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Jennie Lee
by Jane Briggeman

 

Jennie LeeJennie Lee died in her sleep from the ravages of cancer on Saturday March 24, 1990. She was only 61 years old. I never got to meet her, but I believe if it were not for Jennie Lee, many of the burlesque dancers probably would not have stuck together for as long as they have. That group of women, all of whom have been chums for many years, were often going to reunions and gatherings organized by Jennie. They were part of a group that began years ago when Jennie and eight other dancers created the “League of Exotic Dancers” in 1955 in Los Angeles. And it’s that group of Jennie’s friends, along with a few others, that have helped me. Women like Stacy “Eartha Quake” Farrell, Sheila Rae, Patti Starr, Taffy O’Neill, Electra, Mimi Reed, Sally Marr, Betty Rowland, Pat Flannery, “Novita,” Lorraine Lee Richards, “Zorita” and Dee Milo, became the foundation for “The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society.” The objectives Jennie set to preserve burlesque history and keep the old performers together are very similar to what I do with the Burlesque Historical Society, and perhaps that is why so many of her friends have helped me along the way.

Jennie Lee was born Virginia Lee Hicks on October 23, 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri. She weighed 5 pounds and was born at home. She had blue eyes and brown hair, which eventually lightened to blonde. Her first words were “da-da” and she started laughing when she was 3 months old. Young Virginia began dancing as a teenager and she first performed in the school play “Babes in Toyland.” Apparently once baby Virginia DID learn to laugh, she continued to do so on a regular basis for the rest of her life. Everyone I have talked too, that knew and spent time with Jennie, tells me how much Jennie loved to laugh and have a good time.

Virginia graduated from Wyondotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas in 1947. During her years in school she was involved in the girls swim team and the Girls Athletic Association. She liked sports, and her talent for them shows up again after the “League of Exotic Dancers” was formed.

At the end of her junior year of high school, Jennie saw an ad in the newspaper stating that the Folly Theater inPat Flannery, Jennie Lee and Doreen Gray Kansas City, MO was looking for chorus girls. Since there was no experience needed, she applied for the job. That summer Jennie worked in the chorus line of a burlesque show but went back to school in the fall to finish her senior year and graduate. After graduation she went back to work at the Folly Theater and again worked in the chorus line. But this time she was fired after about a month for not taking the job seriously enough and for being late on numerous occasions. When another dancer at the theater said she could get Jennie a booking as a strip-tease dancer, Jennie thought it sounded like a good idea. So she bought a gown with red fringe on it from a gal for $10 and headed off to work a stag show in Joplin, Missouri. Young Virginia Hicks was about to learn the difference between dancing in the chorus line of a burlesque stage show and being a feature dancer in a stag show.

For this first booking Jennie was required to appear on stage twice. The first number was to be played straight, but in the second number she was told to take it all off. Needless to say her first performance as a strip-tease dancer was a smashing success. But Jennie Lee was so embarrassed she couldn’t go back out on stage for a curtain call and hid in a closet backstage until the audience left. Of course it’s quite apparent that the initial shyness wore off and Jennie Lee eventually became a star in the world of burlesque. From that closet, Jennie went on to work in theater's and clubs through out the Midwest and then to Los Angeles in the 1950’s, where she found plenty of work. She was well known for twirling tassels, and at that time for her “Diamond Lil” routine.

The “League of Exotic Dancers” first meeting was held on July 18, 1955. Nine dancers gathered publicly and according to a “Los Angeles Times” article “mildly threatened” to strike over the low minimum pay that strip-tease dancers received in the Los Angeles area. The dancers claimed that LA was the lowest paying of all the large cities at $85 a week; whereas other large cities paid a minimum of $125 a week. The nine dancers present at this meeting included: Jennie Lee, President and Founder; “Novita,” Vice-president; Betty Rowland; Rusty Lane; Virginia Valentine; Daurene Dare; Denise Dunbar; Peggy Stuart and “Champagne.” Others who wanted to be there but who wired their regrets included: Pat Flannery and Doreen Gray, who were working; and “Caprice” and Misty Aires who were unable to attend the meeting because they were too busy rehearsing, without pay.

The “League of Exotic Dancers” became an independent organization within the American Guild of Variety Artists, through which all of the dancers were booked. The “EDL” as it was called, dealt with a number of situations and complaints over the years. They helped some of the dancers win judgments for salaries due them; they did what they could to keep untrained dancers out of the clubs; they asked that special training and apprenticeships be provided for feature burlesque dancers; they fought for paid rehearsals; they tried getting larger dressing rooms and a suitable space in the clubs to spend time in between shows; and they fought with some of the burlesque club owners who insisted that the dancers mingle with the patrons between shows to promote bar business—many of the dancers wanted that to stop. The “League of Exotic Dancers” started out in 1955 more as “a union,” but over the years as the members got older it turned more and more into “a social club” for the retiring striptease dancers from burlesque. But Jennie was always fighting for better working conditions for all dancers, and to maintain higher standards in the burlesque clubs. It was Jennie Lee who busted her butt to keep “EDL” alive and the girls together.

Jennie mentioned more than once, and to many people, that she organized the “EDL” in 1955 to preserve the traditions of burlesque. She began collecting photos, costumes, clippings and all types of memorabilia thinking that eventually she would create a burlesque museum. Along the way she also collected many friends and they have all stuck together over the years. A few toes may have been stepped on along the way, no one is perfect, but for the most part Jennie Lee was good to people and she made those around her feel special.

Shortly after the “EDL was created, Jennie organized both a bowling team and a softball team involving a number of the dancers from the Los Angeles area. Both teams were called the “Barecats.” Members of the softball team included: Jennie Lee, catcher; Frenchy Lavonne, pitcher; Dena Prince, 1st Base; Verena Dale, 2nd Base; Doreen Gray, 3rd Base; Margie Loy, shortstop; and Rusty Lane and others would fill in out in the outfield. They played at the Griffith Park softball diamond. In a brief article written on the group one reporter stated that the girls actually fielded the balls and batted pretty well. Apparently the reporter went to Griffith Park thinking he would not see any athletic skills. (It takes skill and athleticism to be a good dancer) When the Dodgers came to Los Angeles, Jennie Lee welcomed them to town. She appeared in her “Barecat” uniform representing the Exotic Dancers League softball team. Her photos appeared in both “Life” and “Sports Illustrated.”

In 1958 after seeing Jennie Lee perform at the New Follies Burlesk Theater in Los Angeles, Arnie Ginsberg took his idea for a song on Jennie to former high school classmates Jan Berry and Dean Torrance, of the pop group “Jan and Dean.” Arnie wrote much of the song and since Dean was heading into the Army Reserves, Arnie and Jan performed the song, which was produced by Joe Lubin for “Arwin Records.” The single “Jennie Lee” debuted in 1958 and peaked out at #8 on the charts.

It was in 1949 when Jennie married Daniel Lewis Wanick. Those closest to Jennie through out her lifetime, believe that Danny was the only man Jennie ever “truly loved.” Like many couples they had their ups and downs. Being separated for long periods of time while Jennie was on the road working, contributed to their problems. Wanick tried his hand at stand-up comedy but was unsuccessful, so by 1960 he was busy running a radio station in Santa Monica. Eventually the couple did separate, living apart from one another, yet they stayed in touch and never divorced. Friends say Jennie was devastated and inconsolable when told the news of Danny’s death in 1968. There was always a bond between the two and it was with the money Danny left Jennie at the time of his death that she bought her first club in San Pedro.

When not working on the burlesque stage Jennie tried her hand at legitimate theater roles and she also did some movie and television work. Jennie portrayed “Electra” in a production of “Gypsy” at “Melodyland”—an enormous theater in the round in Los Angeles. A starring role in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” at the “Off Sunset Theater” in Hollywood drew rave reviews in “Variety.” She also starred as the gun toting’ “Daisy Mae” in “She Dood it in Dixie.” Being on stage was what it was all about. “The applause is what you live for,” Jennie once said.

Jennie Lee and comic Little Jack LittleJennie Lee worked burlesque stages all over the United States and in several different countries as well, for 30 years. She did tours abroad working in Canada, Hawaii and the orient, working in such cities as Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Manila. Jennie also worked in Havana, Japan, England and Mexico. Whenever she toured, not wanting to miss the boys in uniform, she made appearances at the military camps. Jennie said she always considered herself a dancer first and that taking off her clothes interfered with that, but that’s the way she had to do it. “I had a natural rhythm and a nonchalant way of working—a smile and a little bounce. I was always sexy, but never vulgar.”

The burlesque museum Jennie created was not fully established until the year 1970. Sometimes her collection of burlesque memorabilia was located in a room in her home, or sometimes it was in a building across the road from one of the small clubs she owned. Over the years Jennie owned a couple of small clubs in San Pedro, “The Sassy Lassy” and “The Blue Viking,” and some of the “EDL” members continued working for her for years. She always did what she could to keep the dancers from burlesque together. They were friends and they understood one another. The last location for Jennie’s museum was an old goat farm. She purchased a 40-acre ranch outside Helensdale, California in the early 1980’s. Her plans for the ranch included a building for the museum, space for her school where she could continue to train a few young exotic dancers and a bed and breakfast. The ranch was to be called “Jennie Lee’s Exotic World.” The 40 acres would also provide her with the space she would need for the housing of former burlesque performers. She planned to do this at no cost to those who would live at the museum. But the museum itself was Jennie’s “baby”—it was her way of preserving the history of burlesque, keeping memories alive and keeping the old performers together.

Through out the years Jennie continued organizing yearly reunions that were held for the “EDL” members. The first was held in 1957. These reunions, or conventions as they were often called, were held for members or “honorary members” only—the public was not invited to attend. Many of Jennie’s goals were similar to those we have set up for "The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society.” Jennie Lee’s goals for the “EDL” included: having a museum; holding annual reunions or conventions, and possibly having a home for impoverished ex-burlesque performers. She also hoped to publish a monthly magazine and to sell photos of the former dancers to burlesque fans, attempting to help the dancers out with a little extra income. The similarities between the two groups are interesting to note. Our group hopes to create an archive to preserve the paper history from burlesque. (It would be nice to create a museum, but where should it be located?) We have held reunions or what we call “get-togethers” in California and Las Vegas. We also hope to sell photos for those old performers who need a little extra help financially. A newsletter was started for the members of the group back in 1995. Starting in 2003 it will be quarterly, just as I hope to create a quarterly newsletter for the fans of burlesque. AND we are ALWAYS looking for other old-time burlesque performers to become a part of our group—AS LONG AS THEY STARTED WORKING THE BURLESQUE STAGES BY OR BEFORE 1965. I was quite surprised when I saw how similar Jennie’s goals were to those of our group…a group that was created almost five years after her death.

It was because of Jennie Lee, because of her efforts and the “EDL” organization that so many of these performers continued to do things together after retiring from the burlesque stages. Jennie kept everyone together up until her death in 1990. For example, by 1983 Lili St. Cyr was already reclusive. She had never been very friendly with many of the other dancers, yet Jennie maintained a friendship with her over the phone wires. She would call to check up on Lili, to see if she ever needed anything. This was something Jennie did for a lot of people. She was also notorious about writing letters, not only to the other dancers but Jennie also stayed in touch with all of her fans over the years. She was also the ultimate promoter. Long after her career on the burlesque stage was over, Jennie kept her name and the names of other dancers “alive” and in the public eye. Jennie Lee was a very active woman—dancer, actress, designer, writer, labor leader, politician, businesswoman, producer, and pin-up queen—all this and more. She was especially proud of the fact that she had been elected and re-elected to the Los Angeles Branch Executive Committee of the American Guild of Variety Artists. She had also been an active member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild. And she was also elected President of the Hesperia Republican Women’s Club after her move to the high desert.

By the late 1980’s Jennie was not well. She had a partial mastectomy and 20 lymph nodes removed in 1987. For a woman who thought her figure was her most important asset, I’m sure this was not easy on her. But comments Jennie made were up beat. “Well its kind of hard to take for someone who has spent her life as a sex symbol…but hey, one is better than none, right?” Although everyone praised her courage and outward cheerfulness, it seems she was inwardly aware that she didn’t have long to live.

The cancer came back in May 1989, but was left untreated for several months. In a letter written on November 1, 1989 to close friend Patti Starr, Jennie wrote, “I have had a tumor come back in the same breast I had surgery on before. My chemotherapy doctor finally, at last, sent me for radiation. I also have a blocked vein that caused my whole arm and hand to swell up real big. But I feel better about things now since I have had ten straight days of radiation. The arm is finally going down and by Friday it should be ok. So I have been going through that and that’s why you have not heard from me, pal. A real close call but I feel better about it all now. Course now I can only go places on the weekend cause during the week I go daily for the radiation and I thank God for it!”

A letter that followed, written five days later, stated that Jennie was “not feeling so hot” and that the hand and arm were still badly swollen. The swelling had not gone down as she had thought it would. She continued keeping the other old dancers together however by having them come out to the ranch. Stacy Farrell recalled going out to the ranch to see Jennie a few weeks before she died. As sick as she was, Jennie still wanted to go out to eat. She loved going out to eat. Jennie was a strong woman through out her lifetime but at this point she was so weak Stacy had to cut her food for her and even help her to eat. Yet Jennie was still laughing and cheerful. That was the last time Stacy saw Jennie alive. As things progressed and Jennie got weaker, she could no longer care for herself. Old friend Nona Carver came in and cared for Jennie during her last days.

Jennie Lee never lived to see all of her dreams come true. Perhaps few of us ever do. She never lived long enough to create the “Jennie Lee’s Exotic World” that she had dreamed of. However she did enjoy being able to help out and supply background photos for the movie “Blaze” even though she was very ill at the time. Always the promoter Jennie wrote a letter to Liz Mauk, a PR woman out of neighboring Barstow, on January 7th, 1990, stating “I do not really encourage a lot of visitors, but I will open my burlesque museum up for guests, by appointment, if they write to me first.” No matter how sick Jennie was, she was determined to keep her museum open to the public—to educate and to entertain visitors about the golden age of burlesque.

Jennie once said, “Stripping is an art. It’s more than boobs and bottoms. You’ve got to have beauty of face, a figure and a talent. A good stripper has to master the art of the tease. She has to have a well-planned act that leaves the audience calling for “more” without becoming crude or vulgar. You also have to have showmanship, poise and publicity, after all you’re a professional entertainer.” Jennie had a fun loving nature and boundless energy. It’s likely she was highly competitive and had an ego to match. Some might even say she had a flamboyant personality at times. But after all, this was a woman who worked on a variety of burlesque stages for 30 years, and dealt with all kinds of people and situations. Yet Jennie also showed warmth, concern and understanding for others. She was fun to be with. She was an entertainer and a true showman to the very end. Even though Jennie Lee died over a decade ago, I believe that her spirit lives on, and that she is smiling down on “The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society,” wishing she were here enjoying good times and good memories with old friends.

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