The Sextraordinary Sally Rand
Burlesque dancer Sally Rand was born Helen Gould Beck in 1904 in Elkton, Hickory County, Missouri. When Sally was a toddler, the family moved to Kansas City, where she got her first job in show business at age thirteen as a chorus girl. She later joined a juvenile vaudeville troupe and studied dance, voice, and drama.
Sally enrolled in Christian College in Columbia but dropped out in 1922 and went to Hollywood, where she found work as a Mack Sennett “bathing beauty.” Using the stage name Billie Bett, she progressed to more serious roles, and Cecil B. DeMille signed her to his stock company. DeMille suggested she change her name to Sally Rand, supposedly picking the name after glancing at a Rand-McNally map.
She went on to have starring roles in several silent films, but her prominent lisp prevented her from transitioning to talkies in the late 1920s. With the coming of the Depression, Sally found herself facing hard times. In 1932, she arrived in Chicago as part of a traveling burlesque show, but she gave up vaudeville later the same year to appear in legitimate theater. The play was a critical success but a financial failure.
After its closure, Sally took a job at a Chicago speakeasy, the Paramount Club, despite her initial uneasiness. It was here that she first started doing the fan dance, which would soon make her a household name.
She found two large pink ostrich feathers at a costume shop and choreographed her dance to the strains of classical music. Moving rhythmically to the music, she danced nude, or nearly so, behind the feathers she manipulated in front of her, occasionally showing audiences a bare leg or a glimpse of derriere.
Although biographies of Sally Rand routinely assert that she “danced nude,” she was actually covered by white body powder or a sheer body suit during most of her performances. Sally’s act was all about illusion, and its success lay in her ability to make audiences think they had seen something, even if they hadn’t. “The Rand is quicker than the eye,” Sally told reporters.
When the World’s Fair came to Chicago in the spring of 1933, Sally tried to get a job dancing at the fair’s “Streets of Paris” concession but was turned down. The next night, she galloped through the streets of Chicago wearing nothing but a very long blonde wig and tried to crash one of the fair’s inaugural balls. She was not admitted, but her Lady Godiva act caused a sensation and got her hired as the lead performer in the “Streets of Paris” sideshow. Although Sally’s act was tame by modern standards, she soon found herself in court answering charges of lewdness. The publicity surrounding her arrest only heightened the interest in her act, and when she was released, spectators flocked to see her fan dance by the thousands. “Sally Rand dancing nude on the Streets of Paris has been jamming the place nightly,” said one contemporaneous report.
By the end of the summer Sally had rocketed to international fame, and when the World’s Fair reopened in 1934, Sally’s bubble dance was almost as big a hit as her fan dance had been the previous year. After the fair closed, she was sought as an exotic dancer all across the country. However, she didn’t like the term “exotic,” because she considered her dancing artistic. “Exotic means strange and foreign,” she reportedly told a reporter. “I’m not strange, I like boys; and I’m not foreign, I was born in Hickory County, Missouri.”
Despite some success in serious roles over the next several years, Sally kept going back to her hide-and-peek dances, and she continued appearing at expositions throughout the forties and fifties. In 1941, she came back to Missouri to appear at the Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield. Her appearance helped attract a record attendance and was credited with saving the financially struggling fair.
In 1951, Sally came back to her home state again, this time for the Missouri State Fair at Sedalia. Sally was a hit, and the fair’s gate receipts surged.
Standing only five feet tall, the petite Miss Rand maintained her girlish figure and was still strutting her stuff into the 1960s and 1970s. On April 7, 1972, sixty-eight-year-old Sally stepped off an airplane in Kansas City dressed in spike heel sandals and a miniskirt in advance of her scheduled performance at Union Station, where she wowed audiences the next night with her fan dance.
Even becoming a grandmother in 1974 didn’t slow Sally down. “What in heaven’s name is so strange about a grandmother dancing nude?” she asked.