The Burlesque Pioneer Who Fought Censorship and Multiple Arrests

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

O

n Feb. 17, 1939, scores of beautiful, scantily clad women rode horses in formation through downtown San Francisco. The pedestrian-stopping trot down Market Street was an unmissable promotional stunt masterminded by Sally Rand—by then, one of the most notorious women in America. Rand was advertising her new Nude Ranch on Treasure Island—a 40-acre attraction that opened as part of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. (She also had an attraction at the expo named Gay Paree.)

At Sally Rand's Nude Ranch, between the hours of 1pm and 2am, visitors could observe beautiful women participating "vigorously" in an array of "outdoor sports." By the end of the expo, the ranch had out-grossed almost every other attraction on Treasure Island. It was no wonder. Rand already had a firm handle on what San Francisco audiences wanted. She'd transformed the Music Box—today's Great American Music Hall—into a burlesque revue three years earlier. But she'd also spent the better part of the decade scandalizing and titillating audiences around the country with, first, her legendary fan dance and, later, her bubble dance.

Also a licensed pilot, Rand inherently understood the power of spectacle. She chose her Nude Ranch as the starting point when she broke the light plane speed record, flying from San Francisco to Reno.

Sally Rand on Aug. 1 1939, outside her Nude Ranch, preparing to break the light plane speed record, flying from San Francisco to Reno. She did it in 1hr and 54 minutes. After completing the journey, she bought the airplane. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library)

Rand had dated Charles Lindbergh in 1923 and it was he who first taught her how to fly a plane. By 1934, Rand had 240 hours of flying under her belt, in part because of her preference of flying herself to her own gigs. ("It's the quickest, cleanest and most comfortable mode of travel," she once asserted.) In 1943, during an interview with the Calgary Herald, Rand even expressed the desire to join the Air Force, to do her part for the war effort.

Even with her record-breaking flight planned, Rand knew the girls on horses parading up Market Street would provide the most effective kind of publicity of all: controversy. The horses were a nice touch too—Rand had gotten her first big break six years earlier, as a direct result of a stunt on a horse.

Sponsored

A

round the opening of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, Rand had been hired to make an appearance as Lady Godiva at the Chicago Artists Ball dinner—a high-end affair hosted by Millicent Hearst at the Stevens Hotel. But instead of merely taking her $25 fee and going straight there, Rand decided to trust her gut and take a gamble. She used $10 of it to rent a white horse, and then hired a barge to take them both to a yacht landing at the World's Fair. She arrived at the Streets of Paris attraction and was promptly waved into the fair by a security guard. Sally later said that he'd "figured that a broad that arrives on a boat with a horse is supposed to be there."

Rand, wearing only a long blonde wig and a white velvet cape, rode the entire expanse of the fair, before arriving at the hotel on South Michigan Avenue. (It was situated just outside the southeast corner of the fairgrounds.) Though Lady Godiva impersonators had been a staple at the Chicago Artists Ball for years, never had one shown up on an actual real-life horse before. When security refused to let the stallion enter the hotel with her, Rand cajoled four artists from the dinner into carrying her into the ball seated on a table, hoisted above their heads. Three thousand attendees erupted as Sally made her triumphant entrance.

The following morning, Rand found herself splashed across newspaper pages around the city. Visitors to the fair, meanwhile, were demanding to see Lady Godiva. Resourceful as always, Rand ran to the Cafe de la Paix—part of the Streets of Paris concession—declared who she was, and was hired on the spot. She quickly began performing her fan dance—a routine she had perfected while dancing at Chicago's Paramount Club—12 to 16 times a day. In the first four weeks alone, 70,000 people came to see her tease the audience with her 20-pound ostrich feather props.

Highlights from Rand's fan dance at the Street of Paris can be seen in the clip below, starting from 2:36.

By the end of the fair, the Streets of Paris had proven to be the most popular and profitable attraction there, thanks in large part to Rand's contributions. Though at various points during and after the World's Fair, Rand claimed audiences thought they were seeing more of her than they really were, the surviving footage proves that her nudity was not all an illusion. Still, she always insisted with a wink and a smile, "The Rand is quicker than the eye."

The scrappy resourcefulness Rand displayed when securing her position at the World's Fair was the product of years of struggle. Sally Rand was born Harriet Helen Gould Beck on April 3, 1904 in Elkton, Missouri, a tiny village in the Ozarks. Her mother was a teacher, registered nurse and a correspondent for newspapers in Kansas and Missouri. Her father was a post office clerk who was outwardly religious and strict, but who also abandoned Rand, her little brother and her mother to be with a woman he met while stationed in France during World War I. Rand later said that she never recovered from the heartbreak of losing her father this way.

Rand was a tomboy with a penchant for fishing and riding horses until, at the age of 10, she saw Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova perform. The little girl threw herself into dance lessons and by 13, Rand was dancing in the chorus of Kansas City's Empress Theater. At 14, she ran away with the Ringling Brothers Circus. She lied and told them she was 16 so she could train as an acrobat.

Her circus life was short-lived, and Rand spent the rest of her teens hustling her way through a variety of jobs—as a nude or swimsuit model, a hat check girl and a cigarette girl. She danced at amusement parks, clubs and ballet companies, and sometimes entered beauty contests—including one put on by the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. Around that time, Rand was so impoverished, she even spent some time sleeping rough in Central Park.

At 18, Rand found a way to put a roof over her head, dancing with Lew Leslie's Blackbirds Orchestra—a mostly Black revue on Broadway featuring Cab Calloway and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. This was the show that first took Rand to California and gave her the idea of trying to make it in Hollywood. Once in L.A., Rand found work as an extra, was hired to do a 15-foot dive in a Mack Sennett movie, then got spotted by Cecil B. DeMille, who was the one who gave her the stage name, Sally Rand. He once called her "the most beautiful girl in America."

Despite her best efforts—in 1927's Heroes in Blue, Rand performed a stunt that involved jumping from the fourth floor of a burning building—she found herself relegated to bit parts. Throughout her early 20s, Rand was still posing for ads, doing vaudeville performances and, sadly, still sometimes forced to sleep in alleyways. For a time, she danced in a traveling burlesque show called Sweethearts on Parade, and soon she found herself back in Chicago. The clubs where she danced in the windy city were kind to her—in part because she handled gangsters so well. She was friends with Al Capone's bodyguard, "Machine Gun Jack" McGurn, and palled around with bootleggers on their yachts.

Rand's World's Fair success, then, felt both long overdue and hard won. After the fair, things were looking up. She earned $5,000 a week on tour, and was paid $20,000 to appear in 1934's Bolero. Once more, she wasn't the star of the movie, but her grace and beauty lit up the screen, and her fan dance was immortalized forever. (The camera panned all the way to the back of the room for her "big reveal" at the end of the routine.)

Rand's new-found fame made her popular with both men and women. Men were enthralled by her beauty; women were inspired by her devil-may-care attitude, resilience and independent spirit. After Bolero, in addition to touring America with a troupe of roller skating, dancing girls, Rand was also a popular speaker at women's groups, conventions, luncheons, rotary clubs and colleges. At one point, she spoke at the Junior Chamber of Commerce. At another, she addressed the Class of '41 at Harvard. Her wise-cracks and sense of humor made her enormously endearing at these events. She once joked, "I'm a girl from the Ozarks who likes going barefooted... up to the chin."

In 1938, Rand found herself back on the big screen in Sunset Murder Case—this time, with top billing. The movie also served to immortalize her bubble dance, albeit a PG-13 version of it.

Rand never did become a true star in Hollywood, probably because it was while she was performing burlesque that Rand was at her most alluring. She resolutely believed in it as an art form, and as an expression of female empowerment. Not only did Rand continue to perform her classic burlesque routines well into her senior years, she spent much of her life in and out of police stations and courtrooms in defense of it.

R

and was arrested too many times to count, for a litany of offenses related to her onstage nudity. It cost her a fortune in legal costs and fines. At the World's Fair, because people filed complaints against the fair's "lewd and lascivious dances and exhibits," she was arrested repeatedly, and charged with obscenity. At Balaban and Katz's Chicago Theater, where Rand performed between shows at the World's Fair, she was arrested four times on her first day alone. Later, one New York judge called Rand's act "repulsive to public decency," prompting her to openly weep in court. It was rare for her to show such vulnerability. After one club in Rhode Island banned her, she merely said: "It's just a shame that there are narrow-minded persons who can't differentiate between art and indecency."

In 1933, the San Francisco Examiner reported on an incident in which Rand was confronted by a female police officer before a performance at a movie theater. The officer, Bessie McShane, insisted Rand wear strategically placed gauze on her body. As soon as Rand hit the stage, she ripped the gauze off and used her fans for coverage, as usual. After the performance, chaos broke out as McShane and a male sergeant tried to arrest Rand.

"Arresting a lithe, naked dancer covered in grease paint," the Examiner reported, "is about as hard as catching a greased pig." After the police caught up with her, Rand was taken to the station wearing blue silk pajamas, booked for indecent exposure, and released on $400 bail. Rand later accused McShane of breaking one of her toes.

In 1946, Sally was arrested in North Beach, while performing at the Savoy Tivoli.  She was charged with indecent exposure, corrupting the morals of an audience and conducting an obscene show. During her subsequent trial, she continued to perform in the evening, sometimes while wearing a sign that read: "CENSORED. SFPD." In the end, the judge in the case insisted that he couldn't pass judgement until he'd seen Rand's show himself. He attended the club one night, mid-trial, and concluded, “Anyone who could find something lewd about the dance as she puts it on, has to have a perverted idea of morals.” Rand was found not guilty.

It wasn't just the law that got Rand into trouble. She had to tolerate unruly audience members trying to pop the giant balloon she danced with. Worse, on one occasion, a male audience member stuck his camera under the transparent curtain she was performing behind and snapped a photo. Rand—all five feet and 105 pounds of her—was so incensed, she threw on a robe, chased him down, smashed his camera and exposed his film. The man's female companion claimed Rand bit her during the ensuing melee. Rand was convicted of assault and fined $100.

Rand was also sued repeatedly. Once by Billy Rose, who said he was the originator of the Nude Ranch. And, more infamously by Faith Bacon who had been performing a fan dance for two years when Rand started hers. Rand was forced to declare bankruptcy at least once.

It was these kinds of non-stop legal issues that contributed to Rand's financial woes. By the end of her life, she had burned through her fortune. She supported many of the people close to her, including her mother, lovers and half-brothers. Her accountant failed to pay her taxes on time. She often spent too much on costumes and scenery. Rand was excellent at bringing money in, but terrible at managing it once she had it. The Music Box, at least, survived until the end of the war in 1946, probably thanks in no small part to the management of her partner, George Riccomi.

A souvenir passport from Sally Rand's Gay Paree attraction at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Because of Rand's commitment to these kinds of delightful but expensive details, Gay Paree was not a profitable attraction despite being very popular. (Rae Alexandra/ Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library )

Rand's personal life was messy too. She had three failed marriages—to her agent, a rodeo cowboy and a contractor. At 44, and still single, she adopted her son Sean from an unwed showgirl. The adoption, however, was not made legal until Sean turned 21.

Later in life, Rand's base was a ranch in Glendora, near Los Angeles, that she purchased for her mother. Rand managed to acquire a college degree at the age of 52, but she never, ever stopped working the clubs. In the 1960s, when appearing at a Las Vegas casino, she told a reporter she was there because of "problems with the tax boys." In the early 1970s, she appeared in This Was Burlesque at San Francisco's Mitchell Brothers strip club. Age to Rand was simply a number, and onlookers often marveled at how youthful she remained even in her sixties. "What in heaven's name is strange about a grandmother dancing nude?" she once said. "I'll bet lots of grandmothers do it."

Sally Rand died of congestive heart failure at the Foothill Presbyterian Hospital in Glendora, on Aug. 31, 1979. But her legendary routines live on in burlesque today, with high profile dancers like Dita Von Teese still paying tribute to her. At the time of Rand's death, one Petaluma Argus reporter recalled a conversation he had had with her in 1965.

"Whenever you introduce something new," she said, "there are those who try to find a moral reason against it. I proved that my type of dancing was art—and that I was artistic."

Sponsored

For more on Sally Rand and other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.