Some people take offense when the term ‘shake dancer’ is associated with African American dancers in 1920-50s burlesque-type entertainment. And I can see why, as many view the term as a separate title created and used only for ‘Sepia Queens’ — as the ladies were frequently called. While there is little doubt discrimination was a rampant part of show business, as in every day life, I suspect the term ‘shake dancer’ had a more innocuous beginning.
Initially, at least, there was a difference between a shake dancer and a stripper. In early descriptions of shake dancer performances, the woman wore a skimpy costume and performed feats of muscle control or shaking (similar to today’s twerking), but she did not strip. She came onto the stage in a costume and left the stage in a costume. Whereas a stripper came onto the stage in an elaborate costume and the entire purpose of the act was to tease the audience through the seductive removal of the costume. So I suspect the term ‘shake dancer’, was initially coined to distinguish between the two types of acts. In fact, in the obituary of Rosemarie Black, known as “Rosemarie the Shake Dancer”, there is a distinction made between her career as a shake dancer , where she “never took it all off” but could twirl the tassels on her bikini, and in her later career as a ‘stripper’, or Burlesque dancer.
Even in period Men’s magazines, ‘shake dancers’ are usually pictured in elaborate fringe, feather and beaded full-coverage bikini-style costumes, whereas burlesque dancers were featured in pasties and g-strings.
Though not risque, occasionally you can find tid-bits of information or photos of famous shake dancers in vintage Jet magazines. Here are couple other performers, just so you can see the types of costumes worn by shake dancers. Though very revealing and much like burlesque costumes, the performers typically came on stage wearing this costume and exited the stage wearing the same costume.
However, as early as the 1940s there were performers who were combining the two dance forms. Baby Scuggs was originally a carnival-circuit stripper who was known for her act culminating in her twirling the tassels on her pasties and making her fringe belt dance and sway. Baby Scruggs never attained fame as a performer in the United States, but she would go on to become famous in London. Betty Brisbane was a New York City shake dancer that spiced up her act by removing a fringe skirt during her performance, but still far from the elaborate dis-robing of a burlesque stripper.
Also, some white burlesque dancers worked the art of shake dancing in to their finales after stripping out of their elaborate costumes. Both Peaches (Mildred Strange) and Trudine were separately billed as the Queen of Quiver.
Burlesque, or working in ‘show biz’ often ran in families. While this is in no way and complete list, here are a few examples of sisters that danced in burlesque.
The Rowland Sisters
Betty was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1916 to Ida and Alva Rowland. She had 3 sisters, two of which – Dian (Thelma) and Rozell, would also become burlesque dancers. As children, Betty and Rozell performed in vaudeville as a dancing sister act. Eventually, in her teens, Betty was asked to fill in for a stripper that did not show for work, and so began her career as a burlesque dancer. She became a crowd favorite, appearing in all the big name theaters across the USA, and was dubbed ‘The Ball of Fire’ for her bright red hair and fast paced dances. In 1941 Betty sued MGM movie studios for using her moniker as the title for their film: Ball of Fire. Originally the lead female character was a burlesque dancer with a costume very similar to that worn by Betty. But the censors at the time felt that the public would not be sympathetic to a female character that worked as a burlesque dancer, and made the studio change her occupation…she became a lounge singer. The law-suit was dropped for lack of evidence, but it was a huge success in drumming up publicity for Betty, and maybe that was the objective all along?!
Much like her sister Betty, Rozelle got her ‘break’ when a dancer who performed in silver paint did not make it to the theater for a show. Rozelle changed the paint color to gold and became “The Golden Girl of Burlesque”. While appearing at the Dorchester House in London, Rozell caught the eye of Baron Jean Empain, one of the wealthiest men in all of Europe, and they soon became lovers. Supposedly, when Rozelle became pregnant, Baron Empain told her if she gave him a son, and heir, he would marry her, but if it was a daughter he would support them both. While in Budapest, Rozelle gave birth to a son and she and the Baron were married in the same nursing facility where she gave birth. The child born in Budapest was Edouard-Jean Empain, who would be famously kidnapped outside his home in Paris on 23 January 1978. The kidnappers asked for 80 million francs in ransom, but when that was not paid they decreased it to 40 million francs and cut off one of his fingers to try and pressure the family to comply. He was eventually released and his kidnappers were caught and tried.
Rozelle Rowland and her husband Baron Empain.
Dian Rowland – given name Thelma – was born with a heart condition that made strenuous activity impossible for her. So unlike her fast dancing sisters, Dian’s act was a slow sensuous parade across the burlesque stage. Her grace and beauty won her the moniker “Society’s Sweetheart”. Dian died in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 29. Friends began to worry when she did appear for her show, because Dian was know to be professional and punctual. When they checked her hotel room, she was found dead – her heart had just quit.
The Davis Sisters
Babs Davis, who also danced under the name Ramona, started her burlesque career as a chorus girl at the Globe Theater in Boston, MA. Her sister Margie Davis, who danced under the name of Justin Vain, also started her career at the Globe Theater. Babs retired from dancing when she married James McDermott 28 November 1945.
Margie Davis started her stage career as a chorus girl in Boston, MA working at both the Old Howard and the Globe theaters. Later, after Margie had joined the Hirst circuit, she married popular burlesque comic Al Anger. The marriage must not have lasted, because at the time of his death, Al Anger was married to Barbara Curtis, another burlesque dancer.
Val de Val & Helena Gardner
Val de Val began her dancing career as part of the Ernie Young Traveling Roadshow. She would go on to dance in the Ziegfeld Follies and numerous other Burlesque shows and theaters throughout her career, where she was billed as “The H Bomb off Burlesque” or “The Liberator”. Val de Val retired from dancing in the late 1950s when she married. Having always had a love for art, Val went on to teach painting – watercolors, acrylic and oils – in Niles, MI where she settled after retirement. She also was an accomplished painter herself, and exhibited her work throughout Michigan and Indiana.
Helena was the little sister of burlesque dancer Val de Val. In fact, they shared an apartment together in Chicago, though they rarely -if ever- worked together because many agents tried to bill sisters as ‘two for one’….meaning two acts for the fee of only one. Helena began her burlesque career as a chorus girl at Colosimo’s night club in Chicago. She soon moved up to a ‘specialty dancer’ and from there became a feature stripper. One of her trademark moves, was to remove a pasty at the end of a show, present it to a lucky member of the audience, and walk off stage with her breast cupped in her hand.
Sunny and Helen Lovett
Helen and Sunny Lovett amaze me, because they are not twins, they are nearly impossible to tell apart. When originally I purchased the below photo of Sunny, complete with her name and some additional information on the back, I assumed it was a photo of Helen, and that perhaps she had also danced under the name ‘Sunny’ at some point in her career. It was not until I found Sunny Lovett mentioned in several old Billboard magazines – including one mention that referenced her ‘little sister Helen Lovett’ – that I realized there were Lovett sisters!
Betty Dixon and Onyx Knight
I did not realize Betty and Onyx were sisters, until Onyx’s daughter contacted me. Betty was billed as ‘The Bundle of Curves” and also danced under the names Jonelle and Honey Bare.
Note: the Feature Image at the top of the article is the Dolly Sisters. The Dolly Sisters lived such amazing lives, I will shortly do a blog post just on them. I will also do a separate post on Lili St. Cyr and her two half sisters which also worked in burlesque.
Born in Argentina, to Italian parents, Fanne was an exemplary student and originally attended medical school before venturing into show business. She was married to pianist Eduardo Battistella, and the couple, along with their children, moved to the United States to work at Machu Picchu club in Miami. Unfortunately, the club closed after only a few months, leaving the family unemployed and in an unfamiliar country. With the help of a friend, Fanne started dancing as a stripper under her given name, Annabel, at the Moulin Rogue in Miami. She soon hired a manager and adopted the more exotic stage name Fanne Foxe – The Argentine Firecracker, and under her new name secured several contracts in Baltimore.
After dancing in Baltimore for several years, Fanne was lured to the higher paying clubs in Washington DC, and it was while working at the Silver Slipper in Washington DC, that she would begin the relationship that would make her a household name in the 1970s. By the time Fanne started performing in Washington DC, her marriage was over, and her husband and children had moved to Puerto Rico. While dancing at the Silver Slipper, she met, and soon started dating, married Congressman Wilbur Mills.
They kept their relationship quiet until the couple was pulled over one cold October 1974 night while driving near the Tidal Basin. In an attempt to protect Mills from an adulterous scandal, Fanne ran from the car and jumped into the waters of the Tidal Basin. But, to Wilbur Mills’s credit, he insisted the park police jump in and save Fanne from the cold water. Their affair continued, but resulted in Wilbur Mills resigning as Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Mills would eventually resign from Congress altogether, after a second public scandal, caused by him joining Fanne on stage at a Boston, MA strip club.
After the Tidal Basin Incident, Fanne changed her moniker to “The Tidal Basin Bombshell” to capitalize on her notoriety, but she would only continue to perform for another year or two. Fanne’s autobiography, The Stripper and the Congressman: Fanne Foxe, was published in 1975, and shortly thereafter she retired to her native country of Argentina.
This is a 1962 brochure for the College of Strip Tease that was held at the Pink Pussycat club, which was located at 7969 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. The club was owned by Harry and Alice Schiller. At night the club was a lavish night spot, but during the day it transformed into the College of Strip Tease. The school was managed and taught by Boots Mallory – whose given name was Sally Marr, the mother of comedian Lenny Bruce.
One of the most popular ‘gimmicks’ in burlesque was the 1/2 and 1/2 act, where a dancer played 2 characters. Sometimes the dancer’s costume was simply split down the middle, but more elaborate acts were done with the dancer working a dummy or a puppet to portray the 2nd character. And on occasion, a split costume might be worn to represent two ideas — as in good versus evil. Below you will find a selection of photos representing each of these types of acts. This is far from an exhaustive list of the 1/2 and 1/2 acts presented in burlesque, but it gives you an idea of how a performer can take a popular idea and make it their own! Enjoy!
Leazar’s mother was Irene Scruggs, the famous delta blues singer who also performed under the pseudonym Chocolate Brown. Though little is known of her early life, Leazar was most likely born in 1920 in Saint Louis, Missouri. The only known record of her childhood is the 1930 US census, which recorded a 10 year old Leazar residing in Saint Louis with her mother Irene and her grandmother, Lillian Smith. In the mid-1940s Leazar, who began using the stage name “Baby” Scruggs – a nickname she got when traveling with her mother, was performing as a dancer on carnival circuits. Baby was reportedly an accomplished shake, or shimmy, dancer and her performances culminated with her twirling her breast tassels in opposite directions while she swayed her hips making a fringe skirt dance. By the early 1950s, Baby Scruggs was working as a dancer and showgirl in Baltimore, but real recognition eluded her in the United States.
On 27 March 1952 Baby Scruggs and her mother arrived in England, aboard the ship the Ile De France, where Baby won fame while appearing in the show Paris to Picadilly in London. The show was staged at the Prince of Wales Theater and was created by Paul Derval of the famous Paris Folies Bergère. Londoners immediately adored Baby Scruggs, and she reportedly received hundreds of piece of fan mail per week. In early 1953, Baby Scruggs insured her bosom against damages with Lloyd’s of London, pre-dating the white burlesque dancer Evelyn “$50,000 Treasure Chest” West’s famous insurance policy by at least 2 years. After her London success, theaters in Paris and Milan were fighting to contract Baby, but she and her mother announced intentions to return to the United States and develop a mother-daughter act. Little is known about the pair after their projected return to the United States. It is thought that Irene Scruggs died in Germany in the early 1980s, but there is no further mention of her daughter Leazar “Baby” Scruggs.
This post idea has been brewing in my mind for sometime, and given the Devil/Satan theme, what better time of the year than Halloween?!?!
When most people think of Satan’s Angel or The Devil’s Mistress, in conjunction with burlesque, they immediately think of the lovely Angel Walker of fire Tassel fame. She is by far the most famous dancer to use either moniker, but I was surprised to find that she was not the only dancer to have used these names.
That names, phrases, costumes or acts have been used before, in no way detracts from those that use them later. That is the beauty of burlesque, and other art-forms, to shape and build what has come before into something that is uniquely yours. That is where the talent, and inventiveness , of the performer shines-through! So without further delay I give you:
SATAN’S ANGELS & the DEVIL’S MISTRESSES
Angel Walker’s burlesque career began when she entered, and won, an amateur strip contest at the Moulin Rouge night club. From there she began performing in other local clubs under the stage names: Satin Angel, Tassel Tossin’ Angel and Angel the Body to name a few. But the fiery moniker Satan’s Angel, which she began using in the early 1960s, perfectly complemented what would become her signature act — twirling tassels set aflame. Angel has recently retired from performing, but still makes tassels and teaches the delicate art of fire-tassel twirling.
I purchased a large group of photos and papers from the Rivoli burlesque theater in Seattle, WA — which is no longer standing. It had originally opened as the State Movie Theater, but in 1939 the theater changed its name to Rivoli and reopened as a vaudeville venue. During its burlesque heyday the owner was A.L. (Al) Meakin and his wife, Violet Capellaro, was the backstage and office manager. Violet had been a burlesque dancer herself, and performed under the name Marvan. Violet – or who ever organized the front office paperwork – kept wonderfully detailed files on the dancers that performed at the theater. The files included photos, flyers, promotional packets and in some cases even letters from agents. One of the files I purchased was for the woman below who danced under the name Satan’s Angel. The file included a 1954 letter written by Marty Whyte, her agent, describing her as a talented tassel twirler, who did a ‘breast control’ number, and a bubble act featuring a bubble machine and colored lights.
Finally, I recently found this stunning photo of Patti Wayne in a devil costume. Patti is more commonly known for performing under the moniker ‘The Wall Street Playgirl’, but apparently, when donning her devil garb she used ‘The Devil’s Mistress’.
Though these three women share the common thread of a name, you will have to agree they are all distinctly unique performers. After all, I think we all have to admit, it is difficult to image our modern day Satan’s Angel doing something as quaint as a bubble routine with colored lights!! Seriously though, I thought these three performers showcased the idea that burlesque, like all art, evolves with time. Just because something has been done before, does not mean that it can not be re-imagined and born anew.
I grew up in Detroit, MI and the night before Halloween was referred to as ‘Devil’s Night’ and was a night for pranks and mischief. But when I moved south, and would mention Devil’s Night, no one knew what I was talking about. So for those imps that celebrate it, here are some Devilishly Delightful burlesque act in honor of Devil’s Night…Enjoy….and don’t call me for bail money!!!
Many dancers, and other performers, at some point in their career toured withe the USO – United Service Organizations. The USO is a non-profit organization which was founded in 1941 to provided services, including live entertainment, to the troops and their families. Originally founded to assist and entertain troops during WWII, the organization was temporarily disbanded at the end of the war, but revived in the 1950s with the start of the Korean War. The most visible out-reach of the USO are the ‘camp shows’, or live entertainment, provided to troops at home and overseas. This set of photos is from such a show, but unfortunately I do not know where it was held, who the performer are, or the date.
Despite truly offensive pages dedicated to ‘slut shaming’, racism, violence and many other topics, here is your chance to see the photos that were deemed too racy for your Burlesque viewing-pleasure!!
Well, there you have it….the four shocking images that have been deemed obscene. Since the last two images have been posted, the site has changed their description of nudity to a very vague statement that no longer actually DEFINES nudity. So now I am left hoping that photos, like that of Dorloes Del Raye, are not MISTAKEN for nudes….go figure.