Imagine walking into a nightclub in Baltimore one night. Outside it is cold, the wind is whistling through your bones and you’ve had the day from hell. However, inside, before you can even remove your coat, you can hear the savage beating of drums. You may have been here before, but the sound always takes you by surprise because it’s not some band you see playing. Instead you spy this voluptuous leggy dark-haired beauty blazing away on her jungle drums. In that moment you forget the cold, forget the wind and even forget you’re stuck in Baltimore. All you can think about is the beat-beat-beating of her drum. It’s 1953 and you think perhaps the world has gone a little awry. But hey, you think you’re a happening man, one happy-Joe and it’s all happening here.
This might be the image you have of strippers like Blaze Starr when burlesque was at its zenith. This is a Cold War world where men like Senator Joe McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover rule, where the word “virgin” is finally used in a Hollywood film, and where lynchings are part and parcel of everyday life. This is a world of moral hypocrisy where what happens behind closed doors rarely resembles public taboos. At one stage, Blaze developed an act where a panther removes her clothes on stage. However, later, when the panther dies and Blaze reshapes her act so that she becomes the panther writhing on all fours, she is arrested for obscenity. At a time when men and woman are daily victims to apartheid, when children cannot go to school together safely, dancers like Blaze Starr and Lili St Cyr and singers like Elvis Presley are being portrayed as evil incarnate.
However, this bright-eyed, red-haired girl from rural Virginia, who leaves home at sixteen dreaming of fame, never loses her connection to her family. Blaze will often send money home to her mother and writes her regularly to let hew know that she is okay and that her career is blossoming. This girl spends four tough years working towards success. Starting out as a singer and dancer, she finally finds her niche on the stage, entertaining men. It is hard work. Blaze makes her own costumes and spends hours creating new routines to keep the act fresh. She must work to keep her figure and complains that, “I have to watch my figure very closely all the time. If I eat too much, I gain weight. No one wants to see a fat girl dance. If I don't eat enough, then I lose weight. Most girls do not worry about that, but in this business I count on my breasts for my tips and the first place I lose weight is in my chest.” The fact that Blaze would spend some 35 years dancing is testimony to how all her hard work paid off. When Blaze began making it big at the Two O'clock Club in 1952 would anyone have guessed that she would own the very same club from 1968-75? Or that decade’s later people would be able to go into the dressing rooms and see so many pictures of Blaze still adorning the walls…
I can only imagine how Blaze felt performing on stage as she wildly pounded those jungle drums and the audience roaring with pleasure. For those amazing moments no one else exists in the world except Blaze. Is she enjoying the adulation, the fact that she has made it big-time, or just the sheer pleasure of performing? I am sure it is a combination of all three and the adrenalin rush must be as great as any sportsman has ever felt. Later in the 50s Blaze would write, “All the girls want to dance on Bourbon Street because of the generous rich men who visit here nightly. I love it here. The eager boys from the Navy, the men who need a break from the everyday, and the lonely old men who need a thrill, come in just to see me. I make them happy, and they don't mind showing me just how happy I make them either. One old man tipped me over five hundred dollars after one show.”
And it is here at the Sho-Bar on the wonderful Bourbon Street where Blaze life changes forever. While much has been written about Blaze’s relationship with Governor Earl Long, I can add little to this part of her life that you cannot already read in her own book, Blaze or elsewhere. My reaction is that this remains the one true love of her life and whether the passing years have added or detracted from her own feelings for Earl Long is something for Blaze alone to enjoy. However, in the questions I put to Blaze I think one can perceive her enduring adoration of the man within her answers. And I feel blessed that Ms Blaze allowed me this rare interview.
Below is a letter Blaze wrote after the release of the film Blaze starring Paul Newman telling a funny story which epitomizes life as it was probably like for Blaze during her short, but happy times with Earl Long. There is an innocence and joy whenever Blaze speaks his name that still endures these forty-five years since his death. First love endures.
“Dear Ernie, Just a Note to answer your letter. You asked If there was anything I didn't put in the book or movie, Blaze, concerning me and Governor Earl K. Long. Oh Yes, Quite a few. One day Earl had decided I would kind of shock some of his buddies. So, at exactly one o’clock, on this day I was to slide down the stair case from upstairs to the main dining room of the Governors mansion, wearing only panties and a white Negligee, Not say a word and go back upstairs. Earl must have forgot and included in the party was President Charles De Gaulle of France. It was during Mardi Gras 1960. No News men were present. I did what we had arranged, and two of Earl’s friends quickly walked me back upstairs. I learned later Earl told the President I was his Niece and I did that every day at one o’clock, and he guessed he have to have me put away. They went on with the dinner as If Nothing had happened. But I bet President Charles De Gaulle Remembered his visit a long, Long time. Well I got to Catch a plane, Drop a line when you Can. Love and my Best Always, Blaze.”
And this is a life that cannot be totally romanticized. This beautiful lady has survived attempted rapes as a teenager, a knife-wielding robber who slashed her face, the moral crusading of news-hungry editors, run-ins with the police and courts and the loss of her closest friend, Earl Long. Blaze's mother once told her if a man ever says to trust him, don't because they are the most dangerous men of all. Later, Blaze would asks Earl, "Can I trust you?" He replied "Hell no!"
Now fifty years later, the very same Blaze works with her younger brother Bennie running a website that showcases not only her charms as a Queen of Burlesque, but also her beautiful handmade costume jewellery. Catch your breath, and catch Blaze at:
David: Could you tell us when you signed your first autograph and how it came about?
Blaze: I signed my first autograph in 1954, when Esquire Magazine did a big story on Baltimore's "block", where all the strip clubs were located. They featured the 2 O’clock Club where I was doing my act, and they used a lot of my photographs in the story. The club owner, Sol Goodman, had me sign a copy of Esquire for him. He also told me I would someday be a Starr, and more famous than Gypsy Rose Lee.
David: What is the funniest moment or story from your great career?
Blaze: When Governor Earl K. Long proposed to me. He was down on one knee and fell on his butt. We both laughed, and I got down on the floor beside him, and he finished his little speech. Then we laughed some more. He then rolled over on his stomach and got to his feet. We were alone.
David: What is the absolute worst and absolute best pick up lines you ever heard?
Blaze: "Let’s go to your room, so we can talk, it's too noisy here" is the worst pick-up line. "Let’s go have a few drinks and a lobster at some fancy place so we can get to know each other." Now this one usually worked with me.
David: What was the most exciting highlight for you during your fabulous career?
Blaze: When Disney gave me a cameo in my movie, "Blaze". In the dressing room scene, I play "Miss Lilly" and Paul Newman, who plays Earl Long, walks in and kisses me on my shoulder. I look at him and say "Hello, Governor". That was my greatest moment, to be able to watch it back on a movie screen.
David: What brings Blaze Starr the most joy?
Blaze: I get the most joy out of painting, drawing, playing my Cajun fiddle, or my other string instruments. I also love riding my ATV in the hills looking for wild ginseng and goldenseal. Oh, and I also enjoy playing the slot machines.
David: What is the strangest or most unusual story that you would like to tell us about?
Blaze: I was appearing at the "Show Bar" in New Orleans. I came off stage and Governor Earl K. Long said "get dressed quick! I want you to meet some friends of mine." I quickly replied "okay." They were seated in the VIP Balcony. Earl said "I want you to meet this young fellow. He’s going to be your next president." Jack Kennedy stood up and said "Miss Starr you did a great show." Jackie agreed. JFK had already been nominated on the Democratic Ticket.
David: Do you collect autographs or memorabilia yourself and if so what is your favourite item?
Blaze: No, I don't collect autographs, but I have a small Bible that Governor Earl Long gave me. He had underlined many places in it that he wanted me to read. He was very religious, and was always trying to "save me" as he called it. That would be one of my favorite items.
Interview article copyright David Priol 2004
Photos copyrighted to their various owners