She was referred to as the “Red Headed Ball of Fire,” a title given her for her stature — she was a diminutive 5-foot-1 — and her fiery hair. She discovered the moniker, which was usually shortened to “Ball of Fire,” corny. But Betty Rowland was a burlesque queen nonetheless. A headliner within the racy selection exhibits’ glory years within the Thirties and ’40s, she labored nicely into the ’50s.
Ms. Rowland had a languid, balletic type (hers was a delicate grind) and she or he usually threw in an undulating stretch and drop referred to as a German roll. Her costumes had been elegant: She favored lengthy skirts with a aspect slit to the hip, bandeau tops and night gloves. After a sluggish burn, she shed most of her gear; however, like most burlesque stars, she saved her pasties and her G-string on.
One of her signature items was known as “Bumps in the Ballet,” a spoof of a ballet routine that she appreciated to introduce to her viewers with a little bit of patter: “Let’s put a little juice in the Ballets Russes, and give the dying swan a goose. In a classical sort of way, might I put a bump in this ballet?”
Ms. Rowland died on April 3 at an assisted-living house in Culver City, Calif. She was 106.
Her demise, which was not broadly reported on the time, was confirmed by Leslie Zemeckis, the director of the 2010 documentary, “Behind the Burly Q,” which advised the tales of Ms. Rowland and different burlesque stars.
Outside the tribal world of burlesque, Ms. Rowland was maybe not as well-known — or as nicely paid — as different headliners like Tempest Storm, one other redheaded queen, who dallied with John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, whose breasts had been stated to be insured by Lloyd’s of London, and whose earnings at her peak within the mid-Nineteen Fifties had been about $100,000 a 12 months (roughly $950,000 at present). Ms. Rowland did nicely, however not that nicely; in 1945 she earned $500 each two weeks, the equal of greater than $200,000 a 12 months at present.
Still, it was “big dough,” as Ms. Rowland advised The Los Angeles Times in 2009, including that she didn’t squander it on alcohol or cigarettes. “I never smoked or drank,” she stated. “It wasn’t in my family. When we were in show business, we took it seriously. We saw a few of them fall by the wayside because of that.”
Ms. Rowland was of an early-vintage of burlesque star: She had a pre-teenage vaudeville act along with her sister Rozelle, performing a bit of soppy shoe and faucet. When vaudeville light out and its stars migrated to the livelier burlesque exhibits, Betty and Rozelle went on the highway as refrain ladies.
Burlesque, typically referred to as “the poor man’s theater,” was, like vaudeville, a seize bag of acts — comedy, acrobatics, just a little tune and dance — with the added zest of a striptease or two.
Betty had her first star flip when she was simply 14 and filling in for a performer who had sprained her ankle. She was so engrossed within the music that she forgot to take off any garments.
“We teased. That was the name of the game. You become a fantasy to other people,” she advised Liz Goldwyn, creator of “Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens” (2006). But, she added, “people whisper, for heaven’s sake, they say, ‘Do you know what she used to do?’ And they’re saying it like I was a porno worker or something. Well they shouldn’t whisper — I was a dancer. It was the only thing I knew how to do, and I was a success at it.”
Betty Jane Rowland was born on Jan. 23, 1916, in Columbus, Ohio, one among 4 daughters of Alvah and Ida Rowland. The ladies took dancing classes, and beginning when Betty was about 11, she and her sister Rozelle helped out the household financially by performing collectively in beginner vaudeville exhibits, and, later, as burlesque stars, touring a bit however largely primarily based in New York City.
Betty usually carried out on the flagship Minsky theater in Times Square, amongst different venues. At the time, the Minsky identify was a burlesque franchise and an establishment, from which Abbot and Costello, Phil Silvers and Gypsy Rose Lee launched their careers.
Rozelle Rowland discovered fame as “the Golden Girl,” performing fully nude — however painted head to toe in gold paint. During a tour of London, she met a Belgian baron, Jean Empain, who was one among Europe’s richest males, inheritor to holdings that included the Paris subway. As the story goes, they fell in love, she bought pregnant, and the baron stated he’d marry her if she had a son. “Gilded Lily of 14th St. Burlesque Weds Baron,” learn a neighborhood headline in 1937, the 12 months of her marriage.
Ms. Rowland moved to Los Angeles in 1938, a 12 months after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia put the burlesque homes out of enterprise for corrupting the morals of town. Her personal brushes with the legislation, nevertheless, had been uncommon.
She was fined $250 for lewdness in 1939, after a trial wherein a burly cop imitated her act on the witness stand, leaving the court docket weak with laughter. In 1952, she was jailed when a box-office employee at a theater the place she was performing failed to acknowledge two vice squad officers who had been within the behavior of attending the exhibits free of charge. As payback, they arrested Ms. Rowland and the theater supervisor; a decide sentenced them each to 4 months in jail. A neighborhood columnist took up Ms. Rowland’s case, stating that the sentence was as extreme as that given the perpetrator of a current taking pictures, and she or he was launched after three weeks.
In 1943, Ms. Rowland sued the Samuel Goldwyn Company for utilizing her stage identify because the title of the 1941 movie “Ball of Fire,” a screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as a mouthy nightclub singer on the run, and for breach of contract. Ms. Rowland stated she had been employed as a technical adviser to Ms. Stanwyck however was by no means paid. Ms. Rowland obtained a number of publicity for her case, however she didn’t prevail.
Burlesque misplaced its luster within the postwar years. By the early Nineteen Sixties, the crowds had been seedier, the golf equipment grubbier and the manufacturing all however gone. Soon there have been solely hard-core strip joints, and most of the former burlesque theaters had been enjoying pornographic movies. Ms. Rowland was disdainful of her crude successors.
“What is a lap dance, anyway?” she requested a reporter in 1997.
Ms. Rowland had a long-term relationship with a fellow Minsky burlesque star, a comic named Gus Schilling — a baggy-pants prime banana, in burlesque parlance. Newspapers usually described the couple as married, however Ms. Rowland advised Ms. Zemeckis and others that though she and Mr. Schilling lived collectively, he was married to another person. Her marriage in 1956 to Owen S. Dalton, a lumber service provider, led to divorce in 1963. She leaves no fast survivors.
In the late Nineteen Sixties, Ms. Rowland inherited an curiosity in a Santa Monica bar known as Mr. B’s. In the mid-Nineties, she misplaced management of its possession to traders, who renamed the place the 217 Lounge. She stayed on as a hostess, and was nonetheless working there in 2009, on the age of 93. She had filed for chapter safety in 2003.
Ms. Rowland stopped dancing when she married Mr. Dalton. But after her divorce, she got here out of retirement for every week or so in 1966, acting at a theater in downtown Los Angeles. (At the time, she advised The Los Angeles Times, she was writing her memoirs, with the working title “Ham and Legs.” Sadly, no manuscript was ever found, stated Ms. Zemeckis, who purchased Ms. Rowland’s costume assortment to assist along with her funds in her final years.)
“The theater was dingy beyond description, the band reduced to a drummer and a pianist and the midweek audience painfully spare,” The Los Angeles Times wrote of that 1966 efficiency. “Yet to the unsteady strains of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ came out the petite Miss Rowland, as regal and redheaded as ever, to prove that experience can triumph over youth, that grace and humor can beat the passing of time to a draw.”
Kitty Bennett contributed analysis.