Jennie Lee – The Bazoom Girl

Jennie Lee was born Virginia Lee Hicks 23 October 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri.  She attended Wyandotte High School In Kansas City, Kansas and was a member of both the swim team and the Girls Athletics Association.  Jennie also loved to dance and act, appearing in high school plays.  It was this love of the stage that led Jennie to respond to a newspaper ad, the summer after her junior year of high school, looking for dancers at the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.  Her dancing was not polished enough to land her the coveted dancer position, but her bubbly personality and shapely figured did get her hired as a showgirl.  Excited about her new career in show business, Jennie rushed home to tell her family of her new job.  Jennie’s mother was supportive and told her daughter she could follow whatever career path she chose, but she must fish high school first.  Hence Jennie worked the summer at the Folly Theater and in the fall returned to high school.  After graduation, she returned to the Folly to work as a chorus girl, but she admitted she did not take the job as seriously as she should, and she was fired after her first month.

Early promotional photo for Jennie Lee.
Early promotional photo for Jennie Lee.

Jennie was disappointed by the loss of the chorus girl position, but it did not deter her from pursuing a career in burlesque.  With the help of the former chorus line manager at the Folly Theater, Jennie chose a stage name, acquired a costume and developed a strip-tease act which she diligently practiced.  Her first job as a stripper required her to take it all off, which Jennie did to thunderous applause.  While the audience clamored for an encore, however, the bashful new strip-tease artist was hiding in a backstage closet!  Jennie would over-come her shyness and go on to become one of the premier burlesque dancers of her era.  Because of her ample bosom (42-26-37), and her ability to use that bosom to twirl tassels at a dizzying rate, Jennie was known as ‘The Bazoom Girl’.  She was also a popular pin-up model of the era, and even had her own fan club, members of which were known as “Bazoomers”.

An official Jennie Lee Fan Club membership card.  Are you a Bazoomer?!?!
An official Jennie Lee Fan Club membership card. Are you a Bazoomer?!?!
Jennie Lee and comic Tubby Boots in heated tassel twirling contest.
Jennie Lee and comic Tubby Boots in heated tassel twirling contest.

 

Though Jennie was one of the most popular burlesque dancer of the 1950-60s, in burlesque -circles she is probably best known for what she accomplished off-stage.  In 1955 in Los Angeles, California Jennie, with the help of several other dancers, formed the Exotic Dancers’ League of North America (EDL), which served as a union to safe-guard the labor rights of strip-tease artists.  Initially, the group was formed to lobby for fair pay for the performers, since the wages paid in Los Angeles were well below the national average.  With Jennie Lee as the union’s president, they would go on to represent dancers in cases of un-paid salaries, fight for a minimum wage and paid rehearsal time for dancers, and to stop the practice of club owners forcing dancers, when not on stage, to fraternize with patrons.  It was common practice at the time for clubs to require dancers to mingle with the audience and encourage patrons to buy them champagne and other expensive drinks.  Jennie also proved to b a talented publicist for the EDL by staging protests and appearances at charity events, but her best publicity tactic grew out of Jennie’s love of sports.  She, and several other members of the EDL, formed a women’s softball team and they named themselves, the Barecats.  In fact, when the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team relocated to Los Angeles in 1958, Jennie Lee, proudly wearing her Barecats uniform, was there to welcome them.  Jennie and several of her EDL friends also had a bowling team, also called the Barecats.

Jennie Lee, and several other burlesque ladies, at the very first meeting of the League of Exotic Dancers.  A union Jennie formed to protect the working rights of burlesque dancers.
Jennie Lee, and several other burlesque ladies, at the very first meeting of the League of Exotic Dancers. A union Jennie formed to protect the working rights of burlesque dancers.
Jennie Lee (center) with some of her Barecats teammates.
Jennie Lee (center) with some of her Barecats teammates.

 

As the years passed, the women of the EDL stayed in contact and Jennie continued to organize yearly reunions.  It was during this period that Jennie’s secondary missions for the EDL began to take shape.  Jennie wanted the EDL to offer both a social group and security for retired performers.  She envisioned something similar to the Motion Picture and Television Fund to provided finical and housing assistance to retired industry members in need.   Jennie also wanted to preserve the history of American burlesque.  As early as the mid-1950s, Jennie had been collecting costumes, stage props, newspaper clippings and promotional photos not only from her burlesque career, but from those of her friends as well.  Though the years, she had exhibited these artifacts either in a room of her home or in an area of one of the small clubs she owned in the Los Angeles area, but she dreamed of an independent burlesque museum.  It was with this intent, that in 1980 Jennie purchased a 40 acres goat farm outside of Helendale, California.  On this property Jennie planned a retirement home for burlesque performs, a school to teach inspiring young dancers and an exhibit building dedicated to her collection.  Sadly Jennie would not live to see her dream come to fruition.  In the late 1980s, Jennie was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and had a mastectomy and several lymph nodes removed.  Despite her failing health, Jennie remained the driving force that kept the women of the EDL together, and she continued to organized reunions.  In 1989 however, the cancer returned, and despite aggressive radiation therapy, Jennie would die 24 March 1990.

The always beautiful Jennie Lee.
The always beautiful Jennie Lee.

Jennie’s dream, however, did not died with her.  Dixie Evans, Jennie’s long time friend and a fellow burlesque dancer, took up the challenge to preserve burlesque’s history.  With the help of Charlie Arroyo, Jennie’s widower, in 1991 Dixie opened  Exotic World, the  first museum dedicated to the history of burlesque, on the grounds of the old goat farm.   She also developed and organized the first Miss Exotic World competition, a burlesque themed pageant, to both publicize the opening and draw visitors to the museum.  In 2006, the competition was moved to Las Vegas, and due to structural problem with the exhibit building, the collection would soon follow.  The Burlesque Hall of Fame opened in 2010, and continues to host the Miss Exotic World competition and yearly crowns a “reigning Queen of Burlesque”.  Jennie Lee would be proud to know that though her hard work and dreams, an internationally recognized burlesque competition, conference, and a burlesque museum all exist and continue to celebrate the art of burlesque, which she so loved.

Jennie Lee's friend and fellow dancer, Dixie Evans posing in front of the Exotic World gate
Jennie Lee’s friend and  fellow burlesque dancer, Dixie Evans posing in front of the Exotic World gate.

 

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