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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 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.

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!

Princess White Deer: Native American Royalty in Vaudeville

Posted in AMERICANA, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Native American Interest, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Esther Louise Georgette Deere, a.k.a Princess White Deer (1891-1991). A genuine Mohawk Princess and granddaughter of the tribe’s last full chief, Chief Running Deer, she was also a third generation show business professional.

Starting in the 1860s, Running Deer and his family began performing in medicine shows, Wild West shows, and circuses, often masquerading as members of any tribe they were hired to impersonate: Kickapoo, Umatilla, Sioux, Apache, or Shawnee. The members of the troupe would perform traditional chants, dances and rituals, do trick riding. re-enact famous battles — whatever would thrill the crowds. They also played in melodramas in legitimate theatres in shows like On the Trail of Daniel Boone and Queen of the Highway. The Deer family performed in some of the biggest shows of the era: P.T. Barnum’s, John Robinson’s, Texas Jack’s and numerous others. Running Deer’s last performance was at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. The family act continued on for nearly a decade, touring the U.K., Continental Europe, South Africa, and as far East as Russia, which is where Esther (Princess White Deer), who had been performing with her family since childhood, split off and went solo.

For the first several years of her career she performed in night clubs and music halls of Imperial Russia (reportedly even marrying a Count, who died in the First World War). The war sent Princess White Deer back to the States. Starting in 1917, she was a headliner on the big time Keith-Albee circuit, performing with a full company as “Princess White Deer and her Braves”. P.R. copy described her as “the only real American Indian in theatricals who dances and sings”, which probably wasn’t too far from the truth. The 17 minute act boasted an elaborate set and costumes, and a large troupe of performers. She would continue to return to Keith vaudeville periodically through the end of the 1920s.

Meantime, there were also other types of venues, and other acts. She was a frequent performer in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic and Nine O’Clock Frolic. She traveled with the road company of Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchy-Koo of 1919. She also appeared in the Broadway shows Tip Top (1920), The Yankee Princess (1922), and Lucky (1927). In 1924 she played supper clubs in Atlantic City with a ballroom dance act with an Argentinian smoothie named Peppy de Albrew. From 1928 through 1929 she performed in the cabarets and music halls of Paris.

Upon her return to the States in 1929, she appears to have essentially retired from show business, occupying herself with tribal activities and ceremonial appearances for the next 60 years. More on this remarkable person can be found in the book In Search of Princess White Deer, by Patricia Galperin. 


To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Lili St. Cyr: Naked But Not Dead

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2013 by travsd

Some girls work with parrots; Lily apparently worked with a Griffin

Lili St. Cyr (Willis Marie Van Schaack, 1918-1999) was born on this day. Having studied ballet as a child in her native Minneapolis, she first broke into show business as a chorus girl. One of her first jobs was in an act backing up the Duncan Sisters. She lobbied hard to become a featured dancer, enhancing her stunning looks with classy and creative gimmicks, and became one of the most famous burlesque performers of the 1940s and 50s.

Happy Thanksgiving!

So great was her fame that she also became a popular pin-up model, and appears in several Hollywood films, including Son of Sinbad (1955) and The Naked and the Dead (1958). (She played the Naked). At the same time she was appearing in Irving Klaw’s nudie films, such as Varietease (1954) and Teasarama (1955). Her sister Rosemary (known as “Dardy”) married Harold Minsky.

Leslie Zemeckis has written a terrific biography about this legendary burlesque performer. Read about it here.


Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2009 by travsd


“I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America”

Oscar Wilde

To us Americans a “Jersey Lillie” sounds like an insulting gift, rather like a “Bronx Cheer.”  But it isn’t New Jersey the name refers to, but old Jersey, the island in the English channel where Emilie Charlotte le Breton was born on this day in 1853. The “Langtry” bit comes from her husband, whom she married in 1874. Pencil sketches of her by artist Frank Miles were used on postcards and helped pave the way for her stage career.

Langtry’s success upon the stage rested upon her beauty and personality rather than any talent as an actress, inspiring Mr. Wilde’s quote. In performances in London and America in the 1880s critics tended to flay her, but audiences ate her up with a fork and spoon. One of her contemporary fans was Judge Roy Bean, a hang ‘em high frontier jurist who assured her immortality by virtue of being depicted in Hollywood westerns starring the likes of Walter Brennan and Paul Newman.

She made her U.S. vaudeville debut at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in 1906 with the one-act Between the Nightfall and the Light. Several return visits with one-acts were made in the teens. She passed away in 1929.

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

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