Friday, May 13, 2016

Toni Elling

2014 Texas Burlesque Festival
Featuring the burlesque legend, Toni Elling.

Friday, May 13, 2016
Happy Birthday Toni! 

April 2014, Texas Burlesque Festival, Austin, Texas. 
Toni approached the stage, bowed to our applause and thanking us said, “You are all my angels.”
The night before, on Friday, she performed her signature burlesque routine to “Satin Doll”, a DukeEllington classic composition, wearing her original costuming.

The brunch audience was asked to present questions.

The following are some actual quotes, paraphrases and incomplete quotes. I apologize to those that are not credited with their questions. I hope this provides a picture of what she gave to us during the brunch.
I asked, “Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a burlesque performer?”
A friend in Detroit, Rita Revere became a stripper. She tried to get me to become one too. I was appalled with the idea. I worked at the telephone company, was there for years, but never promoted because of color.
A woman producer trained dancers, took me under her wing. She asked me what I knew about performing burlesque. I said, ‘The name of the game is Strip Tease and that explains it, says it all. What else is there to know?’
I started at the best club in town. I could have started at a real dive, but thought, ‘if I’m going to do this, I’m not going to go where I’d be ashamed to even walk in the door.’ So, I went to the best club in town. That night, Jackie Wilson was the headliner. He broke me in, watched me perform, was right down in front, then waited for me backstage. He hugged me and I told him he better hold on tight ‘cause I might just fall down. I mean, this was Jackie Wilson!
My first job was in the small town of Lima, Ohio and I shared a dressing room with a singer, Vanilla.

Dulche de Leche asked, “”When you had a creative energy lull, what made you persevere?”
“It was my job. Rita, in talking to me, would encourage me, showing me paystubs. I saw what kind of money she was making and that’s why I got into the business. I wanted to make more money, but Rita, she passed as whiter, as Spanish and made more money. I could have tried to pass as Spanish instead, but I insisted that they buy my talent, not my color. My daddy’s black and I will not be otherwise. I didn’t work much in Detroit, I worked where I could. But, it was my job and I performed my shows whether I wanted to or not, no matter how hard or easy the job was.

“A typical audience, who did you perform for, was it mostly men? Or were there a lot of women like in today’s audiences?”
The audiences were mostly men. Women came in with their husbands. When women liked the show, it felt special. People would bring their children to see me perform. It was a tribute to me, because my act was clean, it was a compliment. I was respectable to my audience. I never flirted with a man that had a woman with him. Don’t fool with another woman’s man.”

“How did you meet Duke Ellington and begin to work with him?”
Duke Ellington and I were the best of friends. We met during a World War II broadcast from a theater, for the troops. We didn’t see one another again for years. It was at the Gotham Motel. It was an all black motel, used by a lot of traveling entertainers. He was in town to play the Paradise. I was going into the drug store in the lobby of the hotel and while I was coming out, he saw me and approached me and said, “Who’s little girl are you?” I was taken back and said, “I don’t know, my mother’s and father’s, I guess.” I made him laugh and he asked for my phone number. He called me that night, late, like around 3 or 4 in the morning. It woke me up! I answered it and asked, “Who is this?” He says, “It’s your Uncle Edward.”
I responded, “I have no Uncle Edward. If you don’t tell me who this is, I’m going to hang up.” He laughs, tells me it’s him, and I about died of embarrassment. I told Duke Ellington I was going to hang up on him. Then he says, “I just called you to say, ‘Good Morning’, and are you going to pick me up and take me to my job?” I didn’t have a car, but I knew of one I could borrow. So, I went that night in this car and picked up Duke Ellington and I took him to work. Over the years, I developed a close friendship with his son, Mercer too. Mercer was a trumpeter.
Duke was my favorite person. When I told him about my name choice, he was so proud. He loved that I was using his name. I was a singer when I took the name, but I didn’t use the name for years after I stopped being a stripper.
I took a job in Japan. It was for 10 weeks, but I ended up staying for six months. Three clubs wanted me to be a singer. I sang during my acts. I started in burlesque to get to know the clubs, the circuit, make some money, get the costumes – all to be a singer.

“Tell us about the arc of your career.”
1960 was my first performance, and my last was in 1974. I lost my brother in 1969, and my dad in 1970. I was working in Portland, Oregon and moved back home. I felt like the business was becoming too tawdry.
Sparkly Devil (aka Sarah Klein) wrote an article about black strippers for the Metro Times. She wanted to interview two people. She got connected to me and Lottie The Body. Sparkly told me she was a stripper, had been to Exotic World. Sparkly told me about Dixie Evans. In 2006 Lottie and I attended Miss Exotic World in Las Vegas together with Sparkly. Lottie was a judge and I strutted on stage for legends’ night. I never knew that I strutted. I saw a video during the weekend of me when I was on stage, and I strutted. It made me cry, made me proud. I had never seen what I looked like on stage before. I didn’t know I looked like that. People had told me for years that I strutted, but didn’t realize what they were talking about.

“With newer shows and Neo-Burlesque, what do you think of our version of burlesque?”
You don’t want to know.
Dixie (Evans) asked me to return the next year to perform. She said, “You have a year to prepare.” I replied, “I will do it for you.” Now, it’s my 9th year returning. Dixie would say, “The duty of a legend is to be a mentor. Only you legends know that and can do that.”
I don’t believe screwing a pole is necessary, it’s not entertainment. Vulgarity is not necessary. It takes time to tease. Shows now are more like revues, not burlesque, not entertainment. Vulgarity is what I can’t stand. Don’t put your clothes on the floor. That is your living. Don’t throw that on the floor. That dress has come a long way with me. I can’t defile it. Take care of your tools – your shoes, undies – they are your tools of the trade. I lost a gig once because I wouldn’t toss my costume pieces to the audience. They called me a Diva. I didn’t know what a diva was.

“Do you have choreography?”
Choreography is phony. Listen to the music. It tells you how to move. I do whatever the music dictates at the moment. First, I walk, I get a feel for the audience, the mood. I do what comes to me at the time. Every time I perform, it is different. I don’t rehearse, never did. I do what you (the audience) tell me to do.

Dainty Dandridge asked, “What is it like dancing all these years as a God-fearing woman?”

I am a Baptist. The preacher came to my house one time. I was doing a saloon number. The preacher, he gave me his spats to wear. He wore spats all the time, and he gave me his for my routine, to use as a pattern on my costuming. I went to my brother, who is four years younger, talked to him about my career and my faith. He said, “Be yourself. Do whatever you want. Don’t let anything hold you back.” You can’t please everyone, nor should you try. You have to be happy.

No comments: