A Showgirl You Should Know: Sally Rand “America’s Sweetheart”

Though not traditionally thought of as a “showgirl” Sally Rand was actually the epitome of one. She started in the theatre, spent time in the circus, went onto Hollywood, returned to vaudeville, and supposedly a brief stint (if true) in Florence Ziegfeld’s Follies only to finally find fame as America’s №1 fan dancer. It was a long circuitous road to fame. But, unlike so many, her fame would endure.

She was born in Missouri in 1904 as Harriet “Hattie” Helen Gould Beck. She had pluck, courage and a driving need to be loved. Once she made it to Hollywood after unsuccessful attempts at finding her place in entertainment, she — or rather the eminent director Cecil B. DeMille changed her name to Sally Rand. She was sure fame as an actress was within reach.

It did not happen, though she tried hard, the studios tried hard. She was endless photographed, came up with a dozen publicity stunts to get her name and face and figure in the papers, still stardom was elusive. She would blame it on her accent and a lisp. Neither of which was really true.

Returning to the vaudeville stage in her own show, she was backed by handsome dancing boys. The introduction song “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally” had to leave Sally wondering the same thing.

A dark-haired Sally

It had been both chance and desperation that led to an engagement that would radically change her life. I won’t relate all the details here, but, in the early 1930s Sally Rand found herself playing peek-a-boo between two large — and heavy — ostrich feather fans in Chicago. She started at a nightclub, heavily populated with gangsters. She quickly moved onto a position at the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair, performing for literally thousands by the time the fair closed in 1934. Suddenly she found herself famous.

She would go on to mythologize the dance, saying it had been inspired by the herons that flew over the lake on her grandfather’s property. “My interpretation of a white bird flying in the moonlight at dusk.” Painting a beautiful picture. “It flies up into the moonlight. It is dusk. It flies low. It flutters. Then it begins to climb into the moonlight.” It would be the act she would perform for the next forty years to much acclaim and wealth. Though the wealth part would go out as fast, if not faster, than it came in.

She expanded her show and hired dozens of showgirls to perform on stage with her, lightening some of the burden. But there were salaries to pay (and sometimes not, she would have plenty of lawsuits about that), disasters to remedy (canvas tents blown over in storms) but Sally would go on, criss-crossing America bringing her fan dance to small and large cities everywhere.

She worked non-stop year after year. “I have not been put out of work since the day I took my pants off.” Folks, highbrow and low, lined up to see the girl with the long yellow curls. Her innocent good looks, humor and intelligence fostered an additional career speaking for women’s groups.

Never afraid to get her hands dirty, she was often spotted wearing baggy pants, nails in her mouth high on a ladder hammering her stage together. For a while a couple husbands tagged along. Then in 1948 she met the love of her life. A baby she would adopt. Sally would be a very good mother and the baby was the apple of her eye, often sleeping in her feather boxes backstage attended to by the cooing showgirls. When he was threatened (by his birth mother) she hid him with friends. As he grew older she explained the dance when his friends made fun of him because his mother took off her clothes. He would go on to work in some clubs with her, helping her out. And she would go on to being a doting grandmother. It was one of the things that made me love her the most. Not all showgirls had time, or took the time to be great mothers, Sally did. Family was everything to her. Her mother and brother lived with her and nearby at various times in her career.

Sally was one of the rare few in the burlesque field — though not strictly a burlesque performer, she did not tease nor strip, she did perform in burlesque venues — that had a fan base that was wide and varied. She loved people and she loved performing and it showed. Stars adored her. She became friends with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., even attended Debby Reynolds wedding to Eddie Fisher. All the while the “legitimate” stage called to her. She wanted to be a “real” actress, a dramatic one and time and again she forsook her pay check waiving fans for less money performing in summer stock. But she always returned to her fans. It’s what the people wanted and she was all about giving the people what they wanted.

Independent, tough, she swore like a sailor and flew an airplane to gigs. Romance was never her priority though there was plenty of that. Another late life marriage would leave her humiliated, a younger man who could not stay faithful.

Sally was also one of the most arrested performers of her time. At the Chicago world’s fair she was arrested 4 times in one day. Her last arrest would come in 1964, when she was 60. She fought them all tooth and nail. Sometimes fined, other times just roughly reprimanded for corrupting the morals of, well, everyone. She would spend an inordinate amount of time in court, often sued for unpaid bills and then of course rival Faith Bacon would take her to court for allegedly “stealing” her fan dance.

The two would play out the rivalry in the papers with catty repartee. Faith complained Sally “walk around and let the people gawk.” Sally sniped, “Faith and the Egyptians did the fan dance 5,000 years ago.”

Sally’s rival Faith Bacon

All of a sudden there were a plethora of fan dancers. So Sally came up with a new act. She would dance holding a giant opaque rubber ball. Faith, too would try something different, this time shedding her costume of gardenias. Still the two, especially Sally, would forever be associated with the fan dance. Sally would return to it time and again. Her fans wanted her fans.

As Sally aged the request for her dance only slightly diminished, even when it was just for nostalgia’s sake. At 50, 60, 70 she was in remarkable shape waiving her fans above her naked figure. Sally’s attitude about aging was the same as her attitude about everything else. You could do anything you want if you put your mind to it.

Sally, never too old to perform

She would perform nearly to her dying day, saying “God knows, I like doing this,” she said. “It’s better than doing needlepoint on the patio.”

The Sally Sweetheart Cocktail (specially made by Chef David Verzello in celebration of the showgirls featured Feuding Fan Dancers)

Recipe for the Sally Sweetheart Cocktail with Blue Nun®

Ingredients Include:

“The 24K”

2 oz of Blue Nun® 24K Gold Edition

½ oz of Ginger Liqueur

Sprinkling of edible gold glitter (usually found in the baking section of the grocery store)

White raspberry, for garnish

Dampen the rim of a champagne flute with a simple syrup. Dip the rim of the glass into the edible glitter. I find sprinkling the glitter in a shallow bowl, equal-sized or larger than the mouth of the glass, is easiest. Pour cold Blue Nun into the champagne flute. Top with ½ oz of Ginger Liqueur, and garnish with the white raspberry.

Leslie Zemeckis is an award-winning documentarian whose film “Behind the Burly Q” chronicles the history of burlesque. Her film “Bound by Flesh” is a Netflix hit about Daisy and Violet Hilton of “Sideshow” fame. Zemeckis authored “Behind the Burly Q, the book based on her film and “Goddess of Love Incarnate” about burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr. Zemeckis’ current documentary “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer,” on the world’s first female trainer Mabel Stark premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival going on to win numerous awards. She has created the only comprehensive burlesque site bringing together the burlesque community under one roof (www.theburlyq.com) and has create the first line of burlesque, showgirl, pinup (and flamingo) emojis (Burlyqji.)

Zemeckis current book, Feuding Fan Dancers will be published October 2nd, 2018 about Sally Rand, Faith Bacon and the golden age of the showgirl. @Lesliezemeckis, www.lesliezemeckis.com Follow Leslie Zemeckis on IG and Twitter.

Oct 2, 2018
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