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.
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.