Faith passed in 1956, age 46. She had recently moved to Chicago in another fruitless attempt to find some work. She lifted the window of her hotel room and attempted to jump out. Her room-mate, store clerk Ruth Bishop, made a desperate lunge and managed to grab a handful of some skirt, but couldn’t hang on. Faith fell two storeys onto the roof of a lower building. Ruth raised the alarm and when rescuers reached Faith she was still breathing, but later died in hospital. As an act of charity the American Guild of Variety Artists paid for the burial of penniless Faith Bacon.
Sally passed in 1979, age 67. Only a few years previous she was still vamping it up, playing Madison Square Garden in 1972. She spent her last days in a comfortable hospital bed in sunny California, although, as with Faith, she too was in debt. Sammy Davis Jr forked out the ten thousand dollars required for a flash funeral. He did it out of respect for Sally Rand.
Burlesque has its roots in the literature of past centuries, classical music, the music halls and pantomimes of the UK as well as the freedoms allowed for during the Jazz Age. After this, the fun police almost managed to snuff it out during the more censorious decades that followed. At its best burlesque is an art form, at it’s worst just a sleazy excuse for tawdry striptease – without the tease – aiming at the raincoat brigade. But during its golden age Faith Bacon and Sally Rank ranked high amongst its brightest lights. And they both claimed to have invented it. At one stage Faith took Sally to court to settle the issue once and for all.
At the pinnacle of her fame Faith was billed as America’s most beautiful dancer. She gained her start, though, in a faraway place – gay Paree. In fact it was a meeting with Maurice Chevalier that initiated her on the path to, sadly, only brief success. Amongst other roles in his revue she used bubbles and flowers to hide her apparent nakedness from the audience. In the late twenties she returned to the States and started performing there. She was obliged to conform with the increasing restrictiveness on what state of dress – or lack of it – one could appear on stage in. She also started to include Broadway productions in her activities, quickly rising to the lead in many of them. Some of these were under the guidance of prominent venue owner Karl Carroll and between them they came up with a novel routine to get around the obscenity laws. It was this that took her on to gigs with the prestigious Ziegfeld Follies and to strut her new moves at Chicago’s World Fair in 1933. And it was at this event she first encountered Sally.
Ms Rand, born Hattie Beck in Missouri, became a chorus girl in Kansas City at the tender age of 13. She caught the eye of that burb’s leading theatre critic, Goodman Ace (great name that), so her stocks rose considerably enabling her to make her way to Hollywood via Ringling Brothers Circus. Once in LA she took to touring in summer stock productions alongside a very young Humphrey Bogart. She quickly rose up the ladder, acting in silent movies under the auspices of Cecil B DeMille. And when the talkies came along, any time a certain dance was needed, she was the go-to girl. She was also invited to take her version of the by now famous routine, with an astonishing resemblance to Bacon’s, to the Chicago World Fair.
By now I figure most reading will have worked out that their oh so similar teasing dance was perhaps, along with the one requiring seven veils, the most common and long-lasting of routines associated with burlesque – the fan dance.
Faith’s career headed rapidly in a downward spiral after ’33. Fame went to her head and she started to make preposterous demands of those prepared to employ her – the number of which became fewer and fewer as time went on. Also, she developed a fondness of suing whenever there was any perceived reason. In 1936, whilst on stage. she fell through a glass drum upon which she was strutting her stuff, suffering cuts that somewhat disfigured her thighs. She demanded the then astronomical sum of a hundred grand in her law suit. She settled, though, out of court for a measly five and immediately squandered it on diamonds.
Meanwhile Sally went from strength to strength after the World Fair. Her notoriety spread, partly due to the publicity she garnered when she performed her version of the fan dance whilst riding down one of the Windy City’s main thoroughfares on a horse. Fortunately there was only a gentle breeze blowing that day. ‘Bolero’, a precursor of the Bo Derek vehicle, carried her exotic dancing to millions via the silver screen. She was body painted by Max Factor to promote his new range of make-up and she purchased her very own music hall in San Francisco. Her stage-work became even more risqué, providing all sorts of great fodder for the tabloids of the day. There were encounters with the ever present and aforementioned fun police, although judges, for whatever reason, could never seem to find anything lewd at all in what she did in her shows. She was still raising eyebrows into her dotage, giving audiences what they wanted, a taste of a golden age, in various revival shows around the country.
But back in 1938 the luckless Faith had had enough of Sally usurping her right to claim the fan dance as her own. This time Ms Bacon hit on the sum of $370000 in terms of damage Rand had inflicted on her career because of her obviously erroneous claims as to the provenance of the dance. She wanted a judge to forbid Sally performing it whilst the whole matter was sorted. The latter was quick to counter in court that neither of them invented the routine – why,it was as old as the ages. Cleopatra was the first known exponent, performing it to entice a Roman notable or two. It was all quite ludicrous and the official presiding saw it that way too, throwing it out. Bacon continued to perform it sporadically after losing her claim, but yet another failed attempt at taking legal proceedings against a revue manager marked the end. This time she alleged that a promoter had attached tacks to the boards of a stage where she was about to dance in bare feet. By the fifties she was a sad figure begging around stage doors, a bag lady in fact. Her unfortunate end was close.
So be it due to Faith Bacon, Sally Rand or, indeed, Cleopatra, burlesque was thus given a Pandora’s Box of possibilities to build variations on. These have sustained the art form through the hard times into a new era, in recent years, of prominence. Many simply crave taste above crass.
Both Sally and Faith can be viewed teasing with their interpretations on YouTube. We’ll never know the true inventor, but we can still enjoy the results.
Faith performing routine = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVSWqJWZkUo
Sally performing routine = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTEIWK9CaEs