Betty Rowland, One of Burlesque’s Last Queens, Dies at 106

Betty Rowland, One of Burlesque’s Last Queens, Dies at 106

She was often called the “Red Headed Ball of Fire,” a title given her for her stature — she was a diminutive 5-foot-1 — and her fiery hair. She discovered the moniker, which was typically shortened to “Ball of Fire,” corny. But Betty Rowland was a burlesque queen nonetheless. A headliner within the racy selection exhibits’ glory years within the Nineteen Thirties and ’40s, she labored effectively into the ’50s.

Ms. Rowland had a languid, balletic style (hers was a delicate grind) and he or she typically threw in an undulating stretch and drop often called a German roll. Her costumes have been elegant: She favored lengthy skirts with a aspect slit to the hip, bandeau tops and night gloves. After a sluggish burn, she shed most of her gear; however, like most burlesque stars, she stored her pasties and her G-string on.

One of her signature items was known as “Bumps within the Ballet,” a spoof of a ballet routine that she favored to introduce to her viewers with a little bit of patter: “Let’s put just a little juice within the Ballets Russes, and provides the dying swan a goose. In a classical type of manner, would possibly I put a bump on this ballet?”

Ms. Rowland died on April 3 at an assisted-living residence in Culver City, Calif. She was 106.

Her demise, which was not extensively reported on the time, was confirmed by Leslie Zemeckis, the director of the 2010 documentary, “Behind the Burly Q,” which informed the tales of Ms. Rowland and different burlesque stars.

Outside the tribal world of burlesque, Ms. Rowland was maybe not as well-known — or as effectively paid — as different headliners like Tempest Storm, one other redheaded queen, who dallied with John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, whose breasts have been stated to be insured by Lloyd’s of London, and whose earnings at her peak within the mid-Fifties have been about $100,000 a 12 months (roughly $950,000 right now). Ms. Rowland did effectively, however not that effectively; in 1945 she earned $500 each two weeks, the equal of greater than $200,000 a 12 months right now.

Still, it was “large dough,” as Ms. Rowland told The Los Angeles Times in 2009, including that she didn’t squander it on alcohol or cigarettes. “I by no means smoked or drank,” she stated. “It wasn’t in my household. When we have been in present enterprise, we took it critically. We noticed just a few of them fall by the wayside due to that.”

Ms. Rowland was of an early-vintage of burlesque star: She had a pre-teenage vaudeville act along with her sister Rozelle, performing a bit of sentimental shoe and faucet. When vaudeville light out and its stars migrated to the livelier burlesque exhibits, Betty and Rozelle went on the highway as refrain women.

Burlesque, typically often called “the poor man’s theater,” was, like vaudeville, a seize bag of acts — comedy, acrobatics, just a little music and dance — with the added zest of a striptease or two.

Betty had her first star flip when she was simply 14 and filling in for a performer who had sprained her ankle. She was so engrossed within the music that she forgot to take off any garments.

“We teased. That was the secret. You grow to be a fantasy to different folks,” she informed Liz Goldwyn, creator of “Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens” (2006). But, she added, “folks whisper, for heaven’s sake, they are saying, ‘Do what she used to do?’ And they’re saying it like I used to be a porno employee or one thing. Well they shouldn’t whisper — I used to be a dancer. It was the one factor I knew find out how to do, and I used to be a hit at it.”

Betty Jane Rowland was born on Jan. 23, 1916, in Columbus, Ohio, certainly one of 4 daughters of Alvah and Ida Rowland. The women took dancing classes, and beginning when Betty was about 11, she and her sister Rozelle helped out the household financially by performing collectively in novice vaudeville exhibits, and, later, as burlesque stars, touring a bit however principally based mostly in New York City.

Betty typically carried out on the flagship Minsky theater in Times Square, amongst different venues. At the time, the Minsky name was a burlesque franchise and an establishment, from which Abbot and Costello, Phil Silvers and Gypsy Rose Lee launched their careers.

Rozelle Rowland discovered fame as “the Golden Girl,” performing utterly nude — however painted head to toe in gold paint. During a tour of London, she met a Belgian baron, Jean Empain, who was certainly one of Europe’s richest males, inheritor to holdings that included the Paris subway. As the story goes, they fell in love, she obtained pregnant, and the baron stated he’d marry her if she had a son. “Gilded Lily of 14th St. Burlesque Weds Baron,” learn an area headline in 1937, the 12 months of her marriage.

Ms. Rowland moved to Los Angeles in 1938, a 12 months after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia put the burlesque homes out of enterprise for corrupting the morals of the town. Her personal brushes with the legislation, nevertheless, have been uncommon.

She was fined $250 for lewdness in 1939, after a trial wherein a burly cop imitated her act on the witness stand, leaving the courtroom weak with laughter. In 1952, she was jailed when a box-office employee at a theater the place she was performing failed to acknowledge two vice squad officers who have been within the behavior of attending the exhibits totally free. As payback, they arrested Ms. Rowland and the theater manager; a decide sentenced them each to 4 months in jail. A neighborhood columnist took up Ms. Rowland’s case, mentioning that the sentence was as extreme as that given the perpetrator of a current capturing, and he or she was launched after three weeks.

In 1943, Ms. Rowland sued the Samuel Goldwyn Company for utilizing her stage title because the title of the 1941 movie “Ball of Fire,” a screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as a mouthy nightclub singer on the run, and for breech of contract. Ms. Rowland stated she had been employed as a technical adviser to Ms. Stanwyck however was by no means paid. Ms. Rowland acquired quite a lot of publicity for her case, however she didn’t prevail.

Burlesque misplaced its luster within the postwar years. By the early Nineteen Sixties, the crowds have been seedier, the golf equipment grubbier and the manufacturing all however gone. Soon there have been solely hard-core strip joints, and most of the former burlesque theaters have been enjoying pornographic movies. Ms. Rowland was disdainful of her crude successors.

“What is a lap dance, anyway?” she requested a reporter in 1997.

Ms. Rowland had a long-term relationship with a fellow Minsky burlesque star, a comic named Gus Schilling — a baggy-pants high banana, in burlesque parlance. Newspapers typically described the couple as married, however Ms. Rowland informed Ms. Zemeckis and others that though she and Mr. Schilling lived collectively, he was married to another person. Her marriage in 1956 to Owen S. Dalton, a lumber service provider, resulted in divorce in 1963. She leaves no instant survivors.

In the late Nineteen Sixties, Ms. Rowland inherited an curiosity in a Santa Monica bar known as Mr. B’s. In the mid-Nineteen Nineties, she misplaced management of its possession to buyers, who renamed the place the 217 Lounge. She stayed on as a hostess, and was nonetheless working there in 2009, on the age of 93. She had filed for chapter safety in 2003.

Ms. Rowland stopped dancing when she married Mr. Dalton. But after her divorce, she got here out of retirement for per week or so in 1966, acting at a theater in downtown Los Angeles. (At the time, she told The Los Angeles Times, she was writing her memoirs, with the working title “Ham and Legs.” Sadly, no manuscript was ever found, stated Ms. Zemeckis, who purchased Ms. Rowland’s costume assortment to assist along with her funds in her final years.)

“The theater was dingy past description, the band diminished to a drummer and a pianist and the midweek viewers painfully spare,” The Los Angeles Times wrote of that 1966 efficiency. “Yet to the unsteady strains of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ got here out the petite Miss Rowland, as regal and redheaded as ever, to show that have can overcome youth, that grace and humor can beat the passing of time to a draw.”

Kitty Bennett contributed analysis.



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