Archive for the Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps Category

Fifteen Famous Females Named “Billie”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film, Singers, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

This non sequitur of a blogpost came about because I noticed that show business has given us more than one female performer with the unusual first name of “Billie”. We post it today because it happens to be the birthday of Billie Whitelaw. As a small child, I probably became aware of Billie Burke and Billie Hayes at around the same time and found it fascinating that a woman would have that name. It’s sort of a rare name for a female, right? I’ve never met one IRL.  As a kid I considered it the female equivalent of “A Boy named Sue”. At any rate, there seemed to be a sort of interesting cluster of them at the beginning of the last century; it seemed kind of fun to compare and contrast them. For example, there seems to be an abnormally high association of the name with fantasy and magic, and a few are pioneers in one way or another. Click on links to learn more about their fascinating stories.

Billie Bennett (Emily B. Haynie, 1874-1951)

This interesting actress will be getting her own post on Travalanche later this years, for she got her start acting in many Mack Sennett and Keystone comedy shorts with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand. In the 20s she was in some major silent features, including Robin Hood (1922) and Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925). Her career did not long outlast the advent of sound, but ironically her life began to be even more interesting at that point. It has been alleged that she became the madam of a “high class bordello” for studio execs and their guests, where many of the call girls were hired based on their their resemblances to major screen actresses of the day. Surely a partial inspiration for L.A. Confidential?

Billie Burke (Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, 1884-1970)

Wife of Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld, and star of stage and screen, most memorably as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. 

Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny, 1903-1997)

Artist model, Ziegfeld girl, and major star of silent movies such as The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks. She was a major sex symbol of her day, and is also famous for a three year affair with Howard Hughes. 

Billie Leonard

I’m anxious to dig out the facts on this lady, as almost nothing (dates of birth or death, birth name, or her early and late life) is available readily to hand. All I know is that she was in the Broadway show You Said It (1931) with Lou Holtz, and that she had a very intense year (1934-1935) of appearing in movie shorts, many of which I’ve seen, including the very early Bob Hope musical short Paree, Paree (1934), Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934) with Georgie Price and Sylvia Froos, and a couple of comedies with Shemp Howard and Roscoe Ates. If and when I learn more I will share it here.

Billie Bird (Berneice Bird Sowell, 1908-2002)

You mayn’t know the name but you know the face, right? I’ll be giving her her own post in a few months as she started out in vaaudeville. She later became a bit player in tv sit coms and John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Home Alone (1990).

Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan, 1915-1959)

I am way overdue to do a post on this distinctive and tragic jazz singer who remains extremely influential to this day. She took her stage name from Billie Dove (above).

Billie Rogers (1917-2014)

Singer and jazz trumpet player — in fact, she was the first female to play in the brass section of a major jazz orchestra (Woody Herman’s). She later fronted her own bands.

Billie Mae Richards (Billie Mae Dinsmore, 1921-2010)

Actress and voice over performer best known for being the voice of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in Rankin-Bass specials!

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)

While American audiences know her best for playing the sinister Mrs. Baylock in the original 1976 version of The Omen, she was was major sex symbol in British films of the 1950s, and one of the principal stage collaborators of playwright Samuel Beckett. 

Billie Hayes (b. 1932) 

is of course Witchie-Poo!

Billie Jean Horton (Billie Jean Jones Eshliman, b. 1933)

Country singer from Louisiana who was married to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and had an affair with Johnny Cash. 

Billie Jo Spears (Billie Jean Spears, 1937-2011)

Nashville singer best known for her 1975 #1 Country Hit “Blanket on the Ground”.

Billie Jean King (b. 1943)

Champion women’s tennis player and feminist icon. But we include her on this list mainly because she re-created her famous “Battle of the Sexes” feud with Bobby Riggs on The Odd Couple in 1974.

Billie Davis (Carol Hedges, b.1945)

English pop singer of the Swinging Sixties best known for her 1963 hit “Tell Him”. She is said to have taken her stage name from Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. 

Billie Lourd (b. 1992)

Like a lot of “old school” first names, Billie-for-Girls is in the midst of a strong comeback. There are numerous female Billies on TV and the internet at present, but for the sake of sanity I’ll only mention one timely and topical one. Billie Lourd is the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of the late Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. She is a star of the tv show Scream Queens and the most recent Star Wars films.

To find out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com

On the Fearless Peggy Fears

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

The legendary Broadway figure Peggy Fears (1903-1994) was born on this day.

Originally from New Orleans and later Dallas, Fears was the daughter of a wealthy banker. She was all of 14 when she ran away from home and was cast in her first Broadway show the Bolton-Wodehouse musical Have a Heart (1917). From here she went into the Morris Gest show Midnight Whirl (1919-1920). Next came three Florenz Ziegfeld shows. There are two different stories about how she came to Ziegfeld’s attention. One says she was heard singing at a country club by Ziegfeld star Helen Morgan; another (Fears’ own account) says she bumped into him in his offices (after making a concerted effort to do so). At any rate, he put her in the shows Louie the 14th (1925), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 and No Foolin’ (1925).

Fears was bisexual. As a young girl she is said to have attempted to elope with a cattle heir named Tom Wharton, and to have dated John Hay “Jock” Whitney. While on the Ziegfeld shows she was the lover of Louise Brooks. In her memoir, Brooks writes of the experience, and of the two of them palling around with W.C. Fields, who always had booze, in his dressing room.

Fears’ last Broadway show strictly as a performer was Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927). In that year she married the real estate millionaire Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal. In the 30s, she and Blumenthal produced several Broadway shows, including the Preston Sturges play Child of Manhattan (1932), the farce Nona (1932), the Oscar HammersteinJerome Kern show Music in the Air (1932-1933), and the play A Divine Moment (1934), in which she also appeared as an actress. This is the last show she produced, and I imagine the date tells the story. We are now in the depths of the Great Depression, when Broadway was in danger of going under for good.

Next she tried her hand at Hollywood. She appears in only one film: The Lottery Lover (1935), with Lew Ayres, Sterling Holloway and Reginald Denny. It was a bit of stunt casting. In the film she plays a night club singer, a star of the Folies Bergere named “Gaby Aimee”. The film was a bit of an outlier for her. A nightclub singer was what she actually was, touring extensively throughout American and Europe for the next few decades.

Fears and Blumenthal separated, divorced and remarried several times, finally splitting up for good in 1950. In the ’50s she purchased land on Fire Island and built the Yacht Club at Fire Island Pines, which she later sold to John B. Whyte in 1966. During the Fire Island years, she was the lover of the radio actress Tedi Thurman (who may be known to some readers from Ed Wood’s 1954 movie Jail Bait). Thurman spoke of their relationship in the 2003 documentary When Ocean Meets Sky.

For more on show history, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Billie Dove: Follies Girl

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2017 by travsd

Silent film star Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny 1903-1997) was born on this day. Born to Swiss immigrant parents in New York City, the stunningly beautiful teenager began her working life as a model to artists like Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg. She was also said to have worked as an extra on the Mabel Normand picture Joan of Plattsburg (1918), although she is not visible in the finished picture. In 1919, she was hired as a replacement for the Ziegfeld Follies during the infamous strike; she was also cast as a replacement in the Marilyn Miller show Sally, also produced by Ziegfeld.

With Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” (1926)

She moved to Hollywood right after this, where she was a star for just over a decade. Her first proper role was in the screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921) starring Sam Hardy. Interestingly, though her time as an actual chorus girl was brief, she would PORTRAY a chorus girl on screen so often that it became a big part of of her Jazz Age image, in movies like At the Stage Door (1921), Polly of the Follies (1922), An Affair of the Follies (1927), The Heart of a Follies Girl (1928), and her very last film Blondie of the Follies (1932). Among her other notable pictures were, The Black Pirate (1926), opposite Douglas Fairbanks, and Kid Boots (1926), Eddie Cantor’s screen debut, an adaptation of his Ziegfeld-produced Broadway show featuring Cantor and Clara Bow. Billie Dove also was known for co-starring in numerous westerns with the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and others.

Dove had a three year romance with Howard Hughes, who’d produced several of her films. In 1933 she retired from the screen to marry oil tycoon Robert Alan Kenaston. After a 30 year absence from the screen she stepped before the camera one last time for a cameo in the Charlton Heston vehicle Diamond Head (1963). Singer Billie Holiday is said to have taken the first part of her stage name from Billie Dove’s.

For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Connie Russell: Third Generation Show Biz

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

I first became aware of Connie Russell (1923-1990) when I saw her as the femme fatale in the extremely cool noir thriller Nightmare (1956) with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy. I said, “Yowsa, who’s THAT?!” I was shocked next to learn that she only had a tiny handful of film credits, usually either as an extra or the singer in a cabaret or nightclub scene. Nightmare, her last role, was also her biggest and best.

Russell was third generation show biz. Her paternal grandparents were the vaudeville team of Glenroy and Russell. Her parents Tommy and Nina Russell also had a vaudeville team, and Connie first joined them onstage when she was only two years old. By the time she was 11, Russell was already a solo. By the time she was a teenager she was singing at nightclubs and such venues such as New York’s Paramount Theater.  At 14 she had a tiny role in the English film Melody and Romance; at 16, she signed with MGM. Unfortunately, they gave her little to do. She got to sing a number in Lady be Good (1941) but after that she mostly had uncredited walk-ons.

“Nightmare”

The bulk of her show biz resume consisted of an extremely robust recording career, live performance, and frequent radio tv appearances, including a stint as a regular on Garroway at Large (1949), and lots of guest shots on the variety shows of Ed Sullivan, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and Steve Allen. A part in the film Cruisin’ Down the River (1953) briefly revived the idea of a movie career, but Nightmare did not lead to other roles. She retired from show business in the early 1960s.

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

Some Cool Things You May Not Know About MARY ASTOR

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2017 by travsd

Hollywood star Mary Astor (Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, 1906-1987) is a May 3 baby.

If you’re like me, you know her primarily, maybe entirely, by her LATE roles, most especially Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but also the Princess in The Palm Beach Story (1942), the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Marmee in Little Women (1949), and her small role in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). And I’ve seen a couple of her better known early talkies like Holiday (1930), Red Dust (1932), Dodsworth (1936) and The Hurricane (1937). And then there are her famous silents, such as Don Q Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks, and her films with John Barrymore, such as Beau Brummel (1924, adapted from the Clyde Fitch play); and Don Juan (1926).

But there are other tidbits. Did you know she was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926? Did you know that her first movie was Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow (1920)? Did you know her first husband (of four) was Kenneth Hawks, Howard Hawks’ brother? Did you know she had an affair with George S. Kaufman? Did you know that in addition to two books of memoirs, she wrote five novels?

The early image; with John Barrymore.

She pretty much prepared her entire life to become a movie star. Both of her parents were teachers. Her father, an immigrant from Berlin, taught German. Her mother, who was half Irish, half Portuguese, contributing to her daughter’s exotic beauty, taught drama and elocution. Astor participated in amateur theatricals from childhood, and began sending her photographs to beauty contests as a teenager, coming close to winning several. Circa 1920 she modeled for photographer Charles Albin. The fruits of these sessions were spotted by a scout from Famous Players-Lasky, and that was how she landed her contract. Her screen name was devised by a committee that included Walter Wanger, Jesse Lasky, and Louella Parsons. And it’s perfect, isn’t it? She has this air of class, sophistication, even aristocracy. Many assumed (I’m sure I first did) that she was one of “those” Astors. But, of course, actual Astors had no need to become movie stars in 1920.

For more on early film please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

The Perennial Mystique of Bettie Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2017 by travsd

Bettie Page and sister, Coney Island. Parachute Jump in background

April 22 is the birthday of Bettie Page (1923-2008). I feel sort of Bettie Page cult-adjacent, near but not of the intense widespread worship of this iconic pin-up girl of the 1950s. So many people of my generation are so crazy about her that it fascinates me. I feel I get it even if (for some reason) she doesn’t obsess and beguile me as she does so many other people. It’s almost like she’s the Mona Lisa or something to certain people. Without exaggerating, I must know dozens of women who pattern or have patterned their appearance after her, not just burlesque dancers, but artists of various kinds, painters, musicians, stage directors, and women who are simply into vintage culture. My wife has owned this fridge magnet ever since I’ve known her:

Is it something about the period? Is it the clash between the wholesome and the illicit? There is something about Bettie Page that reminds me of actresses in noir films of the 40s, like Veronica Lake. It’s like she’s the girl next door who is game enough to dabble at being daring without being swallowed up in some sinkhole of ruin. She was literally a secretary who posed for naughty pictures for a decade, then stopped doing that. Interestingly, her life didn’t fall apart (mental illness, several divorces) until AFTER she retired from modelling and became a born again Christian.

There are several points of overlap and interest for me about her life and short career. The first is that she is from the great town of Nashville, home of my ancestors. A lot of classic burlesque girls and pin-ups were of my stock: poor Southern white folk. It’s one of the strong connections I feel to classic burlesque culture — a subject for a planned future post.

The second is that she was discovered at Coney Island! She’d come to NYC to be an actress in 1949. A few months later an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs saw her on the beach at Coney and asked her to model for him. Ironically, Tibbs was an NYPD officer and Page’s work would eventually take her into illegal territory. But photos like the one at the top of this post, and this one, are illustrations of her connection to the beach and amusement park at Coney Island:

Betty Page is in several burlesque films of the mid ’50s: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). I became acquainted with these about five years ago in preparation for directing a couple of editions of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades. With the passing of 60 years these films have acquired much charm they probably didn’t seem to possess when they were first released, full of theatrical values and efforts that fell by the wayside in such films as the late ’60s gave way to straight up porn.

Also, as we wrote here, in the 1950s, Bettie posed — Believe it or NOT — for Harold Lloyd! The former silent film comedian experimented with taking art shots of sexy girls with a 3-D camera during his retirement. Some are published in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D. 

Bettie Page photo by Harold Lloyd

In 2004, Gretchen Mol starred in/ as The Notorious Bettie Page. Ironically, I discovered this film backwards. Mol had appeared in the film adapted from my friend Jeff Nichols’ book Trainwreck, American Loser (2007). The Mad Marchioness then referred me back to the Page bio-pic, for which Mol is obviously much better known.

In 2012 the definitive documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All was released. Access it here at the official site.

The mania continues unabated!

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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