The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Linguistics, Languages, and Literatures >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States
Sally Rand

burlesque star

Sally Rand

Helen Harriet Gould Beck was born in Elkton, Missouri, on April 3, 1904, the first child of William and Mary Annette Beck. Her father, a post office clerk, was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Spanish-American War; her mother was a schoolteacher. A second child, Harold, was born in 1908.

Interested in dance from an early age, Helen left home as a teenager and joined a traveling carnival. Experience with the carnival led to a job with the Adolph Bohm Chicago Ballet Company and then with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Those jobs led to an association with the acting company of Gus Edwards, which also included Eddie Cantor, Walter Winchell, and George Jessel, after which she joined Will Seabury's Repertory Theatre Company. Believing that a serious stage career was a distinct possibility, Helen studied the works of a number of playwrights, including Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen.

The Seabury Company broke up soon after arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1920's, and Helen made the move to the silver screen with a number of supporting, usually uncredited, roles in Mack Sennett-Hal Roach comedy shorts. She became Sally Rand when she joined Cecille B. DeMille's stock company, for which she appeared as an extra in Ben-Hur (1925) and The King of Kings (1927), among other films. As her film roles got larger, Sally's popularity with the public increased, and she even began appearing on magazine covers. In 1927 she was named one the "WAMPAS Baby Stars," a promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers from 1922 to 1934 to identify actresses believed to be on the verge of movie stardom. Although Rand was the only actress in the 1927 "class" to achieve stardom, the list of previous and future "Baby Stars" included Mary Philbin, Clara Bow, Mary Astor, Dolores Costello, Janet Gaynor, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, Lupe Velez, Jean Arthur, Loretta Young, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, and Gloria Stuart.

Rand's lasting stardom did not ultimately come from the silver screen, however, as a pronounced lisp and heavy Ozark accent prevented a move into "talkies." Not ready to give up show business, Rand returned to stage and dance performances. In 1932 she accepted a position at the Paramount Club in Chicago, which was advertising for "exotic acts and dancers." It was at the Paramount that Sally came up with the routine that catapaulted her to fame -- a seductive dance performed while holding two enormous pink ostrich feathers. "Fan dancers" were not unique to the time, but Rand performed the dance in such way that the audience could never tell whether she was totally nude, partially nude, or clothed during the routine (in reality, she always performed while either wearing a tight-fitting flesh-colored body stocking or "made up" in body paint).

Sally Rand performing her 'fan dance'
Sally Rand performing her 'fan dance'

Hoping to get a gig at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, Rand did a "Lady Godiva ride" through the streets of Chicago while Fair prommoters and investors looked on. Although she was arrested and jailed for the stunt, Fair officials saw an opportunity to increase ticket sales and immediately secured Rand's release. Their hopes were quickly realized, and Rand became one of the Fair's largest, and most controversial, draws. In fact, her act proved so successful that her weekly salary had increased from its starting point of $125 to $3,000 by the time the Fair closed for the 1933 season. And, every time local authorities had her arrested for indecency, Fair promoters were able to convince the court that Rand's act was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the Fair financially afloat and that, therefore, her absence was a severe hardship for both the Fair and the city (whose livelihood was at the time very dependent on the Fair's success). When she returned for the 1934 season, Rand introduced her "bubble dance," in which she replaced the feathers with a huge transparent ball.

Rand performing her 'bubble dance'
Sally Rand performing her 'bubble dance'

Rand's fame did not end with the World's Fair. In 1934 she returned to the silver screen with an appearance in Bolero, starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, during which he performed her fan dance to Claude Debussey's "Clair de Lune." Her last film appearance came in 1938, when she starred in Sunset Murder Case, the story of a small-time showgirl who poses as a stripper to get a job in a nightclub so she could investigate the murder of her father; she performed both her fan dance and bubble dance in the film.

In 1936 she purchased The Music Box burlesque theatre in San Francisco, which featured Sally Rand and a chorus of similarly-unclad dancers until 1946.

poster for The Music Box
poster for The Music Box

"Sally Rand's Nude Ranch," which featured "nude" women riding horses, playing sports, sitting around a campfire, etc., made its debut at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, and continued to be a Sally Rand act for many years afterward (both locally and on the road).

Sally Rand's Nude Ranch
Sally Rand's Nude Ranch

By 1941 Rand was so easily recognized that a Looney Tunes cartoon titled "Hollywood Steps Out" featured a character named "Sally Strand" who does a bubble dance at a nightclub in front of dozens of Hollywood stars until her bubble is burst by a slingshot missile launched by Harpo Marx (Rand refused to give permission to use her name in the cartoon, but the audience knew who the dancer was based on).

Sally Rand performed her fan and bubble dances to packed houses across the country into her early 70's, dancing in public for the last time in Chicago in November of 1978. She died of congestive heart failure at Foothill Presbyterian Hospital in Glendora, California, on August 31, 1979, and was buried at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora.

Grave Spotlight
Internet Movie DataBase
Yoda's Lair

West Point
Spanish-American War
Anton Chekhov
1933 Chicago World's Fair
1939 Golden Gate Exposition

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Linguistics, Languages, and Literatures >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States

This page was last updated on 09/24/2017.