Betty Rowland: The Original Ball of Fire

To the best of my knowledge, burlesque star Betty Rowland (b. 1916) is still with us at age 104. When she hit the century mark a few years ago there was much hoopla, as in this Leslie Zameckis article on Huffpo. Rowland had appeared in Zemeckis’ bio Behind the Burly Q (2010). She is also in Liz Goldwyn’s 2005 Pretty Things. At any rate we’ll assume that she is still with us and celebrate her as burlesque’s oldest living legend.

Rowland was from Columbus. Hard times during the Depression compelled her and her sisters to gets jobs dancing in what was left of vaudeville, until there was an opening in a burlesque club and Betty stepped in to fill it. Her sister Dian also crossed the Rubicon into burlesque, although the sister died young. Thanks to her red hair and vivacious personality, her nickname became “the Ball of Fire”. Popular with audiences, Rowland easily made her way to New York and Minsky’s, until Mayor LaGuardia’s famous crackdown in 1938. After that she moved her act to Los Angeles, her home base for the duration. In 1941, the BIlly Wilder comedy Ball of Fire came out, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Rowland unsuccessfully sued over the use of the name. (Stanwyck’s character in the film had originally been a burlesque dancer; it was subsequently changed to a nightclub singer. Stanwyck would get her to chance to shimmy in Lady of Burlesque two years later).

In 1950, Rowland was featured in the “documentary” International Burlesque, with performers like Vince Barnett, Beetlepuss Lewis, and Harry Rose. Two years later she got another burst of publicity when she was busted for a “lewd performance” (the reality was that the theatre had opted not to admit a couple of cops into the show for free. A bribe later made everything square, if not precisely straight). Living in the L.A. area also resulted in film opportunities. She had bit parts in three movies, the Italian Spavaldi e Innamorati (1959), the Ozzie and Ricky Nelson film Love and Kisses (1965), and the western A Time for Dying (1969). In the mid ’60s she acquired a bar called Mr. B’s and ran and worked at a succession of bars, restaurants and clubs into the 1990s

To find out more about the variety arts, including vaudeville and burlesque, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.