When the world's most famous stripper rocked Portland
Elvis Presley tried to keep up with his girlfriend. He gyrated violently. He thrust his hips.
“He had some good moves. I don’t think I could teach him anything,” Tempest Storm says, recalling her nights on the dance floor with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. “But maybe I had more experience.”
That she did. The flame-haired Storm shook her groove thing night after night on stages across the country. It was the late 1950s, and Storm was one of the best-known exotic dancers in the world. A signature move: She would arch backward as if doing the limbo and rotate her torso until it seemed certain she would lift off like a helicopter. This inevitably led to shouts of awe and disbelief from her audience.
Even Pat Boone was impressed. The squeaky-clean pop and gospel star ran into her and Elvis one night, and told them, “You two should put an act together. You can bump each other off.” The joke wasn’t all that funny, but Elvis went into hysterics thinking about the possibilities.
Tempest Storm was already a star when she took up with Elvis -- this was the so-called “Golden Age of Burlesque.” But in Portland she was even more than a star. Sixty years ago, before she met Presley, she put the often-overlooked little city into national headlines.
Portland in the early 21st century is well known for its almost-anything-goes sex industry. But burlesque back during the Eisenhower years verged on the upscale. Few Americans viewed striptease as demeaning to women. (The word “sexist” hadn’t yet been coined.) It was, simply, entertainment -- and big business. Storm pulled in a million dollars at the box office in just her first four years of performing, at a time when the average household’s annual income in the U.S. was about $3,500. Even more important to her: she did it by trafficking in titillation, not the in-your-face lap-dancing style you’ll find at your typical strip joint today.
“I did a class act,” she says in an interview from her home in Las Vegas. “Beautiful wardrobe. Big band. Opening act. It was sexy, teasing, but nothing vulgar.”
Late in 1953, Storm landed in Portland for the first time and began performing at the swanky Star Theatre on Sixth Avenue, where local exotic dancer and impresario Candy Renee reigned. “I loved Portland right away,” Storm says. “Even though it rained too much. I had a Cadillac convertible -- Portland didn’t agree with it.”
All the West Coast burlesque stars came through the working-class city, but Storm and her new husband, John Becker, wanted to make Oregon home. So they bought the Capitol Theater at 4th and Morrison, with Storm taking over as the headliner and Becker running the business. Becker, a former burlesque straight man who had worked under the name Johnny Del Mar, labeled his wife the “5 Dimension Girl” in splashy newspaper ads. Fighting back, Renee brought Becker’s ex-wife, Arabella Andre, up from Los Angeles to be the new star of the Star. She cheekily billed Andre, whose real name was Maybelle Anderson, as “John’s Other Wife.”
Renee didn’t realize what she was doing. Arabella Andre was one of the reasons Storm and Becker had left LA. “I’d go to the cleaners and come out and she’d be there in the parking lot,” Storm says. “She was following me.”
The harassment worsened in Portland. Late one night, after Andre spotted her ex-husband alone at a restaurant (Storm was out of town doing a show), the former couple got into it. “Two men were holding him back. He called me the most filthy names you ever could think of,” Andre told a municipal court judge. Why was Becker so mad? For starters, Andre had called him a gigolo. She then took it up a notch, dubbing his new wife “that freak” – referring to Storm’s intimidating, 40-inch bust. The Oregonian dutifully provided Tempest’s measurements.
It wouldn’t get any rougher than that during the restaurant face-off. Becker was a lover, not a fighter. “Wait till my wife gets here,” he told Andre, “she’ll fix you.”
Tempest Storm took a circuitous route to Portland. She was born Annie Blanche Banks in a small, poor Georgia town. A victim of violent abuse and rape as a child, she withdrew into herself, afraid to communicate with anybody. At 14, she ran away to Columbus, Georgia, where she worked as a product inspector at the Archer Hosiery Co. Soon Blanche headed for Southern California, hoping to become a movie star. Self-conscious about her crooked teeth and rural drawl, she never went on an audition.
“I used to go to the movies, and I’d tell myself the stars were backstage, right behind the screen, and someday I’d meet them,” she once said.
At 22, she was waitressing in a lounge, with two traumatic failed marriages already in the scrapbook and no plan for the future, when her life suddenly changed. “A gentleman I was waiting on told me I should be a dancer,” she remembers. Blanche hadn’t shown off any dance moves while slinging drinks, so she responded with something along the lines of, “Huh?”
He clarified: “You should be a burlesque dancer.”
“Taking your clothes off.”
Blanche recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “Not me.” She turned and walked away from him.
You didn’t have to be a seasoned burlesque scout to identify Blanche Banks as an ideal candidate for the art of striptease. She was the very definition of “va-va-voom.” Her customer at the lounge set up an appointment for her with Lillian Hunt, the manager of the Follies Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Blanche didn’t go to the audition, but her benefactor wouldn’t let it go. He appreciated that she was always nice to him, and he wanted to help her. He made another appointment and insisted she show up.
Finally, Blanche found herself standing in front of the matronly Hunt. The impatient Follies boss snapped at her to take her clothes off.
Blanche did so and said, nervously, “Do you think my breasts are too big to do this?”
Hunt hacked up a guffaw. “They don’t make ’em too big in this business,” she said, and told her she was hired.
“I was very naïve about it,” Storm, 86, says now. But from the very start, she loved being on stage. She discovered a new version of herself, one she actually liked. A woman who was not just wanted but powerful. This is who I really am, she told herself. Storm took her new career seriously. She spent all of her money on material for a performance wardrobe, which she made herself. She signed up for ballet classes, “to learn to be graceful.” Later, after changing her name to Tempest Storm and becoming a headliner, she hired a choreographer.
“People think it’s easy, but it’s not,” she says of making it in burlesque. “You have to work very hard to get there, and you have to work very hard to stay there.”
Storm says she’s never regretted the decision to go into stripping. She’s in her ninth decade on the planet and she’s still performing. And with burlesque enjoying a revival and now being studied in academia as an art form, she’s become a living legend. The rock star Jack White is one of her biggest fans. One young dancer rushed up to her at a recent burlesque festival, her eyes alight. “It’s just like meeting the Pope!” the woman exclaimed. Storm didn’t know how to respond. “Everybody started laughing,” she says. “I just get a kick out of these girls.” Next year she’ll headline a celebrity burlesque cruise to the Bahamas. She’ll tell stories and talk to the audience while a group of younger performers do the more physical work.
Other than appearing in a few striptease “documentary” films -- including one, “Teaserama,” with the legendary Bettie Page -- Storm never made it in the movies. She was supposed to be in a Frank Sinatra picture at one point, but it didn’t work out. Other auditions also fell through here and there. So she let her Hollywood dream go and justified it as best she could. “My burlesque career was riding high, and that meant I was always traveling,” she says.
It really was just as well. She was able to reinvent herself more completely in burlesque than she ever could have in Hollywood. Exotic dancing opened up the world for this uneducated farm girl. She’s played before enthusiastic crowds around the world and met movie stars and world leaders. After she and Becker split up, she had her fling with Elvis. She also had affairs with Mickey Rooney, Nat King Cole and Vic Damone.
She even had the obligatory tête-à-tête with John F. Kennedy. She met the young Massachusetts senator during a stint at the Casino Royale in Washington, D.C. A flunkie approached after she came off stage and said Kennedy wanted to meet her. “Is he married?” she asked.
Storm’s class act eventually met resistance from bookers. She went to Europe for an extended tour, and on the first night, in London, “I see the girls are disrobing completely. And I told the manager, ‘We don’t do that in America.’ He said, ‘Can’t you just take off the G-string for a moment?’ I said no. I told him I do a nice act.” She went out and brought down the house without bringing down her G-string. But when she returned to the U.S. a couple of months later, she discovered that the burlesque performers in New York suddenly were doing the Full Monty. The times they were a-changin’.
Just a few years before her triumphant European tour Storm had thought she was going to settle in Portland, far from the bright lights and famous faces of the world. Becker would run the Capitol, and Storm would perform there until she decided to retire. Interested in becoming a part of the city’s civic life, Storm even made an appearance at a Portland Press Club fundraiser, shaking and swaying in the same room where Eleanor Roosevelt once gave an interview to local reporters.
But Becker and Storm would sell the theater less than a year after taking it over and leave Oregon. The reason: the brouhaha between Becker and his ex-wife did not end quickly or easily. After the confrontation between the exes in that downtown restaurant late in 1953, a municipal-court judge ordered Becker to pay a $20 fine for public profanity. But that wasn’t enough of a triumph for Arabella Andre.
“She threatened to throw acid in my face,” Storm says. “One night the doorbell rang. My husband answered the door. She was standing there with a glass of liquid, and she threw it in my face. It was only water, but it was terrifying.”
Storm always tried to be nice to everybody. It was important to her. But hateful people seemed to seek her out. Becker and Storm demanded a sanity hearing for Andre. They alleged that Becker’s ex-wife “threatened them, wrote them filthy letters, broke into their apartment and once tried to commit suicide.” The hearing revealed that letters to Storm said, among other things, that he would “cheat on her.”
Andre was forced to spend five days undergoing tests at Morningside Hospital on the east side. When she returned to court, the place overflowed with gawkers – including the press. Storm, “in a black suit and hat and a mink stole,” and Becker, “well tailored in suede shoes and a light green suit, under cuff of which the diamonds in his wristwatch sparkled mightily,” sat in the front row.
Andre denied she was a danger to the Beckers and blamed the whole mess on her ex-husband. “I know how nice he can be, and I know how mean he can be,” Andre said.
Her psychiatrist at Morningside, Dr. George Keller, didn’t entirely agree about the cause of the problem. “Let’s put it this way, she just gets awful damn mad,” he said during the hearing. “I don’t doubt but that she’s violent toward him, but that doesn’t mean she should go to a state hospital.”
The judge declared that the problem was simply “jealousy.” He released Andre. The decision stunned and angered Storm; she told her husband that once they made back their money at the Capitol, she wanted to leave the city.
National headlines followed the hearing, including a splashy spread in Life magazine. Embarrassed by the depiction of his town as lewd and lowdown, Portland City Commissioner Stanley Earl declared that the stripping scene was “absolutely getting out of bounds.” A week after Andre’s mental-health hearing, and a day before Storm opened at the Capitol, Earl took over a council meeting by demanding the “cleaning up or the elimination of these shows that exist now as so-called burlesque houses.”
As it turned out, Portland already had greater restrictions on what exotic dancers could do than other cities on burlesque’s West Coast circuit.
“Some of the girls just hoot when I tell them that we don’t allow the contortions they get away with in Oakland or Los Angeles,” policewoman Eileen Jacques told an Oregonian reporter after the city council meeting. It was Jacques’ job to regularly attend the burlesque shows and make sure the performances didn’t become “oversuggestive.” That meant, for example, checking that the topless girls wore appropriate “patches, preferably of the jeweled type so even the most near-sighted customer will know they’re there.”
Storm’s show, Jacques would declare the day after its debut, was “very nice.”
-- Douglas Perry; published in The Oregonian in 2014. Winner of the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award.