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Betty Rowland, an original 'Minsky's' girl

The former burlesque dancer, 93, describes a tough but rewarding experience performing during the Depression. And the fan mail keeps coming.

February 27, 2009|Mark Medina

In her one-bedroom apartment in Brentwood, Betty Rowland recently thumbed through a pile of fan mail scattered on her dining room table.

The letters sat next to seven photographs of her as a burlesque dancer in the 1940s and '50s, wearing risque outfits and, in one case, appearing topless.

It reminded Rowland, 93, of what she saw when she went to the Ahmanson Theatre on Feb. 6 to watch the premiere of "Minsky's," a musical that depicts a New York City burlesque show during the Great Depression and is running through Sunday.

"I enjoyed the show so much," she said. "It's what burlesque used to be."

Rowland, an original Minsky's girl, met the dancers backstage afterward amid excitement from cast members.

"It brought this larger-than-life character that we were experiencing on stage into a real person," said Jennifer Frankel, who plays a dancer named Sylvie. "Seeing her with her flaming red hair and still having that fire, I was thinking what it would be like to be a Minsky's girl."

While sorting through the fan mail, Rowland wore a turtleneck underneath a sweater jacket -- far more conservative than the scanty costumes she still keeps in her closet.

She retired as a dancer in the early '60s after getting married. But Rowland, still with the thick black eyelashes and bright red hair that earned her the nickname "Ball of Fire," says she receives three or four letters a month from fans reflecting on her glory days.

"Not that many, but when you're 93 it's pretty nice," said Rowland, cracking a smile.

It pales in comparison to the 20 letters Rowland says she collected every day during her dancing years. The attention that still exists for Rowland, however, illustrates that she left a footprint.

"I can't tell you how many people I bump into in Los Angeles who say they admire Betty Rowland," said Dixie Evans, a burlesque dancer from the 1940s to the '60s who is now the curator of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. "There's also people back East who will call up and ask about her."

Though Rowland admits that specific names and dates are sometimes foggy ("I'm trying to remember 93 years"), she vividly recalls being a burlesque dancer. She describes those times, including the ones at Minsky's, as a "rough life."

Rowland wanted to go to college, but "we got cheated out of it because of the Depression," she says, explaining that her father lost his job as an accountant in the 1930s.

After taking dancing classes for four years, Rowland and her sister, Rose-Zell, carried those skills to burlesque to help raise money for the family without her parents' knowledge. "When they came over to see the show," Rowland said, laughing, "they were expecting to see us do the little dances."

Instead, Rowland's striptease served as part of a program that also entailed comedians, singers, jugglers, balancing acts and gymnasts. Although considered lewd in its day, she often reminds people, "I wasn't in porno."

"People always wondered what the girls do with the guys back there, figuring they're having sex," Rowland said. She said she "didn't have time to get in trouble," because of a busy schedule that consisted of four two-hour shows every day of the week, rehearsals in between and frequent naps between performances.

After New York City shut down its burlesque theaters, Rowland moved to Los Angeles in 1938 and experienced the same grind here. She often describes her work as "The Three D's," for dancing, dollars and dishes. Because of the sagging economy during the Depression, she sometimes earned dishes instead of cash.

Money wasn't the only problem. The worries depicted in "Minsky's" about being shut down by the authorities were real. Rowland said she was fined $250 in 1939 after a trial in which a police officer described and imitated her burlesque act on the witness stand. She recalled another incident in 1952 when two police officers closed her show at a downtown burlesque theater after the manager refused to let them in for free.

She spent three weeks in a jail in Lincoln Heights before embarking on a nation-wide burlesque tour.

Despite those hardships, she still relishes her past. She displays a three-month contract from 1945 that shows her earning $500 every two weeks, which she described as "big dough." She didn't spend that money on alcohol and cigarettes, though.

"I never drank and smoked," Rowland said. "It wasn't in my family. When we were in show business, we took it seriously and didn't do that. We saw a few of them fall by the wayside because of that."

That revelation is even more surprising considering that Rowland's post-dancing career included helping run various bars. She inherited a Santa Monica bar called Mr. B's in the late '60s and operated that until investors Mike Garrett and Tommy Stochivich persuaded Rowland to sell the business and partner up in 1995. They renovated the bar, renamed it the 217 Lounge and soon attracted the Hollywood crowd.

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