Agonies And Ecstasies Of A Stripper

Some days you have to take the bad with the good. I was thumbing through some of my vintage books about sex and burlesque last night and I came across this interview/article from Spring 1962 by Nicholas David. It interested me in the insight of where this woman got her start from. As is often the case, one’s history isn’t always wine and roses, so in the interests of sharing this with our global glitter tribe in my online library, I’m transcribing the article here for you to read. I’m wondering if any of the Legends recognize these names/places if we can make some more connections to sew together the quilt of our history. Although I’m sure ‘Tinker Bell” isn’t a unique name, there was one former stripper in the 60s who worked in Vancouver who has since passed. I wonder if the two were the same.

-Little Miss Risk

The Agonies and Ecstasies Of A Stripper

by Nicholas David, published in 1962

There is a diminutive blonde striptease artiste in her early twenties who calls herself Tinker Bell whom I met one night not long ago in St.Louis. She adopted her stage name a few years back because Walter Winchell, who also advises Presidents, told her that she reminded him of Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. She calls herself Miss Juicy Fruit, too, but this is merely a descriptive subtitle; she has won no beauty contest and has no commercial tie with the chewing gum company. She didn’t mind telling me her real name, but she didn’t want to see it in print because her parents would be embarrassed. “I’m not embarrassed,” she said, “but my parents still don’t admit to their friends that I’m doing what I’m doing. They hardly admit it to themselves. They came to see my act once and didn’t even look at me.” Her parents, who live in Brooklyn, have not been so much embarrassed as they have been perplexed and hurt. “It’s a terrible things she’s doing,” her mother has said.

Tinker Bell was working at the Grand Theatre – one of ten such theatres between St.Louis and the East Coast – that make up nearly all that’s left of burlesque. A generation ago, the Midwest Wheel and the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington burlesque axis had more than seventy-five theatres, but the business shrivelled, as much a victim of war and TV, civic virtuousness, prosperity,  and increased availability of women as anything else one might mention. Nowadays, a show consists of a featured stripper, a co-feature and three or four second women plus two or three comics. The chorus line is gone, the production number is out and the comics, still using the old routines, are de-emphasized. Now the whole point is nudity. On any one day, then, there are sixty girls, ranging in age from eighteen to about forty, simply taking it off somewhere on the circuit. Girls with names like Norma Vincent Peel, Flame Storm, and plain Norma Jean.

All together, there are probably no more than 150 of them. Each makes a circuit  once or twice a year, a full week at each theatre with, as a rule, no time off even for travel, closing on a Wednesday night in Cleveland and opening the following afternoon in Cincinnati. Each has agent fees and expenses to pay and none of them are getting rich, not even the second women who earn as little as $125 a week for six shows a day and not even the features who, like Tinker Bell, may get five or six times as much. Between sojourns on the circuit most of them play certain night clubs, south to Miami and as far west as Las Vegas and San Francisco, blending in with the strippers who work nothing but these clubs. They are often required to mix with customers and are paid either a flat salary or salary plus a commission on their liquor sales.

“Nightclubs like that can destroy your self-respect,” Tinker Bell said. Earlier in her career she had done some mixing. She was happy to join customers after her act. Pretty soon, however, she learned many of the managers expected her to arrive early and mix beforehand. “I asked this one guy why he wanted me to come in early,” she said, “and he told me for decoration. So I told him to get a vase full of flowers.” Thereafter, she had ruled out mixing, which makes her an exception among the general run of strippers. Most do it and accept it as part of the business.

This night in St.Louis, Tinker Bell invited me to her dressing room in the cellar of the Grand Theatre. The room was about six feet wide and eight feet deep. It was below freezing outside and the room was cold.  The pipes running overhead were not putting out any heat. Two raw lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. A G string hung over the cracked mirror. Her costumes hung on an open rack. She had been drinking carrot juice poured from a thermos and reading The Book of the It by George Groddeck, the German psychologist (1866 – 1934) who, as Lawrence Durrell has said in an essay, was the only analyst whose views had some effect on Freud. She was bundled up in a heavy sweater and black leggings, a small (five feet tall, 110 pounds), potentially pretty girl underneath a silver-blonde bouffant hair-do, black beading on her eyelashes and ripe, red lipstick. “I love to talk about myself,” she said. “Like this guy Georg Groddeck says, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself.’ That’s it. You love yourself better than anybody else. It’s the big I from the moment you are bone til the moment you die, and the rest is wrapped around it. Never occurred to me before, but now that he mentions it, I see it.”

I sat down and she offered me a cup of carrot juice. She had recently switched from coffee and alcohol to vegetable juices. She had also given up smoking. She had read that a woman who smokes ages fifteen years in only five years, so she had quit in the interests of a prolonged career in show business. She was reading every health book she could get her hands on. “I also tried reading Tropic Of Cancer,” she said. “I didn’t finish it, but I give him credit for knowing more dirty words than I do.”

We could hear the band upstairs playing “Night Train.” Tinker Bell shrugged. She had been having troubles with the band. Opening night the theatre had been freezing cold. The audience had watched the show in overcoats and at least one customer had been seen wearing earmuffs. It had been so cold that the woodwind man had refused to bring his clarinet to the theatre. Tinker Bell said she always preferred to dance to the sound of a clarinet, but she was forced to settle for a saxophone. To make matters worse, the saxophone player had been on a three-day bender and had missed a lot of notes. The other three members of the band – trumpeter, pianist, and drummer – were typically jaded, she complained, having played ‘Night Train,” “Peter Gunn” and “I’m in love with you – you’re the one who made my dreams come true” five hundred times each. “The band isn’t an aggravation.” She was getting even, however. At a certain point in her act she would give out two or three dozen two-by-two nude photographs to members of the audience on a first-come first-serve, while-they-last basis. There would be a stampede of zealots in the audience towards the stage and , although none of them would get beyond the footlights, the “bit” would scare the daylights out of the musicians in the pit. With satisfaction, Tinker Bell reported her fans in Pittsburgh had once smashed through the railing and fallen all over the musicians. It had long seemed to her that the musicians were symbolic of the crummy state to which burlesque had fallen in all of it’s departments. The theatres were old and dirty, the curtains were stained and torn and the props were seedy. Worst of all, a girl got no respect.

“In this business,” Tinker Bell said, “you have to be bitchy. To get anywhere you have to be officious and overpowering. A woman, especially one my size, is a very sad thing in this business. People talk down to a small girl. Managers, stagehands, musicians – they all look down on you even though you’re the turkey and they’re the trimming. You have to badger them to get a performance. You have to be menacing. And for what? You get little satisfaction. You start at noon and you go all day and most of the night. Your whole day is occupied with your occupation. You travel overnight to the next job and begin again. Even though you’ve been driving all night, your often judged on your first show. It’s a very unfair business.”

About ten o’clock Tinker Bell began to get ready for her last show of the day. She stood up, turned her back and slipped out of her sweater. Then she put on a blue striped robe and removed her bra and leggings. Part of a net bra dangled from the pocket of her robe. “This is what we call a ‘strong’ theatre,” she said by way of explanation. “We cheat as much as we can here. You’re not supposed to show bare breasts. So we do anyways and carry the net bra in our robes. In case the law comes in, we can calmly walk off stage and put on the bra.” She would also ‘flash’ – that is at one or two appropriate moments she would remove her g string and present herself to the audience, naked as a jaybird. “It’s only horrible and nasty if you think it’s horrible and nasty.” she said.

A young man entered the dressing room whom Tinker Bell introduced as her road manager, Maynard Wayne. he had come for a stack of nude photographs to take upstairs for her act. He announced he had fixed something in her automobile house trailer. She had been travelling by trailer for a year so so because she had several heavy props to carry around from place to place and because she disliked sleeping in hotel rooms. In spite of clean sheets, the thought that the blanket on her bed covered someone else’s body the night before was repulsive to her. She also liked the connivence of trailer living. She had purchased an electric juicer, for example, and could fix herself a glass of carrot juice, or carrot-cucumber-spinach combination, any time day or night. her road manager, of course, did the driving. “She’s quite a person,” he said to me as he left with his pictures.

Through the doorway Tinker Bell and I could see two strippers – second women – in the hall. One was smoking and the other was merely leaning against the wall with a hip thrust out. Both looked tired. “It’s a lonely, lonely life,” Tinker Bell said. She had found out travelling made all parts of show business lonely but burlesque was the loneliest. Generally speaking, strippers were thought as one step above (“or below, I don’t know”) call girls. Some were whores indeed, but even those that weren’t had to cope with ostracism. “You’re like a geek,” Tinker Bell said. She had learned that even among other show people there was a feeling of caste and, as a result, prejudice. “Broadway won’t associate with Hollywood,” she said, “but nobody associates with us and we have nobody to not associate with.” She had rarely seen an exotic dancer or burlesque comic in the company of a performer who was ‘legitimate.’

Burlesque people keep to themselves. Their private lives were often pathetic. Marriage was almost inevitably a mess unless the girl married a comic and travelled with him as a talking woman. “A stripper, especially a feature, should not be married,” Tinker Bell said. The evidence was all around. If the wife earned money and the husband carried her suitcase, he was contemptuously called a suitcase-carrier or, worse, a pimp. Audiences resented the married stripper when and as they discovered the truth about her. They wanted to believe that the sex she was selling was at least possibly available. Furthermore a husband complicated life for a girl in the nightclubs that required mixing and was an obstacle for the nightclub owner’s plans for a harem as well. “So what?” Tinker Bell had asked herself. She had decided that a girl would get nowhere unless she developed talent that would carry her over to the legitimate side of the business. “I’m working on it,” she said, “but most of the girls get so they couldn’t care less. Then they stay in it for the kicks. Others are man-haters in the first place. They like to tease. We’ve got plenty of Lesbians and bisexuals. And alcoholics. Lots of alcoholics. The girls all drink hard. I guess to escape.” The two strippers in the hall had been joined by a comic. Now they were laughing and looking much better. “Don’t get me wrong,” Tinker Bell said. “I enjoy displaying my body. Gypsy Rose Lee used to tell people that her mind was on higher things while she was onstage, but that’s bunk. I’m aware of what I’m doing. I’m getting a kick out of the audience reaction. After all, I’m a female. I like to have men look at my body and if there’s anything wrong with this, I can’t find it. I’ll admit it: I’m an exhibitionist.”

The time had almost come. Tinker Bell agreed to meet me after the show, so I went upstairs to catch her act. The theatre was about two-thirds filled. Teen-aged boys and middle-aged conventioneers wearing badges predominated. There were a few women scattered about with their escorts and an assortment of types with a single characteristic in common – hot eyes. As I took my seat, two comics and a talking woman were finishing their routine about the bellhop named Peckerwood Muckingfutch, in which most of the humour is derived from mispronunciation of the name. They were heckled unmercifully and received a we’re-glad-you’re-going-round of applause when they went off. After them, Tinker Bell was on for twenty-five minutes.

She began with a number entitled, “The Sins Of Cleopatra,” in which the major props were an upright mummy case and a platform bed. The door of the case opened revealing Tinker Bell in an Egyptian costume wrapped head to foot in white muslin. Wisely, since a little necrophilia goes a long way with the hard core burlesque audience, she quickly spun out of her wrappings and with hardly a bump removed her costume. Then, bare-breasted and g-strung, she behaved more or less conventionally – anointed herself with oil, danced and wiggled with a yard-long imitation of an asp and returning to the mummy case, flashed for two or three seconds before the lid closed. In a moment she reappeared in front of the curtains wearing an unlaced boudoir jacket. Several young men in the audience wanted to know whether the snake had been real. Tinker Bell said it had.

“It’s fake!” said a voice.

“How do you know? Have you got a snake?” she asked.

“No, but my buddy has.”

“He does?”

“Yeah – show her, Jack!” the voices shouted.

Next, Tinker Bell dressed herself in a red gown and draped an ostrich boa over her shoulders. Taking advantage of a distant resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, she impersonated a movie queen using double-entendre material (“I want to thank all the producers and directors I’ve worked under”). Then she stripped again and passed out the nude photographs of herself as the musicians cringed. One member of the audience who failed to get a photograph became a heckler. He called her a name and said something insulting.

“Why don’t you shut up,” she said.

The heckler repeated himself and then again, dirtier.

“Just go to hell,” she said.

For a finale, Tinker Bell danced a soft-shoe turn wearing a straw hat and her G string, flashing again in the instant before the black out. Then it was over. We got up to leave as the houselights were raised. In almost every aisle there was a brief look of surprise, as though each man was just realizing that he had not, in fact, witnessed the crime all by himself. Outside, the audience was permanently dissolved in darkness, men going off alone and in pairs, taking long, aggressive strides. Two taxis were parked at the curb under the marquee – “Taxi, mister? Girls?” – but no one hired them. It seemed that everyone had enough of whatever they wanted: enough pleasure and enough pain for one evening. I was reminded that almost the last place poor Studs Lonigan had gone before he died was to a ten-cent burlesque house on Van Buren Street in Chicago. After a while, Tinker Bell rejoined me. We went to an all-night restaurant where we sat in a booth, ordered steak, and talked for several hours, mostly about her life and hard times a saleslady of desire.

She was born toward the end of the Depression. Her father had been fighting a losing battle as an accountant and her mother had not been doing much better in pursuit of an operatic career. Two more children, sister and brother, came after her. Father quit accounting and opened up a neighbourhood dry cleaning shop where he still works, as one would expect, sixty-fve hours a week. A taciturn, steady man who enjoys playing the horses a few times a year, he prospered enough to pay for his two-storey half of a house on a nice street in Brooklyn and a good share of his younger offsprings’ college education. Mother made the house a home. She has been noted locally for her chocolate chip cookies and expertise in mah jong. She enrolled her oldest daughter in dancing school at age four.

Daughter not only enjoyed it but also found some purpose in it. She continued to study dancing after the age of fourteen when, as Tinker Bell recalled, “all the other girls were dropping out of everything to have time for boys.” At seventeen, daughter tried holding down a part-time job, studying ballet in a school in Manhattan and attending Brooklyn college at night, but she could not sustain the effort. She had picked up an offer to tap dance in a Brooklyn nightclub, so she quit college. Night life excited her and the salary gave her getaway-from-home money so she quit ballet school. Then she chucked Brooklyn itself and based on what dreams, set out to become a very big star.

“I was doing ballet and tap-dancing single in a Washington nightclub,” Tinker Bell said. “The salary was $150 a week and by the time I paid for all the transportation, costumes and expenses, I was owing myself money. One night the stripper on the bill got sick and I was asked to fill in for her. They pinned me into her costume with the navel showing. I wore a full bra and heavy pants I was embarrassed. I couldn’t believe it was me hanging out. The first night I stripped with my back to the audience. But it didn’t take me long to get used to it. I finished out the week and the manager paid me fifty bucks over my regular salary. I realized there was money in the business. So, I embarked on a career of nudity.”

She spent two hundred dollars for photographs, sent them around to various booking agents and wound up stripping at a club on West Fifty-second street in New York. Then she descended into a dive in Greenwich village as a stripper and a mixer. Her strip was all right but she was not an adept pusher of drinks. She found it difficult to interest a customer in a $15 bottle of champagne, especially a second bottle, when she herself couldn’t drink the stuff. Most of the time she poured the drinks on the floor. Sometimes her feet were in the way, sometimes it fell on her dresses and once in a while she would dump a glass into a John’s lap. At last her manager called her in. He was a fat man with a bent ear and a bent nose. He told her that a customer had accused her of stealing $50 from him and that he, as manager, had to make restitution. He was not only firing her, he was holding back the last $50 from her paycheque. “He was the kind who’d as soon lay you out as listen to you,” Tinker Bell remembered, “So it didn’t make any difference if what the person was saying was true or not.”

After a period of unemployment, Tinker Bell continued on the down. And agent booked her into a club in Calumet City, Illinois on a street with seven or eight hot, swarm clubs all in a row. Since she’d never heard of Calumet City, which had a reputation somewhat worse than that of Phenix City, Alabama. Typically, she took the job because the club was offering her $50 more than the last place in Greenwich Village. She signed a twelve week contract, three hundred a week, ironclad. She was to find out the show required total nudity. None of the girls dared or cared to finish the a strip with so much as  a cache-sexe  to protect them. Meanwhile, the management sold booze and hustlers to the customers. Complaints were settled in the alley. “There were lots of back rooms and the girls were just like prostitutes, working out of a store,” Tinker Bell recalled, avast. “It was the worst, the lowest – in my wildest dreams, I never believed this went on.” She also learned her fellow workers were soused from eight in the evening to six in the morning. To start each day’s work, they were given drinks on the house so they could keep going. They were, in fact, less favoured than street walkers. For doing some time in the back rooms or selling champagne they earned only fifteen cents on the dollar. Their pimp doubled as bartender.He would collect $20 from a John for a girl, pass three dollars to the girl and then, together they would attempt to sell their mark more booze than they could handle. “Think of the traffic,” Tinker Bell cried. “At fifteen cents on the dollar, some of the girls were making four hundred dollars a week on straight commission. How’d they survive? Well, half of the Johns tapped out before they even got to this point with the girl.”

As yet unaware of all of this, Tinker Bell opened at the club. She finished her first performance wearing her bra and G string. She had never been closer to public nudity than that, but no one applauded. In dead silence she left the stage. The manager met her in the wings and accompanied her to the dressing room. “You can’t work,” he said, “unless you take it all off.” Then he sent her out front to sit with a customer and watch the other girls “do things like you see in a low carnival.” Tinker Bell went to the manager determined to quit, but she couldn’t quit unless she paid the thirty-six hundred dollars that her contract was worth. “It’s play or pay,” the manager said. He told her that she would adjust. “There was a lot of truth in that,” Tinker Bell recalled with the perspective of years. “You see so many girls go into burlesque and not want to do anything and pretty soon they get used to it and they do everything, without thinking about it.”

Broke and afraid to leave Calumet City without permission, Tinker Bell worked for a while but didn’t mix. Then she went to a doctor in Chicago, paid him twenty dollars and got a letter saying she needed an operation and was excused from her contract. “A little later,” she reported, “the place was closed down. There was a shooting and then some John was all cut up, dismembered and stored in the back of a car.”

Thus baptized, Tinker Bell went to Miami where she got a job stripping in the lounge of a club owned by the management of New York’s Latin Quarter. She was mentioned several times in Winchell’s column. She met Milton Burle who urged her to give up stripping for comedy. Another impresario, Joe Glazer, encouraged her to become a singer. It seemed everyone wanted her to be anything but what she was. By the time she saved five thousand dollars playing Florida and the South, she agreed. She took an apartment in Miami, hired a vocal coach and determined how to learn to sing. “There was going to be no more stripping,” she said. After six months, she believed she was ready. She put together a singing act and landed bookings in Fort Lauderdale and Louisville, Kentucky. “I didn’t do well,” she admitted. “People expected me to strip. There was a big confliction.”

Out of work and broke again, she returned to the grind and gradually revised her ideas about burlesque. She needed a gimmick, something like, say, “The Sins Of Cleopatra.” “I wanted a storyline,” Tinker Bell said, “I didn’t want to just take it off anymore with no purpose.” She worked hard, saved her money and soon had enough to invest two thousand in props for Cleopatra – the mummy case, platform bed, snake and costumes. “I’m doing alright now,” she said. “Sure I’d like to go legitimate. Ive even taken the step towards the legitimate side. Few weeks ago, I did three weeks in a club in Indiana and did mostly comedy. It would make my parents happier if I could succeed at it. But even if I don’t, I’ve made up my mind. This is what I want.”

Her self-confidence has risen with the success of Cleopatra. By holding out for more money she had even risked losing a role in The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a musical comedy scheduled to open on Broadway in fall of 1962. “Unless the price is right,” she said, “look what I can lose. You stay on Broadway for a year or so, you’re out of circulation. And if you’re out of circulation, then where are you?”

A little after 3AM, Maynard Wayne called for Tinker Bell. He was driving the panel truck they used to haul the mummy case and pull the house trailer. The trailer itself had been parked at a camp on the edge of town. Tinker Bell slipped into a hooded lavender outer coat. “Clothes should only be worn for warmth,” she said. “The reason for all the trouble in the world is people are so inhibited by clothing.”

I suggested she should become a nudist.

“I’ve tried that,” she said. “It was at a nudist colony in New Jersey. I was nervous at first, but then it was fun. I had a wonderful time.”

“You weren’t embarrassed there either?”

“What’s to be embarrassed about? I feel no shame. Aren’t we God’s most wonderful creations?”

“We are.”

“So?”

“So, why be a stripper?”

“I love money,” she said. “That’s the reason I’m a stripper.”

The End.

 

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