Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Of snakes and big busts: when exotic dancers reigned in Miami Beach

A blonde Zorita the Snake Dancer at the
Peppermint Lounge c. 1961

For more Florida history visit my other blog, Janesbits.blogspot.com 


By Jane Feehan

Where tourists flocked, entertainers soon followed. That’s how it was in Miami Beach after World War II. During the 1950s the beach side city became America’s glitzy vacation land—and the place to be for the big names of  radio, the silver screen, television, theater and music: Garry More, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Tony Martin, Dick Shawn, Bobby Van, Morey Amsterdam, Duke Ellington, Debbie Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey, Frank Sinatra.

Among the parade of entertainers were the burlesque queens of the day who included Miami Beach in their tours throughout the country. Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr, Evelyn West (with her “treasure chest”), and Tempest Storm joined a list of scantily clad performers who headlined the beach adults-only night clubs. These exotic dancers studied their craft; it was a time when taking off one’s clothes was considered an art.  

Two big-name strippers of the day eventually claimed the Miami area as home: Dorian Dennis, and Zorita the Snake Dancer. Their paths were to intersect late in their careers.

Dorian Dennis (known by her family as Rene), was born in Brooklyn to parents who were pharmacists. Dorian set out to follow a similar vocational path; she earned a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry in a pre-med program at New York University.  She wanted to become a doctor but finances forced her into other work. Her first job after college was at the US Army’s Fort Monmouth where she analyzed wire. It didn’t pay much.

Impressed by her beauty, a former show girl suggested she get work in the more lucrative entertainment field. It proved to be good advice. Dorian worked a brief stint as a hat check girl at the Latin Quarter in New York and then at Toots Shor’s. She landed a job as a show girl at Havana Madrid. An agent spotted her and told her if she could learn to walk (she claimed she once walked like an elephant) she could follow in the steps of famed stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. She learned how to walk, dance—and undress.

At first Dorian Dennis played rough, noisy clubs, but her career was launched. Soon she was making $1,200 a week (five times as much as a chemist) in acts around the country. She ranked in the top 15 exotic dancers in the nation. Her looks and 40-inch bust earned her regular work in Las Vegas where some joked that she was so well-stacked that card players wouldn’t trust her with a deck.

Dennis became a top draw at Miami Beach revues where she frequently appeared at Place Pigalle, Gaiety Club, Club 23, Copa City Lounge (while Duke Ellington played in the main room), and others. She moved to Miami in 1959 after a union dispute in New York. The move probably changed her plans to learn drama for her theater and movie aspirations.

Zorita knew early in life what she wanted to be.  Born Kathryn Boyd in 1915, she performed her first strip show in Pittsburgh in 1937. She soon included two snakes in her performances. The enterprising 20-year-old, who was occasionally arrested for indecency, took her show to Toledo and Tampa (and probably other cities) before she first visited Miami in 1939.

Zorita was no stranger to publicity. In 1939, she stopped Miami traffic at Flagler Street downtown when she took her Chinese bull snake on a stroll with a leash. More than 1,000 spectators gathered, including the press. The police took both stripper and snake into custody. They charged Zorita with disorderly conduct.

More than a decade later, the snake dancer was regularly performing in Miami at several spots, including the 5 O’clock Club. By the 1960s, she was living permanently in North Bay Village, not far from Miami Beach. The exotic dancer, grabbing an occasional headline in local entertainment news, retired from performing to open her own place, Zorita’s Show Bar on Collins Avenue.

An aging and single Dorian Dennis (see photo from obit at: http://bit.ly/1cvJBeb)  took a job at Zorita’s in the 1960s. Her last performance was in 1969. In 1970, in her early 40s, Dennis died of cancer at Fort Lauderale’s Broward General Hospital. At the time, she was living on North 13th Street in Hollywood.

What happened to some of  the other dancers?
  • Ever the entrepreneur, Zorita decided to sell pornographic bed sheets in 1975.  She reportedly died in Florida in 2001.
  • Lili St. Cyr (Willis Marie Van Schaack) died in 1999 at 80 in Los Angeles.
  • Blaze Starr, born in 1932 (Fannie Belle Fleming), was once the controversial lover of Louisiana Gov. Earl Long.  Starr died June, 2015 in West Virginia. Her final years were spent as a gemologist in Maryland.
  • Tempest Storm (Annie Blanch Banks), born in 1928, retired at 67. She performed in Miami at a place on Biscayne Boulevard as late as the 1970s. In 2006, she appeared at the Miss Exotic World Pageant. Tempest Storm currently lives in Las Vegas. I had the pleasure of sitting next to her and her former husband Herb Jeffries in 1972 at a banquet in San Francisco.
Eleven exotic dancers, including most of those mentioned here, performed in director Irving Klaw’s 1956 documentary Buxom Beautease.  Perhaps he knew the curtain would soon close on the burlesque queen era, an era tightly woven into the history of Miami Beach. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
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Sources:
Pittsburgh Press, Apr. 4, 1937
Miami News, Feb. 22, 1939
Times Daily, Nov. 16, 1958
Miami News, Dec. 8, 1959
Miami News, Dec. 21, 1959
Miami News, Apr 23, 1960
Miami News, July 24, 1964
Miami News, Dec. 8, 1970
Miami News, Sept. 4, 1975

Tags: Miami Beach strippers, Miami Beach entertainers, Dorian Dennis, Zorita the Snake Dancer, film researcher, burlesque in Miami Beach, Miami Beach history

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