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Glamour Girls of a Lifetime
By Steve Sullivan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Steve Sullivan
All rights reserved.
AS burlesque enjoyed the final years of its golden age during the 1950s, the top-level strippers who made the era memorable could be divided into two categories: those who reserved their artistry for the swankiest nightclubs, and those who plied their trade on "the circuit." Virginia Bell — rivaled by few other strippers in her popular following — was equaled by none in her dedication to the network of burly theaters that would soon become a relic of history.
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Born in Montrose, California, Virginia was of Serbo-Croatian heritage; her father was said to have been a rancher. According to one Bell researcher, Virginia graduated from a Los Angeles high school in 1949, and was dating a well-known football star at the time. She graduated from junior college around 1951, and launched her modeling career after some candid beach snapshots of her formidable figure inspired the keen-eyed lensman to prod her in the direction of a professional photographer.
This quickly led her to a female theatrical agent who proclaimed, "When I first saw Virginia's picture, I didn't believe it — I thought the pictures were faked. But when she came in and showed me what she had, I knew I'd stumbled onto something special. Mansfield's are big, [Meg] Myles's are bigger, but Virginia's are the all-time most!"
Atop a five-foot-two, 120-pound frame, Virginia's breasts were indeed an imposing sight, and were to become her trademark. The exact dimensions of her most prized assets varied with the source. When she began modeling, her bust measurement was quoted as forty-two inches; later this number was regularly inflated to forty-eight. But unquestionably Virginia Bell's bust — which earned her such nicknames as "Little Miss Pleasure Chest" — was among the most celebrated of her time. One magazine proclaimed that her breasts were "more than enough to make Lili St. Cyr, Candy Barr and Tempest Storm look like something out of Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women.'"
It was on the burlesque stage that Virginia first came into the public eye in the mid-1950s. She reportedly made her burlesque debut on the stage of Cleveland's famed Roxy Theater. A headliner from the start, she was billed as "Virginia (Ding Dong) Bell, 48-24-36," and earned $1,500 per week.
By 1957, the fledgling exotic's epic figure was becoming a frequent sight in girlie magazines, and remained so for the next several years. Her first magazine cover was the September 1956 Night & Day. Immediately, the magazine was flooded with letters demanding more Bell. N & D, along with other magazines, regularly ran ads for sexy photo sets of Virginia, with such text as: "Inch for Inch, the Biggest, Bounciest Pin-Up Girl of Them All ... Must be SEEN to be BELIEVED. Never before a woman like this!"
While she appeared in many different magazines, Virginia became closely associated with Fling, which in later years would repeatedly cite her as the definitive "Flinggirl" who set the standard to which all others would have to aspire. Arv Miller, the magazine's founding publisher and editor, recalls that Fling's future was still in doubt when Virginia made her debut in issue 10 (1958). "Virginia really put me on my feet," he declares. When her appearances in issues 10 and 16 sent newsstand sales soaring, Miller decided to devote the publication to the biggest and best bosoms in the land.
Remarkably, Miller never actually met the woman responsible for the turnaround of his magazine. "She wrote me once in 1959 to thank me for running her pictures, but that's all." Despite the close Fling-Bell connection, "we never really had a lot of pictures of her. It was just two layouts by Ron Vogel — that's it, aside from some amateur-quality photo packs I got from New York. And I used those two layouts over and over and over!"
To this day, oddly, Virginia is most widely remembered as a nude magazine model, while her prowess as a burlesque star is forgotten by many. Nevertheless, during her prime, she ranked in the top echelon of strip luminaries. More than once, she was proclaimed "the hottest thing to hit a runway since the heyday of Lili St. Cyr." Every stripper needs a gimmick, and Virginia's was her so-called fast bust roll, which sent her mighty mammaries flying. She was also noted for her athletic agility in bending her torso all the way back, an impressive feat considering the extra weight she was carrying up top.
The burlesque circuit, as it survived into the 1950s, was a chain of about fifty theaters operated out of Boston and most heavily concentrated in the East and Midwest. Strippers who worked the circuit committed themselves to a grinding schedule of three to four nights in one town, a day of rest, and then on to the next destination. Typically, they would tour fifty weeks a year, with minimal concession to holidays. Most other top performers, after achieving fame, left all this behind to work in nightclubs and Las Vegas. But Virginia stayed the course: from the outset of her career until its end around 1970, as the circuit steadily dwindled with the lingering death of burlesque, she continued making the rounds of theaters until only a handful remained.
Ohio was the dominant state on the circuit, with burly theaters in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Akron, among others. It was there that Virginia met Eli Jackson, a veteran of the carnival scene who was branching out into burlesque. They married around 1960, and for the next few years were based in Cincinnati. By 1963, they had relocated to Tampa, Florida.
In early 1958, with Virginia one of the hottest attractions on the circuit, she purportedly turned down an offer to perform with the famed Folies Bergere in Paris. Several months later, she was reported to have signed a thousand-dollar-a-week movie and TV contract with Cleota Productions; however, nothing more was ever heard of this opportunity.
In addition to serving as her manager, Jackson was a constant presence at Virginia's stripping performances. As the so-called candy butcher, he appeared onstage at intermission selling photos, magazines, and other promotional materials, such as playing cards with her picture on them. And he was instrumental in arranging the film that helped ensure her enduring renown.
Bell, Bare and Beautiful
Virginia staked her claim for cinematic fame with the now-legendary nudie film, Bell, Bare and Beautiful. In his entertaining book, A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash Film King, producer David F. Friedman — whose credits included She Freak, Blood Feast, and the cult classic Two Thousand Maniacs — recalled how the film came to be. Jackson had devised the idea of a nudist-colony picture starring his wife, with Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis producing and directing, and Jackson doing the distribution. The film was to be shot in Miami in February 1963. The script was by Jackson and Virginia, "neither of whom had ever written anything before, except for checks and grocery lists."
Jackson was insistent on shooting the film quickly in Miami, because his wife was three months pregnant. Friedman was not overwhelmed by his leading lady: "Virginia, whose main attributes in the profession were her mammoth mammaries ... looked okay on stage, but Herschell and I both agreed she wasn't beautiful." They began shooting at 10 P.M., and by 3 A.M. had filmed fifteen pages of the forty-page script.
The second day, they shot the nudist-camp scenes. "Strangely, Virginia, a professional stripper, was hesitant to bare all for a movie camera. Furthermore, she was downright adamant about appearing nude in any scene in which another person was present. Go figure." The entire film was completed in three days.
B, B & B opens with wealthy bachelor Rick Bradshaw obsessed by a recurring dream of a beautiful girl he has never met. Determined to learn if she exists, he has an artist paint his vision and offers a reward for finding her. The theatrical agent for stripper Virginia writes to alert him that she is the girl. Much of the early action takes place at a burlesque theater in Pittsburgh. He finally tracks her down in Miami, where he sees Virginia perform her strip act, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her that she is the girl of his dreams before being chased out by her possessive manager. The next day he seeks her out again at a nudist camp. Finally Bradshaw pays off the manager to let Virginia go, and after a kidnap attempt by the manager's thug fails, she and Bradshaw return to the camp and "lived nudily ever after."
Bell, Bare and Beautiful had its advance-screening premiere in May 1963 in Miami Beach. It was early the following year that it began to attract a cult following in New York and San Francisco art houses, and over time the film's fame spread nationwide to the point where it became synonymous with big bosoms.
Arv Miller had something to do with the movie's potent following. When he devoted most of the August 1964 issue of Fling to B, B & B, it produced one of his biggest sellers of the era and helped generate new demand for the picture. But it was quite a task for the publisher. "I had to get the whole film and go through it frame by frame to pick out [what] I wanted so it made sense," he remembers. He took negatives from the 35 mm print, blew them up four times, and cropped the pictures. Then he made up dialogue to go with the sequence of photos."I never saw the damned picture! I didn't have a sound projector. I see that issue now, and I'm amazed at what I did. It actually makes sense."
Virginia also appeared in a number of other 1960s nudie films. Perhaps the best known was The Lullaby of Bareland (1966), produced by strip-club owner Leroy Griffith. The first of the film's three segments, "A Weekend with Virginia Bell," focused on her stage act, followed by a nudist-colony episode featuring voluptuous stripper Anne Howe. A flimsy drama built around the featured action has a bored married couple fleeing to Miami to liven up their sagging love life. The picture was filmed at a Florida nudist camp, as was another project in which she appeared, Civilization and Its Discontent. Additionally, La Bell shot many nudie shorts, which were sold by mail during the sixties and have been reissued on video, mainly showing her posing nude and caressing her body in threadbare indoor settings.
Despite the fame she achieved on the runway, Virginia repeatedly expressed distaste for her profession, which led her to briefly quit stripping several times. Finally, in the early 1970s, Virginia retired to Tampa with her husband, and they operated the string of movie theaters he owned in the state. According to a club owner for whom they often worked, the couple subsequently broke up and she returned to California.
A provocative postscript to the Bell story came several years ago after Miller ran another magazine retrospective on her. "I got a call from a woman who said she was her daughter. She hadn't seen her mother in years, and wondered where she was. I was taken by surprise, and told her the pictures were from 1959 and I hadn't heard from Virginia since.
"Virginia was either single or just divorced then. She was like a kid herself, she wasn't very old. She got involved with a guy, he got her pregnant, she had a child, then gave the child up for adoption. She later married somebody else [Eli Jackson], and never contacted the child." Miller was unable to confirm the truth of the account. "But what a great story."
It must have been a source of pleasure to Virginia that by the 1980s she had become a larger-than-life legend to a new generation of aficionados. In the age of silicone some busty beauties may have since surpassed her natural endowments, but few have exceeded her enduring personal appeal.
Like jazz, burlesque is a uniquely American art form in both its origins and evolution, and it vividly reflects a part of the American character. Unlike jazz, however, its role in popular culture has for years been neglected. Dixie Evans has made it her life objective to turn this around.
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In her youth, she was one of the last great stars to emerge at the end of burlesque's second golden age. "The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque" transported the magic that was Marilyn to the realm of striptease with uncanny precision. Today, she carries the tradition forward as president of Exotic World: the Strippers' Hall of Fame and Museum.
Mary Lee Evans was born on August 26, 1926, within weeks of her later inspiration Norma Jean Mortenson, and like Norma Jean her early years were shaped by misfortune. After taking the family from Long Beach, California, to Australia, where he drilled some of that nation's first oil wells, her father died when she was eleven.
Returning to grow up right outside Hollywood, Mary Lee yearned for the glamour of show business. She worked for a time planting celery in the field, and during World War II served as an airplane mechanic — at the same aircraft factory where Marilyn was hired for her first job. She soon caught the eye of talent scouts and photographers. "Pinups were a really big deal back then and all the pretty girls posed," she remembers. Mary Lee gained a little experience as a model, and had chorus parts in army touring shows as far back as 1941. The teenager styled her hair into a peekaboo and dyed her hair blonde, and was selected for Frederick's of Hollywood's 1949 catalog for her likeness to Veronica Lake.
The budding beauty's image began to appear in men's magazine advertisements billed as "shoot the starlets." "My agent would get four of us girls together and drive us to some location like a deserted mansion, a ranch or a beach. As many as thirty photographers showed up. They just wanted to see a pretty girl posing nude. ... You never saw them or their photographs again." In another fine historical parallel, one of the photographers who shot the youngster was Tom Kelley, within a year of his famous session with Marilyn.
Deciding that her real name was too plain for Hollywood, she changed it to the more eye-catching "Dixie." The aspiring starlet made several cheesecake reels during the late forties, such as The Casting Couch and The Hula Dance, which were shown for a nickel in the old amusement arcades. "I made lots of those wild strip films. All the girls did them, we just wanted to be entertainers."
Dixie gathered more valuable experience in the late 1940s as a chorine traveling with the Moonie Dancers (later the Orchid Moons) along the West Coast for almost two years. Finally, when the troupe performed in Mexico City, she quit. "I met a bareback rider in the circus and we fell in love. So I joined the circus, riding elephants." This provided Dixie with her only mainstream movie role. In The Greatest Show on Earth, the 1952 Cecil B. DeMille epic, Dixie played a harem girl in several scenes to pad out the number of circus performers.
After quitting the circus, Dixie worked as a theater page, until the show went broke in San Francisco. With no money to return to Los Angeles, she went down the block to a nightclub, the Spanish Village, and was hired as a stripper. "When I found out what a stripper made (two hundred dollars a week), I quit trying to be a page and stayed with burlesque. The place was a bit of a dive and the whole thing was terrifying. But I was finally in show business."
In early 1952, she found her way to the El Rey theater in Oakland — home base for emerging striptease legend Tempest Storm. Pete De Cenzie, owner of the El Rey, became Dixie's manager. For the first time, Dixie sampled the real world of burlesque. "Boy, was there a difference from the nightclubs. This was big business. The tympany drumrolls, the musicians, the orchestra pit, comics, singers. Suddenly there was no kidding around — I was a headliner. So I acquired a professional attitude. I invested my money in props, costumes, and jewelry. You had to learn quickly."
Being a headliner meant a lot of travel across the major burlesque circuits. It was Harold Minsky who introduced Dixie to the Midwestern and Eastern circuits where most of the top strippers worked. "All the girls tried to do something a little unique — you had to have a gimmick or you couldn't be a headliner."
Excerpted from Bombshells by Steve Sullivan. Copyright © 1998 Steve Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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