In conversation with friends last week, I was reminded of a time in high school when I was in the musical South Pacific as Bloody Mary. (I always got the secondary humorous leads.) There is a scene in the play where the soldiers and Bloody Mary have to do a bump and grind, the soldiers with coconuts on their chests and in hula skirts. Our director, Dutton Foster, who also happened to be our English teacher, was having a heck of a time getting us to make the scene look any good. Our pubescent bodies had not yet acquired the experienced choreography to pull this off in a believable manner. It was then that Mr. Foster had the brilliant idea of taking us all to Town Hall.
Town Hall was the burlesque theater in downtown Toledo run by a well- known burlesque queen, Rose La Rose. Born in 1919, Rose left school at 15 and became a cashier at Minsky’s. When she saw a dancer’s paycheck, she exited the box office and went straight to the stage. In fact, it is said that Rose was the first strip tease dancer to make over $2000 a week, which because of her financial savviness, she was able to save and invest. She got her name from a sign painter who thought that Rosina dePella was not stage-worthy and changed her name on a sign he was painting to Rose La Rose. She hated the name at first, but it stuck, eventually legally making it her own. Her mother, known as Mother La Rose, traveled the circuit with Rose for over 18 years. In the late 1950s when her mother became ill, Rose decided to slow down a bit. She found a theater for sale, the Town Hall, in Toledo Ohio in 1958. (The Town Hall, by the way, was located directly across the street from where my father worked as a sign painter— Marabee Sign Company.) Rose became relatively respected in Toledo, speaking at the Junior League, giving strip tease lessons to wives to help enliven their relationships, giving generously to a variety of causes. But by the late 60s, burlesque had become passé.
Our visit to the Town Hall coincided very closely to the demise of burlesque. Short porno films had already begun to take over the live performances. However, in 1966 or 67, about a dozen of us high school students were sitting in the audience of the Town Hall, watching the end of a strip tease and just as the porno film began to play, found ourselves invited to a dressing room where Rose La Rose herself taught us (or tried to teach us) a few sexy moves. I remember trying to act very nonchalantly, but my rapidly pounding heart and sweating self was a dead give away of my naivete. I have a vague remembrance that Rose was a bit frustrated with our wooden, stilted, uptight movements. We genuinely tried to copy her nuanced moves and listen to her choreographic advice, but were incredibly distracted by where we were and who she was. I’m not sure that any of us learned to do the scene in the play with any more pizzazz, but I know that we all felt a lot more worldly after our visit.
I don’t remember any permission slip that needed to be signed. I don’t remember any note coming home telling our parents about the trip to Town Hall. I don’t even remember if our parents had to drop us off or if we got a ride from school to the theater. My sister remembers me talking about the visit at the dinner table. My mother doesn’t remember a thing about it, though she definitely remembered Rose La Rose and spoke with some guarded awe about her. I do know that we as students would never have gotten close to the Town Hall had a teacher suggested this field trip today.
Just before the Town Hall was demolished in 1968 (an urban renewal project), Rose bought the Esquire Theater and was in the process of remodeling it for live theater. On March 26, 1968, the Toledo City Council, at the urging of a group of businessmen on the same block as the Esquire, passed an ordinance to ban burlesque. Rose fought this decision, taking the case to the U.S. District Court where she won, prohibiting the city from enforcing the ordinance. However, in 1971 she was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1972, effectively ending burlesque for good in Toledo Ohio.
There was something so utterly appealing, innocent, and creative, so affirmative and respectful (both for us and for Rose La Rose) about Mr. Foster’s decision to take us all to Town Hall to meet and learn from Rose La Rose. There was something so normalizing and ironically proper about Rose La Rose’s seriousness of purpose in trying to teach a bunch of awkward teenagers some of the tricks of her trade. Though it was our very first glimpse of authentic burlesque, little did any of us know at the time that Mr. Foster’s sincere research adventure and Rose La Rose’s generosity of spirit actually signaled its very end.