Tempest Storm Interview
Tempest Storm: Legend
- INTERVIEW BY NEIL WEXLER
- PHOTOS BY Warren Tang
Tempest Storm is the one of the great and true stars of classic burlesque. Her life has been as dramatic as any prime-time mini-series. Born Annie Blanche Banks, she over-came a poverty-stricken upbringing in rural Georgia, a lack of education, and a gang-rape by local roughnecks to eventually escape to California, where she went from being a cocktail waitress to a chorus girl and then to meteoric success as a headliner from 1951 on. "You're a natural born tease," her mentor, agent and choreographer Lillian Hunt, told her. In the 50s her magnificent breasts were insured for $1 million by Lloyds of London. Tempest is a Cinderella who went to the ball and managed to stay there—because unlike the fairy tail character, she didn't depend on a prince to keep her in glass slippers, but always made her own way even when she was involved with men like Mickey Rooney, Elvis Presley, Senator John F. Kennedy, Vic Damone, Englebert Humperdinck, Michael Wilding, Hugh O'Brien, and others. Whereas her contemporaries on the exotic dance scene have retired, she's continued to perform in burlesque revues and revivals in Vegas, Tahoe, Reno, and across the country—she's truly the last of the big-timers. She details her colorful life and loves in her 1987 autobiography The lady is a Vamp, which is available through her fan club;
- Tempest Storm Fan Club, P.O. Box 190968, Atlanta, GA 31119-0968.
Despite global fame and a reputation as one of the sexiest performers ever, Tempest is down-to-earth in person. Write to her, or be sure to say hello when she makes appearances at events like Glamourcon in L.A. When you talk to this charming, soft-spoken goddess, you'll understand why once she gets a fan, he's her fan forever!
Leg Show: For this interview, Tempest, let's concentrate on some of the lesser known aspects of your career. You did movies and stills for fetish-photo king Irving Klaw, who did so much work with Bettie Page. When was that?
Tempest Storm: '51 or '52.
Leg Show: How did the two of you connect? Did he come to one of your shows?
Tempest: Lillian Hunt was my agent at the time; she was a choreographer and producer at the Follies Theater on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, and she did all my bookings for me. I had just signed a six-year contract with her, and she negotiated all of my business deals and bookings.
Leg Show: So you just did that one movie for him, Teaserama, and some stills? [Author's note: Teaserama is available on cassette from Something Weird Video.
Tempest: Right. And now it's come back to haunt me! Looking at some of those pictures from that time, my hair, my makeup, I say — "Oh lord!" But I guess that was the fashion then. I'm my own worst critic; no matter how great anything comes out, I'm never satisfied.
Leg Show: You have a scene in Teaserama with Bettie where she's your maid and helping you dress. There's one especially cute moment where she's helping you put on very long gloves. What was it like working with her?
Tempest: She was very nice. A lot of people think we kept in touch, but that was the first time I met her and the last time I saw her.
Leg Show: Besides Klaw, you worked for other photographers, too.
Tempest: I worked with John Reed, Bernard of Hollywood, and Maurice Seymour in New York. I used to have a lot of stuff, the pictures from when I first started, but some of it was destroyed a few years ago in a storage company fire...Russ Meyer took a lot of pictures of me. He was a very nice guy; 1 got along with everybody.
Leg Show: You were always good-natured?
Tempest: When everything was going right! (Laughs)
Leg Show: What would happen when things went wrong?
Tempest: I would blow up, I had a bad temper. Like when I was traveling on the road—even though I don't read music, I expected it to be perfect. If one note of music would go wrong,I would scream! I had a lot of musicians—whole orchestras sometimes—who wanted to take off when I came in for a week. So I had to put it in my contract- no body gets a day off, I made it hard on them. Oh, I was terrible.,.Nobody's perfect, but you strive for perfection, like this shoot for LEG SHOW—I wanted it to come out perfect! I guess I'm to hard on myself.-but that's probably why I've stayed on top ail these years. You have to fight to get there, and then you have to fight to stay there, it's like relationships—if, after they get their men, women would continue to do all the things they did to each the guys in the first place, there wouldn't be so many divorces.
Leg Show: When you yourself were married, did you work at keeping up the spice?
Tempest: Sure, but I had the problem that these men were so insanely jealous! No one ever hit me, but I was mentally abused. But I 'em as good as they dished out. Because I always said, "A man who would ever hit me—one of us would be dead." The problem was that they couldn't accept my profession.
Leg Show: Would you say that most of the men you got closely involved with were jealous?
Tempest: Yes, right.
Leg Show: Well, were there any exceptions?
Tempest: There were a few, like Englebert Humperdinck, but my career was riding too high, and I didn't want to get too seriously involved with him, though I adored him.
Leg Show: You were very driven to success, and have lasted whereas most of your con- temporaries fell by the wayside. What motivated you?
Tempest: I'd had a hard life. But I had a lot of guts—leaving home when I was fourteen years old, going to Macon, Georgia, then Columbus, Georgia, then California...I had a driving ambition to get out of the environment I was in. I never doubted myself at all; I said, "I'm going to make it!" I said, "Gravity's not going to get me, I'm going to stay in the air forever!" I loved my work, and I wanted to be out in the public; it's been my whole life. My career always came first. I guess to a certain point some of these relationships going down the drain was probably my fault, but I came from a small town, a poor family, and I never wanted to see those days again. When I left home, I didn't want to go back home to let my mother know I was a failure. There were days in Columbus, Georgia, when I didn't have food, but rather than go home I toughed it out—sure I wanted men to do things for me, and buy me all these gorgeous things, but at the same time I wanted to be independent, on my own.
Leg Show: Maybe that's also what was threatening to them, and fueled their jealousy, especially in those pre-feminist times.
Tempest: You have to have your own life. [Burlesque promoter and theater owner] Marty Caplan was the last person I was really seriously involved with—he passed away in 1986. I sort of gave up my career at that time, only taking certain jobs, like the show Burlesque USA in '81, or one at the Reno Hilton in '85. We were together ten years and he was a multi-millionaire, and even though we weren't married, naturally you expect that the years together meant something...not that money's everything, but it's important...while he was here, he gave me everything, and we had great fun, but he left this world like I never existed. He didn't leave me anything. It was devastating. He'd kept saying, "Don't worry about anything, I'll take care of you." So I have become very hard on men now when I meet them, because I said I will not let that happen again. I'm involved with someone now, and he takes care of me.
Leg Show: What was it like being with all those famous men, from Mickey Rooney to Elvis Presley to Englebert to Trini Lopez?
Tempest: In those years I was too caught up in my career. I enjoyed being with them, we had a lot of fun, but I felt I was as big a star as they were.
Leg Show: Did being a stripper enter into your sexual life? For example, did you ever strip for your lovers?
Tempest: Most of the time I left that in the theater, but I did go out with a couple of men who'd say, "Someday you'll have to do a strip for me." And said, "Yeah, I'll have to have certain spotlights, certain gels, all this lingerie.,.I'll have to have the orchestra..." (Laughs) This man I'm presently involved with, he'd never seen me work, so one night I put on all this frou-frou, all these feathers and everything, and he sat in the living room when I came in...it was hysterical!
Leg Show: I read that you'd lose weight from your energetic performances. A 1955 article by Hyman Goldberg in the New York Sunday Mirror Magazine said: "She's more violent when she takes off her clothes in public, and her facade is more sensational, than that of most young ladies in her line of endeavor. 'Some nights,' she says, 'I lose five to six pounds during a performance because I am so violent in my dancing. And I've overheard women seeing me perform say, "If I didn't see it with my own two eyes, I wouldn't believe it was possible."
Tempest: Ohmigod, I never saw that write-up! I used to come off stage just dripping with perspiration. One time in San Francisco at the Mitchell Brothers. Theater, they had a press conference planned after the first show, but when I came off in this gorgeous negligee, the perspiration was rolling off my face! But it's interesting and sexy when you see the perspiration, especially when your body gets a shine from the spotlights...the Mitchell Brothers. thought I was on drugs the first time I danced for them in 1979. I said, "Listen, I have never touched a drug in my life, not even a marijuana cigarette." And they said, "Now, Tempest..." And I said, "Not me, I get high off a life!" And they said, "You'll never make us believe you're not on some kind of drug! Because you're on such a high!"
Leg Show: So your dancing retained that violent feeling through the years.
Tempest: Right, especially doing drum solos. Of course, the theaters had all gone to tape by this time, but they always hired this drummer—he used to play for Bette Midler, he was fabulous—to enhance the music for me. By the third number, they would stop the tape and I'd do a drum solo-twenty minutes!
Leg Show: Was any of this filmed?
Tempest: No, I don't think so—you know, I once had a reporter ask me in San Francisco—Cynthia Robbins, in 1987 when my book came out—"Do you think you would have chosen another career if all the things hadn't happened to you, like the gang rape? Perhaps you're getting even with what these men did to you, by going into this type of profession? You're in control, but they can't touch you." That made sense.
Leg Show: A 1958 clip from Variety said the following: "TEMPEST'S 2 G-STRING FOR 52nd STREET ROUTINE. NY's 52nd St. spots are starting to make with the tall coin for name strips...A high on that lane for a shedder is being spent by the Continental which has Tempest Storm booked at a record breaker for NY — $2000." What was it like performing on that late, lamented honky-tonk lane?
Tempest: It was a great experience. A lot of stars used to come in to see me when I played there—Johnny Mathis, Johnny Ray. I love New York, spent a lot of time there—When I worked at the Hudson Theater in Union City, I used to stay at the Plaza or the St. Moritz. As a matter of fact, Walter Winchell and I used to run into each other at the St. Moritz because he always kept a room there. He was my biggest booster...we were good friends. When I did an act in Las Vegas in 1957, starring at Minsky's, he used to fly in to see me every weekend, because according to newspaper clippings I had the most sinful act in Vegas. Probably wouldn't make a dent now with all the stuff that's going on...I had two guys in the act with me, and at that time it was sort of taboo. I pioneered all this risque, sexual stuff that's going on now.
Leg Show: Mickey Rooney was your first celebrity romance. It was memorable the way you described in your book how he liked to press his face into your breasts.
Tempest: Oh, he was entertaining. He was a lotta laughs.
Leg Show: You wrote that Trini Lopez got into the whole high heel and stocking thing.
Tempest: We had a great time. I'll never forget all mirrors in his suite at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas...
Leg Show: He'd watch you walking around?
Tempest: Yeah, in stockings, garter belts...! always liked that sexy stuff. I keep lots of lingerie. It makes me feel good about myself.
Leg Show: Did your fans express their fetish fantasies to you?
Tempest: I used to do a garter belt and stocking number, I'd disrobe, there was a chaise lounge, mirrors, a French boudoir set. But when I stopped doing it, I used to get a lot of letters asking, "When are you going to use the stockings and garters again?"
Leg Show: What was it like performing at Carnegie Hall in 1973? I read that you were allowed" to perform there only if you didn't give any pre-show publicity.
Tempest: Exactly. Well, at first the big shots thought I was a singer! I was in Louisville, Kentucky, and during an interview was asked where I was going to be next. I said I was going to be on a college tour with the rock group the James Gang and one of the nights we would play in Carnegie Hall. The reporter looked at me and said, "Oh, sure." But then they called Carnegie Hall. Some girl who answered the phone said, "We don't have no stripper booked here! We got the James Gang!" Well, the big wheels there said I could work, if there was no publicity, it did get into the Carnegie Hall magazine, though, Were they realized who I was. But after the show, they wanted some 8x10s and to come back and meet me, "Tell her she's gorgeous, her act is fabulous!" but I said, "You tell those hypocrites I don't want anything [to do with them]!"
Leg Show: You've spoken about the stigma that is attached to the profession of stripper. Did that ever change for you over the years as you became more established?
Tempest: I don't think it ever went away. Even with all the nudity in clubs and motion pictures...it's hard for people to think there can be ladies in this business. Anyway, it was really great touring with the James Gang for six weeks. But I was banned from Valparaiso University in Indiana where we were supposed to perform five days later. This Lutheran disc jockey called and made a commotion, yelling, "What makes you think you're going to come into this city and take your clothes off?" So they wouldn't let me work. They didn't even want me putting my foot inside the theater! They almost had a riot because they'd advertised me and I didn't perform.
Leg Show: Well, where else did you perform in New York in recent years?
Tempest: I have some matches here from the Melody Burlesque with my pictures on them...I ran across them the other day. And in '76 I performed at Show World. That was an experience. I was shocked—I followed an act with five girls doing all kinds of things with each other! I said, "This is what happened to burlesque?" But they were standing in line for me, because it had come out about me and John F. Kennedy. Every show was standing room only.
Leg Show: You had an affair with him when he was a Senator. What do you remember about Kennedy today?
Tempest: He was a great man, and we had a lot of fun together. But it was nothing serious — it just ran its course when I was in Washington. But he certainly didn't have a back problem! (Laughs)
Leg Show: Over the years, do you see some of the same fans coming to your shows?
Tempest: Oh sure. I recognize a lot of them. There was one in San Francisco who used to bring me a basket of fruit every opening day. He was a Chinese guy, very charming little old man. And when last time I was there he didn't show up, I said he must have passed away.
Leg Show: Tell us about another memorable fan.
Tempest: I had one from Tokyo who had admired me for many years. I met him in Pittsburgh in the 60s. I was coming out of my hotel, and he introduced himself and said, "I'd like to bring you to Tokyo. Who's your manager?" I said, "My husband." So we met in L.A. and he worked on bringing me to the nightclub called The Mikado — I think Frank Sinatra had worked there. It took about a year for this to go through; I was going to get eight or ten thousand dollars a week and work there six months. But then I discovered I was pregnant and had to forgo the job and that was the last of it. Then one night in 1979 I get this call from Tokyo. It was this guy. I hadn't heard from him in all those years. He said, "Remember me?" So I said, "Sure." And he asked, "Are you still as beautiful as you were?" I said, "More beautiful than ever." And he said, "I'd like to give you a gift." I said, "Well, I have a boyfriend [I had divorced my husband by this time]." And he said, "That doesn't matter, 1 have respect for you. I just adore you." I tried to discourage him, but he said he wanted to buy me a nice gift. I tried everything...I said, "I'm expensive!" But he came to San Francisco, we went shopping, and we hit the fur place and he bought a long white fox down to my ankles that cost $20,000. I only had two hours between shows, but then we went to Saks Fifth Avenue and all these boutiques, and he bought another $20,000 worth of clothes, shoes—he just adored me, he had a shrine in his home in Tokyo, he had every piece of publicity on me. He had an agent who got all these pictures of me. I was going on a cruise, and he said, "Well, you're going to need some money so give me your bank number and I'll wire you some. I'll send about thirty thousand." I said, "Holy Christ." But when I called my bank in San Francisco and it wasn't there, I finally called him and asked what had happened. Well, it turned out that the bills for all the stuff he'd bought me in San Francisco were sent to his home—to his wife, instead of his office. She went down to the bank and said, "No money is being drawn out over $500 unless I sign for it." He tried to tell her that he was financing costumes for my act, but he didn't have any luck with her. He was going through operations and losing his eyesight — he was a diabetic — and near the end he said, "I just want to be able to see you just one more time before I die — one day my secretary will call and tell you I've died." And he did, four months later — He was just a fan, he enjoyed sitting there, looking at me, talking to me. He was just in awe of me. He never got out of line.
Leg Show: Well, over the years, did other fans express more explicitly their sexual fantasies? Like wanting to be your slave, make love to your legs?
Tempest: Yes, or kiss my feet or toes. Do all kinds of things like that. But a lot of the fan letters I got, they worded it in such a sexy way, not really vulgar. Because I always demanded respect onstage and off. When I went into the business, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, so I asked myself, "As a woman, what would embarrass me if I was sitting in the audience?" And that has allowed me to censor my own shows, and I got respect. A lot of girls would say, "I get nasty remarks from guys, they yell at me onstage." But if you don't demand respect, you have to expect dirty remarks from men. I never had that problem.
Leg Show: Do you think that this played into fans' fantasies about you—wanting to treat you respectfully, like their goddess?
Tempest: Right. Like two guys in Lake Tahoe when I was selling my book—they said, "Ohmigod, Tempest, we saw you when you first started. And you are more gorgeous now than you were then." And I said, "Oh wow, that made my day!"
Leg Show: It must be a good feeling to have fans following you over the years. Where have you been performing recently?
Tempest: Since 1980 I've been working the hotels in Reno, Vegas, and Lake Tahoe. The first show I did was Burlesque USA; we went on the road to all the legit theaters for seven months; then the Sahara Hotel in Reno for nineteen weeks, then we went to the Sahara in Lake Tahoe, which is now the High Sierra.
Leg Show: And you've also done shows like Sugar Daddies in '85 and Lipstick in '88. You said you might soon do something in Palm Springs?
Tempest: They have a fabulous nostalgia show there at the Plaza Historic Theater, and there's not a chorus girl under fifty. It's done in an elaborate style, with music from the 40s and 50s, and they're thinking of doing a burlesque segment. I've had two meetings with them so far.
Leg Show: I heard you went to the Glamour-con convention in L.A., too, which is popular with pin-up fans, artists, models and strippers.
Tempest: Yes, I went in September '94 for the first time. Everybody sells their memorabilia, pictures, books, whatever. It was very interesting. You'd enjoy it.
Leg Show: When I went to the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center to do preliminary research, I found many nice clips. Life magazine did a feature on you. And the tabloids would write you up with a picture and caption even when you were just getting on a plane! Newspapers don't cover strippers like this anymore.
Tempest: No, because we're living in a shockproof world as far as nudity is concerned. Burlesque is tame compared to what is going on now.
Leg Show: Did you pose for any fetishy kinds of photographs back in the 50s?
Tempest: No; you know, over the years, I guess I was kind of shy even though I was in this business.
Leg Show: Hyman Goldberg in the 1955 Sunday Mirror described you as shy, pushing your scrambled eggs around on your plate as he interviewed you. You told him you'd stay in your dressing room between shows reading magazines or Lillian Roth's I'll Cry Tomorrow... but in your show, did you remove your g-string?
Tempest: I was the last hold-out. I think it was in Philadelphia, somewhere around '79.
Leg Show: What other movies did you make besides the one for Irving Klaw? I recently saw a reference to something called Striptease Girl, but that's about it.
Tempest: I think there was one called French Peep Show that they made at the El Rey Theater... I could've made a 'mainstream picture', but they always wanted to give me the part of a stripper. I thought, "That's not a challenge." And they didn't want to pay much money for that type of part.
Leg Show: Weren't you friendly with the Rat Pack in their glory years?
Tempest: Yes. Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine and all of them... I ran the gamut. I lived a life and a half...two lives and a half. I'd like to write another book, because there's so much to tell that wasn't in the first one.
Leg Show: Over the years, how have guys' fantasies about you changed?
Tempest: They're pretty much the same.
Leg Show: But things have certainly gotten more open these days. Do your fans ever say that they want you to dominate or spank them, for example?
Tempest: Oh yes, they ask me all kinds of things—but mostly I get very sexy and sensuous letters. They don't get raunchy.
Leg Show: Have you ever gotten into an especially kinky scene with a lover? Tempest: No, I don't think SO. Trini Lopez was about the kinkiest.
Leg Show: Did anybody ever want to make love to your feet, your legs?
Tempest: Oh yeah. Kiss you call over—there's a song out now sailed "I'd Like to Kiss You All Over."
Leg Show: Did a guy ever want to paint your toenails?
Tempest: Oh sure! I had them do it a lot of times. Whatever turns them on. Sexually I'm pretty open...sometimes I think I'm too open! But I believe in pleasing your man. Nothing should go undone between two people in the privacy of their bedroom.
Leg Show: Any sexual fantasy you still want to fulfill?
Tempest: I think I've done just about everything! (Laughs) But I still like to do it. I've had sex in swimming pools—Jacuzzis seem to turn men on, that's popular.
Leg Show: Anybody on the current scene now that you'd like to get together with?
Tempest: Yes, a few of 'cm. I got a long time to go yet—I'm not finished! (Laughs) Neil Diamond is one. Richard Gere. Michael Bolton. And I'd like to return to Engelbert for a couple of nights. And Dan Quayle! I think he's good lookin'.
Leg Show: What would you do if you got Dan in a room?
Tempest: Everything but turn him loose!
Leg Show: Anybody else?
Tempest: George Clooney from that new show ER—man, is he gorgeous! He looks like a young Tyrone Power!
Leg Show: You should do a guest shot on that program! What would you do with George in ; an examining room? ,
Tempest: He wouldn't get out of bed for two weeks! I'd put him in intensive care!
Leg Show: What was it like being involved with Elvis Presley?
Tempest: It was in '57, before he went in the Army. He was a great guy, so sweet, such a Southern gentleman. We stayed friends up until he died. When I heard he was on drugs, I couldn't believe it...and at the end, if I could have really spent some time with him, I think I could have saved him from al! those problems. ! think it was a matter of him having someone to really talk to. And we could talk to each other! Sometimes in these relationships you really can't open up, but I found we had a lot to talk about...in or out of the bedroom! I could have married him because we were crazy about each other, but I didn't want anything to interfere with my career.
Leg Show: Do you dream much? Do you ever dream about some of these guys you were involved with?
Tempest: I do dream a lot lately! I think I'm going back in time. Remember I told you I'd like to make a return to Englebert? Well, I had a dream about him that was so real, I thought he was in the room!...Sometimes people ask me what I look for in a man. I say, "I'm looking for a gourmet dish!" (Laughs) Great body, sense of humor, intelligent, wealthy, generous, and most of all single and unattached! But there's ; no such thing is the perfect man; I guess the man I just described to you is not a dime-a-dozen.
Leg Show: Well, if you find a few of those qualities, you're doing pretty well.
Tempest: ! always said, "If sex was fast food, I'd have an arch over my bed!" I tell you, I was a wild one, I had fun. I'm still living in that fantasy world.
Leg Show: What do you mean, living in a fantasy world?
Tempest: I don't know... (Laughs) Define it for me, Neil!
Leg Show: Well, it sounds as if you actually lived the life that many other people fan- tasize about.
Tempest: That's explaining it perfectly. I'm romantic—I think things should lead up to a beautiful sexual encounter. I couldn't make love by just running into a motel! I gotta have the candle- light dinners, the gorgeous negligees, the dim lights in the bedroom; then it becomes a beautiful thing. I always said I should live in Europe, because the Europeans think sex is beautiful, but Americans think it's dirty to a certain extent.
Leg Show: On your road to stardom, you worked as a waitress, carhop; in jewelry stores, in five-and-dimes. Didn't you also work as an artist's model?
Tempest: Yes, I posed for an art class in Columbus, Georgia. The guy who was head of the class tried to seduce me...Believe me, these models deserve all the money they get, because standing an hour in one position is really hard work.
Leg Show: That was the first time you took your clothes off in public?
Leg Show: Was it hard to do?
Tempest: Not really. Because I think from the time I was a teenager I've been open-minded about everything. Which is kind of hard to understand being from a very small town in Georgia...but I didn't mind doing it.
Leg Show: Did it feel arousing to stand naked in front of the class the first time?
Tempest: Yes, very sexy. I felt ! had a great body, and in my mind I started thinking about what I could do—I was a sexual, sensuous person even then, and I wanted to do something in show business.
Leg Show: Do you think you were more suited to becoming a burlesque dancer as opposed to a movie star, because it was a way you could better express your true self?
Tempest: Yes. It was my destiny.
Copyright 1995 by Neil Wexler
- Regular LEG SHOW contributor Neil Wexler has written about strippers for over twenty years. His 1988 screenplay for Caballero Home Video's Boom-Boom Valdez, starring Keisha, is a realistic picture of a contemporary dancer's life that proudly predates Joe Eszterhas's Showgirls, Atom Egoyan's Exotica, Demi Moore's Striptease, and or/ier manifestations of mainstream filmdom's current fascination with ecdysiasts.
The photos from Leg Show Aug 1995 are posted at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Your_Founders
Photos of Tempest Storm from this interview are posted in the file section at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TheExtraordinaryBettiePage/