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Forty years ago, “America's Torrid Tiger” and “Cupid's Cutie” made a living bumping and grinding, shedding almost all their clothes on smoky stages to the tune of burlesque orchestras.
Today they are smartly dressed Ladies of a Certain Age, volunteers, quilters, and grandmas who won't reveal their ages.
Once a month or so, Toledo's Burlesque Queens gather round a kitchen table for a chat.
Sunny Dare, the Girl With Blue Hair, pours a soda for Talking Woman Joni Taylor. Val Valentine, a 1958 Anatomy Award winner, lights up the afternoon's first cigarette.
In real life, their names are Roberta Bauman, Joanne DiRando, and Carole Licata. They still call one another by the names they answered to backstage four decades ago: Sunny, Joni, and Val, respectively.
Sunny Dare and Val Valentine saw their names in lights as featured acts in burlesque houses across the continent. Joni Taylor, just as pretty, danced in chorus lines, traded one-liners with comedians, and did the occasional tame take-it-off as a “co-feature” dancer.
“People hear the word `burlesque' and all they think of is strippers,” Val says. “But `burlesque' means `comedy.' Look it up.”
Today the ladies rescue castoff dogs and cats, counsel cancer victims, and care for aged aunts. They belong to the Burlesque Historical Society, an online group of about 250 former burlesque workers based in Salt Lake City. It is dedicated to remembering the lost world where these women spent their careers.
Joni, Val, and Sunny lived burlesque through its decline in the '50s, '60s, and into the '70s, years that saw famous comics like Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason defect to television, theaters close, and burlesque replaced by go-go clubs and television.
But they made good livings, they say. It was a three-shows-a-day hustle, sleeping on chairs backstage, eating take-out food, having the acrobat tuck in the children before the Saturday midnight show. They didn't stay long in any given city, but their paths crossed now and then.
“I remember the first time I ever saw Joni was in a theater in Cleveland, backstage, in the late '50s,” Val says. “She had pieces of fabric laid out on an ironing board, and she was gluing them together. She was making a costume. She was a chorus captain, so she needed new costumes all the time. She showed me how to use fabric glue. I gave her some appliques. We got to be friends.”
They show up in one another's scrapbooks, cheek-to-cheek with comedians like Dolly “Dimples” Dean and Bubbles O'Day the Fat Lady, and curvy “strips” with names like Fabulous Fanny, Irma the Body, and Patti Waggin.
Burlesque was a sister of vaudeville, a collection of song-and-dance variety ensembles with slapstick routines, double-entendre jokes, wacky variety acts, and lots of singing, dancing lovelies. Historians argue over its dates of birth and death, but most agree it rose up with the late 19th century and peaked in the '30s and '40s.
Even after all these years, the ladies mourn its passing.
“We had a big chorus, a big band, great comics. We girls were only a part of it. It was a real show!” Sunny says. “It was working-class entertainment, but it wasn't porno. It wasn't any more skin than you'll see now on TV.”
Val stubs out her smoke. “The burlesque we worked in had nothing to do with sleazy sex shows,” she says. “You have to let the audience use its imagination. Just a little.”
Back then, thousands of women lived the onstage life. Not all were strippers. Most danced in chorus numbers. Others, called “talking women,” cracked jokes.
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“I was never a feature,” Joni says, “but I was one of the best two talking women on my circuit. When the comics went on, they sometimes needed a straight man or an extra for their scenes. I did that. I fed lines to comics like Charlie Robinson and Burt Carr. I'd be the pretty bimbo or black out my teeth and be a hausfrau - just be the butt of the joke. I had to be adaptable.
“I danced too. I loved to dance. I co-featured - I just didn't take off as much. I was never more provocative than a strapless bra and panties. I never owned a g-string. I'd come out onstage, do a little shimmy, and get outta there, five minutes, tops.”
Old photos of Joni show a small woman with long black hair and a Cupid's-bow mouth. She knew how to choreograph and tap-dance and soft-shoe, and she had a trim young body. She'd do any job, from catching the strippers' castoff clothing to switching on the red footlight that signaled a censor in the house - obscenity laws varied from city to city. What set her apart, she says, was her wit.
Today Joni is a petite, dark-haired woman, manicured, bright-eyed, animated. Even as a child in Pittsburgh's Mount Washington neighborhood, Joni was in a hurry.
She took dance lessons, was a VFW majorette, and jitterbugged with her big sister. In 1949 she got married. It was what lots of people did then, she says. She was 13 years old.
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She got her first burlesque job in 1953, at the Casino Theater on Diamond Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Her marriage dissolved, and, at age 18, she left her three babies with in-laws and went on the road as a dancer and talking woman.
“I'll never forget my first show, shaking like a leaf,” she recalls. “The director told me, `Honey, all those things out there in the seats? They're cabbages. Heads of cabbage.'”
“I never saw the audience at all,” Sunny adds. “I'm nearsighted. Whatever went on down there was a blur. Everyone in the place was smoking cigarettes, so it was all just a fog.”
“The spotlight hits you, and you're blind, anyway. You keep your head up, looking at the back row,” Val says. “You look distant. You look right past them all.”
Joni worked a “circuit” from 1955 to 1964, traveling with a team of entertainers up the East Coast and across the Midwest. The troupe stayed in a town for about a week, she says, then moved on to the next.
Her rounds included the Town Hall Theatre, one of Toledo's three burlesque venues. She worked for Rose LaRose, a former burlesque headliner who took on city hall conservatives and won the right to keep her notorious Toledo “grind houses” open through the late 1960s.
In later years, she worked in a “stock” company in Geneva-On-The-Lake, Ohio, presenting shows in one theater but to an ever-changing tourist audience.
“I was finished by 1966,” Joni says. “My son was in school, and I was married to a businessman in Cleveland. I wanted to join the Mothers' Club and lead a suburban life.”
And so she did. Her son became a doctor. Her daughter runs a dance studio. Her grandson is a professional hip-hop dancer. Her granddaughter was a Chanel model. She still teaches dance at a Perrysburg senior center.
“I started young. I'm ending young,” Joni says.
Val is neat and petite like Joni, but she's a blonde. She dresses sharp, even when she's cleaning house, she says. She's manicured and pedicured, and wears golden rhinestone sandals on her tiny feet.
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As “Val Valentine, Cupid's Cutie,” Carole Licata brought bump-and-grind to the heartland.
The 5-foot temptress spent summers coochie-dancing at state fairs from Canada to Texas. Later years took her into Las Vegas-style fabulosity, with feathered headdresses and huge, spangled gowns.
“I'm a glitter girl. From the time I was a little girl, I couldn't hang enough feathers and sequins off me,” she says.
She still has her sequined nightclub costumes and flesh-tone body stockings. Nowadays, her little granddaughter, another “glitter girl,” wears her Cleopatra getup to Halloween parties.
But grandma's still got her shimmy, she says.
In the heart of her Toledo home is a small room stuffed with memories, floor-to-ceiling photos of times and people past: Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Alexandra The Great 48, and Kaye and Aldrich, Acrobatic Comics.
“Here I can see everybody,” Val says, pointing from one glossy to the next. “This one is me as a blonde. A redhead. Here I am with the tent show, with the comedy team, the boy singer, the feature. That's me. Gypsy Rose Lee worked those shows, you know?”
Val grew up in Toledo but spent her summers on the road with a burlesque show - her mother's best friend was Mitzi, an early feature dancer and local dance teacher.
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“My mom wanted me to go to summer camp like the other kids, but I didn't want anything to do with that,” she cackled. “I was going to the theater! I'd have my bags packed in April!”
Val quit school in 1952, her junior year, and joined Mitzi's chorus line. Soon as she had enough money, she had costumes fitted by Tony Midnight, a famous Chicago designer.
“They fit like a glove,” she sighs. “They were beautiful. ... Ice-blue sequins with tulle, and one with pink silver sequins and a black skirt. They were hot. And they wore like iron.”
“In the summer I did traveling outdoor shows, state fairs. We opened at the Delaware State Fair each July and worked straight through October doing fairs from Nashville to Canada.
“It was grueling work, but I loved it. I loved the whole gypsy life. It was just like working a theater, except you were under a tent and more subject to the weather. Storms. Tornadoes. Floods. Never a dull moment!”
In winter, Val worked in burlesque theaters and nightclubs, four shows a day or five on Saturday, jostling for space backstage with contortionists, jugglers, acrobats, and marionettes.
“Nobody ever made me feel ashamed,” Val says. “Hell, no. God, no. Men? They'd send me flowers and letters. But I was so isolated and protected ... if I wanted to be. Yeah, there were some [loose women] in the business. But those are going to be in the office too, or anyplace.”
Her career wasn't about men. It was about performing, she says.
“I was usually thinking about dinner,” she says, giggling, “trying to remember if there was a good Chinese restaurant in that town!”
She lights the cigarette and moves on.
“I'm still in good shape,” she says. “I could still dance. I'm still capable of that. But I'm not 20 anymore.”
Sunny isn't so lucky. She's a bigger woman than her companions, and gravity pulls harder on her frame. She doesn't bother these days with dressing up or fussy makeup.
“I don't even own a dress or high heels. I have no one to please but me, and I think I've earned the right to be comfortable,” she says.
She's had a total of four knee replacements, she says, and her back is bad.
“When I danced, I would try anything, high jumps, splits, falls right onto my knees,” she says. “I'm paying for it now. It was that dancing. And the shoes we wore.”
“The spike heels, God,” Joni joins in. “The spike heels and taps gave me corns and bunions. The high kicks - they do a number on your bones!”
Her friends nod in agreement.
Of the three women at the table, Sunny Dare was probably the most famous.
Her 20-year career took her to Japan, Italy, England, and Mexico. She had impeccable showgirl credentials: Her parents were “carnies” with Nat Reese Tent Carnival and Wild West Show.
Her dad, a Toledoan, was a carnival barker and wrangler for the rodeo show. Her mother came from Pittsburgh and starred in a snake-handling show.
Young Bobbie grew up lonely and poor in Toledo.
“I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to travel. I was a ham,” she says. At age 17 she joined the chorus line at the Gayety Theater in Detroit. “I made friends. I started to bloom. And once I started, I didn't stop.”
She cut her hair and colored it blonde. And in 1950, she went on the road with Sally Rand, a performer whose Fan Dance and “purely hypothetical costumes” caused a sensation at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.
After a season with Sally, in 1951, the stripper Sunny Dare was born.
“I started out late for a stripper, but I had [nerve],” she says. “I was going to dance, and nothing could faze me. I had a good body. I would try anything: acrobatics, singing. I even dyed my hair blue for a while: I was `Sunny Dare, the Girl With Blue Hair!'”
Sunny recently had surgery on her back. Otherwise, she says, she still could do a full 10-minute act.
“I'd start out singing, sometimes. Slow. Something like “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In one show I did in Toledo, I'd have on a short satin skirt, kind of Frenchy, and stockings, standing under a streetlamp, pretending I was a hooker.”
She stands up, one hand out, her hips cocked, a saucy pout on her mouth.
“Pretending, I said. It was all fantasy. I certainly was not a hooker.”
She turns, front and center.
“The music picked up, and I'd go a little faster.”
She raises her hands overhead, and pulls off an imaginary glove. She dangles it out toward her “audience.”
“I never took it all off,” she says after sitting back down. “I never got arrested either.”
She sighs over her coffee cup.
“Dancing was the only thing I knew how to do. I had no real education, and this way, I could travel. I could sleep in late most days. I was treated very well. I really liked my life.”
She never felt ashamed, she says. She and the other women agree that the traveling meant little time for family or romance.
“You'd work a week, pack your trunk, and travel all night to the next place,” Sunny says. “It wasn't glamorous. It was really hard work. You didn't go out much.”
The ladies admit their hearts may be as scarred as their knees. Val had three husbands. Joni married twice. Sunny married four times.
“It wasn't me working that spoiled it. It wasn't even the kind of work I did. It was me,” Sunny says. “If I'd wanted it to work, I'd have settled down. I wanted to travel. They wanted a wife.”
Sunny Dare hit the big time in the late 1960s, and signed on with Minsky's, the leading national burlesque promoter. She did month-long club shows in Italy, England, Mexico. In Japan she made a grand entrance in a giant birdcage, lowered from the ceiling.
“But about 1970, when I came back home, I could see what was happening to burlesque, and I didn't want any part of it. It was getting too sleazy for me.”
So Sunny went to nursing school in daytime, and at night she let down her long hair and became “Nejma: Turkey's Foremost Belly Dancer.”
“I put myself through school doing that,” she says. “I loved belly dancing. I did that for years and years, in Greek clubs and Middle Eastern restaurants, till I was quite, well, older. I was in good shape, so why not?”
A few burlesque-style nostalgia shows still exist in Florida and Vegas, Val says. Its comedic aspect lives on in televised form.
“Just turn on a sitcom,” Val says. “It's the same one-liners, the same shtick, with some sex thrown in.”
A burlesque show was probably more wholesome than an average evening of contemporary cable television today, the ladies agree.
Not that they see much TV.
Today Val cares for an aged aunt. She worked the last ten years as a waitress at Rusty's Jazz Lounge, where the three old friends rediscovered one another.
Sunny works at Toledo Hospital, where she says her co-workers sometimes get a kick out of her glamorous past.
Joni, a cancer survivor, helps local women undergoing treatments cope with hair loss, burned skin, and damaged self-images. None of them knows she spent her early years doing high-kicks on burlesque stages.
If they had to do it over, none of the three would change much, they say.
“I wish I'd read more,” Val admits. “I'm so interested in so many things now, and back then, I just studied the Bible. I really know my Bible.”
Her friends stare at her.
“There's a Bible in the drawer in every hotel room!” she cracks.
The ladies laugh out loud.
“I've had a good life too,” Sunny adds. “I don't regret anything. I only wish I could have done it longer. And I wish I'd have discovered these friends sooner. I wouldn't have been so lonely for so long.”