Toni Basil’s Vaudeville Connection


Billy Wells and the Four Fays

The story of singer, dancer, choreographer, actress Toni Basil (Antonia Christina Basilotta, b. 1943) is so broad-ranging and worthy of respect that I am going to bury the logical and customary entry point for discussing her — shame and woe betide those who would define her by it after reading this.

Basil grew up in show business. Her father conducted orchestras in Chicago and Las Vegas. Her mother (along with siblings and cousins) was a member of the Australian acrobatic comedy act Billy Wells and the Four Fays, which was active from the 1940s through the 1960s. The act made appearances on The Ken Murray Show and The Ed Sullivan Show (a broadcast they shared with The Beatles). You can see a clip of the fast-moving highly entertaining act here.

Basil was born in Philly and grew up in Las Vegas, which is where she began her show biz career. Her career began in earnest in 1964: She was a dancer and assistant choreographer on Shindig! and The T.A.M.I. Show; that year she also appeared in Viva Las Vegas, Pajama Party, and Robin and the 7 Hoods. You can also see her dance or in supporting roles in Village of the Giants (1965), Head (1968), Sweet Charity (1969), Easy Rider (1969), Myra Breckinridge (1970), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Movie (1971), Greaser’s Palace (1972) and Mother Juggs and Speed (1976). In 1971 she co-formed the street dance group The Lockers with Don Campbell, who introduced the style of dancing known as “locking” to the popular idiom. She choreographed dances in American Graffiti (1973), David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour (1974), and Bette Midler’s The Rose (1979). She made several musical appearances on Saturday Night Live during its first season. In 1980 she choreographed the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” video.

In 1982 her life changed dramatically when she had a #1 hit with the song “Mickey”, a reworking of an older song “Kitty”, which she rejiggered with cheerleader chants recalled from her days cheering the Las Vegas High School Wildcats. If you were like me, you probably assumed Basil was 16 at the time, rather than the 38 she actually was when the song was recorded. At any rate, now it’ll be in your head all day. Sorry! She went on to release two LPs in 1982 and 1983 and chart 2 additional singles. During this pop star phase she was romantically involved with Devo’s Gerald Casale. She recorded three of Devo’s songs on her 1982 album. In 1988 she starred in the B movie horror film Slaughterhouse Rock, with a soundtrack by Devo. She sang on one of the tracks. This was followed by the similar Rockula in 1990

Basil also choreographed for the films Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), That Thing You Do (1996), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1987), Legally Blonde (2001), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and live performances of David Bowie, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, and others. And naturally this is all a short list — her full credits are many times this length. She is not only alive but quite literally kicking…a living, vital connection to the Ed Sullivan days and everything in between. For fram a one-hit wonder she has clocked in a half century of relevance.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous