The Art of the Striptease Takes Center Stage in Candy Barr's Last Dance
She was tiny. She was blonde. Her green eyes looked into your soul and shook it silly. The curves of her hips were pathways to pleasure. If she wiggled her butt, then it was all over. You were hooked. Candy Barr got you.
This is the legend of infamous Dallas stripper Candy Barr. But it isn't all folklore and gossip. This burlesque queen has quite the story to tell, and actress-turned-playwright Ronnie Claire Edwards wants to tell it. In her latest play, Candy Barr's Last Dance, opening August 11 at Theatre Three, Edwards gives voices to three ex-strippers when they meet before Candy's funeral in 2006, and open up about their pasts, their memories of Candy, and of what happened in 1963.
See also: Ronnie Claire Edwards, Best Known for The Waltons, Fell in Love with Acting in Dallas
But they don't like to be called strippers; well, at least one of them doesn't. "The term used most in the show is 'stripping,' but one of the characters is always correcting the others and calls them ecdysiasts, because she doesn't like that they call each other strippers," says the play's director René Moreno. A fact that brings up an interesting historical and cultural point: should stripping be considered an art form, as the one character insists upon, or is it just a commercialized form of sex?
Stripping has a long history in our culture, with the earliest evidence of it dating back to Paleolithic cave paintings in the south of France, and the most common historical mention of it during the height of the Greek and Roman Empires, when erotic dances were performed by priestesses in honor of the Moon, the hunt, and Dionysus. It can also be traced back to the Middle East, where the allure of belly dancing reined supreme, and throughout Europe, where ladies of the court were paid to erotically entertain the men as they dined during celebrations.
Fast-forward to the 1800s and the rise of burlesque houses. Lydia Thompson, an English dancer, comedian, actress, and theatrical producer, became one of the most famous burlesque dancers on the London stage, and she is also credited with bringing burlesque to America in 1868. Her "British Blondes" were a chorus line of beautiful, scantily clad women that marked a move toward a more modern take on stripping: it was no longer an act to appease the gods or bring about good fortune, it was for money and the main attraction was sex. Women became more uninhibited and the performances became more risqué and provocative, and thus, more popular.
It is now that we saw the emergence of striptease and ecdysiasts, or striptease artists. This new form of erotic dancing took the passion and fervor of its predecessor and slowed it down, creating a dance that was soft and sensual, and the resulting undressing of the performer was meant to arouse. When the 1920s hit, so did a new addition to striptease, pole dancing, and by the 1950s, it was a trick in every dancer's bag. This was also the time that we saw the emergence of elaborate costumes and when stripping became a staple in the American sex industry.
Once the 1960s rolled around and the sexual revolution was at its peak, we saw a steep rise in the number of strip clubs as it became more acceptable to display sexuality in a public forum, and the clubs survived despite public protest and strict city regulations. Here is where we find Candy Barr, the colorful celebrity stripper and the favorite of Dallas' power brokers.
Born Juanita Dale Slusher, she fled her small hometown of Edna, Texas to escape abuse, and found herself in Dallas, where she eventually became one of the most famous burlesque and striptease dancers in the city. She started out as a cigarette girl at Barney Weinstein's Theatre Lounge at the age of 17, gave exotic dancing a try on amateur night, and soon became a headliner at both of Weinstein's clubs under her new name: Candy Barr. She was known for her cowboy boots, two pearl-handled six-shooters in a holster around her hips, and nothing else.
But her life wasn't full of glitz and glam and adoring fans. She was arrested twice, spent time in a prison near Huntsville on charges of marijuana possession, shot one of her four husbands (but only after he broke down her apartment door), and became a "gangster's moll" when she began dating the infamous Mickey Cohen. And then there is her friendship with Jack Ruby that got her interviewed by the FBI after Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald.
This is where Edwards found her inspiration. As Dallas was preparing for the numerous exhibitions, events, and memorials for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination last year, Edwards was instantly intrigued by a small tidbit of information that came out about the strippers in Jack Ruby's life who were rounded up and interrogated. She kept wondering what that experience was like for them. Candy Barr's Last Dance is the result.
Using newspaper articles and transcripts, and the writings of Candy Barr herself, who was a poet and had her work published, Edwards crafted a script that takes us on a time traveling journey into our own city's history. "I'm a native of Dallas and I was alive at the time of JFK and all those events, so that time always intrigued me as well," says Moreno. "We learn about Candy Barr through words that are written in the style of her own poetic writing. These characters go back and forth between remembering Candy Barr, and then we see Candy Barr remembering herself."
"You want to be true to Candy Barr," continues choreographer Sara Romersberger. "You can tell a lot about her from how she looked at or didn't look at a camera, and how she used her words. The playwright wanted to look at a more elegant side of her, and it's just our hope that we can bring her forward."
The person charged with that duty is actress Lydia Mackay, in the title role.
"It's been an interesting challenge and a new one for me. I've never before played a character who was a real person," says Mackay. Researching who she was beyond the stage, who she was in her life, has been really fascinating. And trying to bring some essence of that to what we are doing every night has been a lot of fun."
Romersberger and Mackay have been working to find an entry point from which Mackay can embody the character. "What's been really interesting for me is accepting the fact that we talk about who she was so much, what she looked like, what her body looked like, and trying to be ok with the fact that I will never be those things. That I am just the representation of her for this production. And trying to dig down deep and find my own Texas accent!"
Yet, Mackay is more than just a representation, she is a part of a new chapter that is both exposing Dallas' history, and calling attention to the rise of feminism in the South. You don't often hear about women like Candy Barr overcoming hardships and rediscovering herself and her life. Nor do you often see this form of dance in an artistic way, or in a way that illustrates the power and freedom in burlesque or striptease.
"I love the fact that this Dallas underground luminary is having a spotlight shined on her. Whatever you think about her as a person and what she did for a living, or how she lived her life, she played a huge part in a time period when the city was moving from a small town into a big metropolis. She knew all the powerful people, and she was surrounded by it all. The scions of Dallas tried to hide her under the carpet...I'm just glad she is getting some time now," says Moreno.
Maybe the spirit of Lydia Thompson is hanging out with Candy Barr's in the back row of Theatre Three smiling and watching over Mackay and the cast, as they bring to life this important part of Dallas' cultural history.
Candy Barr's Last Dance opens at 7:30, August 11 at Theatre Three and runs until August 31. 2800 Routh Street, Dallas.