Editors note: When Femme came up with the idea to do an article on burlesque arrests, I thought it was fabulous. When she came back and said there were just too damn many for one article, I thought- even better! What better way to kick off a new monthly series than with the delicious Mae West & the legendary Sally Rand.
Burlesque Arrests: Sally Rand & Mae West
By: Femme Vivre LaRouge
Burlesque house raids are as infamous as those of speakeasies during prohibition, sometimes being one and the same. As performers pushed the envelope further and further, policing agencies and government lobbyists went tit for tat trying to pass new laws of censorship and to enforce a moral code. Many a famous burlesque performer has come under the scrutiny of the law; here we shall spotlight fan dancing pioneer, Sally Rand, and 20th century sex icon, Mae West.
Born Harriet Helen Gould Beck, Sally Rand was a teenage runaway, circus performer, cigarette girl, model, dancer, stage actress, and silent film star before she ever picked up a pair of ostrich feather fans. In 1933, at the Chicago World’s Fair, she not only wielded her fans wearing nothing but Max Factor body paint, but also appeared as Lady Godiva, riding a white horse, apparently nude. Thus began her arrest record, with a total of four arrests in a single day! Though Rand was charged with lewd conduct, Superior Court Judge Joseph B. David dismissed the case, noting that, “Some people would want to put pants on a horse…if a woman wiggles about with a fan, it is not the business of this court.” The incident’s publicity made her a burlesque sensation, her weekly pay escalating from $125 to $3,000 in a single summer. Never actually baring quite all, Sally Rand was noted for saying, “the Rand is quicker than the eye.”
1946 found Miss Rand back in court, charged with indecent exposure, corrupting the morals of an audience, and conducting an obscene show. She was taken into custody after an engagement at the Savory in San Francisco, where six police officers witnessed one of her fan dances, in which she decreased her costume to a flesh-colored triangle. Rand hired renowned defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich, who had kept both Billie Holiday and Gene Krupa from going to jail on drug charges. Ehrlich made the point that nudity was respected in the art of the great masters and suggested that the court view the dance in question, as evidence of its artistic nature. The judge agreed to this and even granted Miss Rand a release to continue her performances, unaltered, until the trial was over. That very same night, however, Rand began her dance, but was stopped for arrest by the San Francisco Police Department. Imagine their surprise when the lights came up and it was revealed that Sally Rand was hiding a pair of flannel long-johns behind her fans. Furthermore, in place of her customary triangle of costume, was a note marked “CENSORED. S.F.P.D.”! The next morning she performed her usual routine for the judge and jury and was promptly acquitted, on the grounds that, “Anyone who could find something lewd about the dance as she puts it on has to have a perverted idea of morals,” as Judge Shoemaker pronounced.
From flapper to fan dancer, Miss Rand continued to strut her stuff into the, and also her, sixties. As she said herself, of her illustrious career, “I haven’t been out of work since the day I took my pants off.”
Mae West, a household name to this day, began her career in Vaudeville, working her way up to radio, Broadway, and later the screen. Her entire career, which lasted her a lifetime, was based on one infamous character: herself. Known for her sexual candor, wit, and double entendres, she coined many famous phrases, such as “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me” and “A hard man is good to find.”
Not only an actress, but a producer and writer, as well, Miss West titled her first Broadway show “Sex.” The play was not such a great success until it was brought up on a morals charge, sparking a heated debate over the role of censorship in the theatre. After being arrested and released on $1,000 bail, West continued her show, to packed audiences, for a lengthy run. As with Sally Rand, the publicity did her nothing but good! However, in 1927, the play was again brought up against charges of obscenity and West was convicted of corrupting the morals of youth, for which she served nine days out of a ten day sentence, getting out early on good behavior! She served her sentence at Welfare Island Women’s Workhouse, where Mae West, never a quitter, gathered a great deal of material from observing her inmates and wrote her play-turned-film “Diamond Lil.” During the scandal of “Sex,” West was also busy writing and producing “The Drag,” which the New York Times described as the play that “caused the sudden action…toward cleaning up the stage.” Although the show was a success at its out of town previews, it was not allowed to open on Broadway. This didn’t stop her from staging “Pleasure Man,” which also featured drag performers, and landed West, once more, in jail and, once more, released for $1,000 bail. The lady certainly had a fighting spirit and, as she said herself, “Those who are easily shocked…should be shocked more often.”
Her involvement in the film business was fraught with the same battles over censorship as her Broadway career. She caused such scandal on the silver screen that some authors jokingly credit her with singlehandedly bringing down the hammer of the censors that resulted in the Hollywood Production Code of 1934, which was the mode of film censorship until 1968. But Mae West outlasted the production code, using her same shtick in 1978 for her final film, Sextette and still using her most iconic quote, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime…when I’ve got nothing on but the radio.”