Storm Still Packs a Wallop
Storm Still Packs a Wallop 1950s burlesque icon takes it off again for O'Farrell Theatre anniversary Steven Winn, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 1999
Take away the purple sequined gown, the purple velvet evening gloves and turkey feather boa, and "'Tempest Storm"' is just an old-fashioned woman.
A big fan of marriage -- she's had four -- Storm favors a little mystery when it comes to relations between the sexes. "I've always said that a woman's greatest weapon is a man's imagination," the 1950s burlesque queen said the other day, her lush carroty locks shimmering.
Storm may or may not be the world's oldest working stripper. She's coy about her age -- late 60s is a fair estimate -- but when she took the stage at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre on Tuesday night to mark the venue's 30th anniversary, everyone knew they were in the presence of an exotic dance icon.
The regular O'Farrell dancers gathered around the back of the house in their G-strings and bikini tops to watch. The Tuesday night crowd, who had just seen "the always hot and tempting Toni Roberts" perform some Olympic-quality maneuvers on a tall brass pole, blinked in their seats as the house lights came up.
Entering on the arm of San Francisco police commissioner Wayne Friday, there to present Mayor Willie Brown's proclamation of Tempest Storm Day, the slim Georgia-born Storm grinned and waved like a small-town beauty queen. Her smile was fixed on her face as firmly as her red-orange lip stick and deep eyeshadow.
"Is she beautiful or is she beautiful?" Friday asked.
The crowd replied with hoots and wolf whistles. Time stopped and ran backward a few decades. Then Storm went off and came back onstage and started to dance.
Growing up in the nowhere town of Eastman, Ga., Annie Banks dreamed of nights like this. Actually, she envisioned a lot more show-business dazzle than taped music, a drummer and a mirrored ball can provide. Burlesque was still going, albeit in decline, when Banks accepted a ride to Hollywood from a customer at the Columbus, Ga., coffee shop where she worked.
Not that she ever imagined taking her clothes off for a living. Banks was thinking movies, showgirls and high-style glamour when she arrived in California. "I had to conquer my own inhibitions," she said. But that all came later.
The "good-looking gentleman" from Georgia wasn't all that he seemed. Distressed by Banks' fondness for after-hours bull sessions with her colleagues at Simon's Drive-In in Hollywood, he pulled a gun on her one night and chased her over a neighbor's fence.
Banks went to work as a cocktail waitress, and another handsome customer suggested she try stripping at the theater across the street from his Los Angeles clothing store.
She demurred at first. Then she went to work at the theater as a chorus girl. Then management offered her a raise -- from $40 to $60 a week to display her soon-to-be-famous endowments -- that she couldn't refuse.
"I've always been a victim," Storm said, "of my own success."
One big break came in a spoof awards ceremony, featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Storm was singled out as the woman with the two biggest props in Hollywood.
In 1957, she signed a legendary contract in San Francisco that paid her $100,000 to tour the remnants of a once-flourishing burlesque circuit. Storm remembers headliner comics, live orchestras, a boudoir set with a chaise longue, mirrors and French windows for her act. The season ran from September through spring.
She played 2,500-seat houses and did four to six shows a day, seven days a week, for a while. But burlesque already was a dinosaur by the time she arrived. Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Lily St. Cyr, Helen (Treasure Chest) West: The names mark the end of an era.
All but Storm have disappeared. She's survived by doing Nevada hotel shows, cable TV specials, college tours and follies revivals on a mix of drive, an unshakable disposition, diet and exercise, and a benign imperviousness to social change. She told her story in a 1987 book, "The Lady Is a Vamp."
"Maybe I'm old-fashioned when it comes to romance," Storm said, "but I think most women are basically exotic dancers. They can entertain their boyfriends with candlelight dinners and make it very sensuous and sexy." She met her current beau after turning down his first few dinner invitations.
Storm may be one of the few women left who will give her measurements in an interview: 40-21-34. She's 5-foot-6 and weighs 110 pounds. As for that other number, her age: "It's unlisted."
When it comes to marketing her self, Storm is up-to-date. She's working on an exercise video and a cookbook, "Hot and Spicy." Her 35-year- old daughter, a lapsed erotic dancer who once played the O'Farrell as Summer Storm, lives in Indiana and wants to be a nurse.
Chambers recalls the O'Farrell's glory days. "Door," made for $60,000, grossed $25 million and rocket-launched Jim and Artie Mitchell's pornography empire and splashy lifestyle. It all crash-landed in February 1991, when Jim Mitchell shot his brother Artie to death in Corte Madera. Jim served three years in San Quentin for voluntary manslaughter and was released in 1997.
But this week, once more, Tempest Storm is the big name on the marquee.
Storm's artistic credo means never doing anything onstage that would embarrass another woman, and she's true to her word. Through "Stormy Weather," a disco "Evita" and Sinatra's "New York, New York," she wriggles, shimmies and flutters. She uses her hands and elbows more than the other dancers, moving more and for twice as long as women 40 years her junior.
When Storm takes something off -- her gown, one of several bras or multiple bottom layers -- she's likely to put something else back on. She twirls into an enormous ruffled negligee that looks like something a toreador's bride might wear on her wedding night. She bares her breasts and almost everything else, and pulls a white boa from the wings to play peekaboo with what's left.
Her skin puckers and sags just a little here and there. Her movements can get a little creaky. But Storm hasn't lost an ounce of know- how. Slipping a boa around one front-row patron's neck, she slides it back and forth and pulls him in for a brief, closer look.
"That's all," she whispers. The gentleman sits back down.
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