Before burlesque shows were considered trendy, long before the likes of Christina Aguilera, Pussycast Dolls and Dita Von Teese began dancing in barely anything but pumps, there was Sally Rand, the blond coquette fan dancer who was known more for what she wasn’t wearing than her dancing.
She set the media world buzzing and ignited the fury of conservative moral guardian groups following her wildly popular 1933 World’s Fair show, appearing on the Midway stage in the nude with nothing but a pair of large ostrich feather fans framing her petite five-foot tall body.
And when she wasn’t appearing in Hollywood films or traveling the world with her controversial act, she was in Glendora, the place she called home for decades until she died in 1979.
Most of what is known about Rand is what she bared onstage – the alluring fan dances that offered just glimpses of her nude body, the titillating details of her exploits, the outrage from puritan groups – but not much is known about Rand’s life off-stage.
Friends who knew her personally gathered together Monday evening during a Glendora Historical Society meeting at the Bidwell Forum to remember Rand and her little-known contributions to the Glendora community.
What they recalled was a woman of contrasts – a loving mother to her adopted son, yet a manipulative shrewd; feminine, yet a crude, brash woman who swore like a sailor; a gorgeous star, yet horrendous without the help of professional makeup or wigs. Still, the memories shared were all in good nature and love for the woman also dubbed Lady Godiva.
Born Helen Harriet Beck in Hickory County, Missouri in 1904, Rand began appearing in silent films in the 1920s. The famed Hollywood director and producer Cecil B. DeMille renamed his new actress Sally Rand. Following the arrival of sound pictures, Rand – who studied ballet in her youth – became a dancer.
She crafted her signature fan dance and bubble dance at the Paramount Club, before gaining overnight stardom with her appearance at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Although the country was still in the throes of a Great Depression, historians credit Rand and her “Century of Progress” show for saving the fair from financial peril.
Despite her independent instincts and her liberal beliefs on nudity, historians believe Rand would not have called herself a feminist.
“She wouldn’t have but she certainly was,” said writer Bonnie Egan. “I think she would have denied that she was trying to make a point about anything.”
“You have to remember that this was during the Depression and people did whatever they could think of to survive,” added writer Jim Lowe, who is working with Egan on a biography on Rand.
Even at the height of her popularity in the 1930s, Rand called Glendora home. When or how she arrived in the city is unclear (friends believe her mother and stepfather owned a ranch in Glendora in the late 1920s).
Chris Rubel, whose mother Dorothy was a Zigfield Follies dancer and close friend of Rand, remembers the performance Rand gave in the late 30s at Grace Episcopal Church called the Sawdust Billy Circus. Although Rand reportedly wore a nude-color body sock, her performance didn’t go over so kindly with the local congregation.
“It really pissed the Episcopal Church off because Sally Rand was performing,” said Rubel, also a reverend for the Episcopal church. “There was so much flap about that, and Glendora is such an upstanding town. So many puritans I think, ended up in Glendora.”
Rubel, who as a teenager often found himself driving around Rand in her Chevy for little or no pay, said few people knew Rand was a bright, inquisitive woman who even took physics courses at Citrus College for fun.
Glendora resident and former city council candidate John Fields recalled the Glendora High fundraiser called Fields Follies that Rand had helped him coordinate.
The show played to a packed crowd at the Citrus College auditorium, now the Haugh Performing Arts Center. The show raised thousands of dollars for the 1975 junior class prom.
Rand, then in her 70s, did not disappoint the crowd.
She appeared with her signature feather fans. Although some say she wore a body sock, some in audience confessed to pulling out binoculars to make sure.
“You just never knew with Sally…Some will say that she showed us everything she had,” said Lowe. “But like everyone one of us, she has hidden more than she has revealed.”
The Glendora Historical Society is auctioning off a portrait of Rand painted by local artist Mark Lewis at their July 25 banquet. To purchase a $5 raffle ticket or for more information, call (626) 963-0419.