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SCOTT HARRIS

Tempest's Naked Truth Still Causes a Storm

July 28, 1996|Scott Harris

The press release gave her age as 70, but many people suspect that she's older. This would certainly be true among the young folks who sometimes help producer Keith Evans stage his "Show of the Month" and find names like Frankie Laine and Ann Blyth only vaguely familiar, if familiar at all.

These whippersnappers have no concept of age. "My God," they'll say to Evans of no star in particular, "she must be 102!"

But when the name in question is Tempest Storm, even contemporaries often assume that the queen of burlesque, if alive at all, must be over 70. "When I was in my 30s," she explains, "they had me in my 40s." Mind you, this was more a matter of legend than looks. With that name, that body and that fiery red hair, Tempest Storm became so famous so fast back in the 1950s that people assumed she'd been around longer, like Gypsy Rose Lee.

So let the record show that Tempest Storm is definitely not 102 and insists she's not yet 70 either. How old is she? It's not polite to ask, but I did so anyway.

"Not old enough for Medicare, but young enough for men to care."

What would you expect from a professional tease?

She was less coy, however, about some other numbers.

"Forty-21-34," she said. ". . . I do aerobics."

Perhaps, as a journalist, I should have verified the claim with a tape measure, but there was a problem. We were speaking over the phone.

Having said that, I should also note I have indeed met Tempest Storm before, live and in person. This happened last fall, when reportorial duties required me to attend an unusual "glamour convention" at the Burbank Hilton. There were dozens of pinup queens there, from the Playboy Playmates to sundry porno stars, but Tempest Storm may have created the biggest stir.

Suffice to say that she is, indeed, a remarkable example of historic preservation, a living, breathing, dancing, disrobing icon of American culture.

As a graduate of the Cal State University system, I was proud to know that Cal State Northridge will host Tempest Storm tonight as the headliner in "Vaudeville Follies." The eight-act revue, produced by Keith Evans, will continue next weekend at the Performing Arts Center of the Cal State Northridge Student Union.

This is the latest installment in Evans' 3-year-old Valley series featuring vintage acts that appeal to older audiences. He remembers the first, featuring singer Eddie Fisher, as "a lovefest." Later came successful shows with Laine, Blyth, John Raitt, Constance Tower, Florence Henderson, Morey Amsterdam and others. On the other hand, Anthony Newley bombed and some shows were canceled due to lack of interest.

It's a tough business, Evans says, because competition for the entertainment dollar is so fierce. Many people, he sighs, would just as soon rent a video as pay $17.50--the senior discount price--to see a live 2 1/2-hour show that evokes the old-fashioned burlesque house.

There's comedy from the guy who plays Stan Laurel in the TV commercials. There's magic from "Mr. Electric & Carol." One singer offers a tribute to Al Jolson (without blackface) and another has a style that, according to Evans, somehow evokes both Kate Smith and Judy Garland. Other musical acts include virtuosos of the violin and harmonica, as well as the dueling xylophones of the Marimba Mama's.

And Tempest Storm, the headliner, delivers the va-va-voom.

Evans' press release put it this way: "The gorgeous redhead, at 70 years of age, has been heralded by audiences and critics alike both for her performance, 'always in good taste and lots of fun,' and her still-natural beauty, a role model in this era of extended youthfulness."

This role model doesn't take it all off. She strips down to a rhinestone-studded bikini with see-through brassiere. "A woman's best weapon," she explains, "is a man's imagination."

Once upon a time, the Valley may not have taken kindly to women who made their living this way. That sort of thing belonged in places like the old Follies Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

That's the place where, as the oft-repeated story has it, a burlesque veteran by the name of Lillian Hunt told a nervous young woman who'd grown up in a family of Georgia sharecroppers that her given name of Annie Blanche Banks just wouldn't do--that she needed something with more mystique.

"How about Tempest Storm?"

Annie Banks wasn't sure. She asked for another suggestion.

"How about Sunny Day?"

"Well," the future burlesque queen replied, "I don't feel like a Sunny Day."

That was 45 years ago, but these days Tempest Storm seems to be feeling warm and sunny. It's not just that she is still performing, at venues ranging from Vegas to the Leisure World in Laguna Hills. And it's not just that her public--especially women, she says--marvels at her flat tummy and firm legs. And it's not that society seems to have grown more appreciative.

More important, she says, is the fact that she's madly in love.

They met after one of her performances in Palm Springs last year.

"It's a fairy tale romance," she says. "I've been looking for him all my life."

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Please include a phone number.

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