Gypsy Rose Lee

In October 1954, Australian entrepreneur Harry Wren brought out America’s most articulate stripper, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee. Local press coverage was relatively low-key. Gypsy Rose was photographed on her arrival at Mascot airport for a season at Sydney’s Palladium Theatre. Her strip act was slotted into the penultimate spot on a variety bill, titled Burlesque – The Gypsy Rose Lee Show.

Produced by Wren and Queenie Paul, the show played twice-nightly for two weeks. It featured comics from England and America, a singer from France and variety entertainers from Australia, including singer Peggy Mortimer, musican Enzo Toppano, radio personality Reg Gray and Australia’s ‘big boy of song’ Norman Erskine’. Gypsy Rose was joined in performance by perhaps six showgirls from Sydney and at least one ‘extraordinarily wigged and bosomed American girl’ (‘A Woman Reporter’, 1954).

The Sydney Morning Herald seems to have ignored the show; the tabloids took a little more interest. The Sun ran a cartoon the day the show opened and an anonymous review, penned by ‘a woman reporter’ the day after. While Wren had advertised the show as ‘an experience of a lifetime’, the Sun headlined its review, ‘A scream – at what isn’t there’.

Last night before her first Sydney audience Gypsy Rose Lee clutched a discarded skirt to her midriff – and a woman screamed.
Like the rest of the audience at the Palladium, the woman was expecting the worst. Perhaps she was disappointed when it didn’t happen.
Certainly the bald-pated fans in the front rows, and those in the back rows with the opera-glasses were disappointed.
We didn’t ask a middle-aged woman with opera glasses how she felt. (‘A woman reporter’ 1954)

‘Gypsy’s act is like nothing ever seen in Sydney’ announces the reviewer, her nihilistic phrasings displacing the disappointment that, courtesy of ‘two black bows’ and ‘a scrap of embroidery’, Gypsy never did appear on stage with nothing on. Instead, she offered her audience, ‘a few laughs, a lot of charm, vast expanses of skin, and some fabulous clothes’ (‘A woman reporter’ 1954).

Pix ran a photo-story late in the run, thereby ‘taking her entertainment to hundreds of thousands of people unable to go to the theatre’ (‘Photo strip act’ 1954). The photo story reconstructs an elaborate and articulate undressing routine, with captions supplying a taste of Gypsy’s trademark ‘intellectual recitation’. The initial four photos more-or-less correspond with her filmed performance in the movie Stage Door Canteen (1943). The centre piece of the photo story captures the moment just as Gypsy is about to ‘take the last thing off’. The caption again marks the moment with ‘yell from lady in audience’, suggesting that the audience reaction at this point was scripted into the show, that the woman in the audience was actually a ‘plant’ (‘Gypsy Strips’ 1954).

Gypsy’s stripping at Sydney’s Palladium Theatre (and, no doubt, elsewhere in the 1950s) was an allegory of historical transformation. Having discarded the old-fashioned trappings of gloves, hat, garter belt, stockings and ‘voluminous lace petticoat’, Gypsy retired behind a screen where, in silhouette with lighting from behind, ‘she dressed up again’ to re-appear on stage in the glamour fashion of feminine modernity, 1950s-style – a ‘head-to-toe diamante outfit’ comprising ‘earrings, bracelets and shoes, and a 4000-dollar frock that ways 60lb’ (‘A woman reporter’ 1954).

Joy Jarvis of Annandale, one of the Sydney show girls who joined Gypsy for the finale, explained to the Sun’s readers that their act conformed, for the most part, to the stage convention of static nudity: ‘We Sydney girl[s] don’t actually strip in front of the audience. We just come on stripped, and stay that way’. The one exception was a segment in which ‘I wriggle on in a fur coat, shaking my hips seductively all the time’ and ‘three-quarters of the way through […] we waggle down near the footlights – and down comes the fur coat’. Distancing herself from the contagion of audience response, Jarvis reflects: ‘I’ve never appeared in as little as this before but believe me, emotionally it leaves me cold’.

Jarvis also distances the actuality of her stripping by framing it within a fictional setting. She refers to this segment as ‘the nightclub scene’ (‘Taking the joy out of stripping’ 1954). The program makes no mention of a nightclub; the segment following Gypsy’s spot is titled ‘Our Music and Misses … A Tribute to Miss Gypsy Rose Lee’. But Jarvis’ reference suggests a venue-based analogy to the historiography of Gypsy’s strip: as Gypsy transformed from an old-fashioned belle into a glamorous modern dame, the signified stage setting may have also transformed from old-style variety theatre to modern metropolitan nightclub.

Notes

  • The Sun’s ‘woman reporter’ records that three Australian show girls appeared at the Palladium with Gypsy Rose Lee. The Sun pictures perhaps one of them, Irene Bowtell, in association with the article (2 Oct 1954), and another two days later, Joy Jarvis (4 Oct 1954). The program mentions neither of these, but carries pictures of local show girls Margaret Merry, Helen Brown, Fay Glanville and Marcia Kinnard.
  • The photo story, ‘Gypsy Strips’, is published in Pix issue dated 16 October 1954, but this issue is advertised as ‘out today’ in the Sun on 11 Oct 1954. An advertisement for the show in the Sun on 7 October advertises ‘only 7 more nights’, indicating a closing night of 13 October.
  • A version of this account appears in Bollen, Jonathan (2010) ‘Don’t Give Up the Strip! Erotic performance as live entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, 34/2: 125-140.

References

  • ‘Gypsy Rose Lee strip routine’, excerpt from Stage Door Canteen, 1943, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-jEKVq38bY
  • ‘A Woman Reporter’. 1954. ‘A scream – at what isn’t there’, The Sun, 2 October, p. 3.
  • ‘Taking the joy out of stripping’, The Sun, 4 October 1954, p.5.
  • ‘Photo strip act’, The Sun, 11 Oct 1954, p. 9.
  • ‘Gypsy Strips’, Pix, 16 Oct 1954, pp. 22-23.
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3 Responses to Gypsy Rose Lee

  1. tony bremner says:

    I saw Gypsy’s show in Sydney when I was 15 or 16. Dad was PR for Qantas, and we kept her little dog (a ‘Sydney Silkie’) at our house in Manly so she wouldn’t have to take it all over the country. When she reurned to Sydney she and her son Eric came to Sunday lunch to pick it up. She was very nice; I remember her long dark hair, though not the conversation. She gave me and my brother tickets to her show, which we went to one afternoon. I’ve written about this, descibing what I remember of her stripping, in The Oldie (London) magazine’s autmn issue 2015.

  2. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Hello Tony, thanks for sharing this memory. I’m looking forward to reading your article in The Oldie. I was interested in your comment about Gypsy touring Australia. I thought she had only performed in Sydney. On further research, I found that she made an appearance at Wellington in western New South Wales on 10 October 1954 (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article139108614), and had planned a season in Adelaide (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47611871). But that plan was cut short, and she returned to New York for an engagement in November (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47621753). best wishes, Jonathan

  3. tony bremner says:

    Hello Jonathan,
    Clever you, discovering that Miss Lee (as the family always knew her) only toured NSW rather than visiting the whole country as I had imagined. We had her little dog for some weeks I know, but how long is impossible to remember.
    all the best,
    Tony Bremner

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