Sex in the Fifties … raging hormones and rigid codes. People could tell if you masturbated by looking into your eyes. We loved the girls “A Bushel and Peck,” because we were “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (the titles of two 1951 popular songs), but the title of another song summed up what boys really wanted,“She Was the Rovin’ Kind.” That tension between idealizing women and looking for a playmate, characterized the larger hypocrisy of the times. It’s no accident that Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine became so popular after it was launched in 1953.
Eventually I found a cool girl. We became close friends. We played around a lot but never went “all the way.” “Getting to third base” but never making it to “home,” in the vernacular of the times. The hesitation wasn’t moral. It was entirely practical. There were no birth control pills, no IUDs, no sex education courses. My parents never told me thing. Condoms were hidden behind drug store counters patrolled by unsympathetic pharmacists. Abortions were illegal and stories of coat hanger operations gone wrong were common. Sex was still what Eliot in The Wastelands called, “a moment’s surrender that an age of prudence can never retract.” The risks were very high. So most of us waited … but only for a year a two after high school. By then we were having unprotected sex with the consequences of unhappy marriages, unwanted children and back alley abortions.
I learned about sex by sneaking off to the El Rey Theater on San Pablo Boulevard in Oakland, one of the last remaining twenty-five or so burlesque houses in the United States. I found a lot more than sex … a generally amused, not hypocritical, if somewhat jaded, view of the world, which fit me to a tee.
In the early Fifties, at least at the El Rey, skits and jokes bridged the strip teases. The dancers never went “all the way,” just like all good girls. Pasties and “G” strings were as far as they got. Posters featured the top banana along with the strippers. He usually had a second who played the drums and sometimes a piano and the dancers joined in the skits. Performances began and ended with drum rolls and bad jokes.
An Injured Man crosses stage on crutches.
Comic: What happened to you?
Injured Man: I was living the life of Riley.
Injured Man: Riley came home!
Drum: da da boom.
Most great comics of that era started in Burlesque Houses. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce did stand up comic routines in burlesque houses and strip joints in LA. The low life was the last stand for an honest recognition of human sexuality and one of the few places you could poke holes in Fifties’ conformity and shout out that the emperor had no clothes.
I remember a blond named Dixie Evans, a regular, who started dancing at the El Rey in 1952, when I was seventeen. I never had trouble getting in to see a show despite my age. Dixie was twenty-six years old, with a shock of blond hair and full lips painted bright red. She would soon be dubbed “the Marilyn Monroe of stripping.” Dixie would emerge wearing a floor length red dress, a lighted cigarette in a long holder in her mouth and a come-hither smile on her lips, cradling a black cat held lovingly against her breasts.
Keep in mind that just a couple of moments before this, Dixie had been on stage dressed as a farm girl, holding a pitchfork, as the top banana, dressed as a preacher, approached her.
Preacher: Do you believe in the hereafter?
Dixie: Certainly, I do!
Preacher: (Leering and grabbing his crotch) Then you know what I’m here after!
Drum: da da boom.
Dixie would stroke the cat’s back luxuriously and ask in a stage whisper, “Want to see my pussy?” The audience would go wild. I never took my friends nor told them about my interest in “the low life.” Circumspection was in the nature of the times.
Irrelevant information: Russ Meyer made his first porn film French Peep Show at the El Rey in the mid Fifties with Tempest Storm. Live burlesque disappeared entirely in the Sixties and the El Rey switched to “adults only” films, finally closing in the 1970’s when a freeway overpass demolished its neighborhood.