Interview: Burlesque Legend Tammi True
On Thursday, July 11th, nearly 400 people attended the premiere of True Tales at the historic Texas Theatre in Dallas. True Tales tells the story of Tammi True, a dancer at the Carousel Club, and her relationship with the notorious owner, Jack Ruby. Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who, according to government investigations, shot President John F. Kennedy. For fifty years Tammi True has kept quiet about her relationship with Jack Ruby, until this film. I spoke with Tammi about working on the movie and her thoughts on the premiere.
GV: You have been quiet for decades about your association with Jack Ruby for so many reasons, mainly to protect your children. And now, fifty years later, this film comes out. Have these memories and stories always been with you? Did you think that someday you would tell your story? Because you knew a very different Jack to what was portrayed in the media.
TT: Yeah, I’ve always kind of wanted people to know that he was a kind guy, a good guy. He was good hearted. He wasn’t that person they made him out to be when he shot Lee Harvey Oswald. And my kids have been wanting me to put it on tape – you know, record it or something – because I know all these things about Jack.
GV: But you haven’t done many interviews…
TT: I did one interview for Esquire Magazine and they were going to tell my story and what Jack was really like. And it was not my story. It was not what I said. I got really upset and I decided that I was never going to do another interview. But it was time now, and I felt like someone needed to stand up for him and let people know that he was not this total idiot that they made him out to be. He wasn’t pimping us out.
GV: I imagine the media went crazy once they found out the man who shot Oswald owned a burlesque club.
TT: You have no idea the stuff people have written. Just totally wrong. They made the club sound like it was sleazy and low class, like Jack was pimping us out. And that was not true. He was totally the opposite. He didn’t want any of us hustling the customers or any of that stuff. He wanted a nice club and he wanted the girls to be clean and nice. He didn’t want us turning tricks and stuff. But I wanted to set the record straight and speak my piece.
GV: Well now you get your chance. In True Tales, you talk about the Jack Ruby that you know, putting a person behind the headlines. How did you enjoy the premiere? What was it like to finally see your movie completed?
TT: Actually it was great; I thought they did a really good job and they stuck to what I told them and didn’t try to change it around or anything. I thought it was good.
GV: When they first approached you about the movie, you were just getting started performing burlesque again. What were your thoughts when they said they wanted to make a movie about you and your connection to Jack Ruby in 1963?
TT: Well, first of all I wanted to make sure they were legitimate, then I talked to them to make sure that they were gonna stick to the story and not change anything around. Actually, I thought it would be kind of nice to have something to leave for my children, like a record of what went on when I was a dancer at the Carousel Club. I thought it was a good idea, so I signed a contract with them.
GV: Were you involved in casting?
TT: Yeah, I had final OK on who they picked. They showed me all the audition tapes and listened to my input. I had my own say-so on the film before it was released. They wanted to make sure it was OK with me. And when I viewed it, there were a couple of things that I critiqued and I wanted them to change it. And they did. They did everything exactly the way I wanted them to.
GV: What were the things that you wanted changed?
TT: Well for one thing, Cassie (Cassie Shea Watson), the girl who played me, had a tattoo on her butt.
GV: Oh yeah. That’s not accurate.
TT: I didn’t have any tattoos and still don’t. I don’t want any either. So I said, ‘Oooh, wait a minute here.’ I think they had filmed her from both sides. So I think they filmed her on the other side of her butt. The other thing I didn’t like is the beginning of it, during my interview. They had a studio makeup artist do my hair and my make up. I looked… It was awful. So when I viewed it, I said I did not like that at all. So we went back and redid that part.
GV: That’s good – you gotta go in there looking like yourself.
TT: And they agreed with me! They thought I did my own hair and makeup better than the makeup artist!
GV: What were you thinking when you were viewing the tapes of the young actresses who were auditioning to play you? I’m sure that was a unique experience.
TT: Well to start with, they knew it was going to be hard to find somebody to play me. Because they had to have a good figure. Plus they had to be able to dance and act, so it was going to be kind of hard. I think there were four or five girls that auditioned and Cassie was the only one that even came close. Of course she didn’t know how to strip, so I went in and worked with her a couple of times. And she did good I think for no more lessons than she had, so I think she did fine. But out of all of them she came the closest, and she did come with the right idea to audition; she brought a boa with her and some bluesy music, so that made me like her better.
GV: What were some of the things that you taught Cassie during your striptease crash course?
TT: Well, I would just teach her how to bump and grind and parade. She had never done that before, so finally I told her, just close your eyes. I said, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well close your eyes and pretend that y’all are havin’ sex.’ (Laughs)
GV: And that worked for her, huh?
TT: Well, it helped some, I think. She was shy, and the first time we worked together I told her, ‘Let me see your titties.’ Well, that set her back a little bit. I was wondering what they looked like, you know? I was tellin’ her how she was going to put pasties on. And I took a costume in and I showed her how to take stuff off. They were short sessions, but just the basics.
GV: Yeah, I thought she was great. Did you teach her any of your signature moves or jokes?
TT: Well I did try to get her to do some, but she was a little timid to project like I do. She was a little shy to fall into that half split and say, ‘Would you say that’s stretching a good thing too far?’ And then I showed her how to twitch her butt and say, ‘You wanna kiss it? It kisses back?’ So she was a little reserved about doing that, so it didn’t entirely come across like I was doin’ it. But you got the idea.
GV: I’ve only seen pictures of Jack Ruby, but it seems like the actor who played him in the film really did a good job. He is how I imagine Jack in my mind.
TT: Yeah, I thought he was perfect. I saw the auditions for the guys, and he had thrown in a little Chicago accent. I liked him from the beginning. I liked him a lot. He looked kind of like Jack and was built like Jack. I liked him right away. So we didn’t have a problem with me ok-ing him.
GV: One of the more light hearted stories I enjoyed in the film was that of Jada and how Jack had brought her in from New Orleans. She was going to be the headliner – which had been your spot for some time. You weren’t happy about that.
TT: What happened was, he went to New Orleans and he hired her, and he came back and he was telling me that he hired this girl from New Orleans and that she was going to come in and she was really classy and, you know, blah, blah, blah. And then she just showed up. She came in very flamboyant with all that red hair. And she had a gold Cadillac convertible. Her costumes were really pretty; she brought in some really pretty costumes.
GV: And she did something in the club that nobody was expecting…
TT: So, I after I got done with my show on the night she opened, I went out there and stood behind him. He ran the spotlight and it was on a post, out there in the club behind where the customers sat. And I was standing there to see what she did, because he just thought she was won-der-ful. During her show she reached down and grabbed her g-string and pulled it over to the side – that’s what we called a flash – and Jack almost had a stroke. They’d close ya down back then for that. That was a no-no. So he turned the spotlight off real fast. And I said, ‘Yeah Jack, you’re right. She’s got a lot of class.’
GV: During filming you got to go to Chicago to see Jack’s grave for the first time. How did it feel to finally get some closure?
TT: Yeah, that was wonderful. That was the best part of the whole thing because I’ve always wondered where he was and if he was in a good place. That was great to see him, that was wonderful.
GV: What do you think Jack would have thought about this film?
TT: I think he would have been very happy with it. And you know what? Everyone was really wonderful at the premiere. I didn’t get to see everyone; a bunch of my friends were there, but it was so hectic. My drummer, Bill Willis, was there. And he and I were really close when we worked for Jack. And so all my friends and critics and everybody from the crew told me the film is wonderful and I said that’s great. But I called Bill to see what he thought.
GV: He knew Jack too, so I’m sure his opinion carried special significance for you.
TT: He said, ‘I thought it was wonderful and I think that Jack would be very proud.’ And I said, ‘I do too, but I wanted your opinion because you were there when I was there, when all this was happening.’ His opinion was very important to me.
GV: Well, for someone like me being born and raised in Dallas and always being aware of the history, it’s really fascinating to hear your story. Especially now for the 50th anniversary.
TT: I think all you young’uns, you only know what you’ve read. And I’ve seen so many things that were absolutely untrue. And so I’m proud that I’m able to tell my story. That doesn’t mean everyone is gonna believe me, but it’s my story.
GV: You knew a whole other side to Jack Ruby…
TT: I was an all business dancer; I wasn’t flakey. And he respected me for that. I would stand up to him and he knew he couldn’t fire me, because I’d tell him I don’t give a shit. He liked that about me. He was a good person; he liked people and liked to help them out.
GV: What were some of the things he’d do?
TT: There was a guy, a local character. He passed away, didn’t have any family or anything, and Jack paid for his funeral because he wanted him to have a proper funeral. There’s a lot of things that I know about Jack that a lot of people don’t know.
GV: I’m so excited for everyone to see this film! What comes next for you and True Tales?
TT: I’m gonna rest up for two or three weeks and then we’re gonna go on a promotional tour. I know we’re gonna go to Chicago and promote to them. I don’t know where else – three or four different cities. And they’ve entered it in about six film festivals, and then maybe I’ll get nominated for an Oscar and go to the Academy Awards.
GV: I would love that!
TT: Well I’m not gonna hold my breath. (Laughs)
Burlesque Legend Tammi True interviewed by Ginger Valentine.
Ginger Valentine is known for blending her classical training with raucous bump-and-grind. She is the 2011 'Queen of Burlesque' at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, the 2010 'Best Tease' at the Texas Burlesque Festival, and was voted No. 12 in the Burlesque TOP 50 2012. Ginger is co-producer and director of the Ruby Revue, which performs regularly in Dallas and in Houston, and she helps to produce the Dallas Burlesque Festival. She also appears frequently at Bustout Burlesque in New Orleans. She is an instructor at the Ruby Room Studio in Dallas where she teaches burlesque and ballet classes. In 2012, Kitty West, the original Evangeline the Oyster Girl, passed down her legendary act to Ginger Valentine. Kitty West made the act famous in the forties and fifties on Bourbon Street. Now Ginger continues the legacy, performing this magical act in Bustout Burlesque in New Orleans. Ginger continues to put her passion and experiences into words for 21st Century Burlesque Magazine.