The Other Jean Carroll: The One in Burlesque

Jean Carroll (aka Mary Henrici) Jean began her career dancing in Burlesque with her sister JoAnn, in the 1930’s. But soon proved herself an effective “Talking Woman”; a showgirl that could perform in comedy skits. She did this for many years with her 1st husband: Bob Carney. By 1958, she’d met her 2nd husband: comic Billy “Zoot” Reed, and the tradition continued ‘til 1964.
She’s the one on the left
We find the qualifier in the headline necessary to differentiate our present subject from the pioneering female stand-up comedian Jean Carroll, who’d been in the team of Carroll and Howe. Today’s Jean Carroll (Mary Henrici, 1916-1990) had also been in vaudeville, but followed an entirely different career trajectory. This Jean Carroll was second generation show biz; her mother Fern Lacey is said to have played Buster Brown in vaudeville. Jean and her sister JoAnn started out dancing together in vaudeville and then progressed to burlesque as a team in the early ’30s as vaudeville died out (at the same time as Gypsy Rose Lee and for the same reason). The pair headlined in burlesque; JoAnn is said by some sources to have been voted “Miss Hollywood of 1932” although I can find no corroboration or context for that attribution. The sisters split up as an act in 1936.
As a single, Jean demonstrated her value in blackout comedy sketches, in addition to performing her strips. Her first husband was burlesque and screen comedian Bob Carney. Carol, Carney, and Billie Bird were all in residence at L.A.’s Colony Club in the 1950s. During this period she appeared in the films French Follies (1951), Varieties on Parade (1951), A Night in Hollywood (1953), Dream Follies (1954), and Naughty New Orleans (1954), now valuable records of a long ago time and a long ago art form. She also did occasional television, including two episodes of Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. By 1958 she was married to a second husband and comedy partner, Billy “Zoot” Reed (pictured above). She appears to have retired after 1964.
I recently heard from reader Leon “Jerry” Marketos, who fills in the gap about her last years. In Jerry’s words: “I knew Jean and JoAnn Carroll from the early 1980’s up through the time of Jean’s passing (and JoAnn a bit beyond that).  We lived in the same apartment complex in Liverpool, NY  (a northern suburb of Syracuse). My mother worked as rental agent at the complex, and I had part time jobs there doing maintenance and grounds work while attending school. JoAnn rented an apartment at the same complex, but she happened to work as rental agent at a different apartment complex a few miles away.  She specifically didn’t want to live at the same complex where she worked, because the tenants often don’t make the distinction of non-working hours and expect favors of all sorts; something my mother came to learn first-hand.  Once the two learned they were in same line of work, a friendship ensued and that’s how I got to know the Carroll sisters.  I’m ball-parking that JoAnn would have been in her mid 60’s when I met her in the early 1980’s.  Believe Jean was a year or two older…
Jean had managed a theater of some sort (perhaps a movie theater) in Florida for some portion of the 1970’s into early 80’s, retired from there and moved back to the Central NY area presumably to be near her family.  The two sisters enjoyed having apartments across the hall from each other.  Layout of the apartments were mirror image of each other, and both sisters had a bar set up at the same relative location in their living rooms.  Most of the time, both of their front doors were open to welcome any acquaintance who might want to visit.  They were super people, and lots of fun…
JoAnn was of medium height, very slender and wore vivid red hair.  She was quick witted and vivacious.  Jean was a bit shorter and of more average build.  Not to describe her as “heavy” by any means, just average.  I make the distinction only because JoAnn was very thin.  Jean’s hair was “bottle blonde”.  Her demeanor was more reserved, but by no means placid.  To borrow “noir” terms, Jean had a smoldering aura, whereas JoAnn’s was more overt.  As you might imagine, both of them were always well kept and well presented- even when just lounging at home…
JoAnn was single when I knew them, and had the last name Travis.  Believe she had a son named Eddie.  Jean was married or partnered with a man named Charles Lever.  Jean and Charles met through her work, I believe he was a manager or usher at the theater…
JoAnn drove a white Cadillac Eldorado when I first knew her, believe that car was a 1970 model.  She was sentimentally attached to that car- we were told privately that it had ties to an internationally recognized big screen actor, perhaps with some background details that could not be made public…
Jean used an extra bedroom in her apartment as a shrine of sorts, covered with photos and mementos from their show days.  They knew so many people-  Abbott & Costello, on and on and on.  Jean used to tell me that Lou Costello was a very nice person, but a very mean drunk.  The entrance to her “picture room” was guarded by a life-size stuffed animal version of Wile E. Coyote.  He was out of character relative to the glamor-oriented rest of the room, and not sure if there was a specific story behind the acquisition of Wile E., or just random.  But he was a favorite fixture of Jean’s…
Jean became ill and passed away in 1990. I remember attending her calling hours.  We kept in touch with JoAnn thereafter, but we moved out from the apartment complex and communication faded.  They were two very fun ladies, who could recount endless hours of stories and adventures, often involving “spice” of one sort or another.  I remember them very fondly and raise a toast to them once in a while.”
Thank you, Jerry Marketos, for this vivid oral history that helps us round out our portrait of these delightful-sounding burlesque legends!
To learn more about show biz history, including burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.