Interview with Burlesque Legend Toni Elling
When did you get into burlesque?
Photo courtesy Toni Elling.
How did you begin?
My friend Rita Revere was a stripper here in Detroit and would talk to me about it. I was working for the telephone company. I had an idea, though--I wanted to buy a four family flat so that my brother, sister, parents and I could each have one of the apartments. Rita said I could do it if I went on the road and I knew I'd never get that far ahead at the telephone company. I was disenchanted there because they wouldn't promote me because they didn't promote blacks. I was actually terribly modest, however. I had a friend Bettie Taylor who was a producer and choreographer and had created chorus lines that worked all over the country. I told her I didn't want anybody to give me an act because I wanted to to do myself, not anybody else. She suggested that I work my way up. There were two bars, Alvito's which was a dive, and The Flame Showbar which was the creme de la creme. I just didn't want to work in the dive first! I knew the owner of the Flame and he was happy to present me, with Jackie Wilson. I had seen my friend Rita and Virginia Bell, only those two strippers in all my life. I just did what I thought you do, and it worked!
Photo courtesy Toni Elling.
Did you tour?
I did. I had a booking agent when I got to California in 1962. His name was Rollo Vest. At first he said he didn't think I could do it because I was so shy and hadn't danced. But he booked me in a club and it went beautifully. I traveled around using him as my agent. I also worked with other agents because I didn't want to be exclusive. I also sang--the first time I did it the bandleader asked me what I wanted to sing and in what key, and I said "Squeeze Me" in A Flat, because my mother always told me I sang flat. By pure chance it was the right key!
How did you come up with your burlesque name?
My stage name is based on the name of my friend Duke Ellington. I just put the "ton" at the beginning with an "i" at the end! Duke is a friend and one of my favorite people. I got his permission and his blessing--he told me to use his music, his name, anything I needed. I wanted to make it on my own so I never said anything about the ellington relationship until a few years later when I anddecided to have flyers made; I put on there that he was my mentor. He loved it!
Photo courtesy Toni Elling.
How did you get to know Duke Ellington?
In high school I knew a lot about musicians and a lot about music. I knew some of the musicians because I went to the Michigan Theatre, where the stage would be at audience level and I would get to talk to them. In Detroit we had a disk jockey named Jack the Bellboy, the greatest dj in the country. When I was 16 he was on the radio and he played the best music, but most of it was by black artists and he would get letters from people telling him to quit playing all that black music! He didn't play requests and he would get on the radio and say he played what he considered good music and would continue to go his own way; I admired that stance. One day he said someone had written him a letter asking him to play "Old Man River" by Frank Sinatra. He said Sinatra had never recorded that song. Now, I knew who recorded what and on what label, and I wrote him--I told him how much I enjoyed his program and how happy I was that he stood up for his black artists, and I said Frank did record "Old Man River."
I came home from school shortly after that and my mother told me Jack read my letter on the radio and asked me to bring in the record! I took it to the studio, my mother with me, and I gave it to him we stayed and talked. I said to him, "Why don't you have these artists come on your show and interview them?" Nobody did that back then.
The first performer I brought on Jack's show was Ella Fitzgerald, who Jack practically worshipped and was dying to meet. I had brought her to the station, and when we pulled up when she got out he hugged her so hard and she melted. That's how I got started interviewing. Over time I got to know a lot of performers, including, obviously, Duke Ellington. I did it for a couple of years until the studio got sold, and then they didn't want me and my friends there because we were black. Jack was going to quit over it, but I told him it was foolish, and it would be better for those artists to keep being played. So he went on doing his great work. We got reacquainted in 1971 and stayed friends till be died in 2001.
Where (what towns, clubs, countries) did you perform most?
Well, all over the East: Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelpia. I worked at resort in Eerie. Bobby Clarke, who wife wasa singer, had had me recommended to him, and he booked me into a club sight unseen. The club owner called him and told him how much he liked me over and over, so one night he came in. Our agents never came to see us! I joined him in his booth and asked what brought him there. He said that Phil the owner had called him telling him how great I was, and he wanted to see what he was raving about, so I asked him what he saw and he said, "Not a damn thing!" I didn't expect that! I was speechless for once.
Jack Girard's agency had me teach the girls what to do onstage, and I got paid for that. I had a beautiful studio in Hollywood. I ad one girl whose money I didn't want to take, she was clumsier than anybody I ever saw, but Jack told me to jsut take her money and teach her, and she became a success. A dancer could make some money in the 60s being big busted. I thought about breast implants to make more money. One night I was laying there thinking to myself about it and I realized, "You fool, if you do it you'll still be black!" They would not pay black girls the same as others. Hispanic and Asian girls were considered white for bookings, everybody but black girls got paid well--there were only the three of us in Portland, and Anita looked white. Black girls weren't allowed to feature.
At a club called The Pink Pussycat the owner always gave the strippers their names after movie stars, and black girls were always Samia Davis Junior. I knew Sammy and loved him, but I didn't want to be called Samia Davis Junior!
What is your fondest memory?
Japan. When I went to Exotic World for the first time and was treated so well, I said the only time I've been treated like a queen like this was in Japan. I was there in 1967. To them, I wasn't black. I was booked for ten weeks and ended up staying there for six months but I had problems with my breasts. I had to have surgery while I was there and then I had to come home to let my parents know I was all right.
What was your most scandalous moment?
Coralee Junior once booked me into a theater I hated! I called her on thethird day and told her get me out of there. I saw these dirty old men and what I saw made me sick, coats over their laps and jerking off. I had never seen anything like that in my life and I'd been performing for two years. She said you have a contract! When you wrote to me that you wanted to perform in Holly wood I didn't know where to put you so I got you the only job I could at the time. I had to finish the week!
What were some of your signature performances?
I did different things like a bride act, a Spanish act in a mambo gown, and a street walker number where I peeled my stockings. I did a Carmen Miranda number in a costume that I still have, and I'd like to donate that to the Burlesque Museum. I think the most distinctive number I did was my Afro number. People were so surprised by it, because I was always known as the Elegant Miss Toni Elling, and there was nothing elegant about this act. I wore an Afro wig and flourescent face paint. The music I used was Miriam Makeba, and my mother bought me a drum you could hold in your arm and play. I'd beat it and mouth the words. i painted my toenails a flourescent color that would show up in the black light, and I'd stick one foot around the curtain and then one hand around, and they'd see my flourescent nails and then I came out with the drum and the singing. I wasn't fooling around! Everybody was shocked that I would do such a number. I did it because everybody was copying me. I said, I'll fix 'em, I'll do something they can't do. And then some white girl did it! But it didn't go over. There were only two other black dancers in the area and one of them looked white, so they couldn't do it. I wore 40 bracelets, leopard bands around my ankles, barefoot obviously. Leopard panties and cape. My dog ate that cape, though.
Did you have close friends in burlesque, and do you still have them?
I'm still friends with Beatrice, who went to meet Jack the Bellboy with me. When I came to Exotic World and saw April March and Marie Annette I was so excited--they didn't remember me, but I remembered them. The girls in the business are a different breed. So loving, kind, and considerate. People put strippers down but they just don't know--they buoy you up. I've met very few that were nasty; they really aren't like that.
How did you come to be in the article in the Metro Times?
Sparkly Devil was looking for local former strippers for her article, and somebody told her about Lottie the Body. Through her and a few other contacts someone got hold of my friend Beatrice, who is a writer. Sparkly is the most wonderful young lady! I call her my daughter. If I ever needed an agent she would be it.
Sparkly and Toni backstage at Exotic World. Photo courtesy Sparkly Devil.
How did you come to perform at Exotic World and at Teaseorama?
Sparkly got in touch with Dixie about me and I went to Exotic World for the first time in 2006. It's a very special outfit and Laura and Dixie are special people. You see, I knew Jennie Lee because she wrote an article about me back when I was in Hollywood, when she had her newsletter. When I spoke to Dixie she said please think about dancing! You'll have all year to prepare. So this year I did. It was the first time since 1974. It was as they say, just like riding a bicycle. I was concerned about letting you guys down, and I had never done such a short two minute show, and I would really like to have more time. But it felt great. I felt very comfortable like I had never gotten off the stage, and my body cooperated. Next year I'll be 80, and I want to do it again--I'm already planning my outfit!
Toni performing at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Striptease Reunion(Exotic World), 2007. Photo by Michael Albov.
Anything you want to say to the newest performers?
I understand that some of the new performers want to do the kind of acts that we did. I taught my girls the three P's: Parade, Pose, and Peel. Everything must flow Just stop along the way and pose, you don't have to be walking when you take off your gloves. We did a lot of panel work and we didn't twirl our gloves.
Last year when Lottie interviewed me when I went onstage at EW, people said I strutted that stage. I said that's just me walking! I learned one thing from a chorus dancer, Juanita--she said to me, "You are a beautiful girl with a beautiful act but you keep your head down. You've got to put your head up! The way to do this is when you're announced, before you walk on, throw your head up and keep it up!" I never forgot that. I still throw my head up just before I go on!
I love Dirty Martini--she's a great girl and she's a verrry good performer. I really enjoyed seeing her.
You walked the walk in 2006 and danced the dance in 2007--you worked it! Your walk caused quite a lot of talk. You should teach it!
Maybe I will!
I'd love to have you teach my students here in New York. They would go crazy for you. I'd definitely take that class right along with them.
[Laughing] Well, I do love New York!
Did you ever buy that four-unit building for your family?
[Laughs again] No, we all bought our own houses.
Special thanks to Sparkly Devil for her assistance!
See also: Two old-school Detroit dames worshipped for a weekend in Vegas