She was known as the ‘Redhead Ball of Fire’, a title given to her because of her stature – she was a diminutive six feet – and her fiery hair. She thought the nickname, often abbreviated to “Ball of Fire,” was corny. But Betty Rowland was a burlesque queen nonetheless. Headlining the heyday of the spirited variety shows of the 1930s and 1940s, she worked well into the 1950s.
Ms. Rowland had a languid, balletic style (hers was a soft grind) and she often threw an undulating stretch and drop known as a German roll. Her costumes were elegant: she preferred long skirts with a side split to the hip, bandeau tops and evening gloves. After a slow burn, she lost most of her gear; but, like most burlesque stars, she kept her pasties and her thong on.
One of her signature pieces was called “Bumps in the Ballet,” a parody of a ballet routine that she liked to introduce to her audiences with a little banter: “Let’s put a little juice in the Ballets Russes and the dying swan A goose. May I put a bump in this ballet in a classical way?”
Ms. Rowland died on April 3 at a nursing home in Culver City, California. She was 106.
Her death, which was not widely reported at the time, was confirmed by Leslie Zemeckis, the director of the 2010 documentary Behind the Burly Q, which told the stories of Mrs. Rowland and other burlesque stars.
Outside of the tribal world of burlesque, Mrs. Rowland may not be as famous — or as well-paid — as other headliners like Tempest Storm, another redhead queen, who dated John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, whose breasts would be insured. by Lloyd’s of London, and whose revenues at its peak in the mid-1950s were about $100,000 a year (about $950,000 today). Mrs. Rowland did well, but not so well; in 1945, she was making $500 every two weeks, the equivalent of more than $200,000 a year today.
Still, it was “big dough,” as Ms. Rowland told The Los Angeles Times in 2009, adding that she didn’t waste it on alcohol or cigarettes. “I never smoked or drank,” she said. “It didn’t run in my family. When we were in show business, we took it seriously. As a result, we saw a few fall by the wayside.”
Ms. Rowland was an early vintage burlesque star: She had a pre-teen vaudeville act with her sister Rozelle, performing a bit of soft shoe and tap. As vaudeville faded and the stars migrated to the livelier burlesque shows, Betty and Rozelle hit the road as chorus girls.
Burlesque, also known as “the poor man’s theater,” was, like vaudeville, a grab bag of acts—comedy, acrobatics, a little song, and dance—with the added spice of a striptease or two.
Betty had her first star turn when she was just 14, filling in for an artist who sprained her ankle. She was so engrossed in the music that she forgot to take off her clothes.
“We teased. That was the name of the game. You become a fantasy to other people,” she told Liz Goldwyn, author of “Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens” (2006). But, she added, “people whisper, for God’s sake, they say, ‘You know what she used to do?’ And they say it like I was a porn worker or something. Well, they shouldn’t whisper – I was a dancer. It was the only thing I knew how to do, and I was successful at it.”
Betty Jane Rowland was born on January 23, 1916 in Columbus, Ohio, one of four daughters of Alvah and Ida Rowland. The girls took dance lessons, and from the age of 11 she and her sister Rozelle helped the family financially by performing together in amateur vaudeville shows and later as burlesque stars, touring a bit, but mainly based in New York City.
Betty has frequently performed at the flagship Minsky Theater in Times Square, among others. Back then, the Minsky name was a burlesque franchise and institution, from which Abbot and Costello, Phil Silvers, and Gypsy Rose Lee began their careers.
Rozelle Rowland rose to fame as ‘the Golden Girl’, performing completely naked – but painted from head to toe in gold paint. During a tour of London she met a Belgian baron, Jean Empain, one of Europe’s richest men, heir to the Paris metro, among other things. As the story goes, they fell in love, she became pregnant, and the Baron said he would marry her if she had a son. “Gilded Lily of 14th St. Burlesque Weds Baron,” read a local headline in 1937, the year of her marriage.
Ms. Rowland moved to Los Angeles in 1938, a year after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared the burlesque houses bankrupt for tarnishing the city’s morale. Her own contacts with the law, however, were rare.
She was fined $250 for fornication in 1939, after a trial in which a burly cop imitated her appearance on the witness stand, leaving the court weak with laughter. In 1952, she was jailed when a cashier at a theater where she was performing failed to recognize two vice squads who used to attend the shows for free. In revenge, they arrested Mrs. Rowland and the theater manager; a judge sentenced them both to four months in prison. A local columnist took up the case of Mrs. Rowland, pointing out that the sentence was the same as that of the perpetrator of a recent shooting, and she was released after three weeks.
In 1943, Mrs. Rowland sued the Samuel Goldwyn Company for using her stage name as the title of the 1941 film “Ball of Fire,” a screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as an empowered nightclub singer on the run, and for breach of contract. . Ms Rowland said she was hired as a technical advisor to Ms Stanwyck but was never paid. Mrs. Rowland got a lot of publicity for her cause, but she didn’t win.
Burlesque lost its luster in the post-war years. By the early 1960s, the crowds were seedy, the clubs grubby, and production had all but disappeared. Soon there were only hardcore strip clubs, and many of the former burlesque theaters ran pornographic films. Mrs. Rowland disdained her rude successors.
“What exactly is a lap dance?” she asked a reporter in 1997.
Ms. Rowland was in a long-term relationship with a fellow Minsky burlesque star, a comedian named Gus Schilling – a banana with baggy pants, in burlesque parlance. Newspapers often described the couple as married, but Mrs. Rowland told Mrs. Zemeckis and others that although she and Mr. Schilling lived together, he was married to someone else. Her 1956 marriage to Owen S. Dalton, a timber merchant, ended in divorce in 1963. She leaves no immediate survivors.
In the late 1960s, Mrs. Rowland inherited an interest in a Santa Monica bar called Mr. B’s. In the mid-1990s, she lost control of the property to investors, who renamed the place the 217 Lounge. She stayed on as hostess and worked there in 2009 at the age of 93. In 2003, she had filed for bankruptcy protection.
Mrs. Rowland stopped dancing when she married Mr. Dalton. But after her divorce, she came out of retirement for a week or so in 1966, performing at a theater in downtown Los Angeles. (At the time, she told The Los Angeles Times, she was writing her memoir, with the working title “Ham and Legs.” Unfortunately, no manuscript was ever discovered, said Ms. Zemeckis, who bought Ms. Rowland’s costume collection to help with her work. finances in her final years.)
“The theater was indescribably filthy, the band reduced to a drummer and a pianist, and the midweek audience painfully spared,” wrote The Los Angeles Times of that 1966 performance. “But against the unsteady sounds of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ came out as the frail Miss Rowland, as regal and red-haired as ever, to prove that experience can triumph over youth, that grace and humor can beat the passage of time to a draw.”
Kitty Bennett contributed to research.