EX-STRIPPER'S DAYS ARE NOW QUIET ONES Former burlesque dancer reminisces


It isn't right for Jean Honus to be all alone on Barney Street.

The house is quiet; hours are long.

And there's no action.

Not like the days when men gave her diamond watches just because they liked the way she moved.

When strangers by the hundreds whooped and hollered and whistled as she sashayed her knockout figure across a stage.

Back when Jean Honus did the striptease on Baltimore's Block in the glory days of burlesque.

The theaters and musicians, the bookies, the barkers, the wise guys, the prizefighters and the straight men, all gone.

At age 74, the woman born to a coal-mining family in Shenandoah, Pa., accepts that time has reduced the art of burlesque to stark nudity and robot music.

But it's not right, she says, that she outlived almost all of her friends from her burlesque days.

"I'm very lonely," says Miss Honus, cooking up a big pot of rigatoni and hot sausage, grateful for the chance to entertain a new visitor to her South Baltimore rowhouse, eager to fill a fresh ear with her stories. "I go out every day now and sit with friends, but people don't want to hear too much of your troubles. You try to hide from loneliness, but it's so hard. I don't know what to do with myself so I just get up and get out of here. I go down to the market even if I don't have to buy anything."

Fast living and hard liquor, she says, killed most of her colleagues years ago.

"I have no friends because they drank themselves to death," she says, tears coming to her eyes. "Drink ruined my girlfriends, girls that should be here today with me. I took care of myself and I'm here. They drank morning, noon and night -- they thought they were having fun, but they weren't happy. Sometimes I'd take two days off from work just not to drink, to get some sleep and take care of myself. I had a lot of fun, but it all just came and went."

Miss Honus, who dyed her hair platinum blond in the early 1940s and promoted herself as the Jean Harlow of The Block, started as a burlesque chorus girl -- a "pony" -- at age 13.

She wound up stripping for the next 40 years, performing her last bump and grind at Blaze Starr's 2 O'Clock Club when she was 56.

"I got a very good hand that night. Even when I was 50 I got a better applause than a lot of the young ones," she says. "I loved my work, I loved my audience. If the audience didn't want you, the boss didn't want you. If they didn't applaud, I'd stomp my jTC feet until they did. But this one night, I just felt that I wanted to quit."

Miss Honus' career started in New York City, where her mother searched for work during the Depression and used to leave young Jean alone in their one-room apartment off Broadway.

"I wasn't even in school, and no one questioned it," she said. "One day, I went to the Gayety on 47th and Broadway with an older girl who wanted a job in burlesque and the man saw me and said: 'Do you know your right from your left?' That's how I got my first job."

The burlesque circuit and an entourage called the "Bothwell Brown Revue" took the teen-ager from New York to Atlantic City and eventually Baltimore, once famed in seaports the world over for the nightlife of The Block; a good town, Miss Honus remembers, where a good-looking girl with a nice figure could always get a job and make her money go a long way.

"I knew I could make Baltimore my home port, support my Mom here and still go on the road," she says. "And that's what I did."

Baltimore Street had a community of home-grown characters beyond the imagination of Damon Runyon, guys named Shykie and Shimkie and Abie; Jewish theater owners who remained kosher while selling tickets to the girlie shows; a place where you could work with strippers named Sapphire and Electra and then meet Boris Karloff backstage without recognizing him because he wasn't in his Frankenstein costume.

This street was where the most famous theater in town was the Oasis because it advertised "The World's Worst Show" and the entertainment lived up to its billing.

Miss Honus, who liked stripping to the swing of "Little Coquette," didn't have to play there.

"The pay was small; if you got $100, that was good; the bosses never told anyone what the girls' salaries were and you had to fight for your raise," she says. "If I didn't get mine, I'd just go on the road. The most I ever made was $250 a week in the '60s. That was pretty good back then."

Miss Honus was confronted more than once by jealous wives, whom she advised to take care of their problems at home, and her hotel room was showered with sulfuric acid by a man who had courted her in vain.

An entire industry surrounded burlesque then, says Miss Honus, including tailors who specialized in custom-made gowns for strippers.

"Today they just come out with nothing on, but in my day, if you didn't have a beautiful wardrobe, you didn't work," she recalls, noting that she sometimes spent half a $200 paycheck on a gown. "I had maybe two dozen gowns at a time. I'd fill up a trunk when we went on the road. I still have a beautiful fringe gown that I kept -- red velvet with one breast cut out and covered with lace. I won't give it up."

She might, however, donate her treasures -- the newspaper clippings and the photos and the costumes and trinkets -- to a museum of burlesque if one existed, especially if it happened to exist on The Block.

"I always felt that I knew my work," she says. "I can't say I learned it. I went out there and did it -- nothing was stopping me. But today, here I am."

Here on Barney Street in a house crowded with baby dolls and stuffed animals, an old trunk in the basement stuffed with memories.

Married at 15 and widowed at 25 when her husband died of leukemia, Miss Honus never remarried. She has no children. She goes on bus trips once in a while, or out to the track when she feels up to it.

But it's not the same.

Her dogs kept her company for years, but they died, and now Miss Honus keeps radios playing day and night, upstairs and down, for the company of a human voice.

"Some people knock burlesque terribly, but I don't take any stuff from them. I tell 'em: 'I'm better than you'll be any day'," she says.

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