Looking back at the extraordinary life and career of America’s burlesque queen.
The last living connection with the golden age of Burlesque has been severed. Tempest Storm, stripper extraordinaire, has died at the age of 93, due to complications from hip surgery.
Born Annie Blanche Banks in 1928, Tempest Storm had the sort of life that they make movies about – the daughter of a Georgia sharecropper, a school drop out who was married at fourteen to a marine for the whole of 24 hours before the union was annulled – the purpose of the marriage was to emancipate her from parental control. At fifteen, she was married again – this time to a shoe salesman – and after six months of tedious domesticity, she headed out to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune and never looked back. Taking up the traditional Hollywood job of waitressing, she would be discovered in 1951 by a customer with an eye for talent, who told her that she was everything the burlesque houses were looking for. The sort of comment that might see him ejected from the premises for harassment today, but taken as sound career advice back then.
A job at the Follies Theater beckoned, and Miss Banks proved a natural, quickly rising up the ranks. She had everything – the shock of red hair, the body and the moves. Everything except the name. Offered a choice between Sunny Day and Tempest Storm, she smartly went for the latter – moodier, sexier and more provocative. I mean, which one would you be drawn to see performing? Six years later, she adopted it as her legal name, by which time she was the country’s highest-paid burlesque dancer, earning $100,000 a year with a ten-year contract – a decent amount now, and eye-popping back then. She also had her breasts insured for $1 million (for the pair, which seems a bargain) by Lloyds of London.
A move into mainstream entertainment might have beckoned – she certainly had what it took to be a movie glamour girl. But her marriage to Herb Jeffries, the black singer in Duke Ellington’s orchestra probably put paid to any move into respectability – a mixed-race marriage in segregated America was a scandalous affair. The movie industry’s loss was burlesque’s gain, though – either through ignorance of her marriage or simply not caring, the striptease audience was happy to continue to enjoy her performances. She would appear on film in several burlesque movies, including Irving Klaw’s Teaserama, where she appeared alongside Bettie Page – the two also modelled together for Klaw in the 1950s – as well as Russ Meyer‘s French Peep Show, Paris Topless and Mundo Depravados in the mid-1960s. Her modelling appearances in men’s magazines are countless, and even if you never went near a burlesque club, the chances are that she would be a familiar face – and not just face, of course…
But Storm’s main career was on stage. She moved to Portland, Oregon in the mid-fifties, and was a featured performer in Las Vegas from 1957, where she became a striptease mainstay for many years. She hung with the Rat Pack, knew Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Rooney and Louis Armstrong, dated Elvis and pulled in crowds until finally calling it a day – at least as far as regular performance went – in 1987. She was 59 and still headlining. After that, performances were less regular, but included appearing on stage with The James Gang in 1973, appeared with Dita Von Teese in a Leg Show spread in 1995 and appearing at the 30th anniversary of the O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco in 1999 – her final performance. Mayor Willie Brown announced it as ‘Tempest Storm Day’ in her honour. Those were the days, eh?
In 1987, she wrote her autobiography, and for many years was a leading figure in the Burlesque Hall of Fame. A 2016 documentary labours rather too much on her difficult relationship with her family, because God forbid that we don’t show anyone involved in adult entertainment as anything other than damaged and miserable. Her appearance in Leslie Zemekis’ Behind the Burly-Q, in 2010, is rather more interesting and honest, because if there is one thing that Storm wasn’t, then it is a victim. She maintained her connection to the burlesque world and its modern incarnations – which, in America at least, respected the striptease history of the art form and didn’t try to deny that it was all about taking your clothes off – to the end, and when she died, she was with BurlyCares nonprofit organization nurse Stephanie Castellone, Las Vegas burlesque performers Kalani Kokonuts and Miss Redd, and her long time business partner Harvey Robbins. Proud of her career – as well she might be – and a performer, in one way or another, to the end, Tempest Storm was the personification of burlesque – up-front, sexy, defiant and magnificent.
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