An elderly gentleman rules a world where almost everything meets the eye. Partly due to him the moribund art of strip tease still lingers.
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Now, in his 77th year, C. A. “Pappy” Dolsen spends his days ministering to the needs of his four dogs, four cats, and 24 girls. With almost 60 years connected with show business behind him, many of them as a night club owner and theatrical agent, the last twenty as virtually the only manager of strip tease dancers in Dallas, Pappy has become something of a venerable institution. His continued activity and alertness is a testament to the benefits of smoking cigars, staying up late, hanging out in night clubs and low dives, preferring the ribald to the chaste, and seeking the company of young women.
Which is not to say that Pappy is fit as a fiddle. His walk is a slow, stiff shuffle; the sleek, rotund body of his younger days has withered to frail bones; and sitting down or standing up are difficult processes. None of this is unusual in men of advancing years, but age would not grip Pappy the way it does even now if he hadn’t been accidently run over by a car about four years ago. The car ran completely over him, breaking and crushing bones, and put Pappy in the hospital for months. So, relatively speaking, Pappy is pretty spry; his painstaking walk, after recovering from such an accident, is not so much evidence of physical decline as proof of the man’s essential liveliness and vigor.
After knocking around in his earlier years at a variety of jobs, including working as a comic in a burlesque house, Pappy opened his first club—La Boheme—in 1924. Dallas was a wilder, more open city in those days, with steady crap games running here and there around the city and a bookie parlor on most downtown streets. By the early Thirties La Boheme had metamorphosized into Pappy’s 66, which he ran in partnership with Benny Binion, later founder of the Horseshoe in Las Vegas. In those days Pappy had what might be called connections; they allowed Pappy’s to open at midnight and stay open until daybreak. As times changed, Pappy’s clubs changed. After the War he and his partner Abe Weinstein opened what was to be his largest, most popular, and least lucrative club of all—Pappy’s Showland.
Today, looking through the large scrapbook Pappy has started putting together, it seems impossible that anything like Pappy’s Showland will ever exist again. Several 8 x 10 glossy photographs in that scrapbook show a large, high-ceilinged rectangular room with an elaborate stage halfway down the longer wall, a stage large enough for a full orchestra plus plenty of room for a singer, tap dancers, or a stripper. In front of the stage is a dance floor surrounded by hundreds of round tables, large enough for six or eight people and all with white tablecloths. Two, sometimes, 3000 people would show up on Saturday night to be entertained by some of the best talent of the period. Both Dorsey brothers played there, as did the Ink Spots, Spike Jones, Emmett Kelly, Henny Youngman, and Bob Hope. By the time the place closed in the middle Fifties, Pappy had lost over $1100,000. That was when he started managing talent full time.
There is still a large listing for the Pappy Dolsen Theatrical Agency in the yellow pages of the Dallas phone book, but Pappy does most of his business nowadays from his home, a medium-sized bungalow not far from Love Field. The front door opens on what was intended to be a small living room. In it are a few scattered books and chairs and a small wooden table which Pappy uses as a desk. Behind him are a set of sliding glass doors. He can turn his chair away from his desk and look out on the back yard where his small dogs and cats spend much of their time lying in the shade of a stone bench. The tools of Pappy’s trade are few. A telephone is the only essential he cannot carry with him. The other essentials are a little black book (literally), with the phone numbers of the girls he manages and the numbers of the four clubs where he books their acts, and a list of the dancers still working in the area for reference. Except for some bookkeeping paraphernalia which his ex-wife manages for him, that’s it
“I can watch a girl for one minute,” Pappy told me, “and tell within $5 how much she can make as a dancer.”
A Siamese cat jumped on the corner of Pappy’s desk and eyed me as it licked a rear paw.
“If a girl wants to get started in the business,” Pappy went on, “she may call me or she may tell one of the club owners and he’ll tell her to contact me. I’ve got kind of an amateur show I do over at the Athens Strip on Sunday afternoon. I tell the girl to show up there and if she does all right, she can start dancing.”
What’s it take to make a good stripper?
“Oh, it’s like anything else. It takes a gimmick. Some girls are beautiful and that’s their gimmick. But you’ve got to have, you know, something to set you apart. I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t think a girl should take everything off. After you’ve seen it all, what mystery’s left? Why come back?”
Pappy picked his cigar off the edge of the table and shoved it into his mouth. The cigar had never been lit, but several inches of the butt had been chewed into a flat moonscape of hundreds of tooth marks. Juice from countless such cigars had stained his teeth and lips. But Pappy has a full head of white hair, large eyes, a ruddy complexion, and an expression that is either straightforward and confident or buoyant and funny. The total effect is pretty captivating. Pictures of Pappy ten, twenty, 30 years ago show a very different looking man. The white hair is there always, looking thick and luxuriant under the hair cremes of the Forties, and the cigar is always there, too, though it is lit more often than not. What makes him seem so different is the fullness of his face and the barrel chest and the general impression of a much more vigorous, even aggressive man.
Pappy knew Jack Ruby pretty well. “He was a doublecrosser. He always wanted to get the best of you. I was watching TV and there he was and the next thing I knew this place was full of FBI agents . . . His club was okay but he was pretty big on the champagne racket. [In some clubs girls try to get customers to buy magnums of (supposedly) champagne at outrageous prices; last year in Fort Worth one such place presented a customer with a $30,000 bill for his evening’s entertainment] and if one of the girls found a really good mark, Jack’d do the ring bit. He’d give her a cheap ring and she’d go back to the mark and tell him some story and sell it to him for all she could get. Then she and Jack’d split the money. That’s the kind of place he ran.”
Pappy’s working day doesn’t begin until the early afternoon, when he opens his black book, readies his cigar, and starts making phone calls. “You’ve got to call these girls. They’ll never call you. They could leave town and never let you know.” When a girl who was supposed to dance that night can’t or won’t, Pappy has to find a substitute. Sometimes he can find a girl who isn’t working to fill in; but, since the number of strippers is on the decline, more frequently he has to find someone to double, to dance in two different clubs on the same night. The girl makes twice as much money, but she also has the aggravation of driving back and forth time and time again lugging her costumes with her both ways. They don’t like to do it.
By six, Pappy has left his house and started his rounds. Nearly every night he visits each of the four clubs in Dallas where he books girls. He’s watching out for their interests and his own. With 50 years of nightlife behind him, Pappy seldom sleeps until the morning’s wee, wee hours even on those occasions when he leaves his rounds early and goes home.
Pappy’s been married twice. His first wife is still alive, as mentioned before, but his second wife has died as has Pappy’s only child, a daughter. His girls and his pets are all he has to care for.
I don’t remember the first time I saw a burlesque show but I certainly remember where—on the corner of 12th and Central in Kansas City, Missouri, at the Follies Theater. I went there now and then with small groups of high school friends during the late Fifties and early Sixties.
The theater was a cavernous brown-stone building, which had seen the heyday of burlesque come and go. Just inside the front door a rheumy, pleurisied ticket seller sat behind a cage. A sign hung near him saying “No one under 21 admitted.” Since our little groups of high school boys were nowhere near 21, we stood one by one in front of the ticket taker’s rheumy gaze and tried to pretend we weren’t relieved at all when his eyes lowered and his shaking, shriveled hand reached for our money.
About five feet to the left of the ticket seller, another man, old and dirty and frail, for all practical purposes the identical twin of the ticket seller, sat by the door that led to the theater proper. On the floor to his right was a spittoon. On his left stood a card table which held an ashtray and a cigar box. This man took our tickets, ripped them in half, dropped one half into the cigar box and returned the other half to us. We took it, guiltily, and dropped it surreptitiously once we were past him and covered by the dark of the theater. High school legends told of the careless student whose mother had found a Follies ticket stub in a pocket in his bluejeans.
Of the dancers who performed there I remember only one. She continued there for weeks and weeks billed as “The Girl Who Said ‘No’ to Frank Sinatra.” She wasn’t bad looking as I recall, but the main reason for her continued popularity with us high school boys, as well as with the bald-headed, stooped old men that surrounded us in the audience, was that she could be counted on to take off every stitch of her clothes every time she danced. As she removed her G-string she would reinforce her billing by exclaiming “No! No! No!” in high-pitched little chirps while the three-man orchestra rose to the occasion with a pounding, over-fast version of “Bali Hai.”
The show lasted about two hours, which meant that by ten o’clock we were out on the streets again—faced, individually and collectively, with the question. What Now? None of us had access to what we then considered some of the more exotic sexual acts available to men and women, things like lying naked in the same bed, and whatever sexual mysteries we had unveiled in furtively parked cars or on living room couches (which risked awakening a parent and drawing him, or her, to the living room; far better to be caught with a stub from the Follies Theater in the pocket of your jeans), those sweet mysteries were far from our grasp on a given night at ten o’clock. We rode about the town, grumbling, or went to someone’s house to play cards or went home one by one, disappearing into neat, comfortable houses where G-strings and baggy-pants comedians and smelly old men were simply unthinkable, houses which made our ever finding a woman seem as unlikely as starvation.
In four years of high school we probably went to the Follies an average of once a year. It took about a year to forget the stink of the bathroom urinal, the sticky carpet, and the clinging, sticky seats. And it took about a year for the hope to return that the girls in the show would be dazzling beauties all. Strangely none of the girls seemed beautiful. They weren’t ugly, they just weren’t our style. The thought of a girl who had said no to Frank Sinatra didn’t strike any amorous chord with us. What we wanted to see was a girl who had said no to Elvis, a girl who looked good in blue jeans and a man’s shirt and danced to rock n’ roll rather than Rodgers and Hammerstein, a girl who seemed more like one of us. The women at the Follies wore long, beaded gowns and elaborately styled hair and most of their dance steps would have been acceptable in the grand ballroom of the refined Muehlebach Hotel just two blocks away.
Whatever glamor burlesque may once have had was largely glamor reflected from the movies. Certainly burlesque had its own traditions, slang, costumes; but the dancers in their glittering gowns and spike heels and bright red lipstick were imitating what were then the most frequent objects of men’s fantasies—movie stars. Strippers who could claim the least resemblance to the likes of Lana Turner or Ava Gardner or Marilyn Monroe exploited that resemblance shamelessly, so that burlesque was, even then, just what the name implies—a ribald parody. But the parody, and the ribaldry, was no longer reflecting the right image. The Lana Turners and Ava Gardners and even Marilyn Monroes, as far as we were concerned, fell into roughly the same category as the girl who said no to Frank Sinatra. The first movie star I remember any of us discussing in hushed, lustful tones was Brigitte Bardot. The old conventions of burlesque, the bumps and grinds to foxtrot rhythms, could not absorb her petulant, nymphette style.
Enter go-go. It was the first exploitation of the radical change in men’s taste in women, or at least in fantasy women, that was as much a symptom of the Sixties as drugs and long hair and angry political marches. Unlike stripping, go-go (and its saucier mutation, topless) took no special training for a girl who had learned to dance in high school mixers any time after 1960. It required no expensive costumes, no band (since dancing to the current music was the whole idea), and it was essentially anonymous. The girls followed one another unannounced to the small go-go stage to dance their share of records. It was a job girls could fade into and out of, working one place then another, whenever they needed the money.
In the Sixties, when people dropped out of college at the slightest excuse or hitchhiked to San Francisco or moved from place to place following political movements, dancing became a frequent occupation among nomadic, counterculture women. A stripper of the old school dancing in a tight, spaghetti-strap gown and a lacquered wig, no matter how pretty she might really have been, couldn’t begin to match the appeal of these newcomers, these girls from next door, who nonetheless danced with an amateur dancer’s ecstatic abandon while their long hair billowed about their necks and shoulders. Naturally their boyfriends tended to be longhaired dope smokers; that was only to be expected. The real proof of change in men’s tastes was the lines of somewhat older men in pinstripe suits and wing-tip brogans which in ’66 and ’67 formed night after night before the topless clubs in San Francisco. There the price of two thin drinks allowed the customer to ogle anonymous “Topless College Coeds” or, even more to the point, “Topless Hippies.” In American male fantasies, rock n’ roll woman had replaced Hollywood woman.
Of course that heyday has passed as well. The world of fantasy females is either preparing something unseen just around the corner, as it was when I was seeing the No No girl, or else that world is in for a long decline. Either way, go-go dancers and the strippers they supplanted are vanishing breeds going the way of all flesh. In 1960 Pappy managed over 50 girls; today he has less than 25.
“I think of it as an art.” That’s what nearly every stripper in Dallas will tell you. “I don’t get up there just to take my clothes off; I think of it as an art.” Well, maybe. I saw certain acts that I would probably defend as being exactly what tradition would say they were—burlesque. One Eve Eden appears on the stage dressed completely in yellow and parades around to old Harry Bellefonte records about loading de bananas “six foot, seven foot, eight foot, bunch!” Then she sits down on a wicker chair and picks a banana from a straw basket and, holding it before her, begins using the banana as a symbol(!) of a particular sexual accouterment. Her G-string, one discovers later in the act, is also yellow and has a picture on it of a very happy, little banana. I liked that act for its completeness of conception and attention to detail.
Shanee, a stripper who is also a woman’s karate champion and trainer of pit bulldogs, comes on the stage dressed in a spangled cowboy outfit, smoking a cigar and twirling a pistol. She dances to songs like “Long Tall Texan” and struts around the stage shouting at the men, “See my six shooter. It’s a lot better than the snubnosed single shot you’ve got,” and whatever other bon mots that come to mind. She take a long glove and drapes it over the top of one of her immense breasts and then, believe it or not, she flips the glove from breast to breast, flips it from one breast up over the cigar she is still smoking and then flips it off the cigar down to the other breast. Then comes the finale. She stands near a corner of the stage where there is a post with a hook for the dancers to hang their clothes as they remove them. As the record ends, she flips the glove from one breast to the other, then uses that breast to flip the glove over the hook. She times all this so perfectly that the glove settles over the hook the precise moment the music stops. So maybe that’s art, if you approach it with just the right attitude.
And another girl, Chastity Fox, dances with such grace and looks so beautiful doing it that to get all embroiled trying to define what she does is, I don’t know, why bother? (Chastity may be moving beyond stripping. She has a part in Jack Ruby, All-American Boy, the Dallas Theater Center’s play for which she also choreographed the dance numbers.)
Strippers say that doing what they do makes them “feel free.”
Strippers also say that off the stage they are “modest”. I first heard about this claim to modesty from Miss Sunny West who just moments before had disappeared into her dressing room and emerged with a back issue of Texas Monthly. She returned to our table and began reading a story I had written. After a few moments, I said, “Hey, listen, no kidding, don’t read that now. It’s awful to have to sit here and watch you read that.” “Why?” she said, “You’re going to watch my act.” An impressive reply, no doubt about it, and such a confident one that, perhaps in miffed retaliation, I decided I didn’t believe this modesty bit. But during her act, while the photographer was taking pictures for this story, she was nervous and short of breath dancing before the camera, and later, shooting more casual poses in the dressing room, she was once again flustered and shy. And, well, modest.
And the only other truism I could discover was that most of the girls met their boyfriends or husbands someplace other than the places where the girls worked. Or if they had met their man in one of the bars, he either worked there or owned the place. Basically, most of them thought the life they led outside of the bars was their real life and liked to keep it as separate as they could. To find a boyfriend from among the great mass of customers would be an uncomfortable melding of their real life with their stripping life.
I had hoped to pick up some exotic striptease lingo, but exotic lingo of any kind turned out to be in short supply. I already knew what pasties and G-strings were (pasties are small cones worn to conceal nipples; if you don’t know what a G-string is, where you been?); the old stripping faithfuls, bump and grind, are still current parlance; I discovered a not especially flattering term, hard dicks, used to describe customers who sit around the very edge of the stage; I learned the truly great- word “bumblepuppy” which means a girl just starting out who can’t dance very well; and some costumes are made of “black-light satin,” a name that single-handedly evokes the whole ambience of strip tease. But that’s it for lingo. The dance, after all, isn’t a verbally oriented art.
And I even managed to shove through my throat the classic male inquiry, “What’s a nice girl like you…” And most of the time they had just floated into town without any money or any plans in particular and knew someone who was stripping or otherwise just fell into it. One girl’s mother used to make dancer’s costumes, another girl had run away from a well-off family in Oklahoma, and another’s older sister was already a stripper and began dancing on a dare. (“They were saying I had ugly titties and I knew that wasn’t true. I’ve always had the prettiest titties.”) And for her efforts an average dancer earns $170-200 a week.
Strippers can have an almost hypnotic effect on other women. Miss Tiki Time the Texas Time Bomb (who by the way wins hands down the Best Stage Name in the Metroplex contest, although a close runner-up would be Shandra Leere of Fort Worth who dances with five boa constrictors draped over her shoulders) says, “Ninety per cent of the women don’t see anything good you do because the men have already seen it. If the man says ‘Doesn’t she have pretty eyes?’ the woman says, ‘Yeah, but she’s got skinny legs.’” It does not behoove me to argue, but the three best clubs in Dallas—the Athens Strip, the Busy Bee, and the Diamond Doll—attract a considerable number of couples and, judging by the expressions on faces and the volume of applause, I think most of the women were enjoying what they saw.
Which is to say nothing of the personal effect strippers can have on women. One night some friends (a stockbroker and his wife and an artist and his wife) met me late in the evening at the Diamond Doll. Neither of the women had ever seen a strip. They are both intelligent, and appealing, on one side or the other of 30. Tiki Time, who is about their age sat with us at our table. She sized up the situation immediately and started talking about her husband and her kids and her neighbors’ reactions. The two women were enthralled with her. “It’s just something I could never do,” one said. “I think it’s wonderful that you’re free enough that you can do it.” And then they began talking about various theories of child-raising and how they related to stripping. “Now, if someone tells my little child ‘Your mama takes her clothes off in a room,’ what is the child going to think? The only rooms he’s ever seen are like living rooms and I don’t go around taking my clothes off in living rooms. I’ve showed my children what I wear when I work and they know it’s all right.” And you could almost watch dawning in my friends’ eyes the conception of a totally different life, one that included husband and children and a house but also included staying up late in bars talking to whomever you wanted to and getting on a stage to take off your clothes, and those two women ended up in positive awe. They were practically apologizing to Tiki that they weren’t strippers and when the lights went up at closing time they hugged Tiki and told her how much they thought of her. “They were all nice people,” Tiki said later. But walking to their cars in the parking lot both my friends said that she does something they could never do, which perhaps was the fascination and hold Tiki had on them.
And to round out this discussion of hearth and home I suppose I should include a single word from a long conversation I had with Chastity Fox’s husband, Danny. Now, there’s no doubt that Chastity is the best dancer among Dallas strippers and while Danny and I talked she performed long series of elaborate spins, her arms weaving through the air like graceful snakes and her auburn hair flowing in her wake. In the next moment, as Maria Muldaur sang, “Don’t you feel my leg, don’t you feel my leg” Chastity lifted her leg into the smoky, red light and, as her skirt slipped down inch by inch, ran long fingers coyly down her thigh. “Danny,” I said, “this isn’t the kind of thing I would ask you if we’d just met in normal circumstances but… well, you know, your wife dances all around and there’re guys all over the city that come to lust over her and . . . well, what do you feel about that?” Now, Danny is a sensible, articulate, likeable man who has a lot of good ideas about a lot of things, but on this occasion he leaned a shade farther back in his chair and a single corner of his mouth raised in the very beginning of a smile. “Nuthin’,” he said.
Later, when Chastity came back to the table after her act, her hand sought out Danny’s and they sat together answering my questions.
The only really important question is what stripping does in the long run. You can see some pathetic cases, women who have passed over some line as the years went by who now dance listlessly waiting for the end, their breasts sagging, and waists grown thick. Maybe if they hadn’t gotten into stripping they would never have been alone and growing ugly. Maybe they would have been living in a house in the suburbs with a boy who needed to be driven to little league and a girl who needed to be driven to tap dancing. Or maybe they would have been alone, but working as cashiers in cafeterias or salesclerks in department store basements or typists in mail order insurance companies. For some people not a single alternative sounds very appealing. Strippers by and large have given up the steady dullness of an ordinary job for the unsteady shimmer of a job that sets them apart. In that sense, I suppose they are artists and their whims, irreverences, and deep depressions cause Pappy the same kind of aggravations suffered by magazine editors and movie directors. They are the strangest women I’ve ever met: blatant, cunning, coy, wary, teasing, helpless, tough. And I remain as confused about them now as I was late one night at the Diamond Doll when I stood up as part of some grand gesture of chivalry to a departing dancer and fell backward over my own chair.