“What was the first thing you took off?” “Your beautiful gown. Then you had what is called a panel, something like a little teddy, and then you took off your brassiere and knit pants. On your next pass you’d take off another panel, and then you had your G-string. I’ll show you my G-string. There it is, I made a lampshade out of it.” On the far end of a large seventh-floor living room, one that overlooks Balboa Park, sits what appears to be my grandmother’s lamp. The lamp has an etched, blue-and-silver porcelain base. Hanging over the base is a lamp-shade. The shade looks to be made of thin nylon rope, but is, of course, my host’s long-ago G-string.
Janne Cafara is a retired burlesque stripper. She stripped at the old Hollywood Theater (F Street and Third Avenue) in San Diego off and on for 18 years, but that engagement is a small portion of her resume. Cafara entered show business in the early ’20s and retired in 1958. She was a headliner known as “The Sophisticated Lady.” She performed from Seattle to New York, Chicago to Oklahoma City, Los Angeles to Philadelphia, plus Canada, Central and South America. Even in old age she is a beautiful woman, with lovely white hair immaculately combed, a petite build, an angular, attentive face that draws you in, and an ironic twist of mind.
With us, sitting quietly on the far couch, is Larry Kane, who was once the highest-paid house singer in burlesque, at one time making an unbelievable $175 a week at the Hudson Theater in Union City, New Jersey. He went on to become technical director of the San Diego Opera Association, then technical director of the Starlight Opera. Larry and Janne met at the Hollywood Theater in 1950; they married and subsequently divorced in 1979. Lately Janne has worried about being alone. Larry comes over and stays with her.
I regard the G-string lamp and ask Janne, “Did you have pasties?”
She graces me with a genuine smile. “You had knit pants and your knit brassiere; you had a thing that covered the rosette of your breasts. You could not show that. In lots of theaters you had to place a flower in your belly button because you weren’t allowed to show them that. It was all according to whether you paid the censors or not. In Chicago, at the King Arthur Theater, you had to wear wide-neck pants with the crotch, and you had to wear a knit brassiere with things sewn in it. Right catty-corner across the street was the Academy Theater. There, you could wear shorter-necked pants, you could wear a net brassiere, and at the end of your number, you could flash everything and the spotlight man blacked out. The difference was the $300 a week that the Academy paid the censors.”
“How were the censors in San Diego?”
“Bob Johnston owned the Hollywood Theater, and he censored his own show. If anybody got too dirty, he would come backstage and say, ‘Knock it off. We don’t need that.’ But in many, many theaters there was a censor sitting in the wings. We were in Seattle doing a scene, and the straight man was telling the comic how to get a girl. And he told the comic what he should do and what he shouldn’t. He said, ‘One comes by, you do all these things, and she’ll fall for it.’ And so I would come out and walk, real fast, across the stage. And the straight man would say to the comic, ‘Here she comes,’ and I’d walk real fast, and he’d say, ‘There she goes.’
“That was always a big laugh, but the Seattle censor ordered, ‘Don’t let her walk that fast because she looks vulgar when she walks fast.’ Larry told the comic, and it was true, ‘You grease their palm a little bit, and she could rollerskate across the stage if she wanted to.' "
I didn’t think retired burlesque queens were supposed to live in lavish apartments overlooking urban parks. I have nothing against that; I just didn’t think it happened. Janne likes living here “because nobody can bother you. I have a nice view of the park. They’ve got a beautiful dining room downstairs, and they have a nightclub. They’ve got an upper deck; we play bridge up there every Tuesday. They’ve got pool tables and exercise equipment and what have you.”
I sit forward, take a deep breath, and begin with the simplest question I can think of: “How did it start?”
“I came out of the hollers of Huntington, West Virginia. My mother died when I was eight. I had to live with my sister-in-law. I would have almost gone to hell to get away from her. When I left, there wasn’t a tear shed.
"I was taking care of a baby for a woman in town, washing baby diapers. There was a little ice cream stand around the corner in a drugstore. And I would go over there in the afternoon, when I had nothing else to do, and the drugstore lady would give me an ice cream sundae. We would talk. The mailman came in one day and said, ‘That kid ought to be in show business.’ The woman looked me up and down, commented, ‘Well, she’ll have to grow a little more in front.’ I was a kid. I was infuriated that they would talk about me going into this stuff called show business. Then she said, ‘My husband and I spent our lives in show business, and I think we’re nice people.’
“She told me, ‘Go over to the theater, knock on the theater door, and ask them if they need any chorus girls.’ So I went over and knocked on the door. The doorman opened it and let me in. I told him what I was there for. And the chorus producer came and questioned me, ‘Can you dance?’ And I said, ‘No.’ There was no use lying about it; I couldn’t dance. So she showed me a soft-shoe step, and I did it. And she said, ‘Well, if you can pick up that quick, you be at the train station tomorrow morning.’
“The next morning I was at the train station at six o’clock instead of eight. When the troupe arrived, the manager called out, ‘Where’s that kid that was here yesterday?’ I said in my tiny voice, ‘Here I am.’ And that night we opened in Logan, West Virginia, and I went out and did the show. And that was the first show I’d ever seen in my life. It was The Student Prince.
“At that time, you could get three or four dollars a week working in a dime store, but in show business you got $25 a week for dancing in the chorus, and they hauled you all over the country. They paid your train fare. You had to buy your own meals and pay your own rent, but rent was $3.50 a week for a room. Twenty- five dollars was the biggest amount of money I’d ever seen.”
“When was this?”
“Nineteen and twenty-one or two or three. I got in show business in the South, and we had ‘tab shows.’ A tab show was a tabloid version of a big Broadway production. If they had 24 girls in the Broadway production, they’d have 12 girls in the tabloid version. A tabloid show meant they tabbed it down. If they had an ingenue and a soubrette and a character woman, they’d give two of the parts to one woman. They would cut down the cast and tour the South. We’d stay in little hotels, and they would have little restaurants that were called ‘Pitch Till You Win.’ You could have all you wanted to eat, and there were great big dining-room tables and platters of fried chicken and everything you could think of. You just sat there and ate, and they passed plates around like a family dinner.
“I found myself in a touring company. They went to a different town every week. There was a chorus boy named Dixie Faulkin. He’d say, ‘Well, take four steps that way, three steps this way, turn around and sit on my knee,’ teaching me what to do because I’d never been on a stage in my life.”
Another world, another time. I am enthralled. My mind fills with visions of trolley cars; women in long, black dresses wearing wide-brimmed hats; train stations with cathedral ceilings; a 1924 Chrysler. “How long did you stay with that touring company?”
“Until the manager ran off with all the money one night in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and left everybody stranded. The piano player and the chorus producer got together and booked us in the little towns around Altoona. It was just four chorus girls and the singer and one of the comics. We put a little bit of the show together. We didn’t get so much money, but we did get enough to eat on. Then, one day, I was in the hotel lobby and the comic came down and said, ‘Honey, you better go upstairs and get your wardrobe.’ And I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘The hotel is locking the doors.’ We didn’t have anything to pay our rent. They locked our clothes in the rooms.
“I had no coat — it was wintertime. I walked down the street crying. Now, the first thing the old chorus girls told me was, ‘Anytime a man tries to talk to you on the street, you run into a store, any store; get in there where there are people, where he can’t get ahold of you or talk to you. So there I was on the street, and this man came up and tried to talk to me, and I ran into a jewelry store.
“The man followed me inside, and he spoke to the jeweler. ‘This child is one of the actors who got stranded. Will you tell her that I am a respectable lawyer, and I have called my wife to come down here and get her off of the street.’The jeweler said, ‘I’ll keep her here until your wife arrives.’ The wife came and took me to her home, and they fed me. I hadn’t had anything to eat. I told her, ‘If I can get to Chicago, there are lots of theaters there that use lots of chorus girls.’ She gave me a coat, $5 in cash, and they took me down to the train station, bought me a ticket, and put me on a train for Chicago where I got a job in one of the theaters. I was 13 1/2 years old.
“By the way, please don’t mention my age, nobody cares. People have a great deal of contempt for old people. Young people think that old people are stupid and ignorant, they really do. It never occurs to them that if you live this long you must have learned something.”
Just outside sliding-glass doors, on the balcony, two rotund pigeons amble along a gray-white slab of cement. It seems more like a Sunday promenade. I picture the larger pigeon in a top hat, carrying a silver-tipped walking cane tucked underneath one wing. I quickly move my attention back to Janne and ask, “How did you break out of the chorus?”
“In tab shows, if they have an extra female part, they will take one of the chorus girls and let her do it instead of hiring a principal and paying extra money. The chorus girl can do the little walk-acrosses. I was in a tab show, and the producer wanted somebody to do something, so he gave me the part. I went out on the stage and did it. Afterwards, the producer asked his brother, Ray, ‘Could you hear her?’ because in those days they didn’t have any microphones. And Ray said, ‘Yeah, even across the street.’
“I had a very resonant voice. I talked very clearly and very cleanly. It got to the point where every time they wanted something done they’d say, ‘Let that little Irish kid do it.’ By the way, I was known as Irish in all my years in show business. The name on the billboard didn’t mean a thing. Nobody in show business ever called me anything but Irish.”
“How did you get into burlesque?”
“I was in a tab show and we were playing St. Louis, Missouri. The burlesque show was at the Globe, this huge old theater. The little tab show I was working in closed and somebody said, ‘Go over and get a job at the Globe.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s burlesque,’ but I went over and got a job, and there was not one bit of difference doing ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ in that theater than there was doing ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ in the little theater. It’s all dancing or singing or whatever you do. Whatever that world out there calls it doesn’t matter.
“I had a memory like an elephant. I was at the Globe and the ingenue got sick. They gave me 35 sides of script one night — they call them sides because the script is only printed on one side of the paper — and I went out and did the scene the next day. Of course, the producer is standing in the wings with the script in his hand. He would have thrown me the lines if I had forgotten any, but I didn’t.”
Cafara smiles a smile meant for her alone. I wait for the moment to pass, then ask, “So you’re in burlesque as a chorus girl. How did you become a stripper?”
“Lots of times, if a chorus girl had fantastic shape, they’d let her do the first strip number. I was working in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Viola Space said to me, ‘You gonna jig in the chorus the rest of your life? Why don’t you let me teach you how to do a number?’ Prejudice, you’re born with it. I said, ‘I don’t think that would be nice.’ Oh God, how stupid I was. Anyway, Viola loaned me an orchid-colored costume, dressed me up in it, got me some music, and rehearsed me with the orchestra.
“She taught me, ‘You walk across the stage, turn around, dip your knees, do this, do that, move.’ She stood in the wings when I went on — you always had a wardrobe girl catch your wardrobe as you took off your fabulous gown. So I went out, took off the gown, hung it over my arm, bowed at the audience, and left.” Janne Cafara blushes. “I wound up doing the number all week long.”
“Did you have a feeling of accomplishment, that you’d moved up in the world?”
“No, I don’t think you see life as steps. It’s just, I'll get a little more money next week.’ I got fired one time in all my years in show business. I never had an agent; somebody would always call up and ask if I wanted to come work in their theater, or if I was in a town I would go around and ask, 'Do you need a performer?’ And when you’re young, you don’t think. You don’t plan this or plan that. I worked in Chicago for eight years because they had a lot of theaters, and all you had to do was go from one theater to the next. If you didn’t like this one, you quit and went to work in that one.
“When I was working at the Columbia Theater on Broadway in New York, Earl Carroll came to the theater. He picked me and [another girl] out of the chorus and asked us to come over to his theater, the Earl Carroll Theater. And over Earl Carroll’s theater door it said, 'Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in the World.’ [We] shook hands as we went in. Neither one of us were tall enough to come up to the parade girls’ shoulders.”
Sitting contentedly on the overstuffed living room couch is Larry Kane. He looks to be in his 60s, with a clean-shaven, ruddy face, well-trimmed gray hair, and a potbelly that blends well with his husky frame. Even while sitting he shows an actor’s grace. “Larry, what did you do in burlesque?” I ask.
Larry has a soft, distinct voice. “I acted in the show, worked as a straight man with the comics, did a specialty number occasionally. Then I would do the introductions, make the announcements. I would announce her. She used to book herself as ‘The Sophisticated Lady.’ So I’d introduce her as the Sophisticated Lady, give her name, Janne Cafara, then the music would start and I would sing. We used to call them trailers. I’d sing her first trailer, which was the first song.”
I turn back to Janne. “So Larry is singing, you walk out on the stage and begin your number. What did it take to be a strip woman?”
“You have to have a little grace — beauty isn’t everything — and I did have a fabulous shape, there’s no doubt about that. But I don’t know.... Lillian Hunt [who owned the Burbank Theater in Los Angeles] sent some girl down here to be a strip woman. That girl was absolutely beautiful. She had a beautiful face, fabulous hair, she was 23 years old, but no matter what she did, when she went out on that stage, she never got a hand. I don’t know, it’s you. It’s that undefinable something known as stage presence.”
Larry adds, “When the strip woman first came out onstage, the spotlight operator would have what they call a 'single filter’ in the lens, which would usually be a special lavender, which is a flattering color. When she started to disrobe, they’d drop another filter in so the light continuously got dimmer....”
Janne continues the thought; “...it went down and down and down and down, darker and darker and darker.”
I visualize the stage, the spotlight, Cafara dressed in ostrich feathers. No, it couldn’t have been ostrich feathers. I smile to myself. “Were strippers normally the feature bill?”
Janne replies, “Strippers were the bill. The typical show, the first thing they had was a big, elaborate opening, musical numbers and dances. Then they did the first scene, a comic scene, and then they did the first strip number. Sometimes they’d let a little chorus girl do the first strip number.”
“How do you do a strip number?”
“Well, you usually do a slow trailer. You do a slow number and then you do a fairly fast number, maybe like a blues number, and then you do your finale number. The burlesque shows used to have high-class vaudeville acts. A big vaudeville act would be the co-feature, and then the feature was a strip woman. I was working in a theater, and they had the Delta River Boys, who were four of the handsomest, tallest, slimmest colored guys you ever saw. And could they sing. Of course, they were the next to the closing act, and I, being the feature, was the closing act. I heard them singing during general rehearsal, and I told the manager, ‘I will not follow those boys and that’s all there is to it.’ Because I couldn’t sing a note. And he said, ‘You have to.’ I just said, ‘Well, I’m not going to do it. I will not walk out after an act that is perfection and sing.’
“Oh, what harmony they did. Finally, the saxophone player stood up and said to the manager, ‘Look, give me a microphone’ — it was one of those things that Rudy Vallee used to sing into — I ‘and I’ll stand in the pit. They can put a pin spot on me, and I’ll sing to her while she parades around.’ The manager agreed, ‘Well, we’ll try anything.’ So the saxophonist sings, ‘She’s sweet and lovely, sweeter than the flowers in May,’ and I’m parading around and looking pretty. We knocked them cold. In a couple of years, every woman who couldn’t sing had somebody else sing her songs for her.”
“How many shows a day would a burlesque theater put on? How long would they run?”
“It’s all according to the theater. When I first came to San Diego, at the Hollywood Theater, they were doing five shows a day, because the war had just started. The shows were supposed to run an hour and a half, but if there was a large crowd outside they’d cut the show in half, empty the theater, and open it up again. They’d fill it five times a day. Most of the time I was the feature. I did one number. But then if you go in a house to play stock, you have to do a couple of scenes. If it’s a two-and-a-half-hour show, you have to do a scene, and then you do your number, and then in the next act you do a scene or two, and then another number. It might sound like braggin’, but the comics always insisted that I do their scenes. I got in show business when I was a kid, and I learned how to read lines. And of those old actors, there’s none better than burlesque comics. They came from the old school of acting; if you didn’t read your lines right, they told you how to read it.
“You know in your bones whether you’re doing it right, if you’re going over. You know when you walk down and take a bow that the rafters are going to ring. I have worked places where there were very few people in the audience. For instance, I opened in Buffalo. The chorus producer, she warned me, ‘Don’t feel bad if you don’t get a hand. Nobody ever gets a hand at the matinee.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll get a hand.’ I went out and I got a hell of a hand, and you never get a hand on a Thursday. Thursday is show business’s Jonah Day.”
“What’s a Jonah Day?”
“Well, there’s an old song, Thursday always was my Jonah Day. It’s when everything goes wrong. If anything can go wrong, it does.”
I glance over at Larry Kane, who sits, Buddha-like, attentive and relaxed. How many times has he heard this story? What was it really like, being married to a headliner? I decide there’s no way I’ll find out. Back to Janne. “That first week you were stripping, did you have a sense that your life had changed?”
“No, I was very busy trying to learn to do what I was supposed to do.”
“Did you say to yourself, ‘Gee, I’m going to be a stripper now....’ ”
“No, nobody ever called them strippers, they were called strip women. Nobody was ever known as a stripper until the public started saying stripper. I went right on working in the chorus, and the next week I did the first strip number again. Then I don’t know where I went — I think I went down the street somewhere. George Burns and Grade Allen were working at the Loel State Theater, in Indianapolis, and I have no idea how I got backstage, what I was doing in that show, or anything else. George would go out and start singing, and Grade would come out with her hands behind her and say, ‘George, could you sing that song if you had a broken arm?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, no, I don’t think I could.’ So she’d haul a baseball bat out and hit him on the arm. I thought that was the funniest thing I ever saw.” Janne grins, embracing the memory.
“What kind of people were they?”
“Very nice. Some show people might be a little overbearing or have a high opinion of themselves, but just as many have no self-esteem, and they get out on that stage and they’re somebody. You can be anybody you want to be out there.”
“Which category describes George Burns and Gracie Allen?”
“Well, she was naturally funny. Whatever she said was funny. They say the difference between a comedian and a comic is, a comedian says things funny, and a comic says funny things. She was simply funny. Somebody else like that was Buddy Hackett. It was funny to listen to him talk. He used to come over to the theater where Larry...” she nods to her ex-husband, “...was working. He’d bring his scrapbook to prove who he was so he could get in for nothing.”
Larry interjects, “In those days, people would ask at the door, ‘Do you recognize the profession?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah,’ which meant that if you were in show business, you could get in free. You didn’t have to buy a ticket. So he called the theater in Union City where I was working and said, ‘This is Buddy Hackett. Can I come over and see the show? I have a couple friends that I can bring.’ So he showed up at the theater with his scrapbook to prove he was in show business.” Larry and Janne share a wicked chuckle.
Janne closes her eyes and remembers. “When I first saw Danny Thomas, he was working as a candy butcher in a burlesque show in Toledo, Ohio. Red Skelton worked in the Liberty Theater. Red was one of the shyest kids I ever saw in my life. The next time I saw Red, he came down to the Rialto Theater in Chicago with his arms full of Raleigh cigarettes and gave everybody a smoke. The next time I saw him he was playing the United Circuit, and he was doing The Meanest Little Kid in Show Business. He married the girl out of the box office; she was selling tickets. She was 16 years old and started writing his material.” Janne jumps to another thought. “I never cared for Jackie Gleason; he was a double-died."
“What’s a double-died?”
“Asshole. And Phil Silvers, too. Phil Silvers was born that way, he was just a jerk, but Jackie Gleason was a very hateful, mean guy. He was just nasty. He was sitting in the green room one day, and every comic had a funny hat. A straight man came through, and Jackie had his funny hat, and the guy said, ‘Where did you get that hat, Jackie?’ And Gleason said, ‘Where did you get your f—ing head, you jerk, you.’ And he wasn’t kidding, he was just being nasty. If he did a scene with you, and the scene wasn’t funny, it was your fault, it wasn’t his. You didn’t read your lines right.
“I worked with Billy Reed, and he got to be a quite famous comic. I’d say, ‘What are we going to do for the scene?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, we’ll think of something. You’ve done the scene before.’ He hated to rehearse, so you did most of your scenes with him by ad-libbing. I worked with the best of them. Joe DeRita — he was one of the Three Stooges; he was Curly — I worked with him for years. He and I were together when we were 14 years old in a little theater in St. Jo, Missouri.
“I remember Milton Berle was working at the Follies Theater, and Jan Murray was working down the street as a straight man. Murray was one of those meticulous persons who wrote out all his scenes and put them in alphabetical order. He had three books, and each one of them had a hundred scenes in it. And he had them all written out and all the characters and the business and so forth and so on. Milton Berle used to come backstage, stand in the wings, and watch the show all the time. Finally, Berle said to Murray, ‘I’ll give you $300 for those three books.’ That’s how Milton Berle became Mr. Television. On his television show he did every scene that we ever did burlesque. He took burlesque scenes, and if there was a word or something in there that they had to change, he’d have his writers change it. But, my God, how many thousand times have I done the courtroom scene, but as long as it had the word burlesque attached to it, that was a derogatory.
“George Raft was one of the nicest people I ever met. He used to come backstage all the time, wander around, and talk with everybody. He asked me if I wanted to do a part in Whistle Stop. I said no; I had a job. I was making a very good salary. I was completely satisfied. I loved the sound of that applause. Besides, we had a poker game there. All the important people from Hollywood used to come down, and they had a great big green room with a great big old oak dining-room table, and after the show you played poker. I worked at the theater for three solid months and didn’t cash one salary check. I would clean them out all the time. I’m a good poker player.
“Joe DeRita and I opened in Rochester, and the musicians came up onstage and wanted to know if anybody played poker. Joe said, ‘Oh yeah, I play poker and Irish plays poker.’ And they said, ‘We don’t want any women in the poker game; they don’t know how to play cards.’ Joe said, ‘Well, then you can take her money.’ About three o’clock in the morning they all quit because I had all their dollars. They insisted I come back and let them get even. And the next night I stripped them again, so they decided they didn’t want me in the poker game anymore.” Janne shows a triumphant grin.
Larry pops in, “Show business has changed considerably over the last 25 years. Twenty-five years ago you grew up in show business, so you learned your training in the theater by doing it, whether as a stagehand or an actor. Nowadays, they get out of college, they have a degree in theater, and they’ve never performed in their lives.
“In burlesque, when we were doing a scene, you had a natural instinct about blocking, staging, and spacing. Once in a while a comic would say, ‘I’m going to cross on this line,’ which meant he was going to walk from one side of the stage to the other. Instinctively you would balance, you would move to balance the comic. And you’d get down to the line that was even to him because he wasn’t going to turn and talk to you upstage; that would be upstaging him, and you didn’t do that. You’d work on the same line with him, so that he could face the audience while he was talking to you.”
That must have been huge fun, working burlesque in small towns when small towns were islands; when entertainment was the stage and books, not radio or television. I ask Janne, “Where were you right after the crash of 1929?”
“I was working in road shows. I guess the salary went down a little, because I remember working in Chicago — I got $14 a week for working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You got $2 a day. It was the best you could do. You made more traveling. If you worked in the bigger theaters you made more, and the more prominent actors made more. Most burlesque actors, if they had a job that lasted ten years, they’d stay there ten years.”
Larry slides in, “A lot of the big comics in burlesque were big vaudeville acts when vaudeville was in its heyday. And when vaudeville died out, they went into burlesque. They had the name, they had their material, many had their own boxcars, and when they’d travel they’d take their sets and scenery, props, the whole thing.”
“Was there a regular route in burlesque?”
Janne answers, “You would invariably get on a road show.”
“Where would the road shows go?”
“Every town in the United States.”
Larry explains, “They had the two wheels.”
Janne continues: “Yes, they had the Columbia Wheel and the Mutual Wheel. The Columbia Wheel was the high-class burlesque wheel, and the Mutual Wheel had performers that weren’t quite good enough, weren’t topnotch. They didn’t play the major cities. If they played a major city, they played a small theater.”
I picture myself in a checkered suit, bowler hat, onstage in Dillon, Montana. Nope, on second thought, I couldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have lasted one minute. I throw out, “So, there was a major-league circuit and a minor-league circuit?”
Larry is first. “Tab shows worked a certain circuit, burlesque worked a certain circuit, vaudeville worked the Orpheum Time and the United Artist Time.”
“When you say ‘time’....”
“That’s like a circuit. The Orpheum would have 12 theaters on the West Coast. You’d say, ‘Well, I’m going out to the West Coast. Maybe I can get the Orpheum Time.’ And every Orpheum theater would have a new show every week. You’d do 12 weeks on the West Coast.”
Janne remembers, “We played Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, and the main street was the railroad track. And the theater we played was a shooting gallery. There was six women and maybe three men in the show. I can’t remember one person, just the ducks and the rabbits that were behind the curtain.
“We played the oil fields in Texas, the boomtowns. It was a tab show. We played Cherokee, Oklahoma. It was a big oil town, and they had 10,000 men working there and no women. The manager wouldn’t let us go beyond the theater’s premises. He and his wife brought down blankets and pillows, and some cast members slept in the picture booth or on the floor of the stage.
“There were no dressing rooms in the theater. When you changed costumes, you hung them up on a nail that stagehands drove into the wall. There weren’t any hotels, so they built, onto the back of the theater, a wall of corrugated tin and put cots in there. There were two entrances: one where the men slept and one where the women slept. Two six-foot sheriff's men, with a shotgun across their knees and a pistol on each hip, sat in front of those doors all night long. We would hear some mighty interesting suggestions through that tin wall.”
“What would they suggest?”
“They’d want to know if they could come in and indulge in a little — uh, you know. We worked Warder, Texas, and after the show the manager and his wife took us all over to the next town, which was famous for its barbecued ribs. We got back at two o’clock in the morning, and there wasn’t any theater there. A cyclone had stretched it across the prairie. Those little towns in Texas, you’d go down the street, and the Indian women would be sitting on the curbs nursing their babies.”
I love this stuff, love being tugged back in time but also feel a tug in my mind. I must leave the one-horse towns of Texas and return to the point of this story. “What was the pecking order for strip women?”
Larry answers, “As far as stripping, there were three categories. There was the opening strip, then you moved up to be a co-feature, and then you became a feature.”
“So there would be three strip women per show?”
“Maybe five; depends on the theater.”
Janne carries the thought, “...and how big the show was and how long it ran. If you have the top billing, you did the last number in the first act, and the last number in the last act.”
“Do you recall the first time you had headline billing?”
“No. I never kept scrap-books, which was a dumb thing. Somebody would say, ‘Did you see this? Here’s a real nice article about you.’ And you’d read it and put it in a trunk drawer. Betty Rollin had four or five scrapbooks. If somebody put her initials in the paper, she would cut it out.”
“Were you ever afraid, working late at night in a strange city?”
“No. Frankly I was never afraid of anything. I was always very much aware of what was going on around me. I worked in Chicago, and when I got through with the show at 11 o’clock at night, I’d walk from Hostage Street down Jackson Boulevard to the Lakefront and back for relaxation. Nobody every bothered me. Some guy might come along and say, ‘You want a ride, babe?’ and I’d say, ‘No thanks,’ and that was the end of that. When I came here I bought a house in East San Diego. I used to ride the streetcar home at 12 o’clock at night and walk four or five blocks to my house. Nobody ever bothered me. One guy came along once and wanted to know what I was doing sitting on a bench. I hate to tell you what I told him. I guess he thought I was waiting for trade. Now, I wouldn’t go outside of the door after dark.”
I realize I’ve been sitting forward on my chair all this time. Take a slow breath, settle back. “What did you think the first time you saw San Diego?”
“I thought it was the deadest place. All the trees were dead, all the grass was brown. This was 1940. It was a very small seaside town. The tallest building was the six-story Bank of America down on Broadway.
“I had been working at the Burbank, in Los Angeles, and Bob’s wife — Bob Johnston owned the Hollywood Theater — was sitting in the lobby of the hotel where I lived. She had come to see somebody or something, and I don’t remember who introduced me to her but they said, ‘Irish works over at the Burbank.’ And she said, ‘Would you like to come to San Diego?’ I replied, ‘Sure, why not?’ So she said, ‘Come down and go to work.’ And I came down and went to work and ten years later I quit.’
“I got paid $18 a week. Pretty soon Bob gave me a $2 raise, which was just great. When I first came here you could get a room with a bath, downtown, in a nice hotel, for $7 a week. You could get a seven-course dinner for a quarter. Sunday dinner, with all the trimmings, was $1.
“Larry came to work in the Hollywood in 1950. I worked on and off. We’d go back East and do the circuit and come back to San Diego. Larry was a house singer in Union City, New Jersey, which is just under the bridge from New York City. The owners owned six theaters, so we lived in Union City, and I would work the six theaters. And when the season was over — they had no burlesque in the summertime — we’d come back to California and work at the Hollywood or we’d go to Seattle or wherever, but we always came back to San Diego.
“There was always work at the Hollywood, and I liked the town. I liked the people that I lived with over on First Avenue. Bertha Robinson — who, by the way, was royalty from Ireland, her mother’s brother was Sir Edmund Burke, and being Irish we got along well — she rented rooms. Larry and I would live there, and if we went somewhere else, we would just pack our stuff up to Bertha’s attic. When we got back, if she didn’t have a room for rent, we’d sleep in the living room on the couch. I liked San Diego.”
Larry: "We left the Hollywood in ’52, went to Seattle, stayed in Seattle nine months, went to Portland, we were there for a month, came back to San Diego, then went back East in 1955, worked a few nightclubs, and then went on a circuit. We stayed back East for two and a half years. At first we were living close to the dollar.”
Janne: “Oh yes. We went back East and we were big shots. We went to see the Christmas shows in New York. We went to see the shows in Radio City Music Hall, and all of a sudden we woke up one morning, and we were eating 12-cent hamburgers and living out on Long Island in a room that had twin beds. If you slept in the back bed, you had to crawl over the front one to get out.”
Larry: “Our source of entertainment was to buy the Journal-American. Every afternoon we’d sit down and do the cross- word puzzle. We didn’t even have a television set.”
Janne: “I ran into Jesse Mack — I had worked with him when I was 16 years old — and he told me to go see Lou Miller. Miller said, ‘Yeah, Irish, I can get you a job.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have a husband. You’ll have to take him too.’ Miller said, Td certainly have to see him work first.’ So, he had a date in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They would send you down there for one night, see how you did. So Larry and I went down and did the show, and Jesse was there, and he came over and stood in the wings while Larry was doing his act. After a minute he turned around and started to walk away, and I said, ‘Well, Jesus Christ, Jesse, you could at least listen to him.’ He said, ‘Oh, he’s got the job. Don t worry, he’s got the job.’
“The following week Larry opened at the Hudson and stayed there for a couple of years. I went on the circuit.”
Larry: “Rock and roll was coming in strong, and a lot of the nightclubs that used to do floor shows, they got rid of their floor shows and booked rock bands. Before that, a lot of the nightclub floor shows consisted of burlesque. You’d work with a comic, go out and do some scenes — an Abbott and Costello thing — and then they’d have a stripper close the show.”
Larry and Janne appear a bit morose. I wonder out loud, “Could you see the handwriting on the walls?"
Janne sighs, “That it was all going to go? Yes. They started doing strip numbers in nightclubs. If we had done what they did, they would have put us in jail. In nightclubs women could go out naked and do anything they wanted. They could parade up and down the bar while the men stuffed money down their G-strings.”
“I assume there came a point when the circuits broke down?”
Janne: “The audiences started dropping, because they would have a real dirty comic in the nightclub and a real dirty strip woman. The public could go in and get drunk and see the show. In burlesque they had to buy a ticket.”
Larry: “Plus, the shows in nightclubs were pretty rank, pretty dirty; they’d use four-letter words and think nothing of it.’
Janne glides in, “In all my years in show business I never heard a four-letter word on the stage. One time, Larry and I went to the playhouse in La Jolla. I forget what play it was, but it had a man and woman, and she came out and she said to her husband, ‘How do I look?’ And he said, ‘You look like a whore in a strawberry festival.’ And we both liked to have died, that they would say the word whore’ on a stage where the public could hear them.”
“Was there a year when you said, ‘The circuit system as I’ve known it is over’?”
Larry: “It started to die a slow death in 1957. The key houses closed.”
Janne remembers, “I got a phone call in Los Angeles asking me to come down and play the Hollywood Theater. It was the late ’50s. The Hollywood Theater used to be packed, and I got here and there wasn’t a third of a house, and they were yawning. Burlesque died out because television and nightclubs had taken over with far more titillating stuff.
“I did a four-week thing at the Hollywood. Afterwards I told Bob Johnston, ‘I just don’t have it. I don’t have that energy and vivaciousness that I had.’ This was somewhere along 1958. The audiences were smaller, and I didn’t have that youth. The shows weren’t as good, the comics weren’t as good. They would cut out a comic, they would cut two or three people, cut out the production numbers. The shows got smaller and smaller. It’s too bad. The Hollywood Theater, they used to put on a fabulous show. It was a jewel box of a theater.”
Larry: “They didn’t have as many girls. They used to have 18 girls onstage, and they cut it down to 7. Two guys bought the Hollywood Theater from Bob; they took out the comics and put in women to strip. And they stripped to records; there was no more music, no more drummer, no more solos. It was just a record playing and a woman taking off her clothes. They called it ‘Artists and Models.’ That lasted about a year.”
Good Lord, this interview is running into my life. I can remember seeing the billboard “Artists and Models” as a teenager. I was a freshman at Grossmont High School on a daring trip to downtown San Diego. I could tell from the building, the lopsided sign out front, the neighborhood, that what was beckoning me inside was sex. I had no idea how that topic would be presented. I longed to find out. Fumbling for a question, I manage to ask Janne, “What did you like best about working the Hollywood?”
“I liked the audience because they were young kids from the Navy. Most of them had never seen a show, and to them that was the greatest thing on earth. They were being so risqué. And as I said, I liked the theater. There are theaters that you just like and others that you’ll always remember. For instance, I worked in Buffalo — the orchestra pit was the old man’s home. You’d go out to do your number, and you’d find that the musicians either forgot to take the last number off their stands, or one of them was playing one song, and another was playing another one.”
Larry smiles. “Or cooking beef stew.”
Janne: “That was in St. Louis. The musicians used to cook. They had a hot plate in the pit, and they would cook a stew or something. If you wanted to know what they were having for dinner, you walked down to the footlight and sniffed. Whose ever turn it was to lay out, it was their obligation to stir the stew.”
“Did you have a plan on what to do after the fall?”
“No, I just lived from day to day. Whatever came along.”
Larry offers, “You always kept a little money. I carried a crotch bag. I’d keep my crotch bag pinned to my shorts in case I was robbed and lost my billfold. We always had two or three thousand dollars with us.”
Janne: "l bought and sold property. For instance, I bought a house in San Diego for $2000 and sold it for $7000. I bought a house in Hillcrest for $15,000 and sold it for $50,000. I bought a house for $40,000 and sold it for $185,000. I’d buy a house and decide to go back East. I put the thing up to sell, pack up the furniture, and leave what was good at Bertha’s, go back East, comeback, buy another house, move in, decide I wanted to go to Seattle, sell the thing. But I always made a lot of money when I sold them. Also, I think it was right after I sold the one on Lewis Street, I bought gold stock. It went way up. I bought CDs. They paid a terrific amount of interest. Every three months I would buy another $10,000 CD, and pretty soon I had a $100,000 one.”
I feel like shouting, “Good for you!” What a fine afternoon this has been. Wanting more, I ask, “Which were your happiest years?”
“Let’s say contented. When Larry and I worked together. Before that I had to carry my wardrobe and pack the wardrobe trunk. I had to do this and do that. After Larry was there, I had somebody to help me, a partner. When we started traveling in cars, I bought the cars, and he drove, and I looked at the scenery.
“But trains were fun. In Minneapolis, you went to work at noon and worked all day long until 1 o’clock at night. The train was supposed to leave at 11 o’clock, but they would hold it until 11:30 because there would be a whole troupe of actors booked on the train. Our costumes would be in our trunks, and we would be doing the finale in our street clothes. Trucks would be at the back door of the theater picking up everyone’s trunks, and you’d ride on the train all night long, no sleep, and got into Kansas City the next day at 10 o’clock in the morning. You had time to run out and get a cup of coffee and a couple of eggs. You went to the theater and had a general rehearsal. At 1 o’clock you went out and did a show, and since that was Saturday you worked until 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“Did it seem exciting?”
“It was hard work, but you wouldn’t trade it for a job in the dime store. I always wanted to see the world. You got to see the world. You’d stand in the wings and you’d be so damn tired you couldn’t stand up, but when you got out on the stage all that vanished. This sounds corny, but there’s something magic about the stage. You can be anybody you want to; you can sway people, you can make them feel how you want them to feel.”
“Do you miss not having children, did you not want to have children?”
“I had a son. A drunken driver killed him when he was six years old.”
— Patrick Daugherty