Girl Show: In the Canvas World of Bump and Grind
By Al Stencell
Girls! Girls! Girls! The carnivals, the girls, and the scams a journey back through time to the glory years of traveling adult entertainment. Many of these photos have never been seen before, and no one has published a book exclusively devoted to the women (and men) who performed in Girl Shows.
A.W. STENCELL (born of normal parents) owned and operated his own circus for 19 years. Always an avid collector, he has found thousands of photos and illustrations of circuses, and interviewed hundreds of ex-carnival people.
"A.W.Stencell's labor of love book will no doubt delight anyone who has ever enjoyed erotic entertainment. The photographs alone make it well worth its weight in gold pasties. Girl Show is a treasure chest pun intended. An inspiration and affirmation for all sex workers past, present and future."
"Al Stencell's Girl Show gives the down and dirty on the old hootchie kootchie shows, why they lasted as long as they did and why, sadly, they're gone from the carnivals. Girly show historians take note: Your research starts here."
"Well organized, intelligently laid out, great and lively text, excellent array of illustrations, it's just outstanding! I think that it will find a ready market with readers from many different perspectives."
"Stencell has created a monument in the shape of this book; a historical memento. Girl Show manages to capture in time moments now gone forever. I recommend it heartily."
"Author Al Stencell tells it all. Few others have the experience, much less the talent, to bring it all back with the affection and knowledge that give it depth."
"Stencell does an outstanding job of taking the reader backstage with him into this truly lost world. Girl Show gets the highest marks I can give a book."
"[This] accurate and entertaining account should be in the library of everyone who has memories of these shows as well as those who never knew them."
"Girl Show is brilliant! What a great story! Amazing collection of photos too."
"Full of interviews and rare photographs, Girl Show is a revealing slice of history packed with poignant memories."
Front photo with girls, Jackie Duggan
A single-wagon girl-show front on a Gaskill Carnival, early 1900s. (p. 18) Richard Flint
The two dancing girls on the bally have drawn quite a crowd at this side-show opening on the 1945 Austin Bros., a ten-car show that lasted only one season. (p. 41) Bob Sams
These three boys are clutching their brown bags full of free samples from the Pure Food Building can only imagine what Jennie Lee, the Bazoom Girl, is going to do in the tent behind this show front. In 1954 and 1956, the Bazoom Girl filled the Toronto newspapers while the Canadian National Exhibition or Sexhibition, as the papers called it was running. (p. 156) Jim Conklin, Conklin Shows
Fringes on a cooch dancer's costume fly as she and a talker work the crowd on a 1950s girl-show bally. (p. 80) author's collection
Legs-A-Weigh Loreli: Sex on the Half Shell was produced by a veteran burlesque man George Pranath and appeared on Jack Norman's girl-show on Strates, 1955. Here Loreli (in white) greets the crowd with her shell although all her pearls seem in order. (p. 46) author's collection
Carnivals often supplied parade units from the back-end shows, for various parades promoting the fair or a still date. Here Mitzi (second from right) beams for the crowds to promote Raynell's 1955 revue on Cetlin and Wilson. To her right is Junior Aldrich and his wife, Gloria, of the acrobatic comedy dance team Kaye and Aldrich. (p. 188) author's collection
Val Valentine was often billed as "Cupid's Cutie," the "Sweetheart of Burlesque," or as the talker Peter Garey introduced her "The Queen of Hearts," and offstage she matched her billing.
Val grew up studying dance. "I skipped school but never ballet class," she explains. "My mom's best friend was (striptease star) Mitzi. By April I couldn't wait until school ended in June and I could go on the carnival with Mitzi and Roland for a couple of weeks. In 1955 I was old enough to on on the road with Mitzi as a dancer in the chorus line working for Raynell Golden on Cetlin and Wilson Shows. The last few towns they let me work the feature spot.
"Mitzi had taught me a lot so I had a jump start. I know to put money in good wardrobe and what to do and how to do it. I was getting raises without asking for them and I moved quickly up to co-feature and then a feature. In Chicago, I worked at the Follies, a nice little theater with a great band, comics, and five or six girls."
Legendary strip seamster Tony Midnight was making her wardrobe at his Chicago shop. "You told him your ideas, what your dance number was about, and your favorite colors," Val remembers. "He would then prepare some sketches, then fit you and make it. He made a muslin fitting of you which he kept on file, so if you didn't gain or lose too much weight you could order a costume over the phone."
The pay was decent for a headline stripper, but she still had to watch her money carefully and contend with an often exhausting itinerary. "When I started there were still road shows. I was booked by Milton Shuster and he took 10%. The theaters took it out of your pay and sent it in, but in clubs you had to send it to Shuster's office. The road shows paid your railway coach fare between cities, no matter if you rod the train, drove, or flew. If it was a long jump and you wanted a roomette on the train, you paid for it. The road show also paid to ship your trunk. Mostly you closed in one theater Thursdaynight and opened Friday in the new one. You packed your trunks early Thursday and set them out. You kept out one costume and one set of music to finish the shows that day and to have something in case the trunks came in late. They usually arrived just before the first show."
A reporter in Raleigh, N.C., who saw Val work during the fair there in 1977, described her act his way: "She starts out smooth gliding around the stage to 'You Stepped Out of a Dream.' By the end of her act she was stepped out of more than a dream. Her last number is an energetic rock and roll version of 'Ode to Billy Joe' with nobody caring who jumps off the bridge. She really sells smiling, flirting, even mugging as she gyrates through the finale."
Asked by the same reporter what it takes to be a stripper, Val answered, "You have to be a ham!" She also cherishes the independence her career gave her. She wound up the interview saying, "It's a fantastic escape from reality, for myself, for the crowds that come inside the tent to see what's going on there. They didn't come in here expecting to see girls who look like their wives and sister. They want to see something glamorous and we try not to disappoint them."
She was featured on girl revues from 1960 through the late 1970s, and was Gene Vaughan's favorite artist. Val's last stripping job was in a theater in Columbus, Ohio, in 1986.
Headline stripper Val Valentine poses in the center of the chorus line with Gene Vaughan's 1963 revue on Olson shows. (Left to right) Rae and Anita Keppo, Cindy, Val, Lannie, Marti Calvert, and Elda Bohn. (p. 171) Val Valentine
Raynell leans on the ticket box at her Nudism Exposed posing show on Cetlin and Wilson, late 1940s. Legendary talker Lou Stratton mans the ticket box, while expert girl talker Elsie Calvet, in the back, wields the microphone. (p. 101) author's collection
Zorima, Queen of the Sun Bathers
One of the first big girlie stars featured on a carnival midway was Zorima (Margaret Lehtinen McCloskey). She had appeared in every picture magazine in the country, so midway owners knew she came with instant recognition status and carnival press agents had no trouble generating radio and newspaper coverage.
In 1940 over a million patrons flocked to her Zorima and Her Garden of Nudists and Sun Batherws show at the New York World's Fair. In 1941 Beckmann and Gerety hired her as a midway feature show called Zorima Gardens. In an outdoor enclosure with a background of mountain scenery, they presented a drama of the mystical maidens of the lost colony of Atlantis. To appease the Sun God who had caused the land to slide into the sea, the people offered up the loveliest virgin, Zorima, as a sacrifice.
Besides headlining girl revues at the CNE and PNE in Canada, Zorima was the only feature dancer to appear at four World's Fairs. During the 1940s her California-based Centennial Greater Shows was one of the few woman-owned shows in the carnival business.
Bonnie Boyia, born Bonnie G. Boyer (1923-1998), was one of the big time strippers who appeared on carnival midways in the 1950s. A contemporary of Georgia Sothern, Blaze Fury, Vickie Wells, and Rose La Rose, she headlined every major burlesque theater in the country.
Bonnie was born in Brooklyn, Michigan, but moved to Detroit with her mother to attend school. Upon graduating, she and a chum hitchhiked to Chicago looking for work. Bonnie answered an ad for a bally girl on a magic show at Riverside Park. "The talker turned out to be a drunk," Bonnie told me. "One day he didn't show up when it was time to open. The Great Mortinelly the magician was Russian or Polish and couldn't speak English very well. He was in a panic. I told him I could do it and so I started doing the openings and talking. I repeated the same sentences over and over so it was more of a grind than an opening. I asked him for a half hour off and I went away and wrote out a spiel and came back and asked him to raise my salary to $125 a week. He did and I became the talker."
When the season ended, Bonnie got a gig traveling with Cello, a mechanical doll that went to stores and events to promote Zenith Radios. When her boss got fresh in Cincinatti, she got a spot on the chorus line at the Gayety. "I didn't smoke, drink, or swear, and the chorus girls gave me a rough time. They made me dress in the washroom. I took all their tricks for about six weeks and then one day during a routine I stepped out of the line and marched to the manager's office, tore off the wardrobe, and told him I was finished working in his chorus but the next time he sees me I will be a feature. Two years later he was paying me as the feature in a road show that played there."
In the meantime, besides stripping, Bonnie did talking parts for comics. "I liked the comedy better than stripping at the time," Bonnie said. "There was nothing better than working a big house like a packed Saturday night at the Howard in Boston and you had the audience laughing so hard they are wetting themselves. We would do scenes where the whole set would get destroyed.
"I remember one courtroom scene when I was a talking woman for Binder and Rosen. Binder is playing the judge up on the stand. Rosen as the cop brings me in and sits me down on a chair beside the stand. I'm dressed in a slinky short, short, black dress with black garters and stockings. The judge asks me a question and each time I lift my leg way up in the air and cross it over my other leg. My line was 'Well Judge, it's like this ' My short dress rides even further up my hips. A few rounds of this and the cop throws his nightstick under my chair and dives under the chair to get it and the chair collapses on top of him, pitching me into the judge's stand, and it collapses, throwing the judge backwards into the curtain behind, which collapses down on all of us!"
From burlesque, Bonnie moved on to carnival girl shows with All and Hatti Wagner's Cavalcade of Amusements, one of the major railroad carnivals in the 1940s and early fifties.
"Al and Hattie were larger-than-life characters," she recalled. "Al was hard on help. The new rides guys and workers would go up to the office to get paid and he would say there was no money left, ride the train over to the next spot, and he would do this to them several times until they disappeared. This way he got two or three weeks of free work out of them.
"Hattie, who ran the cookhouse on the show, was rumored to be a former whore-house madam. She was still selling meat hamburger! SHe would stand in front of of the cookhouse swinging a string of weiners, yelling, 'I got your meat!'"
In the early 1950s, Bonnie joined the Normans on Strates, setting a new gross record on the Norman girl unit. "That was the toughest show I worked on. I followed a very young girl named Mary Lou Evans who wore blue cowboy boots, and little tight blue leotards under a cowboy vest and small skirt. She had forty-inch boobs and a twenty-inch waist, played the guitar, and triple yodeled. Try topping that! I had to, as I closed the show."
Bonnie was the last headline strip to play the Rialto in Chicago and she opened the Star and Garter in Chicago for Minsky. However she counts among her favorite theaters the Casino in Toronto. "The first time I worked the Casino, they had no floodlights on the front of the stage. In the finale, as the curtain was closing, the whole audience stood up. I got scared, thinking they were going to rush the stage. I didn't realize the pit band had started to play 'God Save the Queen' and that's why they were standing up."
Performers on Jack Norman's Broadway to Hollywood revue on James E. Strates look a little bored as they wait behind the show front to be called to the bally. (p. 98) author's collection
The Last of the Tassel-Twirlers, Bambi Lane
It was the last time I saw a girl show under canvas. The August night was chilly, and as the last of the Syracuse, N.Y., fair crowd headed for the exit gates, the workers on James E. Strates Shows were shutting down the rides and games. The long day/night/day blur that is called tear-down was beginning. The tractor crew were moving the empty ride wagons next to the rides for loading. The crowd noise had gone, and only the steady purr of the diesel generators and the shouts of the ride foremen hung in the cool. air.
The side wall had been removed from the girl show, revealing an older man and woman standing just inside the top. The man was giving directions to a half-dozen workers who were starting to take down the stage curtains and dismantle seats. I wandered over and introduced myself. The man's name was Ricki, and the woman was Bambi Lane. I hadn't recognized here as the tassel-twirling, aging stripper who had just closed the girl-show performance. Standing there in her sweater and neat slacks, wearing big oval glasses, she didn't look like the sex icon I had seen forty minutes earlier.
Nineteen eighty-six was the last year for the girl show on Strates. Joe Boston was dying of cancer. Tirza was doing most of the work. Perhaps because they knew it would be their last season, they put little effort into the show. There was no opening or closing of the main curtain. The one-man band dressed in street clothes with the mandatory farmer's cap sat onstage at his synthesizer a few yards from the stage apron. Two other girls had come and did more of a go-go dance than a strip. One girl was so skinny you wished there had been a candy pitch so you could have thrown her the candy kisses to put some flesh on her bones. The working man doubling as the male stripper came out and in two minutes peeled down to a pair of black bikini briefs the only excitement he cause was when he wrestled with the knot trying to get his tie undone.
The half-filled tent of men who had bought tickets hoping to see "red-hot carnival burlesque" were feeling pretty cheated. What happened to "everything goes when the whistle blows," as Joe used to say on the bally? The boos and cheers were at a max when some real strip music started out and out glided this older lady. Within seconds you sensed this was the real thing. This was a burlesque stripper.
Bambi Lane's seven- or eight-minute routine, ending with twirling tassels on her breasts and another two on her rear, cooled the crowd and sent them out of the tent satisfied.
I interviewed Bambi Lane in 1997, in Newark. I had to wait until the afternoon to see her as she supervised kindergarten kids weekday mornings. One of her hobbies is making dolls, and her apartment was full of them. She and her boyfriend, Eddy, still entertain he sings and she does a modified version of her act at the Veterans' Hospital. "I'm sixty-two years old now," she says, "and I worked up into my fifties. I am no sexpot like Blaze Starr but I can actually say I was stripping still in my fifties and still getting compliments about my act."
Bambi started stripping to help her big family. She had no experience. She had told the booker at the Gaiety in Buffalo that she was a professional stripper. "Then, you didn't have to strip down to the nitty-gritty," she remembers. "It was more or less veils, bras, little tassels, pasties. It was Sunday school compared to nowadays. I borrowed a costume. The band was playing 'Summertime' and I was so happy to be up there dancing that I forgot to take my clothes off. Guys in the audience were yelling, 'Take it off, take it off,' and finally the guy in the pit playing the music yells up to me to take it off. So, I began to strip and I couldn't get out of the costume too good because I wasn't used to the borrowed costume, and I stumbled through it. After the show, people were asking the management, "Where did you get her from?"
Under the stage name Esther, she continued dancing, and this led to some straight bits for comics. "I was so scared I wouldn't remember a thing that I wrote my lines on my hands. I was petrified. There were a lot of people in the theater but with the lights shining on the stage you could only see the guys in the first few rows.
Still it was scary but I continued to go on and worked into it. Then I became a go-go dancer in New Jersey and also did some stripping in various theaters that were operating around here at that time.
"Then I got my chance to get my costumes from Hedy Jo Star. That's where I got my steel bras, feathered headpieces, and rhinestone G-strings. She was working in Boston and was very expensive but she did wonderful beaded costumes. Each of the two outfits she made me was around $600 to $800. I still have them, I got my money's worth out of them."
Bambi performed all over the U.S., from Alaska to Florida, as well as in Canada and the Philippines. She says she found it hard to stay long in one spot. When she started working for Joe Boston and Tirza, Joe would say on the bally that she had starred in the movie The Night They Raided Minsky's. "These two young girls come up with this old man and ask, 'Oh, Miss Lane, Miss Lane, would you mind standing with our father while we take a photo?' So I'm standing there and they take my photo with their dad and then they say, 'By the way, what part did you play in The Night They Raided Minsky's?' I say, 'Oh I was sitting there having a cocktail.' They went away so happy they had met a movie star, but Joe says, 'You stupid so-and-so.' I say, 'Now what did I do wrong?' Joe says, 'For chrissakes, Bambi, Minsky's was a burlesque theater!'"
Strates was the first girl show Bambi had worked on. "I had been go-go dancing and I thought going with a carnival might be exciting," she says. "I had those big bags under my eyes when I was young I had silicone put there. I looked like Ed Sullivan. So I put on a pair of sunglasses and two wigs and went out to the midway and asked about the girl show. Someone told me the Bostons ran it and that they also had a sausage joint on the midway. I found it, and Tirza was there with her hands covered in barbeque sauce.
"She asked me what I wanted and I told her I was looking for Joe Boston and that I wanted to join the girl show. Tirza said that Joe was down at the main offices of the show. They had three wagons tht formed an office compound. I asked for Joe Boston and the guy says, 'What do you want to see him for?' I told him I wanted a job on the girl show. He says, 'Do you take your sunglasses off?' I took the glasses off, I had big eyelashes on. The guy turned out to be Joe himself, and he hired me."
Bambi also spent some time on Amusements of America. There she worked on the black show, the Coppertone Revue, for Lucky Orr. "The first thing they did was put me up there on stage with all these black dancers. The girls all had see-through raincoats on, everything was so pretty. One black girl says to me, 'When we go out on the bally we are going to do this dance step.' So, I follow them out there and I bump into this one and bump into that one, but I finally got the rythm down."
Bambi was also known for her artful tassel twirling, first in clubs then in burlesque. "I would take my bra off," she recounts, "and I would have my back turned to the audience and they would think I was topless. I would cover my breasts with my hands and tease them for a short time, then remove my hands and there would be the tassels. I would get the tassels wound up and going and then I would make them go every which way. Then I started putting them on my backside and I got to where I could make four of those turkeys go at one time! I could really get the audience excited with those tassels."
Bambi was there to witness the progression from go-go dancing to topless and finally to nude dancing. "At first being a go-go girl was really something. I remember going to this place in Pennsylvania. They wanted me to go-go dance in this little bar. I said, 'Where am I going to dance?' The owner offered me $20 or $30 a night, which was good money then, but where was I going to dance in such a small place? The owner said 'Oh, no problem, you can dance on the shuffleboard table.' So there we are. This guy that plays the fiddle is sitting on the end of the shuffleboard table playing away and I'm at the other end dancing. Oh my God, did I make money there, terrific tips.
"I went to work at another place near Hershey, Pennsyvania. I was the first go-go dancer in the spot. Boy did I feel like a big shot! They put these big red things around the area I danced in so no one could get at me. You had to have a G-string on and you had to have a cover. You couldn't go topless. Of course, the guys would try and encourage you to do it, and every so often you might give them a flash. I made my G-strings with fake hair glued along the top of it. They thought they were seeing something but they weren't seeing anything.
"Then it came down to where you could take off your top. You could come out in bras and panties and then you could do whatever you wanted. There were soon no more elaborate costumes or teasing strip acts.
"In my strip act I would start dancing and slowly remove my cape and then dance around some more and take my time removing my dress. If I had my costume on with veils I would twirl the veils around and I would pull them between my legs, mostly up in the back. Then I would bend over and pull the veil out little by little, teasing, and then come around and twirl it around some more.
"Now, today if you got onstage wearing something like that they would boo you right off!"
Bambi remebers a strike by the fire departments and the police in Newark. The media weren't paying much attention to them, so her friend Gerry, who was a firefighter, asked her to streak naked across the city hall steps during a picket there.
"I only lived a short way from City Hall," she recalls, "and the day the fire and police guys are out in front demonstrating I go down to this junk store a few blocks away in this short little dress. They guy there asks if he can help me and I tell him I think those kids in the back of the store are stealing stuff. So he hurries to the back of the store and I whip off my dress and throw it away. I take my panties off and stuff them in my purse. I have my sunglasses on and my purse under my arm and that's all when I run out into the street.
"I start across the main street and a coule of police stop the traffic for me it's lunchtime, everybody is out on the streets. The cops and firemen are all lined up by City Hall and I'm heading for them. It was like the movie The Ten Commandments. They part just like the river and I go on thorugh up onto the City Hall steps, across them to the end, and back down. I'm now looking for Gerry's car but I can't see it anywhere, but a bunch of policemen catch up to me. One of them has grabbed a horse blanket off one of the horse policemen and he throws it over me. In a few minutes a paddy wagon shows up and they take me off to jail. The worst thing was that itchy horse blanket!"
A month later, Bambi appeared in court, wearing all white. "The courtroom was packed everyone wanted to see the Newark Streaker! The judge asked me if I was ever in the hospital, and I told him that I had been. He asked what for and I told him for having babies. The whole courtroom howled.
"The next court appearance they convicted me of indecent exposure and fined me a hundred dollars. The judge said he didn't want to encourage all kinds of little old grandmothers to go running around naked. I was the Grandmother Streaker! I got a trophy from the fire and police guys, and all the clubs wanted to book me."
Of her long career onstage, Bambi remembers most fondly her time with Joe Boston. "He was number one in my books to work for," she says. "When I came back from Germany and went back to the show, Tirza didn't want to hire me back. She said that I was too old. Joe said that, old or not, I was always there. I was dependable and that's what counts. When the curtain goes up I am there ready to work. If someone didn't show up I would put on a wig and different costume and go out and do their dance and then go out and do my strip and tassel act. So, when they painted my name up on the show front, that really made me proud. They used to have press parties in the girl tent after the show, champagne and all. It was great. The newspapers and the TV stations would do stories on me. It all made me feel so good!
"I remember the very last show I did on James E. Strates' girl show. I was the feature and I closed the show, so I was the last one onstage. The tent was dark and someone turned off the lights and everybody was standing up and holding up their lighters, sparklers, flashlights. Everyone was yelling, 'Bambi, Bambi!' It was a nice tribute. I was crying. I went back onstage and thanked them. I was the last dancer on Strates' girl show. As soon as I left the stage they started taking the show down for the last time."
Created: March 22, 2001
Last modified: March 24, 2001
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