I was nine years old and for some reason my mother thought it a good idea to take me to see Ms. Lee and her girls strip at the Erie Social Club in Philadelphia. Now that I think of it, I guess it was part of her campaign to “make a man out of me”. Fat lot of good that did. It was, however, a great Sunday afternoon. Yes, Ms. Lee did matinees! The place was SRO with couples out for a day of good clean fun. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was Easter Sunday. And I’m almost certain I was the only nine-year old there. . .
Gypsy came out fully dressed in a floor length Victorian costume, complete with ruffled collar and cuffs and proceeded to slowly undress while bantering bawdily with the audience until she was left with only three black bows one much larger than the other two. . . her signature start and finish, I would, much later in life, discover.
She was very funny, even to a nine-year old. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the semi-nudity. . . my parents were frequently naked around me, so it was no big deal. But then she performed the most amazingly erotic stunt and a piece of stagecraft that has stuck with me for 60 years. She stepped behind a white linen screen and with a pin spot on her face and a back-light casting her shadow onto the linen, she proceeded to slowly dress in silhouette while she spoke. It was the sexiest thing you ever saw. When she stepped out from behind the screen ten minutes later, fully dressed again in a new floor length costume, the crowd went wild. She was quite a broad. Probably the only stripper in history to bring down the house by putting her clothes back on.
So when she wrote her autobiography, “Gypsy“. . . a great read — if you haven’t read it, you should, even thought it is mostly fiction. . . I got my hands on a copy as soon as I could. . . which wasn’t easy for a twelve-year-old in 1957. And in the course of a few weeks, two things happened that would change my life forever.
I finished the book and became fascinated with Gypsy, her sister June (Havoc) and their stage mother from hell, Mama Rose; and I bought my first ticket to a professional play.
One in the balcony for a Philadelphia, pre-Broadway tryout of “Holiday for Lovers” starring Don Amece. Two dollars and eighty cents, thank you very much. And did I get a beating when my mother discovered the ticket stub in my jacket pocket! Just who the hell did I think I was? Three bucks for a theater ticket? The fact that I had saved my allowance for months, foregoing Cokes and Clark Bars held no weight in the one-sided discussion.
Having read the play recently. . . yes, it’s still in print. . . I can assure you it’s 50s’ winkey naughtiness at it’s worst; but at the time I thought I was witnessing the rebirth of Shakespeare. How long had this magical thing called the theater been going on without my knowledge? There on the stage was a world-famous actor, incredibly beautiful sets that changed with each act, and I fell under the spell of every second of it. And who were all these sophisticated people, clutching Playbills and paying fifty cents for ten-cent orange drinks during intermission?
Playing the daughter in “Holiday” was a girl named Sandra Church who, three years later, after seeing every other bomb that tried out in Philly. . . hey, you could get seats at half-price. . . I would see her again playing Rose Louise Hovick, aka Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, in “Gypsy”, the first musical I ever saw in New York City on Broadway. I was fifteen years old and I never looked back.
Way to go, Ma. . .
And thank you, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee!