When Leslie Zemeckis was making her feature documentary Behind the Burly Q, she met someone with a story that seemed to go beyond the burlesque history she was making. Her interview subject was the son of Sally Rand, the New York showgirl who became the sensation of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. She claimed to be the inventor of the fan dance — but so did Faith Bacon, another showgirl vying for fame on the burlesque scene.
Zemeckis dived deeper into Rand and Bacon, and found a whole other story to tell. Her resultant book, Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl, is out now from Counterpoint Press, and is a page-turning account of a very different time for sex and show-business. In this excerpt, Zemeckis describes Rand’s show-stopping appearance at the ’33 World’s Fair.
It was a day for pageantry, speeches, and patriotic pride. This world’s fair was proclaimed the “Century of Progress” to celebrate Chicago’s first 100 years and a century of advancements in science and technology.
The air crackled with anticipation and, more important, hope. There was optimism that as the citizens of America looked back at their past, they would somehow see into the future, and it would be a better place than it was at the moment.
The fair promised to bring jobs to hundreds and fill the city’s coffers. It was May 27, 1933, and the country’s economy was at rock bottom.
While bands played the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the promenades filled with people; flags snapped in the breeze. Though the skies would cover over in a few hours, no bad weather dampened opening day.
Riding the massive floats, a queen of the fair waved alongside her fifty ladies. The mayor addressed the crowds, vowing that “for the next five months,” Chicago, the country’s second-largest city with nearly four million people, would be “the educator and champion host of the world.”
Fireworks were launched from barges on Lake Michigan. A whistle blasted. Crowds streamed like a ribbon of fire ants up a faux gangplank, thousands marching through the entrance of a huge mock ocean liner with smokestacks that towered seventy-three feet in the air, eager and hungry to devour what lay across the “Atlantic,” transported “in spirit” unto the naughty boulevards of Paris.
Flower and cigarette girls greeted the crowds surging forward. Clutching wide-eyed children’s hands, parents pushed through the narrow streets of “the wicked city.” The three acres designated for the Streets of Paris exhibit was a Disneyesque re-creation of France’s capital, complete with a nudist colony (for surely Paris must have one) and the infamous Folies Bergère.
The smell of popcorn and fried potatoes wafted in the balmy air as shopkeepers hawked their wares for sale. “Direct from Montemarte!” Waitresses with jaunty berets on their heads weaved through the laughter, carrying steins of beer, as music streamed out of the hundreds of open-air cafés. Now that President Franklin Roosevelt allowed the sale of beer and wine, there seemed to be a “bar every minute.” Canopied sidewalks fought for space. Cafés “typical of Paris, like the Red Mill Café dotted with red-checkered tables, dance pavilions, theatres, even a swimming pool,” enticed visitors in all directions. “Merriment, camaraderie, noise, naughtiness” was the pledge of a visit to the Streets of Paris. It had been designed to help foot the cost of the fair, a whopping thirty-seven million dollars. The Streets of Paris offered adults mature entertainment, not seen outside the French capital, including peep shows displaying naked women.
Further down the road a barker called out, “Live models!” For a small fee one could take a class on how to sketch a naked woman. Ushered into a garret-like room that was purposefully stuffy and devoid of furniture, except wooden boxes for seats, one was handed charcoal and paper to sketch (or stare at) the nude women posing in front of them. Classes were surprisingly made up largely of women.
On the sidewalk, artists set canvas on easels. The Merry-Go- Round bar revolved in a slow circle. Vendors competed for every hard-spent dime and quarter. Fortune tellers and palm readers promised a better tomorrow.
There was a little something for nearly everyone. “Gigolos are provided to women who desire dining and dancing partners.” There was an eighty-mile-an-hour cyclone coaster. A gorilla town, a freak show. It was “Harvard, Broadway, and Coney Island rolled into one.”
There was so much to take it that it left the “brain whirling” at all the “undigested experiences,” and this was just a small section of the fair. There were compulsory visits to the Hall of Science, Washington’s false teeth and the world’s largest cow on display, a reconstruction of Fort Dearborn, the interior of Byrd’s polar expedition, and prehistoric monsters. There were states to explore. Florida had four acres of flowers; California grew giant redwood trees; Hollywood had prizefights, Leo the lion, and a replica of the Brown Derby Café. And if one wanted to travel to more exotic locals, there was Morocco and Belgium.
One could buy a postcard, or novelty item, or spend the day in the Seminole Indian village as the natives wrestled alligators, or gaze at the “lady with eight feet of red hair” and a “man who swallows practically everything,” even a “petrified man” at Ripley’s Odditorium.
One way to forget one’s troubles was to eyeball the abundance of flesh on display. A goodly portion of the crowd was coming to see Miss Sally Rand.
To think, just weeks earlier Sally had been an anonymous failed actress waving her fans in a sketchy nightclub. Now, at 10:30 every night, the master of ceremonies stood up to introduce Sally and her “trained fans” as big as “sky scrapers.”
Trumpets blared a welcome fanfare as a “lively red head” (perhaps the lights turned Sally auburn-haired) “pirouettes to the center of stage” as Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Chopin’s “Waltz in C Minor” played.
Finally proficient with her fans, Sally finished to thunderous applause. Some complained she was so engulfed by the feathers that only her lovely face was seen. They had come for the nudity, but the lighting was so dim she could have been wearing layers of clothing. She was not. She was nude except for a “strategically located patch” and liberal dusting of powder.
Sally had them lined up four deep for eleven solid weeks. In the first month alone, more than 70,000 would see her. It was beyond her imagination. “I never expected to make a living out of it,” she marveled truthfully about her dance.
The cost of the fair was so high that it was not expected to make a profit. Until Sally Rand.
Because thousands poured in expressly to see her fan dance, Sally would be credited with saving the fair. She would become the image of the fair. She would be the picture people would think of for generations to come when the Century of Progress was mentioned. There was no Sally without the fair, just as there was no fair without the fan dance. It was a role that would cement her fame.
And to think she had originally been turned down for a spot on the midway.
From Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by Mistress, Inc.