By Stanley Paul
Sally Rand and her fan dance.
I had just turned 16 years of age when I read about a dancer who was going to be appearing in a Philadelphia club, about 20 miles from where I lived and grew up in the little town of West Chester, Pa. She was looking for someone to play Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the piano, and they were offering $30 a night: a fortune for a young 16-year-old. I couldn’t believe it! I had played that song dozens of times in recitals. The dancer’s name was Sally Rand, and I, a teenager from West Chester, of course had never heard of her. I had no idea what kind of a dancer she was, but I figured she must be a ballet dancer if she was going to be dancing to that song. The only problem was, to get into a nightclub, you had to be at least 21 years old.
Eventually, I got up the nerve to call the club owner, doing my best to mask my adolescent voice. Somehow, the ruse worked; they must have been desperate for a pianist to play that song. With the deal settled, I now had to focus on how in the world I could convince them I was not just 16 years old. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and I came up with – what I considered to be – a brilliant idea. So, I smeared white shoe polish in my hair and borrowed a pair of my father’s sunglasses, hoping that it might just do the trick. I really wanted that $30. The next thing I knew, it was Saturday evening, and I was on my way to the big city. But in my second-hand car, the trip was far from a smooth one. See, I was used to the country roads of West Chester, not the freeways and overpasses of Philadelphia; I got lost more than once.
An hour after I had left, I finally arrived at the nightclub, with a huge sign blinking on and off being the first thing I saw as I exited the car: THE LEGEND HERSELF, IN PERSON: MISS SALLY RAND! ONE NIGHT ONLY! As I said earlier, I had no idea who this Sally Rand was; little did I realize that this lady had been the big attraction of the World’s Fair in Chicago, way back in 1933. It was there that she had shocked the nation and the city with her scandalous performance. (In fact, she was probably the one who helped save the fair from bankruptcy in the depths of the Great Depression.)
As I walked the darkness amidst the smell of smoke and stale beer, I realized that I was going to be working in a dive. “I’m the p-p-piano player for Miss Rand,” I said to the first person I saw, my long-practiced introduction not measuring up to what I had hoped it to be. Without saying a word, he just pointed to the little stage off in the corner. “Phew! So far, so good,” I thought.
Just behind the postage-stamp-size stage, I saw a drum set and an old beat-up piano. Since no one was around, I sat down and started to practice my song, and boy, was that piano out of tune! A few minutes later, this lady wearing a kimono appeared. “Honey, just keep it in tempo for the whole song,” she whispered. Then, she disappeared. From the looks of her, I thought she was probably the dancer’s mother.
About half an hour later, a guy sat down at the drum set, while someone else sauntered in with a saxophone. Suddenly, I was shoved to the sidelines, with a small band taking over the stage to play a brassy melody. A buxom woman sauntered onto the stage and started what I thought might be singing, though I couldn’t really tell. After a few songs, the band departed and a comedian came up to tell dirty jokes. While I was busy trying to remember the punch-lines (so that I could share them with my buddies at school), I heard someone finally announce, “And now… in person… the legend herself… MISS… SALLY… RAAAAND!”
I had barely scrambled back onto the piano bench when this little lady with two enormous fans entered the spotlight. It was the same woman I had thought was the dancer’s mother! She gave me the signal to start, and after performing the first few bars of the song, I looked up and realized, “My God! She’s not wearing any clothes!” From my vantage point, I could see much more than the audience could; it was hard to stay focused on my piano-playing when such a riveting spectacle was unfolding just a few feet away. But all the while, my thoughts couldn’t help but scream out: “This woman is older than my mother!” And I had never seen my mother like that!
By the time it was over, nervousness, exhilaration, and the stuffiness of the club combined to leave me covered in sweat… but that was only the first show! A half hour later, it was time for the second show. After the “singer” sang her same songs and the comedian told the same jokes, the legend herself reappeared. I was more relaxed at this point, at least until I realized what time it was: already after midnight. “My parents are going to kill me,” I thought.
After the second show, I went up to the cash register to ask the owner for my $30. By now, the house lights were on, and he could see how that I was just a small-town kid with white shoe polish in my hair. “Are you nuts?” he asked. “How old are you anyway?” Before I could answer, he shoved some bills in my hand and said, “Get the hell out of here! You wanna get us raided?”
Scared out of my wits, I cleared out as fast as I could and scrambled into my second-hand car. “My parents are gonna kill me!” I kept repeating to myself. But so focused was I on that that I didn’t take the time to see the bills he had shoved into my hand. At a stoplight, I counted it up, and there was only 20 dollars! He had cheated me out of 10 bucks! But I had enough to worry about with facing my parents; turning around to face the club owner was out of the question.
As I neared our driveway, I reassured myself: “They’re probably asleep by now. Maybe they never even noticed I was missing!” It was well after 2 a.m. when I finally pulled up in front of the house, and before I even got out of the car, my parents ran down the stairs to meet me. “Where were you?” both of them screamed. “We were ready to call the police!” I told them the whole story, as best I could under the circumstances. After their initial fears had calmed down, rather than being really angry with me, they were absolutely amazed! Their son had played for the legend, Sally Rand! “We saw her in Chicago at the World’s Fair… didn’t we?” my mother asked my father. “And that was right after we were married in… 1933!” “She still can’t be dancing over 20 years later!” my father answered. “I wonder what that woman looks like now without any clothes on.” Now I won’t repeat what my mother said to my father.
The two of them went to bed, shaking their heads. Somehow, the amazement of their son playing the piano for Sally Rand’s fan dance caused them to completely forget to punish me, despite my arriving home a full three hours after my curfew.
Let’s skip to 20 years later – during my time at the Pump Room – when I happened to read in Kup’s Column that Sally Rand would be appearing at Mangam’s Chateau in a suburb of Chicago. I hadn’t seen her since I played for her as a 16-year-old, so I made reservations for her opening night. I couldn’t believe she could still be doing that dance! When I played for her, she was old… by now she must be ancient!
On her opening night at Mangam’s Chateau, the lights went dark and a voice boomed over the microphone, “Mrs. Helen Mangam is proud to present the legend herself… MISS SALLY RAND!” Suddenly, the stage was bathed in deep blue light (and I mean deep blue). Add all of the smoke in the room, and it made for a very eerie atmosphere. Then, the legend appeared, still schlepping those two huge ostrich feather fans. Her blond hair was up in a bun, her two tiny feet were crammed into plastic high heels, and she proceeded to gracefully twirl around the stage, performing her famous dance. The very same song, Clair de Lune, was playing, this time over a scratchy phonograph instead of an out-of-tune nightclub piano. But aside from this, nothing had changed since the night I played for her; I just couldn’t believe it.
Twenty years later, Sally Rand and the author at Mangam’s Chateau.
“Stanley!” a familiar voice called out after the show. “I saw your name on the reservation list. It’s so good to see you!” It was the owner, Helen Mangam. “Would you care to meet Miss Rand?” she offered. “Of course!” was my quick response, and just a few minutes later, the legend arrived at the table. She’d put some clothes on, and in the conversation that followed, she was very sweet. I explained to her that I’d once played the piano for her dance, and when I told her the story, she couldn’t believe it. But the best part of it all was that I finally got to tell her, “LADY! YOU STILL OWE ME 10 BUCKS!”