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


She was often known as 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. However Betty Rowland was a burlesque queen nonetheless. A headliner within the racy selection exhibits’ glory years within the Thirties and ’40s, she labored properly into the ’50s.

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

Considered one of her signature items was referred to as “Bumps in the Ballet,” a spoof of a ballet routine that she appreciated to introduce to her viewers with a little bit of patter: “Let’s put a little juice in the Ballets Russes, and give the dying swan a goose. In a classical sort of way, might I put a bump in this ballet?”

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

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

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

Nonetheless, it was “big dough,” as Ms. Rowland told The Los Angeles Times in 2009, including that she didn’t squander it on alcohol or cigarettes. “I never smoked or drank,” she stated. “It wasn’t in my family. When we were in show business, we took it seriously. We saw a few of them fall by the wayside because of that.”

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

Burlesque, generally often known as “the poor man’s theater,” was, like vaudeville, a seize bag of acts — comedy, acrobatics, slightly 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 name of the game. You become a fantasy to other people,” she instructed Liz Goldwyn, writer of “Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens” (2006). However, she added, “people whisper, for heaven’s sake, they say, ‘Do you know what she used to do?’ And they’re saying it like I was a porno worker or something. Well they shouldn’t whisper — I was a dancer. It was the only thing I knew how to do, and I was a success 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 ladies took dancing classes, and beginning when Betty was about 11, she and her sister Rozelle helped out the household financially by performing collectively in newbie vaudeville exhibits, and, later, as burlesque stars, touring a bit however largely based mostly in New York Metropolis.

Betty typically carried out on the flagship Minsky theater in Occasions Sq., amongst different venues. On 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. Throughout 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. Because the story goes, they fell in love, she acquired pregnant, and the baron stated he’d marry her if she had a son. “Gilded Lily of 14th St. Burlesque Weds Baron,” learn a neighborhood 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, nonetheless, had 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 court docket 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 had been within the behavior of attending the exhibits totally free. As payback, they arrested Ms. Rowland and the theater supervisor; a choose sentenced them each to 4 months in jail. A neighborhood columnist took up Ms. Rowland’s case, declaring that the sentence was as extreme as that given the perpetrator of a current capturing, and she or he was launched after three weeks.

In 1943, Ms. Rowland sued the Samuel Goldwyn Firm 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 lots of publicity for her case, however she didn’t prevail.

Burlesque misplaced its luster within the postwar years. By the early Sixties, the crowds had been seedier, the golf equipment grubbier and the manufacturing all however gone. Quickly there have been solely hard-core strip joints, and most of the former burlesque theaters had 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 prime banana, in burlesque parlance. Newspapers typically described the couple as married, however Ms. Rowland instructed 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, led to divorce in 1963. She leaves no rapid survivors.

Within the late Sixties, Ms. Rowland inherited an curiosity in a Santa Monica bar referred to as Mr. B’s. Within the mid-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. However after her divorce, she got here out of retirement for every week or so in 1966, acting at a theater in downtown Los Angeles. (On 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 together with her funds in her final years.)

“The theater was dingy beyond description, the band reduced to a drummer and a pianist and the midweek audience painfully spare,” The Los Angeles Occasions wrote of that 1966 efficiency. “Yet to the unsteady strains of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ came out the petite Miss Rowland, as regal and redheaded as ever, to prove that experience can triumph over youth, that grace and humor can beat the passing of time to a draw.”

Kitty Bennett contributed analysis.


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