Monday, 23 October 2017

Gorgeous Girl Shows

For a brief time in the 1940s Auckland dancers performed Gorgeous Girl Shows wearing little more than G-strings, balloons and fans, to packed houses of appreciative American servicemen.

Ref: The Pony Dancers. From: The New Zealand Herald, 9 August 1975. Auckland Libraries.

Over half a million GI’s arrived in New Zealand for rest and recuperation between June 1942 and the end of WW2. They were keen to be entertained in the city’s nightclubs and dance halls and made a beeline for The Civic Theatre’s Hollywood-style floor shows. The theatre’s 3,000 tickets often sold out within an hour. Patrons watched the latest movie then the Civic’s golden barge rose from the depths bearing an orchestra, dancing girls, and “star, Freda, in peacock-feathered headgear, posing as the stem of a huge champagne flute.”

Ref: Clifton Firth. Freda Stark, 1947. Sir George Grey Special Collections, 34-409.
Freda Stark became an overnight sensation after a costume malfunction left her topless whilst performing at the Civic’s Wintergarden Cabaret. Wearing only a fishnet halter and G-string, she’d knelt to buckle her shoe when her vest hooked itself around her bosom leaving her bare-breasted. “The night was a great success!” she said. The audience of GI’s were in an uproar and soon christened her “The Fever of the Fleet.”

The Civic’s dancers were the city’s first permanent ballet corps and included Da Katipa, Wilma Lockwood, Thelma Creamer and Lenore Upton; directed by ballet mistress Regina Raye. The dancers rehearsed for two hours each night before going on stage as “The Lucky Lovelies,” then changed costumes and appeared  downstairs at the Wintergarden as “The Pony Dancers.”

Ref: Advertisement for The Lucky Lovelies. From: The Auckland Star, 7 August 1943. Auckland Libraries.

Regina Raye said, “It was glamour such as we had never known, the officers uniforms, the long evening frocks of the girls set a scene which Auckland had seldom seen. We did Gypsy numbers, Can-Can, South American and Russian, the Americans loved them all.”

Due to wartime austerity Ms Raye had to be inventive when creating the showgirl’s outfits, making do with homely materials such as lambswool dusters, medical gauze, glue, glitter, “cardboard cones, patty cake cups, shiny paper, mutton cloth dyed black to make sexy tights, and stiffened baize to make wonderful flared skirts.”

Freda wore bunches of balloons over barely-there clothing in the exotic Balloon Dance. GI’s burst the balloons with their cigarettes as she danced around the Wintergarden’s tables. However, her pièce de résistance was appearing solo in the Ritual Fire Dance wearing a G-string, a feather headdress, and gold “paint” created by applying a silver powder mixed with glycerine which the spotlight’s amber filter turned gold. Lenore Upton was similarly near-naked when she performed the popular Fan Dance. She dexterously manipulated two large fans while dancing and managed to keep her body concealed. Lenore said the audience responded to this routine en masse singing the Andrews Sisters’ hit song “Strip Polka”:

Take it off! Take it off! cries a voice from the rear.
Down in front! Down in front! Soon it’s all you could hear.
But she’s always a lady even in pantomime,
So she stops! and always just in time.

“It used to make me laugh when they shouted it out. I know that they tried to embarrass you. But we took it in good part,” she said.

It was a hectic time for all members of the troupe. A new floor show had to be choreographed each week, new routines learned, and new costumes made. All the dancers had compulsory war-time work during the day, followed by six or seven hours rehearsing and performing at nights. Management then sent them home in taxis. Freda Stark recounts that “The Americans would follow us and we’d get out [of the taxis] and straight into their cars and go back to the cabaret. We had a lot of fun. It was a very exciting time, life was très gai, but it was also very sad because of the war.”

Ref: Meeting a Nightclub Showgirl. From:The Auckland Weekly News. 21 October 1942. Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19421021-17-1.
The Civic dancers entertained wounded soldiers at the GI hospital on Sundays, she said this brought home to them the horror and tragedy of the war. “Some of the boys had no legs and I’d be dancing before them, tears pouring down my face.”

The Civic spectaculars came to an end when the Americans left. Lenore Upton noted that “For three years we had all these men and it was an exciting time and then it was totally flat. Then, from 1945, our men started coming back and life slowly returned to normal.”

Freda Stark said dancing at the Civic when the Americans were in town was the happiest time of her life. “I was bored stiff after the war,” she said, and moved to London afterwards.

Nightclubs closed for a while after the troops departed. NZ Truth reported “there [was] no place where the party-minded can carry on till the cock crows.” In fact, Truth said “a visitor in search of a night out is likely to give up by 10 o’clock and retire to bed out of sheer boredom!”

After Freda died in 1999, The Civic Theatre renamed its cocktail bar “Stark’s” in her honour.

Author: Leanne, Central Research

Auckland Libraries references

Books

Cherie Devliotis. 2005. Dancing with Delight: Footprints of the Past. Dance and Dancers in Early Twentieth Century Auckland.
Dianne Haworth & Diane Miller. 2000. Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life.
Harry Bioletti. 1989. The Yanks are Coming: The American Invastion of New Zealand 1942-1944.

Articles

Auckland Star, 22 March 1984, “Freda’s daring days.”
Auckland Star, 16 March 1989, “Civic’s beginnings echo down the years.”
NZ Herald, 9 August 1975, “Oh What a Lovely Lot.”
NZ Truth, 30 August 1944, “Capital’s Night Clubs – Where?”
NZ Woman’s Weekly, 17 January 1994, “Murder, Forbidden Love – What a Past!”
Otago Daily Times, 28 June 2008, “Dancing with the stars.”

Images

Heritage Images, Sir George Grey Special Collections

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