Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The announcer asked for another round of applause, and got it, and Tempest Storm took her last curtain call. Then the house lights went on and the audience started to leave.
Backstage, Tempest ("The tempest in a D-cup," as the ads say), wrapped herself in a gown. Her dressing room was small and neat, the walls papered with posters of previous attractions.
"Something about being backstage still sort of gets me," Tempest said. She spoke almost shyly in a soft Southern accent.
"I'd tell you, but you'd think it was crazy."
No, go ahead.
"It's a long story, too..."
That doesn't matter.
"Well, I used to go to the movies, and I'd tell myself the stars were backstage, right behind the screen, and someday I'd meet them." She smiled. "Oh, I was funny. Long after I was too old to believe such things, I still pretended I did, because they were important to me.
"I mean, crazy things like that helped out at home. I was in a pretty bad situation. I never knew my father. My parents separated before I was born. But I had a stepfather, the meanest man in the world. Every day was hell. I wanted to get away, and naturally I dreamed about Hollywood. And I memorized movie magazines.
"But where I actually wound up was in Columbus, Georgia. I was all of 14 years old. I grew up in Eastman, Ga., and I'd never been out of the state in my life, but I had this idea I could save my money and go to Hollywood and become a movie star."
She smiled. "It seemed perfectly simple. I imagine there were a lot of little girls in Georgia with the same crazy idea. I went to Columbus and got a job as an inspector for the Archer Hosiery Co. But I could hardly support myself; I was a kid, I didn't know the first thing about handling money. I lived all alone in a rooming house. My parents were trying to make me come back home.
"It seemed that if I did go back, I'd never get away again. I got a job as a waitress and met this marine who came into the restaurant all the time. We got the bright idea we ought to get married. See, in Georgia, after you got married your parents lost their legal hold on you."
She shook her head slowly. "What a crazy thing to do. I was scared to death, and so was he. The marriage was annulled after 24 hours, and I went back home. I never saw him again. I heard once that he was in Florida, but I don't know for sure.
"Anyway, things were still bad at home, and so finally I really did get married. I was 15, and I married this shoe salesman from Columbus. His sister worked with me at the hosiery mill. Can you imagine a kid of 15 getting married? It lasted six months, and then I just left one day. I still had it in my mind to go to Hollywood. I couldn't get it out of my system."
When she arrived in Hollywood, her name was still Annie B. Banks, and she had $600 in savings in a purse which she held with both hands so that the purse-snatchers, said to be legion in the big city, would not snatch it away from her.
"I was pretty, and already I had a good figure, but I must have looked like the original little country girl come to Hollywood," Tempest said smiling. "What a sight I must have been."
She went to work as a carhop at Simon's Drive-In until a job as a cocktail waitress opened up. She lied about her age, piled her hair on top of her head and went to work.
"One day a man in the lounge told me I ought to go into show business," she said. Well, that was exactly what I thought, but I was as far away from getting anywhere in Hollywood as I had been in Georgia. I asked him if he had any suggestions. He said sure, become a stripper. I thought he was kidding.
"But he arranged an audition with Lillian Hunt, who was handling the talent at the Follies Theater. I missed the first appointment on purpose - I was scared to death and the last thing in the world I wanted to be was a stripper - but I finally went to see her and she gave me a job in the chorus line. It paid $40 a week, the most I'd ever made in my life."
After three weeks, Tempest was offered a raise to $60 if she would strip. "That wasn't what I had in mind," Tempest said. "I never started out to be in burlesque; I never planned it that way. Still, I needed the money. I remember going on stage for the first time, with Lillian in the wings whispering instructions.
"The instant the spotlight hit, my gown fell off. I was still wondering whether I had the nerve take it off, and it fell off. So that was when I learned the basic rule in this business: No matter what happens, keep moving."
A week later, Lillian Hunt told Annie B. Banks that she needed a stage name. Annie B. Banks wouldn't do.
"I asked her if she had any suggestions. She said, what about Tempest Storm? I asked her if she had any other suggestions. Well, she said, what about Sunny Day? Well, I said, I guess it might as well be Tempest Storm."
That was in 1952, when she was 17. Six months later, she engineered the publicity stunt that was to make her famous. "A bunch of Hollywood stars were holding something called the Mickey Awards. Sort of a spoof on the Oscars," she said. "I arrived in a Rolls-Royce and was given an award by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The citation read: For the biggest props in Hollywood."
She smiled: "Well, publicity is the key in this business. You have to be realistic. I made a lot of front pages, and that was the break I needed. Everybody needs one break."
In 1956, she signed a 10-year contract at $100,000 a year with the Bryan-Engels burlesque chain, becoming the highest paid stripper in the business. She still is (her current guarantee is $3,000 a week), but she reigns over a dying industry. Chicago, once a thriving burlesque center, now has only one active theater, the Town Burlesque at Armitage and Clark.
"I was just about the last big star the burlesque industry was able to produce before it started folding up," Tempest said. "Now there's no reason for a girl to get into the business. All she'll get is a lot of grief.
"Still I can't see why I should quit while I'm making so much money. I'm not a relic, after all. That's another thing. Burlesque has been dying for so long that people somehow get the idea I'm 70 years old and their grandfathers saw me. I came into the industry very late. I'm not quite a contemporary of Gypsy Rose Lee, for heaven's sake."
For the headliners like Tempest, a large audience remains. The Town, which lost money steadily during a 10 month try at exhibiting serious foreign films, is thriving on a policy of skin flicks and big-name strippers. Tempest's engagement, which ended Wednesday, was the most lucrative in the theater's history.
And one by one, the handful of other well-known strippers will come to the Town: Anne Howe (the current attraction), Babette Bardot, Sintana, Kelly Barton, a few others. The audiences are mostly men since there are no longer comedians and singers that the ladies can claim they REALLY came to see.
"They tried full-scale burlesque in New York a year ago: comedians, three chorus lines, the works," Tempest said. "But it flopped and now they're back to strippers.
"What I object to is the dishonesty and cheapening that goes on. The thing that killed the family audience for burlesque, in my opinion, was when some strippers began 'flashing' - that's burlesque lingo for showing everything. Not only is that unpleasant, but it's unnecessary. The secret to a good striptease is to leave as much as possible to the imagination.
"No matter what men may think, they don't actually want to see a performer just come out and take off her clothes. There's got to be communication, there's got to be contact. In my act, although I eventually do get down to the legal minimum, I actually put on more clothes than I take off. There's some psychology in this. A performer who can communicate a feeling of modesty is sexier than one who just strips.
"And then there's the dishonesty. For example, my measurements are 40-22-34, and nobody's ever accused me of exaggerating. But I was playing a theater in Florida, and they had a big banner in front of the theater advertising 48-22-36. Good Lord, can you imagine? I exercise and diet to stay in shape, and then some idiot theater manager comes along and gives me eight extra inches."
What she plans to do, she said, is keep working while the pay is good, and then retire. She was married again in 1959, to singer Herb Jeffries, and they have a 5-year-old daughter.
"Herb and I think maybe we'll settle in Honolulu. We both work about six months a year, and travel with each other a good deal so that we're never apart more than a few weeks. We plan to settle down and lead a quiet sort of life. And basically, I guess, I'm happy with the way things turned out. I went into burlesque, which I never planned on, but at least I did make it to the top.
"Not bad for a ninth-grade dropout, right?" She smiled. "That's what I can't understand about teenagers today. I worked from the time I was 13; I paid my own way. Now you see these kids, they're lazy, they won't work. I can't act that way. All my life, I've worked like crazy, maybe because I remember where I started from. And I did make it. I made it out of Georgia and I did become a star, although maybe not exactly the way I expected. The customers may not come to see me act, but they're there."
So what do the customers come for?
"I guess just to see a sex symbol," Tempest said. "Most people figure strippers are dumb broads; all they have is a body. Ever since I've started, that's the kind of attitude people have had toward me.
"That's why Marilyn Monroe invented the dumb blond - to sort of satirize what everybody thought about her anyway. Then, when she played the dumb blond, everybody could see she was really intelligent. It was funny. That's how she overcame the sex symbol thing."
How have you overcome it?
Tempest put her tongue in her cheek.
"I haven't tried yet," she said.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...