O, if only Acquanetta (1921-2004) had been in vaudeville or burlesque. She had that genius for hype and camp and self-creation. Her real name seems to have been Mildred Davenport but everything else about her is shadowy. She may have been from South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Harlem, or Wyoming, though she gave out that she was Venezulean, though it’s said that she’s Arapahoe and might have been African American, and she once claimed her great-grandfather was the illegitimate offspring of the King of England. Do NOT write to tell me anything real about her. I do not WANT to know what the truth is, will not share it, and will send you a reply that will ELECTROCUTE You. What matters here is that she developed an exotic screen persona — nothing else. I am especially astonished that she developed her professional handle a full two decades before the hair spray Aqua Net was popular. If any drag star used the name now, one would immediately identify it as a joke on the once ubiquitous ladies’ aerosol product. And naturally her seconad tag, the Venezuelan Volcano, seems in emulation of Lupe Velez the Mexican Spitfire, and Olga San Juan the Puerto Rican Pepperpot.
Her first film was Arabian Nights (1942) with Sabu, Jon Hall, and the similar (and more successful) Maria Montez. This was followed by Rhythm of the Islands (1943) with Allan Jones and Jane Frazee. Then came a pair of horror films which might have been her greatest claim to fame, Captive Wild Woman (1943) and Jungle Woman (1944), in which she played a transforming monster called The Gorilla Girl. Her key role as the High Priestess in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) rounds out the first phase of her career.
Unfortunately, the momentum of her career was interrupted in 1947, when she married a millionaire named Luciano Baschuk. They were divorced by 1950. She married illustrator Henry Clive that same year, then returned to films with a less lofty status starting with a supporting role in The Sword of Monte Cristo (1951). She was merely an extra in her next three films: Lost Continent (1951), Callaway Went Thataway (1951) and Take the High Ground! (1953). Her five year old son died of cancer in 1952, which certainly would explain her reduced engagement in the industry. In 1953 she divorced Clive and became a local Los Angeles radio DJ for a couple of years.
During the 1950s, Acquanetts married Arizona car dealer Jack Ross and became a local personality in that state, appearing in his TV commericals, hosting her own Friday night movie show called Acqua’s Corner, and being a political wife (Ross ran for Governor twice in the 1970s). They also gave to local charities, Acquanetta published a book of poetry called The Audible Silence in 1994.
In 2005, Acquanetta’s life and career inspired an opera by Michael Gordon and Deborah Artman, later produced in a chamber version by Beth Morrison Projects at New York’s Prototype Festival in 2018.
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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