At nearly 102, Baltimore's Florence Woolston is one of the last survivors from the showgirls of New York's burlesque scene of the 1930s
As a teenager in New York, Florence Woolston hooked school to answer an ad for girls who wanted to be in the movies. She got the job, spent three weeks doing extra work, and got seriously bitten by the showbiz bug. By the time she was 16, using the name Sandra Ellis, she was performing in front of audiences full-time.
"I made up my mind that I wanted to go on the stage," she says. "I just felt, this is what my calling is."
All of this happened nearly 90 years ago. Today, seven months shy of her 102nd birthday, Woolston is among the last survivors of the golden age of burlesque. Sitting in her North Baltimore rowhome, still healthy and engaging and recalling her showgirl days in only the best of lights, she is one of only a handful (at most) still able to talk firsthand about performing onstage as part of the legendary Minsky's shows, burlesques that so scandalized New York that crusading Mayor Fiorello La Guardia ordered them shut down in 1937.
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For those struggling to do the quick math, that's 82 years ago. Woolston was 19, red-haired and long-limbed (at 5-foot-9, noticeably taller than many of her fellow dancers, she was regularly placed in the center of any chorus line), basking in the attention and, at a salary that topped-out around $200 a week, well-paid by the standards of the 1930s.
She loved every minute of it, she insists — the spotlight, the glamour, the friendships, the rhinestones and tap shoes and skimpy costumes. And the famous people she met, often well before their fame really took off. She shared dinners with a young Liberace. She sang duets with Robert Alda and watched as his 2-year-old son, Alan, scampered around backstage. She worked with dancer Bill Bailey (Pearl's brother), befriended Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland (who wanted her to come to come to Hollywood with him and his wife), had a friend who married Jimmy Durante.
"Those were the best days of my life," Woolston says unhesitatingly, gripping the arm of her chair for emphasis. "I should not have given up show business. I should have stayed in it."
In conversation, Woolston frequently returns to that mantra — "I should have stayed in it." Time has not dimmed her memory of those days in the spotlight, or made them seem any less glorious. Getting paid for being pretty, for tap-dancing onstage and acting the foil for baggy-pants comics, for working long days and nights and finally heading to Chinatown for dinner around 8 in the morning, for being part of a show-business sisterhood that was egalitarian, supportive and glamorous (although, she admits, not without its seedy elements), was a sweet deal.
"When I was working for Minsky's, that was the best part of it," she says of the burlesque shows run by the four Minsky brothers beginning in 1912 . "They were wonderful to work for. They were wonderful to their employees, to everybody. If you needed a dollar, they'd say 'OK,' they'd give it to you."
When Woolston talks, the memories come pouring out, effortlessly and with surprising detail. "Her memory's sharp," says Kevin Grace, an actor and filmmaker who's posted more than a dozen videos of his interviews with her on YouTube. "She still remembers where she lived in New York, and what trains she took. I graduated from Poly in '86, and I don't remember some things from then."
And those memories are a treasured resource, especially as burlesque enjoys something of a renaissance, thanks to such performing groups as Baltimore's own Bawdy Shop Burlesque and Gilded Lily Burlesque.
"Having someone like Florence Woolston helps to bridge the time between burlesque's classic era and the newer generation," says Kay Sera, a performer on Baltimore's neo-burlesque scene for nearly a decade and the communications director for Las Vegas' Burlesque Hall of Fame. "She represents an amazing window on history and experience."
Being on the stage had long been a dream for young Florence Ellis (Sandra was her middle name), at least from the time she was 3 and living with her family in Philadelphia. "My mother's sister was an opera singer. And I remember, as a little child, I would sneak into her room and put on all her makeup."
A few years and a move to the Bronx later, a teenage Florence answered that ad looking for movie extras; she got the job after her indulgent father, despite telling her "I don't know if I should do this," signed his permission.
Her career didn't exactly take off, but she got three weeks' work. "They paid me $150 a week — that was great big money in those days."
In 1931, she showed up in the final scene of director King Vidor's "Street Scene," one of two girls at the center of a chorus of "Ring Around the Rosie." She's onscreen for just a few seconds, tall and lanky, her ponytails hanging down.
"It's unimportant, I don't talk about it," Woolston says dismissively of her brief brush with the movies. "What I talk about is my heyday. That's important."
That heyday began about two years later, when 16-year-old Florence answered an ad from Minsky's. "They needed dancers and showgirls," Woolston recalls. "I applied for that. You had to show from the knees down, if you had good legs — 'cause you wore skirts in those days, you didn't wear slacks."
Her legs must have been just fine. Minsky's hired her to work at their Republic Theatre on 42nd Street, and for much of the next decade, Sandra Ellis played New York's burlesque circuit. (The Republic, the crown jewel of Minsky's burlesque, is now known as the New Victory and specializes in family-friendly shows.)
Her first time walking onstage at the Republic was harrowing, Woolston admits. "We had this stage, and then we had this circular runway. And I remember going down the runway, and all the audience in the first and second row were trying to reach for you, grab hold of you. That was terrifying, but after a while, you get used to it."
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Reaching down for a bag she's put together in anticipation of being interviewed, Woolston, still sporting the red hair that helped make her so distinctive in the first place, pulls out a stream of mementos from her time in New York: a handful of IOUs from Minsky's and various clubs, most for a dollar or two, from when she needed an advance on her salary; her contract for a gig in Boston, promising her $50 a week and one-way fare (apparently, it was left to her to find a way back home); pay envelopes from several clubs; a weathered union membership card in the Burlesque Artists Association for 1939; penny postcards from agents asking her to sign with them.
Sadly, much of what she had saved from those days was lost when her basement flooded about 20 years ago. Gone are the extravagant outfits, and there's an audible sigh when she talks about losing them. But among the treasures that remain are a pair of photographs, both taken when she was in her late teens or early 20s, and quite the stunner.
There's also a small handbill from September 1939, advertising a weeklong appearance by "THE ONE AND ONLY MARGIE HART With Her Own Big Girlie Show." Hart was one of the era's most famous (or infamous, either adjective works) strippers; she had been arrested four years earlier in a raid at Minsky's, one of several that paved the way for its eventual closing by Mayor La Guardia.
Woolston knew Hart, and was once even called to substitute for her on brief notice ("She got drunk," Hart's last-minute understudy explains). Which she was glad to do, with one stipulation.
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"I did not strip," Woolston says firmly. "They said that she was ill, but that someone else would go on, Miss Sandra Ellis. But I did not strip. I wore a bra and a g-string."
Woolston once again reaches into the bag, pulling out two faded pieces of cloth, the flimsiest of materials, small enough to easily fit inside a closed fist . Though not her actual outfit from that day, she says it's pretty much identical to what she wore.
It certainly doesn't leave much to the imagination.
"No, it doesn't," she says quietly.
Of course, burlesque had its seamier side, and perhaps some of its less-than-savory reputation was deserved. "I would say pretty much, yes," Woolston admits. It was definitely risque, and certainly not for kids. "You'd come out on the stage with a bra and a g-string and spangles. And oh, everybody thought it was terrible. But today, they're on the stage with nothing on."
And yes, there was drinking, and there were drugs, and it wasn't all smiles and glamour and camaraderie. But there was nothing that couldn't be avoided, she insists.
"I wasn't an alcoholic," Woolston says. "And in those days, yes, we smoked pot, but I didn't smoke pot. I kept a very clean life. It never tempted me, to indulge and become an alcoholic or a heavy drinker. I would take a drink, and I'd eat with all these wonderful people. They would do what they wanted, but that didn't mean I had to."
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So she didn't. "Everything to me was wonderful, perfect," Woolston says. "It was wonderful to hear people say, 'Oh, you're on the stage.' It was so glamorous."
Woolston never had a steady gig after Minsky's was shut down, but she kept working — brief bookings throughout New York, at places like Spivey's Roof on 57th Street, where she hung out with Liberace, and La Conga on 51st, where a young Jackie Gleason cut his teeth. She worked out of town, too, in Boston as well as Atlantic City, at a largely black club (she was the only white person on the stage, Woolston remembers) where she performed alongside Bill Bailey and comedian Moms Mabley.
Even without a steady job, Woolston, who had an apartment in the Bronx, loved the performing life. "You meet the most wonderful people. You live in a world of your own, I would say you live in a tinsel life, it's like a fairy tale. You'd talk about the arts, or you talk about the next routine, or you talk about the audience."
But by 1944, Florence Sandra Ellis figured it was time to move on. She had met a guy fresh out of the Army, Leslie Woolston, and liked what she saw. "We got together, and I figured, 'You know what? Maybe I should try to live a normal life, marry a nice guy who made a living, and give up what I'm doing."
So she did. Her husband worked as an auditor for an insurance company. The couple moved around over the next several years, had a daughter. In 1954, they settled in Baltimore.
But all the while, Woolston says, she was missing her former life. "I was never content," she says. "Normal was not my way of life. Because I was so used to being in the business. But then I had this house, and I had my daughter, and I figured, by the time I go back ..." She pauses, struggling to put her regret into words. "In other words, I just let everything pass. I figured, to go back and start anew, I can't do it again. It just wouldn't have worked out."
You had to show from the knees down, if you had good legs — ‘cause you wore skirts in those days, you didn’t wear slacks.
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Besides, she adds, Baltimore was no New York. She wasn't interested in performing on The Block, where most of what people did was just "trash." While Woolston allows that local burlesque legend Blaze Starr "had class," she has little time for the all-nude shows and other, more clandestine, activities that made The Block so infamous.
"What you had here in Baltimore, on that terrible Baltimore Street, you had this low-class junk, which wasn't burlesque to me," she says, not hedging her disdain. "I don't know what it is, but it wasn't like it was in New York. It was different."
Leslie died in 1984, leaving behind enough money that Florence has been able to make ends meet; save for a brief stint behind the desk at an area auction house, she hasn't gone back to work. She's been in the same house for almost 65 years, and has no intention of leaving, resisting her daughter's entreaties to move someplace where she could be cared for.
Moving into some retirement home, or assisted living, isn't for her, Woolston says. Not when she's had a taste of the performing life. "I have nothing in common with an average person, because what am I gonna talk about?"
The old days sometimes pay a call. A few years ago, author Jane Briggeman interviewed Woolston for the book "Burlesque: A Living History." She's in there several times, including a black-and-white photo with flowers in her hair. When she turned 100, the folks at the New Victory put her name on their marquee and sent her a photo.
And a few months ago, she was taken to the National Press Club in D.C., where Alan Alda was speaking. Woolston breaks into a wide smile as she relates what happened. Although they'd never met, Alda knew how she and his father had worked together, him singing "Stairway to the Sky," while she danced and smiled and beguiled his audience.
Burlesque dancer Blaze Starr, who performed in clubs on Baltimore's notorious "Block", died Monday at 83. (Baltimore Sun)
"He was signing autographs, he had a huge audience," she says. "Towards the end, he looked over and saw me. … He hugged and kissed me, tears came down his face. It was really heart-rending. He sent me a little note, about two weeks later, telling me I should take care of myself and everything."
That letter, along with a photograph of the two of them sitting together, hangs proudly on her living-room wall.
Woolston still has her health, for which she's grateful. And all her teeth, a fact that pleases her no end. She gets around OK for someone into her second century, still able to navigate the 13 steps down to her front sidewalk and, as long as someone else drives, go to the food or drug store and pick up what she needs.
"Everyone wants to know my secret," she says. "I'll tell you what it is. You eat a lot of fish, you take a drink once in a while, and then you just keep the faith."
But … she still regrets what might have been, She misses the fame, the rush that hits when the lights come on and the entire audience is staring, waiting for you to entertain them. If only she hadn't given it all up so casually…
"I'll sit here sometimes, I'll say, 'Why did I ever leave the business? Why didn't I keep it up? Why? Why? Why?' I could have made a fortune today — even working backstage, doing something, like supervising or anything like that.
"To this day," Florence Woolston says wistfully, her mind traveling back to when Sandra Ellis was working the floodlights, tap-dancing her way into audience's hearts, "to this day, I miss it every day."
Baltimore’s burlesque scene
For those looking to sample Baltimore's burgeoning neo-burlesque scene, here are some options.
Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. in Highlandtown. Besides frequent performances (next up is "Tassels & Champagne: Booty Nights!" on Feb. 9, featuring Gilded Lily Burlesque), burlesque classes are sometimes offered. (creativealliance.org).