographs of show in progress.
Just a few blocks from The West End Museum, at the Government Center train station is a bronze plaque which marks the site of The Howard Athenaeum, called “The Old Howard,” Boston’s premier burlesque palace. It is all that remains of Boston’s scandalous Scollay Square. Boston was home to Jess Mack, a comedian turned powerful burlesque producer, and was the seat of The Eastern Burlesque Circuit, a multi-state conglomeration of burlesque theatres run by Frank Bryan and Frank Engels. In1956, Bryan-Engels signed a 10-year contract with Tempest Storm for $100,000.00 per year, making her one of the highest paid women in America in any profession.
The days of six-figure salaries for burlesque performers are gone, but Boston remains an influential city in the world of burlesque. In 2000, The Burlesque Revival Association was founded in Boston and, while it didn’t last long, it helped pave the way for the other burlesque performers and troupes that followed after. Today, Boston is home to several venues that include burlesque alongside bands, plays, and D.J.s.: Oberon in Harvard Square; The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline; and The Davis Square Theatre in Somerville have all hosted burlesque events in the past year.
Boston plays host to many burlesque troupes and performers. The leading troupe, The Boston Babydolls, are perennial features on “Best Of…” lists, and produce large theatricals and a monthly revue. Two major annual events call the Boston area home: The Great Burlesque Exposition,which takes place each spring in Cambridge, and The Boston Burlesque Marathon,an overnight showcase of 100 performances each November in Brookline.
And what about Miss Mina herself?
I’m one of the founders of The Boston Babydolls Burlesque Troupe and Headmistress of The Boston Academy of Burlesque Education (B.A.B.E.). I’m a dedicated scholar of burlesque history and collector of memorabilia. I blog about my experiences in burlesque at missminamurray.wordpress.com. Before I got involved in burlesque I received a Master’s degree in archaeology from Brown and a Certificate in Museum Studies at Harvard. I’m also an award-winning costumer and was an embroiderer on a recreation of a 17th century lady’s jacket at Plimoth Plantation (how’s that for eclectic?). Museum work has always been a dream of mine, and this exhibit – combining my passions for burlesque, costuming, and history – was a perfect fit … so to speak!
The Lowbrow Lowdown
By: Femme Vivre LaRouge
This month I’ve decided to make it a double feature…and the theme is the roaring twenties!
First up for film is 1927’s It, the movie that made Clara Bow the very first ‘It Girl,’ and Hollywood’s first mass-marketed sex symbol. So, what is ‘It?’ As Elinor Glyn (whose novelette the film was modeled after) defined it, “‘It’ is self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold.” Basically, ‘It’ is animal magnetism. While I see the merit in silent films, they usually don’t hold my attention, but Clara Bow’s charisma, vivid facial expressions, excellent comedic timing, and dynamic screen presence is just entrancing. Bow appeared in 46 silent films and, although she was one of the few to successfully make the transition to talkies, she preferred the action-oriented silents, which better suited her spunky character and spontaneous acting style (extra cameramen were usually set up for her scenes to catch her unpredictable actions). In 1931 she walked away from the film business; however, during her time as a Hollywood starlet, she was the subject of many a scandal, some probably true and many more likely not. (For more info on Bow, try Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn.) Also, rumor has it that the character of Peppy Miller in recent Academy award nominee, The Artist, was largely inspired by Miss Bow, as was cartoon favorite, Betty Boop.
Next up for film is the modern-made, The Cat’s Meow, released in 2001 and set in 1924. Although embellished, the story is based on a fated night aboard newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. Kirsten Dunst is charming as Marion Davies, Ziegfeld girl, silver screen actress, and long-time mistress to Hearst, and Eddie Izzard plays Charlie Chaplin (no introduction needed). Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat’s Meow stages one of the jazz age’s most famous Hollywood legends. The gist of the story is that Hearst, although married himself, jealously guarded Davies, and suspected her of carrying on with Chaplin behind his back, prompting him to shoot a man he mistook for Chaplin, in a fit of rage. However, the man turned out to be producer Thomas Ince, who died the following day, although the official record states that his death was due to a heart condition, which followed an attack of acute indigestion. Hearst was never charged, but the story lived in infamy as another of Hollywood’s great scandals. Regardless of whether or not Ince was really shot aboard the yacht, the film is an admirable piece of work.
This month’s literary adventure also involves murder, and even an appearance by William Randolph Hearst, but in this case it’s girl gunners, and they definitely did some time. Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells the story of the real murderesses that the musical, Chicago, was based on. This non-fiction book reads like a novel, with titillating new details at the turn of every page. The book chronicles the lurid details of each girl’s crime and trial, the all- male juries’ reluctance to condemn a woman (especially if she was young and attractive) to the same sentence a man would receive, and the ingenious ways that lawyers, the media, and the women themselves played on that weakness.
It amazed me to find how much of the musical was actually based in truth, or at least the same version of the truth that the media was selling at the time it was all happening. This 1924 spree of shootings by women, targeted at their husbands or lovers, unsettled a society already in the midst of the upheaval of traditional gender roles. Furthermore, it illustrated the trend of treating criminals with the utmost célébrité. The play was written by Maurine Watkins, herself an unusual character and one of the first women to break into the field of crime reporting, and it is her dramatized account of women she actually interviewed. Aside from immense Broadway popularity, there have been no less than four film versions of the show since 1927, the most recent winning the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture.
This month for music we have 1920s singer/actress, Helen Kane, the original ‘Boop Oop a Doop’ Girl. It should come as no surprise that Kane was also influential in the creation of the Betty Boop character (who, by the way, was originally drawn as a canine before she morphed into a cute girl with big hoop earrings, if you’ve ever wondered why her head has such a strange shape). In fact, Kane sued Paramount over it in 1932, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the cartoons. After all, Kane’s signature song, I Wanna be Loved by You, also became Boop’s signature song. Beginning on the vaudeville circuit and working her way through Broadway and Hollywood, Helen Kane was a cult sensation, spurning numerous look alike contests. She recorded 22 songs in 2 years, delighting fans with her bubbly, coy voice and blending of popular music styles.
For a modern chanteuse without the hiccuping and scat of Helen Kane, I recommend giving Janet Klein a listen. I absolutely adore her work, which so far includes six albums. Not only is she cute as a button and a fine ukulele player, but she is diligently working to preserve a portion of American popular culture that has been shunted aside. As Klein has stated, she sings “obscure, lovely, and naughty songs from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s.” Her backing band, The Parlor Boys, range from 6-12 musicians at any given time, and the group travels a great deal, performing at historical movie palaces and venues and doing extensive tours in Japan. A poet, visual artist, and collector of vintage sheet music, Klein is dedicated to maintaining the authentic integrity of the songs she covers. When asked in an interview with ‘Jazz Not Jazz,’ “Why do you want to recreate times gone by? And where do you see the relevance of this era for us today?” she answered beautifully with the following: “It is interesting that people ask this question. I wonder if historians are asked why they write books about the past or if they ask conductors why they put on concerts of classical music. For me, if there is such a thing as “progress” for societies, it seems that it has to include looking back as well as moving forward…and that it has to entail learning from and reflecting upon the past…and if we are smart, we’ll hang on to the good stuff and drag it with us into the future. The songs we do were not written so long ago, mostly written in America, yet they seem like music from a lost planet. There’s a familiarity and a strangeness that suggests something missing today.” For more information about the lovely songstress and archivist, visit her website at: JanetKlein.com
On to art of the visual variety- this month I’m highlighting famous pinup painter, Alberto Vargas. Vargas created show posters for The Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood, pinups for Esquire, and was one of the most copied artists for WWII nose art. Hugh Hefner has written that the tantalizing cartoons and paintings Vargas did for Esquire nearly lost the magazine their USPS mailing permit, ending in a Supreme Court case and the decision to discontinue the use of Vargas’ artwork. Later, Playboy began to print the artist’s famous ‘Vargas Girls.’ A remarkable portraitist, Vargas excelled in watercolor, which was his most used medium. In 2003, a Christie’s auction resulted in the sale of one Vargas painting, Trick or Treat, for $71,600! In 1930, he married Ziegfeld girl, Anna Mae Clift, and remained true to her until her death in 1974, after which he abandoned painting. For the duration of their relationship, she was his model, manager, and muse. A lovely resource for his work is Alberto Vargas: Works from the Max Vargas Collection by Reid Stewart Austin, with a foreword by Hugh Hefner.
My last recommendation for this month is Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, at the Dallas Museum of Art, opening to the public on March fourth and continuing through most of May. The multi-medium exhibition is touring the nation, originating from the Brooklyn Museum. It is described as “the first wide-ranging examination of American fine art from the end of World War I through the start of the Great Depression” and “will demonstrate how American artists of the period embraced a progressive, idealized realism visible in a resurgence of figuration and in highly distilled images of American places and things.” I hope to see you there!
The Legendary Life of Doris Eaton Travis
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
Few of us are lucky enough to enjoy either the longevity or the fullness of life that Doris Eaton did. Born March 14, 1904, Doris witnessed almost all of the amazing twentieth century, as well as the unfolding of the twenty-first. In 2010, shortly before she passed away, Doris received her final standing ovation in the New Amsterdam Theatre, as the last living Ziegfeld girl.
At 14, Doris was the youngest girl to perform in The Follies, and she was the last dancing too, performing annually at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids “Easter Bonnet Competition” for a dozen years preceding her death. Young Doris was dancing in The Follies when fellow Ziegfeld girl, Gilda Gray, first popularized the shimmy. Along with her siblings, she was making films in Hollywood when John Wayne was just a prop boy and Alfred Hitchcock was still writing title cards for silent pictures. During the twenties, Jack and Sam Warner, her upstairs neighbors, regularly came down to mingle with the show crowd gathered there, in hopes of starting their own studio. Other regulars at the Eaton household included Fred Astaire and Charles Lindbergh, with George Gershwin on the piano. In 1929, Nacio Herb Brown wrote a little ditty called ‘Singin’ in the Rain” for her, which she debuted at the Hollywood Music Box Revue. She rode in an airplane less than twenty years after the first successful flight, lived through Prohibiton and two world wars, and witnessed the nineteenth amendment, giving women the right to vote. Doris Eaton was named just weeks before Times Square was given its name, and Doris was there, dancing in the square, for its centennial celebration.
When Doris was just a child, her eldest sister, Evelyn, used to direct the younger children in backyard productions, which led to five of the seven Eaton children working in showbiz at some time or another. Doris’ career began at age seven with a role in the Nobel-winning novel-turned-play, “The Bluebird.” The fantastic Eatons performed regularly at Zefferino Poli’s Washington, DC theatre, where President Woodrow Wilson was often in attendance. After doing the touring circuit, the Eatons wound up in New York City, taking with them a young Volga Hayworth, who didn’t make a very big splash in showbiz, although her daughter, Rita, certainly did!
For seven years straight at least one of the charistmatic Eaton children was performing in The Follies. One of them, Pearl, aided with Follies choreography and became Broadway’s first female stage manager. Pearl was a regualar in The Frolics, as well as Earl Carroll’s Vanities and George White’s Scandals, and RKO’s dance director for a time. Another sister, Mary, became The Follies’ prima ballerina, wowing audiences with her intricate sequence of impeccable pirouettes. Mary, along with Doris and their brother Charlie, also experienced success in Hollywood. After Mary and Doris tied in a seven-state beauty contest, Doris gave the follwing beauty advice: “Don’t hire a taxicab when you can afford to walk.” When Doris first appeared in The Follies, by law, children under the age of 16 were not allowed to perform in musical comedy, so she took the name Doris Levant and the following year, Lucille Levant. By her third year in The Follies, she was finally 16 and was promoted to ‘specialty dancer,’ under her own name. It was during this time that Doris met Babe Ruth (who, incidentally, married another Follies girl) and had her very own baseball signed by him on a publicity assignment. Showbusiness was booming for the Eatons.
Then came the Great Depression and the Eatons’ careers were cut short. Doris eventually found steady work in 1936 as a dance instructor at the original Arthur Murray dance studio. She enjoyed a long, successful career with Arthur Murray, opening the first new branch of the studio, in Detroit. At one time there were nearly 300 Arthur Murray dance studios, 18 of which belonged to Doris. The studio brilliantly marketed their classes with a dance-for-health campaign, and social dancing was at peak popularity. Doris wrote a weekly newspaper column, On Your Toes, which was full of dance advice along with delightful illustrations, and hosted her own television show, for seven years.
Both of Doris’ younger brothers came to work with her at the studios and in 1950, at Charlie’s suggestion, the school began to host dance getaways in Havana. These dance vacations were enchanting trips to paradise that brought the attendance of celebrities such as Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, that party ended in 1959 when Fidel Castro took Havana. Of course, in the sixties everything was changing and, as couples’ dancing declined in popularity, the Arthur Murray empire began to lose money. Doris had no choice but to sell each of her branches in the late sixties. Those years, sharing her love and knowledge of dance with so many, were precious to Doris. As quoted in Lauren Redniss’ biography, Century Girl, Doris said, “When I see a woman moving over the ballroom floor in grace…precision…feeling…tasting the joy of movement…creating a segue of pattern pictures, all coordinated to a rhythm…then I know this person is at one with the universe – at one with God.”
Doris met Paul H. Travis when he was taking a dance course with her and after 8 years of courtship, they wed. Doris was 45 at the time and, although she had married producer Joe Gorham at the age of 18, he unfortunately died of a heart attack less than a year later. Despite an 11 year relationship with Herb Brown, Doris did not remarry until she fell in love with Paul, and she never had any children. The couple raised racehorses instead, moving to a ranch in Norman, Oklahoma in 1969. Then in 1980, Doris decided it was high time she gave herself the education she had missed during her busy youth. After obtaining her G.E.D., Doris attended the University of Oklahoma, graduating cum laude at age 88. Later, upon her one hundredth birthday, Oakland University granted her an honorary Doctorate of Humanities. For her speech at the commencement ceremony, she sang a number, “Ballin’ the Jack,” from the 1913 Follies, much to the delight of all the graduates.
By this point in time Doris had already made her stage comeback at The Amsterdam, beginning with the newly renovated theatre’s opening gala in 1997. The event brought together the last five Follies gals, of which Doris was the only one still able to perform. At age 94 she repeated her performance from 1919’s Follies and kept returning each year to perform, while all the other Ziegfeld girls passed on. Doris did numerous interviews and documentaries and even made a cinema comeback with a cameo role in 1999’s Man on the Moon. Doris celebrated her centennial birthday on Broadway, with an enormous pink cake that was taller than she. As Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids said of Doris, “no matter her age, when the stage lights hit Doris she was instantly and forever young.” Without any medications or help from doctors, Doris kept on dancing and didn’t stop until she was 106.
For further reading on the wonderful Doris Eaton Thomas and her marvelous life, I highly recommend Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies by Lauren Redniss. I was delighted to find that Doris also wrote an autobiography, The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family from Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. For charming photos and footage of her performances with Broadway Cares, see: http://www.broadwaycares.org
Bombshell: Pin-Up and Nose Art of WWII
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
While art has always adored the feminine form, the pin-up made her true debut in the 1900s both in the U.S. and Europe. Ushered in by exoticism, flappers, the French postcard, Ziegfeld, and the Gibson girl (America’s first centerfold), the pin-up really came into her own mid-century. The embodiment of life, love, joy, and vitality, the all-American pin-up girl is both alluring and comforting. By WWII, pin-up art had become mainstream, and came to adorn numerous magazines, dime novel covers, advertisements, promotional products, and, of course, calendars. But her most important post was bolstering morale in the war effort, when flesh-and-blood pin-ups joined the ranks of the painted. The advent of ‘nose art’ also made pin-ups larger than life, reminding soldiers of what they were fighting for.
Combat troops, composed mostly of single young men, leaving the strictures of their home society for the first time, and faced with death on a near-daily basis, deserved whatever support a well-turned leg or well-endowed bust could give them. Although most nose art was never really sanctioned by any commanding officer, social restrictions concerning a girl’s state of undress were considerably relaxed during wartime. After all, if a fella is risking his life for his country, doesn’t he deserve a good view of that country’s bounty? Naturally, the further from the states a gent was stationed, the more risqué his plane’s mascot could be. Censorship was generally only an issue when an aircraft was paraded on the home front, and some rebellious crews still chose to paint ‘Censored’ on their ladies rather than clothes.
Although not all nose art depicted pin-ups, it all gave its crew a much-needed icon and identity. As Phil Cohan wrote in his article, “Risque Business,” on the subject of nose art, “At its best, the art is the crew’s expression of self-pride, a release from the anonymity and uniformity of military life, and an antidote to the dehumanization of war.” The great importance of this very impermanent artform is not only that it gave servicemen something more personal to be a part of, but also that it is a marker with which to identify the past and both the missions that made it, and those that didn’t.
The artists creating these works had to make do with very limited resources and, for the most part, were not professionals. They were very creative with their available materials and, if they were paid at all, it was usually in goods or alcohol. Regardless of the work’s quality, though, the most important thing was that it gave the vessel a personality, much in the same way of a captain naming his ship.
Many men were also able to find security in linking the personage of someone well-known in the public eye to their machines, such as Rita Hayworth. Hayworth’s famous pin-up photo from Life magazine’s August 1941 spread earned her the title of U.S. Navy’s “Red-Head we would Most Like to be Ship-Wrecked with.” According to legend, photographer Bob Landry had a happy accident when a flashbulb failed to go off, creating a sensous shadow around Rita’s phenomenal figure.
The image of ‘The Love Goddess,’ which was reproduced more times than any other star’s photo in Life magazine, was even pasted on the first test atomic bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll. Although this knowledge, understandably, weighed heavily on Rita, she said, “I’m proud of that photo. Not just because the servicemen told me I looked good, but because of what the photo meant to so many of them: a link with home.”
Rita did a great deal more than just pose for the war effort; she was regularly seen helping out in the Hollywood Canteen after a long day’s filming, and worked with the Naval Aid Auxiliary. Hayworth performed on radio shows and USO shows, signed autographs for soldiers until ‘Hollywood’s most beautiful hands’ must have been tired to the bone, and was even known to give out locks of her hair to some lucky soldiers who had the gumption to ask. American GIs called their war bond-selling darling the “Number One Glamour Back Home Girl.”
In fact, the only pin-up more popular than Rita Hayworth was fellow actress, Betty Grable. After releasing a 1942 promotional photo of Miss Grable for Twentieth Century Fox’s upcoming film Pin-Up Girl, the studio began receiving over 20,000 letters a week from servicemen, all requesting her photo. By the end of the war, 1 in 5 military men owned the iconic photograph, taken by Frank Powolny. Betty Grable was considered to be the ‘Pin-Up Queen of WWII,’ and the infamous photo was included in Life magazine’s ‘100 Photos that Changed the War.’ Life magazine noted that, “It was more than the sexy picture that enamored them of her; there was a magical wholesomeness and substance they saw beyond the curves of her figure. It was her very essence that was loved.”
Like Evelyn ’$50,000 Treasure Chest’ West and Tempest Storm, Betty Grable had what she considered her best assets insured with Lloyd’s of London, but for her this translated to ‘Million Dollar Legs.’ With measurements of 18.5” thigh, 12”calf, and 7.5” ankle, hosiery specialists and Hollywood alike touted her legs as the most beautiful and ideal. Rumor has it that a young serviceman by the name of Hugh Hefner even considered her iconic pin-up pose to be his primary inspiration for founding Playboy.
To all the men and women who have served, and those who have done their best to serve those serving, Thank You.