Back in the fifties and sixties, there were twelve burlesque clubs in a six-block area of downtown Dallas, but the shows were a far cry from the featured entertainment of today’s “gentlemen’s clubs.” The teasing dancers took the moves in their routines seriously and wore elaborate dresses onstage. And, most surprisingly to today’s audiences, the girls almost never took it all off. They couldn’t even expose bare breasts. Instead, they stripped to G-strings and pasties, if that little, in accordance with the law. This was a completely different show, in an age when dancers’ names appeared in the newspapers, and Candy Barr was the most famous dancer in Texas.
The kings of this Dallas burlesque business were brothers Abe and Barney Weinstein, and their competition, Jack Ruby. The shiniest throne was the Colony Club, at 1322 Commerce. Abe ran the place from 1939 to 1973, using dancers who graduated from the burlesque school his brother conducted at Barney’s Theater Lounge. The most notable alumna was once a cigarette girl at the Theater Lounge who got spotted by Abe and transformed by the brothers into the Colony Club’s biggest draw: none other than Candy Barr.
Many girls had gimmicks. Before “unwrapping,” Barr performed in a cowgirl getup with cap guns at her sides. Other notable acts included Shari Angel, “The Heavenly Body” who would perform in the same lineup as her husband, comedian Wally Weston. And who could forget Chris Colt And Her 45’s?
In 1960 Ruby opened the Carousel—he owned other clubs in town—a couple doors down from the Colony Club and across the street from the upscale Hotel Adolphus. The Carousel was above a deli, and pictures of the performers hung above the entrance stairs. Ruby was envious of the pretense of class cultivated by the Colony Club and had a hard time recruiting high-caliber girls or comedic emcees. Ruby’s idea of sophistication was a club decor marked by plastic plated with faux gilt. The centerpiece of the Carousel was a huge gold painting of a stallion, and Ruby is often quoted to have deemed it “real class.”
The burlesque clubs were popular regardless of the illusion (or not) of class. It came as no surprise that crowds of fans in town for the football game between the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma would often join fraternity regulars from Dallas’s Southern Methodist University who were at the clubs every weekend.
Eventually, burlesque theaters transformed into gentlemen’s clubs. Many of the stage beauties had by then found drugs or religion, and an aging Abe Weinstein, recognizing that the golden years of burlesque culture were over, closed the Colony Club in 1973. It was the end of an era that drove Dallas society women crazy and won the hearts of men in the sexually repressed fifties and sixties. Dallas burlesque was a conflation of art, innuendo, money, and characters that could exist in no other time or place.
For more information, read Jack Ruby’s Girls, a chronicle by former dancers Diana Hunter and Alice Anderson; watch (if you can find it) the 1964 movie Naughty Dallas, with inside shots of the clubs in their heyday and acting by stripper Jada; and of course, dust off your old issues of Texas Monthly to read Gary Cartwright’s landmark Candy Barr story from December 1976 and Skip Hollandsworth’s encounter with her in September 2001. Or just browse the online archives.