In my second post exploring the history of the black Pin Up I want to look at the world of burlesque during it's hey day during the 1950's and early 60's. With Neo burlesque well and truly now a part of mainstream culture (nipple tassels from Ann Summer's anyone?) it would be easy to assume that today's burlesque superstars are direct examples of the original scene, but that wouldn't be strictly true. For every Dita Von Teese and Immodesty Blaize today, there was a black performer equally as talented and devoted to the art back then. It could be that the media (then as now) chose to ignore performers of colour in favour of the white all American version.
So with this in mind here are some black burlesque performers who should be as well known as the legendary Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans but have fallen from view. Let's take a look at their incredible careers...
Imagine, it's 1950 and you're a young black woman who has just told your mother you want to become a burlesque dancer. She, in trying to guide her daughter to opt for a less salacious career, sends you to speak with the local pastor. Thankfully, the pastor is a man with a liberal outlook on life and tells you, if it's what you really want to do, to follow your dreams.
With Gods blessing Jean Idelle went on to become one of the most sought after exotic dancers of her era. She was a naturally gifted dancer and having studied under Katherine Dunham, she was soon 'discovered' and began performing at Minsky's Burlesque show in Chicago where she worked her way up to become a headline act taking to the stage between 1950 and 1964.
Idelle's trademark performance was dancing with huge white ostrich feather fans and at the height of her career she was earning around $1000 a month. By today's standards that's around $8600, which for a black performer makes the sum even more impressive considering the racism and segregation of the time .
The amount of money Idelle was making was due to her impeccable performances. Professionalism was very important to her and she was never late never sick or sloppy. For such a woman to be so successful both professionally and financially it seems odd that her name is not better known.
Perhaps Idelle's true legacy should lie in her success at performing in both white and black clubs across the U.S and Canada. It can't have been easy staying true to your art in the face of adversity.
Lottie 'The Body' Graves
By the 1960's burlesque was beginning to loose it's appeal. In order to gain bigger audiences the focus became less about the art form and more about the strip, resorting to showing more skin, and mingling with the punters.
Having been classically trained as a dancer, Graves began her burlesque career at the early age of 17 and brought a dash more class to her performance. She stood out thanks to her elegant moves and outstanding figure.
Graves said that exotic dancing was 'top of the shelf, the champagne of dance' and her polished art form gave her the opportunity to lead an equally glamorous lifestyle rubbing shoulders with the likes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin.
Motown legend Martha Reeves a friend and neighbour stated,
'She held her own. Lottie had skills that were superior to all of her competitors. She out-danced them all.
She had body movements that only she could pull off, and very elaborate costumes. And I know she can still dance, and does a high kick that shows a lot of young ladies [up]'
Like Jean Idelle, Graves can be credited with breaking through racial tensions at the height of open racism by performing at white clubs. Never classed as a stripper, Graves unique moves set her apart from other bump n grinders and she transcended both the burlesque and racial barriers.
At the age of 32 Toni Elling began stripping quite late in life. It was 1960, and after spending nine years struggling to get a promotion in her telephonist job, and being denied one because of her race, Elling had had enough. It was after taking some advice from her friend Rita Revere, herself a stripper, Elling decided to give the burlesque scene a try.
Taking her stage name from Duke Ellington, Elling started her new career in The Flame Show Bar in Detroit. (She and Ellington were good friends and it is rumoured he wrote the song 'Satin Doll' in her favour).
Of her first gig Elling said, “I was surprised I knew what to do and that it went over so well. I wouldn’t get an agent, though. Didn’t know why I needed one. So many places I couldn’t work because of the colour thing. An agent who was a friend booked me in Lima, Ohio. Word got around and after that, I found it easy to get work outside Detroit. I finally got a bit of a reputation.”
She had many gimmicks to fill out her repertoire. A Spanish act in a flamenco dress, a wedding dress strip and even a street walker character. But Elling got frustrated by other performers stealing her routines. Because of this she decided to do something few others could mimic, an Afro act. "There weren’t that many black entertainers in Oregon at the time. Nobody could copy that". She also included singing into her routines which went down well with her audiences.
Elling's cool and elegant demeanour earned her much praise in the burlesque community and opened doors, taking her to places other black performers had been denied. She toured the U.S Canada and even took her act as far as Japan.
There were many amazing performers to choose from while researching this post, it's worth mentioning a couple more who caught my eye; the statuesque Ethelyn Butler who used exotic dancing as a bridge to ballet...
..and the exquisite Sahji Jackon who appeared in a movie alongside Dizzy Gillespie. Both of these ladies must have fantastic back stories, yet I could find little about them!
It was good to learn how diverse burlesque was (and still is), but eye opening to see how little non white performers get to be in the lime light. I'm really glad that on the whole these women took control of their careers and images and made names for themselves. I think they deserve as much applause as possible.
Next time I'll delve into the girly magazines of the vintage era to see how the black Pin Up was represented in the age of Bettie Page and her colleagues.