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Fire and Grit: The life of Satan’s Angel

Fire and Grit: The life of Satan’s Angel

Satan's Angel, by John Paul Bichard

Beloved burlesque legend Satan’s Angel has passed away after receiving critical care in hospital. To celebrate her life and contribution to burlesque, I am proud to re-publish this fascinating interview by Jo Weldon, who has recently relaunched her Burlesque Daily blog.

Satan’s Angel was one of the first burlesque legends I met, I believe over fifteen years ago, and I’m so glad I knew her. She was one of the fiercest people I’ve ever known, having lived through a time when gay women were persecuted and marginalised to an extent it’s hard for younger Americans to imagine. She was vivid, opinionated, challenging, and full of stories. She travelled the world, loved hard, and inspired generations of new performers. My heart goes out to her family and other loved ones today. I’ll miss her, too.

If there was ever an interview which I wish you had got to hear, this is it. Satan’s Angel has a smoky, bawdy style of speech that I would flat-out steal if I could. She’s a ball of fire even when she’s not twirling flaming tassels on her nipples, and almost unbearably thrilling when she is twirling. This interview is over twelve years old, and you’ll love every bit of it.

Satans Angel ©Orangeroads photography
Satans Angel ©Orangeroads photography

Jo Weldon: When did you get into burlesque?

Satan’s Angel: I started around 1962. I went sneaking out the back door of our house and wandered the Mission District in San Francisco, where I’m from. I had problems with taking my clothes off at gym in junior high because I was gay but didn’t know it. I wouldn’t take my clothes off in front of the gym teachers. And you know the story: nice Catholic girl, went to Catholic school…

I’m probably more of a hussy onstage than I am off; it’s just the way I was brought up (laughs). I’m a lot more fun when I have a couple glasses of wine. I went to college in SF, and I studied to be an interior decorator. My mom said, “What, you want to be like the rest of the queens in the world?” She wanted me to go to college or marry a man who could support a family comfortably. She didn’t know I was gay either!

How did you get started?

I was working as a secretary for a big jeans company. One of the girls who worked with me thought of doing an amateur strip contest. They had them on Friday nights at a place in North Beach. We put on our mothers’ old cocktails dresses, found some stale cigarettes, piled on false eyelashes, ratted our hair into big beehives, copped some fake IDs, and off we went.

We’d sit right in the front row at the strip and give a little applause – they’d decide the winner by applause. We finally danced for a minute to a live band and dropped the dresses, and got 100 bucks – I was making 99 bucks every two weeks as a secretary! I went back and won every week. One of the owners said, “Stop already, come to work! You’re killing me!” I think I made 127.50 a week working just the weekend.

Bebe Hughes hooked me up with fabulous costumes and some fire pasties. I went to her walkup apartment with four or five bedrooms, and she had bolts of material, racks and racks of used costumes. I picked out two or three and she made bras and unders for me, and she’d put rows of sequins on all the fringe, and that’s how I started.

“She told me I had to have a gimmick. I was twirling five tassels at once and that was not enough. I said, “Hell, what should I do, set fire to ’em?” and she said, “Now that’s an idea!””

I worked there until the late sixties, then I flew into Vegas with a girl and saw Lili St Cyr, and I said see ya SF! I took a bit of Lili’s slow sensuality. When she would touch herself, she was real slow, and her face was very expressive and would make you gasp. The audience would get so excited. I did learn that! I designed all my wardrobe with the fishtail long train, mandarin collars, heavy rhinestones and beading.

There was nobody in the old days to help a new kid, so I took a little bit from people that I liked and I made them into Angel (me). I wanted the ballsiness and glamour of Mae West, and I wanted to twirl tassels like women I had seen – Carrie Finnel, Tammy Rocher, Tura Satana – but to have a gimmick I did the fire tassels. I actually did move to Las Vegas and did all the big shows that would hire a burlesque dancer for ten years.

Burlesque legend Satan’s Angel

Where did the fire tassels come from?

I talked to a woman in her forties when I was eighteen. I think about how I looked at her and thought she should retire, and now I’m 63 and I’m the baby legend! She told me I had to have a gimmick. I was twirling five tassels at once, and that was not enough. I said, “Hell, what should I do, set fire to ’em?” and she said, “Now that’s an idea!” So I went to Bebe the costumer and we worked it out.

Most tassel twirlers decided not to do fire because of all the fire laws and so on, but I did ’em anyway. When I was young I’d redip them (into the fuel) all the time, twirl one then the other, put fire on my arms, and I’d cross my arms and set the burning tassels on my arms.

I used to have a big bear rug and an old silver bowl, and I would fill that bowl up with fuel and use it all, and I flew around that stage! I never knocked it over no matter how much Grand Marnier I had!

Satan’s Angel twirling fire tassels in 2006. 

How did you come up with your burlesque name?

We couldn’t use ‘Hell’s Angel’! I had an Indian [cycle], and besides, they couldn’t put ‘hell’ on a marquee. A lot of people didn’t even like the name Satan’s Angel! You know, I did all the fire stuff with fire shooting off my arms and would run it all over my body, and they thought if they kept the name cooler they could keep me cooler, I guess. They even tried to get me to use ‘Satin Angel’. But I knew what I wanted.

How did the club owners react to you being gay?

Oh God, honey. The atmosphere for gay women in the sixties – you were regarded with extreme prejudice. I once worked in Kansas City at this club. I’d been there so many times; there was a whole row of fun, classy, mob-owned joints. I brought my girlfriend, Rusty; I was with her nine years.

One of the girls at this club asked me if the boss knew I brought my butch, and I told her nobody would know unless she said something. Evidently, somebody DID say something, because the owner came in yelling, “You fuckin’ queer fuckin’ dyke – you’re fired!” He threw my stuff out of the dressing room into the snow.

I lost a LOT of jobs, especially when I was dating this woman and I cut my hair. When I went to work like that they said, “What did you do?” and they would drop my contract. I finally got a hairpiece, of course, so I could work. I sometimes couldn’t even get into hotels with my girlfriend because they didn’t allow two women in a room.

Satan’s Angel, by John Paul Bichard.

Where did you perform most?

Outside of Vegas I worked a lot in Florida, where it paid well. I also worked Canada, Mexico City (at the El Presidente, no less), Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Guam… That’s why my life story is called ‘Have Tassels, Will Travel!’

At one point I did 25 towns in 32 weeks, working six days each week with one day for travel. I did over 25000 performances. I worked in Europe: Barcelona, Paris, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

I used to sit on the plane and the airline magazine would list all the stops, all the little red lines going to each city, and I worked almost every city United Airlines served.

You could really make a living in burlesque then. I would make 1200-2500 a week in the mid eighties, and they paid our transportation and hotels, usually.

“…the owner came in yelling, “You f*ckin’ queer f*ckin’ dyke – you’re fired!” He threw my stuff out of the dressing room into the snow.”

What is your fondest memory of all that travelling?

Japan. I loved it. I worked at Nichigeki Theater in Tokyo in 1969, a theatre in the round with the stage at the bottom. The stage came up from the basement and behind me was a waterfall with silver streamer lights. There was a 28 piece orchestra. The stage came up and I was in a solid rhinestone gown, so heavy.

The gown was from Bebe Hughes, white lace with a rhinestone in each flower, and over about three years we had covered the whole dress with all these rhinestones imported from Paris. On my opening night, five thousand people were there and when they all applauded at same time it was thunderous. I would go to make a move but they wouldn’t stop applauding, screaming, whistling, stomping! I couldn’t even hear that huge orchestra, they were so excited. I was thinking, “This is what it’s all about.”

I had a beautiful dressing room, and a woman that helped me dress, bowls of candy, bottles of champagne. They gave me a pearl ring. I felt like Gypsy Rose Lee.

Burlesque legend Satan’s Angel

Your mother was with you this year at the Exotic World event. What did she think of it?

Let me tell you about my mother. I was working at the Galaxy Club in San Francisco in the sixties, this great space-themed place with girls in silver skirts. An artist came in and sort of strategically covered over our parts, painted us all up, and we were to stand on these pillars all through the club. The pillars rotated and we’d each strike a pose like a psychedelic statue.

So I was doing this, and I felt this negative energy like I smelled something burning, and then I felt really self-conscious. I looked down, and there was my mother looking at me with her arms folded. I screamed, “My mother, oh my god it’s my mother!” I leapt down and ran to the dressing room and grabbed my coat.

She caught up with me and she wasn’t too thrilled, obviously. I said, “Mom, I make 350-450 a week, 700 a week in Vegas,” and she got cool with it – what was she gonna do? She’s corporate, I’m not. She’s worked for the May Company her whole life. My dad died in the forties, and she’s 82 and still works five days a week, and she does her own gardening.

This year she came to Exotic World and she hadn’t seen me dance since 1979, and the audience was so loving. They gave me their soul and hearts. She felt it and she said, “By God, you can still dance.” That’s all she said. Then she goes home the next day and later I hear there are pictures of her with boas everywhere in the house! She ranted and raved about how beautiful my performance was. She always supported me, but isn’t the kind of person to tell me.

The Sissy Butch Brothers did a documentary and stopped by my mom’s house and asked her, “Have you supported Angel all these years?” and my mom said, “I’ve always loved her and she’s always made me proud.” She tells me she loves me every day, but to tell me that I made her proud – my heart! At sixty-something years old, you could say a little late, but still not too late!

Satan's Angel ©Ed Barnas
Ed Barnas: I have seen Satan’s Angel, the Devil’s Own Mistress, perform a number of times and it is a challenge to capture the energy of her performance given the vagaries of stage lighting. Luck was with me at the 50th Annual Striptease Reunion in 2007 when I was able to capture her in a moment of stasis while her swirling cape formed a dynamic backdrop to her body.

You’ve said you didn’t have an easy time leaving the business.

It’s hard to quit when you’ve been going from seventeen until you’re in your forties, but it got too raw for me in the mid eighties with the porn features and so on. After I quit I did coke all day and all night. I had four heart attacks, a couple of grand mal seizures, and then as soon as I’d get well I’d start doing coke again.

I’ve always owned a Harley, and I had a terrible accident, broke 32 bones and got all crippled up. I loved to ride, like a cowgirl with her horse. Me and all my best friends used to ride together and called ourselves ‘the four roses’.

There was one girl we called Big Chris, 6’3′, weighed 350, and rode one huge Harley. She worked as a dispatcher for police department and also worked a couple of nights volunteering for suicide centre. As a drug addict I was shrinking away from everything and she said you need to quit.

After two years of her hiding my drugs and taking them away, one day she came in and said, “I brought someone to see you.” I was irate and she said, “Just come down the hallway and see ’em.”

I went into my living room and walked around the corner, and she had brought in this huge mirror and leaned it up against the wall. I turned that corner and because I hadn’t one mirror in the house had no idea what I looked like. When I looked at that person in the mirror I was devastated. I fell on my knees and cried because I saw I was dying.

Big Chris had got me this Doberman puppy and I laid on the couch petting the dog, with Chris helping me get by, and detoxed for two weeks. Yes, it was awful. Now I haven’t smoked any or done a line of coke in 18 years.

Satan’s Angel, by Brian Smith.

After all that, how did you come to perform at Exotic World and at Teaseorama?

I owned a dinner theatre in Gold Canyon, Arizona, where they used to make westerns. My place was a replica of a 1890s bordello and I called it Whiskey Lil’s. It was decorated with pictures of famous madams. In front of the place was an authentic 1887 bed from a real bordello. A woman named Terry Earp, relative to Wyatt, saw my costume in the glass case where I had it set up, and she said it was beautiful and asked whose it was.

When I said it was mine, she told me she was writing a play called Timbuktu or Bust about two strippers who inherit a motel in the desert and interviewed me about burlesque. She ended up writing a play about me called Have Tassels Will Travel.

She heard of Exotic World, went there, and called me from Helendale and told me she was staring at my picture on the museum wall. I wrote to Dixie and asked about being in the Hall of Fame, and she invited me to the pageant. I met people from Teaseorama, and they invited me to perform, and I’ve been dancing ever since.

I reconnected with ladies I knew from the day, like Kiva, Marinka, Big Fanny Annie, and Dusty Summers. And Holiday O’Hara: the last time I saw her she was sitting at the kitchen table naked as a jay bird, doing her nails and trying to get a guy to bring us a brick of Thai weed. There’s nothing like seeing these people after all that time.

Bettie Blackheart with burlesque legend Satan's Angel at the 2012 Helsinki Burlesque Festival. ©Tuomas Lairila
Bettie Blackheart with burlesque legend Satan’s Angel at the 2012 Helsinki Burlesque Festival. ©Tuomas Lairila

How do you like performing with these new folks?

It’s great, but at some point I’m going to have to retire, because sometimes I can’t walk because of osteoporosis. I got about 80% of my book done – should be ready by next year. I’m trying to teach classes before I stop dancing.

You twirlers, listen, save your ta tas! you don’t have to jump up and down like that! I love the girls in new burlesque, so many of the ones I really like do both the old and the new. I’d like to teach them that old simple glide with the hand… just a glide.

Satan’s Angel with one of burlesque’s newest performers, Lola Pearl. Photo property of Lola Pearl

You teach the fire tassels too, right?

Yes, I’m going to teach a fire tassel class at Teaseorama. I’m doing it one time and having it videotaped. I say you’ve got to have tits; you can’t do it flat chested with fire tassels. You have to be a little knowledgeable about fire, carry fire insurance, get permits. I have all that.

You know, I have not lost my fire tassels in thirty years, never had them fly off, then last month I bought a new roll of tape that was no good and they both flew off immediately. I plopped on my ass and start laughing. They were still burning so I picked ’em up and held ’em on and twirled ’em like that.

In my day nobody taught you anything, you learned by yourself. Our art is different than your art, and burlesque from then is not the same as now. There were no body piercings, no overweight performers, no tattoos, no blacks, no short hair, and if you had a butch hairdo you had to wear a wig. Them girls were mean, especially if you looked good. The pioneers that got the first boob jobs were shunned.

“I even laid in bed with Janis Joplin while we sang together and screwed. “

Anything you want to say to the newest performers?

Keep your day job. Go to school and be somebody… I don’t know. Do I mean that? Nah, go for it, follow your heart. That’s what I did.

You know, I used to play musical instruments and sing; I even laid in bed with Janis Joplin while we sang together and screwed. It was a great life, but all that glitz and glamour is not there as much.

I’d just say follow your heart if you think you can do this for fun and maybe make a few dollars, and have a good time and still be with your family and friends.

Satan’s Angel interviewed by Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon.

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