When I was 9 years old (nearly 10), in the summer of 1979, my grandparents took me to see Sally Rand perform at a venue in Albuquerque, NM. I remember it as being the Convention Center, but I’ve also heard that she performed at the Kivo Theater. I think my recollection is correct, because we were not seated for the performance. My father’s mother told me, breathlessy through her Binaca flavored breath and her bleeding coral lipstick, that Sally Rand was a “famous fan dancer, a stripper who was very sexy.”
I can say that a ten year old does not, really, know what to do with that information. (Why was this an outing my parents allowed me to go on? I don’t know. I wouldn’t have allowed any of my children to ever go anywhere with my father’s parents, but it was a different time and my parents were entirely unable to really stand up to them). Yet, there we were, standing in a small crowd of mostly polyester clad adults. I have a hazy recollection of burgundy polyester leisure pants and the like, maybe even white shoes.
I had been told that the key to Sally’s act was that she was naked, but she kept these giant fans moving in a way that allowed only the tiniest glimpses of her body. She was a pioneer who is still revered today among those who practice burlesque. In her prime, she was very, very famous and many people my grandparents’ age recalled her as a strong erotic influence of the times.
This day, at the not-at-all glamorous convention center, Sally was 75 years old. I can’t remember where the music came from, but as she danced I could see that she was wearing a full, nude-colored body stocking. She still had bleached blonde hair, and wore the same makeup she’d worn her entire life to perform. The fans were huge, lovely ostrich feathers that gently molted here and there.
I recall being moderately horrified. I couldn’t decide if the body stocking were a good thing (“No one wants to see drooping boobs” I could imagine my father saying), or if Sally Rand was cheating us out of the true spectacle. She was not able, as she was when younger, to really keep the fans going fast enough to disguise her body, and I could see flabby arms and wrinkly hands that contrasted oddly with the smoothness of the body stocking.
In my mind, Sally’s face and my father’s mother’s face have morphed. Bleeding lipstick on lips thinned by age. Makeup and hair coiffed in styles too youthful to fool anyone. Large breasts that required significant architecture to hold them aloft. I can’t really see one without the other.
Once her performance was finished, she came back out, and while I think of her as only in the body stocking she must have put on a robe or something. She grabbed the mike stand and laboriously dragged it closer to herself, and then she thanked everyone for coming. Except, she was breathless, and had to pause between every one or two words. Was she pulling an oxygen tank, or am I imagining that because it seemed she should have one? She sounded so weak, and sick, and I felt shocked that she would perform in this condition.
A few weeks later, she died of congestive heart failure in California. By that time I had turned 10, and seeing the article in the paper made me feel even more confused; why, if she was about to die, was she struggling to move some fans around in a tawdry convention center while a bunch of people stood around staring like you would at an accident?
As an adult, I often think about that strange experience, and how sad it was to see the physical ruin as she wheezed into a microphone. Instead of someone leaping to her aid as she struggled to breathe, we all stared, impatient for her to finish talking. She died deeply in debt, which suggests to me that she might not have been enjoying those last performances, and simply needed the money.
I had occasion to recall that episode last night, when I had the privilege of meeting an actor who was also, in her prime, an icon of sexiness–a Hollywood blonde with full lips and big boobs and sass. Those days are behind her, and she is within a year of being the same age Sally Rand was when I saw her. This actor has found other venues and is not, any longer, trading on her status as a sex object directly, but I would guess that no matter what she does now, her ability to be recognized is based in her original status as a sexy bombshell.
However, I felt the same sudden tenderness for her that I once felt for Sally Rand as a shocked and uncertain 9 year old. There was a chance to meet the actor, and we did. Someone whispered that she, “doesn’t like cameras, NO cameras.” She, too, has maintained the same blonde hair that was part of her trademark, but as we stood before her I could see that she is missing large patches that she combs the rest over. She appears to have had a terrifying amount of plastic surgery. Her lips are still full but unnaturally so, and they seemed like they were stretched too wide. She looked like someone had braided her hair with excruciating tightness, drawing her skin back so that the normal fat pads of the cheeks were strange, oval-shaped lumps too close to her eyes, which seemed almost closed to tiny slits.
She was clearly nervous, very demanding, not particularly good at the banter required of such events. I felt badly for her–how hard she has clearly tried to hang on to what men in my father’s generation venerated to the same degree as, say, Farrah Fawcett. She seemed trapped inside her face. I wanted to rub her scalp and tell her to stop bleaching her hair, that she’s okay as herself, even though I know that for a female actor to accept herself as she ages is often the death of her career. I certainly don’t blame her for trying, but I was saddened by what seemed to be a decision to maim herself in order to stave off old age.
She reminded me, very clearly, of gasping Sally Rand, thanking us for watching her show only weeks before what was likely a lonely death. I felt guilty for being in the crowd that stared at the spectacle.