In a new series, Adele Wolf interviews our treasured burlesque legends, revealing more about their lives and careers. She kicks off the series by speaking to April March, ‘The First Lady of Burlesque’…
I had known of April March for quite some time when I finally had the honour of meeting her at this year’s Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. I was especially excited to meet her being that she is also a native Oklahoman. We had a lovely chat and she told me about a date she went on as a young woman at the Winchester Drive-In! She was tickled when I told her that it’s still around and that I go there every summer. I’m so glad to kick off Speaking with Legends with the First Lady of Burlesque, April March!
Adèle Wolf: Many people don’t know that you’re from Oklahoma City. What was your life there like before you moved to Dallas to pursue a burlesque career?
April March: I was quite young and a copy girl for the Daily Oklahoman. That was short lived. They sent me down to do the teletype machine for the stock market reports and after training me on it for fifteen minutes, they left me alone. Well that was a big mistake – the ticker tape starting piling up and it didn’t get in the paper that night. I was called into E.K. Gaylord’s office and before I was fired I said, ‘Mr Gaylord sir, I quit,’ and walked out the door. So that was the beginning of show business.
How did you get started in show business?
After that (the job at the Daily Oklahoman), I lied about my age and got a job as a cigarette and flower girl at a nightclub on NE 23rd St. called the Derby Club. They had striptease dances and I had never seen a striptease dancer perform before. They were very gorgeous and elegant women. As they started peeling off their clothes I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I could never do that!’ One night, a man named Barney Weinstein stopped me on the way back from the ladies room and said, ‘You’re beautiful! When do you go on?’ I said, ‘I don’t do that, I’m the cigarette girl. I would never take my clothes off.’ He asked if I’d like to be in show business and I told him yes, but I’d like to be a movie star. He gave me his card and said he couldn’t promise me a movie career, but he could get me started in burlesque. I thanked him and told him I doubted that I’d ever be using his card.
About three months passed and I was still thinking about his offer. I wanted to get into show business. I figured, ‘this isn’t so bad, they don’t take that much off.’ Back in those days you had to wear full net pants with a wide strip up the back and a net bra with pasties sewn on.
I talked to my grandparents and told them that I had got a job in Dallas as a tap dancer and they reluctantly let me go. I took my tap dance costume with me and boarded the bus for Dallas. I got to Dallas, got into a cab and went to the Theatre Lounge. I found Mr Weinstein and he said, ‘Well, Oklahoma, I knew you’d show up sooner or later.’ He got me started with the band, the girls whipped up a costume for me, I rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and then I was onstage doing a striptease number!
What was the first time you performed like?
I used to bite my fingernails and the girls glued artificial nails on my fingers. The cast from Guys and Dolls was playing the Dallas State Fair and they were all in the audience. I didn’t know who they were at the time; I found out later on. As I was onstage doing my first performance, one of the nails slipped off and into this gentleman’s drink! I was taking off a glove and off came a fingernail! Everyone started laughing and I was so embarrassed that I ran offstage. They told me I had to go back out there and finish my act, so reluctantly I did so.
After the show was over, I was invited to join the Guys and Dolls cast and that’s when I found out who they were. The fingernail had slipped into Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom’s glass. They said I did a great job with my first number and told me not to wear those false fingernails anymore because no one would be looking at my hands.
Can you tell me about another memorable experience from your early career?
Two of the Saudi Arabia princes had come to a show I was starring in at the Piccadilly in Miami Beach, Florida and I was invited to their table. They invited me to lunch in Palm Beach the next day. They had a limo pick me up and we played checkers all afternoon. I gave them autographed photos. They were muslim and weren’t supposed to smoke or drink but they did. Prince Thamor gave me a wooden cigarette box and I still have that to this day. Evidently they showed my photos to their father, the king and he had an assistant call and invite me to dinner. The government found out about it and had me take a letter to him that they hadn’t been able to deliver. I still don’t know what was in that letter, but all pandemonium broke loose afterwards.
What was it like performing in Minsky’s shows and starring in Ann Corio’s ‘This Was Burlesque?’
In 1961 I went to Boston and started working the (burlesque) theatre circuit. I got a phone call from Eddie Kaplan, an agent in New York City. He wanted to know if I would fly in and do an audition for Harold Minsky for the Minsky’s Follies show. Of course I’d always wanted to do a Minsky’s show. So I flew in one afternoon and met with Eddie Kaplan who took me to Mr Minsky. I said, ‘Would you like me to audition?’ and he said, ‘Miss March, you don’t have to do a thing. You’re hired. You’re my new star.’ So I worked the Minsky’s show and there was six weeks between shows.
Ann Corio and her husband had come out and seen me and asked if I would do their show during that time. She didn’t pay as much but I told her, ‘I’ll do your show for the price that you say on one condition – that you throw a press party for me. I would like to meet the editor of Sports Illustrated.’ She agreed and arranged the party.
You are the only burlesque performer ever to be featured in Sports Illustrated after you met the editor at the previously mentioned press party and he discovered that you were a talented golfer. What year was that issue published and do you still enjoy golfing?
At the press party I walked up to him (the Sports Illustrated editor) and said, ‘You’re just the man I wanted to meet,’ and he said, ‘How so, Miss March?’ I told him I wanted to be in his magazine and he said it was highly improbable. I said, ‘No it isn’t, I have an 8 handicap in golf.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re full of shit.’ I told him I belonged to two country clubs in Tulsa, OK and I indeed had an 8 handicap. He told me he’d think about it and contact my agent. A few days went by and I got invited to play a round of golf with an associate editor of Sports Illustrated. I beat him by three strokes. So I got into the July 6th, 1964 issue. That was the same year I starred in the Minsky and Ann Corio shows.
What was it like discovering the modern burlesque revival?
I think it’s great. All in all, the girls are wonderful, beautiful, and they do fantastic numbers. I think burlesque is back to stay. I’m enjoying getting to be a legend.
What advice do you have for burlesque performers today?
Take as many classes as they can. I tell people in my classes not to throw things (garments). Be ladylike on stage, smooth, alluring and sophisticated. Look at the audience and slow it down.
April March interviewed by Adele Wolf.