Tempest Storm will offer a peek at a life in burlesque at KC festival

04/30/2014 7:50 PM

04/30/2014 7:50 PM

As everyone knows these days, YouTube is the central repository for pop culture. So you shouldn’t be surprised to know that’s where you can find a 1955 film, in clips or its entirety, called “Teaserama.”

The headliner was Tempest Storm, one of the queens of the genteel striptease, but the cast also included Bettie Page, another sex icon of the ’50s, several other female burlesque performers, a couple of rim-shot comedians in porkpie hats and a Spanish dance duo called Peppe Roccio.

Shot in now-faded Eastman color, the movie offers a glimpse of burlesque aesthetics long before anyone had dreamed of pole dancing. It’s tawdry, yet innocent. “Naughty” seems a more appropriate description than “sleazy.”

“Burlesque was really classy in those days,” Storm said last week from her home in Las Vegas. “We had the chorus line, and we had the band. It was absolutely beautiful. It’s not like it is today. If we could turn back time, that would be great.”

At 86, Storm is virtually the last surviving performer of what some some people think of as the golden age of burlesque. Her contemporaries — Bettie Page, Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr, Sally Rand — are all gone. Burlesque of the 1950s can easily be regarded as camp, judging by the remnants that survive on film, but a new generation of entertainers in their 20s and 30s offers a style of entertainment sometimes described as neo-burlesque.

And for the younger generation of burlesque performers, Storm is a legend and a source of inspiration. That’s why she will be the guest of honor at the three-day Kansas City Burlesque Festival, which gets underway tonight at the Kill Devil Club in the Power Light District.

The annual event produced by Marisa MacKay and Scott Smith includes competitions, performances and, at 5 p.m. Saturday, a panel discussion at which Storm will answer questions about her life and career.

The venue for the festival events Friday and Saturday will be, appropriately, the Folly Theater, once an important stop on the burlesque circuit. Storm performed there often. She returned for the refurbished theater’s dedication in 1981.

Storm was born Annie Blanche Banks in Eastman, Ga.

“I left home when I was 14 and worked at a couple of places in Macon as a waitress, and then in Columbus,” she said. “I worked my way to California. I was working as a cocktail waitress and a gentleman came in and said, ‘You should be a dancer.’

“And I said ‘What kind of dancer?’ And he said, ‘Striptease.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Taking your clothes off.’ And I said, ‘No! Not for me, not ever.’ 

After she reconsidered, her burlesque career began in Oakland, but before long she was performing at the Follies Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where choreographer Lillian Hunt took Annie under her wing. In the mid-’50s Storm became a recipient of the Mickey Award, a sort of spoof of the Oscars dreamed up by newspaper columnists.

“I went in and Lillian Hunt hired me for the chorus line and then I got a five-minute number,” Storm recalled. “I won the Mickey Award for having the biggest props in Hollywood, and after that I was on my way. I worked hard. I did photo shoots.

“We had a lot of couples. A lot of women came with their husbands. It was great in those days. Edward G. Robinson and his wife came down. Burt Lancaster came down. That’s what they called ‘going slumming.’ We had a chorus line, big, beautiful costumes, production numbers ”

After several years of performing as Tempest Storm, in 1957 she legally changed her name.

“Annie Blanche Banks did not appeal to me so I had to get a flashy or classy name for the stage,” she said. “Lillian Hunt called me into the office and said, ‘We have to change your name.’ I asked what it should be. She said, ‘Sunny Day or Tempest Storm.’ 

Storm said she was good friends with Blaze Starr, another major burlesque star of the ’50s. They were both headliners, so they never performed together.

And she was fond of Bettie Page. But Page became reclusive after her career as a burlesque performer and fetish model ended, and Storm could never connect with her.

“I tried so many times,” she said. “I could never get through to her. It was really sad because we had a good time making that movie and she was very sweet. But when she passed away I got to go to her funeral. She had a lot of ailments, mentally. But I just couldn’t get through her attorneys.”

Storm has been linked romantically to a dizzying cavalcade of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and mobster Mickey Cohen. Herb Jeffries, a singer with the Duke Ellington band and the only African-American singing cowboy star of B Westerns, was her fourth husband.

Storm said some of her romantic escapades have been exaggerated.

“I was friends with him, strictly friends,” she said of Cohen. “We’d go out to dinner a few times. He was a nice man as far as I was concerned, until I started reading about him. He was a gentleman, and we had polite conversation and that was it.”

As a Vegas star, she hobnobbed with other headliners of the day, including members of the Rat Pack. And Elvis.

“When I first headlined the Minsky revue in 1957 at the Dunes, he came in to see the show,” she said. “We hit it off and started dating, going out and having dinner. Very nice gentleman.”

After four times at bat, Storm said she had no interest in a fifth marriage.

“I think what happens is a guy marries a girl in this business and he thinks he can handle it,” she said. “They love you when you’re engaged, but they can’t handle it when you’re married.

“All of a sudden they want you to wear dresses all the way up to your neck. It becomes a terrible thing to keep a marriage together. That’s what happened in my last marriage. It was insane. Just insane jealousy.”

So we had to ask: Is there a significant other in Storm’s life now?

“I’d rather not discuss that,” she said.

Storm is periodically invited to festivals like the one this weekend in Kansas City. She said she’s humbled by the reverence exhibited by young burlesque performers.

“I find it kind of interesting,” she said. “These young girls always come up and say, ‘We idolize you; you’re our hero,’ and I really feel honored that they think of me that way. These young girls adore me, which I’m grateful for. They tell me I’m a great inspiration for them. And I appreciate that.”

A documentary on her life is in production. And looking back on a life and career that, at times, could certainly be called tempestuous, Storm said she has no regrets.

“No, I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “I’ve been very successful with everything I’ve tried to do in this business.”

STARTING THURSDAY

The Kansas City Burlesque Festival gets underway Thursday night with burlesque performances at the Kill Devil Club, 31 E. 14th St. Admission is $20 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.

The festival continues at 7 p.m. Friday with musicians, comedians, magicians, belly dancers and aerial performers at the Folly Theater, 12th Street and Central Avenue.

A panel discussion featuring Tempest Storm is at 5 p.m. Saturday, followed by a burlesque competition at 8 p.m. with a panel of judges that includes Storm.

For ticket information on events at the Folly, call

816-474-4444 or go to FollyTheater.org. For more information on the festival, go to KCBurlesque.com.

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