Blast From the Past

Home Blast From the Past

Historical Wardrobe Malfunction

This is kind of neato—The Star Tribune has a blog called “Yesterday’s News” where it digs up old-timey newspaper articles, photos and ads. This week’s feature made the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune on May 9, 1953: Darlene LaBette Varallo, an “esoteric dancer”, was jailed for disorderly conduct. Two follow-up articles detail the handling of the evidence (“two little rhinestone-studded cones, a few lengths of gauze, a fringe and a pair of black net tights”) and the trial, which was complete with a lie detector test and testimony where the defendant explains that she was only guilty of a wardrobe malfunction:

SHE DESCRIBED her dance as a “can-can” plus a mixture of “a shuffle, ball hop, kick, twirls.” She denied Sullivan’s charge that she had bent over and shaken parts of her anatomy at the audience.
“You can’t bend over when you dance or you lose your equilibrium,” said Darlene, who testified she has danced since the age of 3 and was an Arthur Murray instructor for two years.
She said she certainly was wearing state’s exhibit F (the brassiere) when she began to dance but had to discard it because a strap broke. She also denied removing the state’s exhibit E (a tasseled fringe) from its original position around her – ah – middle.

Motor City Strippers!

When I see a black woman in a filmy something or other, or clutching feathers, or posed elegantly, I have to click whatever it is to see where she came from. That’s what happened when I stumbled onto this story about burlesque dancers in the Motor City on the Metro Timessite. It begins with a line I cannot turn away from: “They called her The Body. She was built like a double order of pancakes — sweet and stacked.” And gets better and better from there. I found myself completely enthralled the entire way through!

I absolutely think burlesque dancers who get paid for their work are sex workers, so to hear these women’s stories is incredibly inspiring. Lottie Graves mentioned that when she traveled, because of her fame, there’d be champagne and flowers in the room…this is something I can deal with. She also mentions that she wasn’t looked down on because “exotic dancing” was “classy.” I imagine the beaded gowns and rhinestone bikinis had something to do with it. Remind me to buy a rhinestone bikini sometime.

Nothin’ Dirty Going On: “Best Little Whorehouse” Madam Edna Milton Chadwell Dead At 84

The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, based on Larry L. King’s The Whorehouse Papers, was a seminal work of sex work-themed pop culture. The successful 1982 film version of the musical, starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, included “I Will Always Love You,” a ballad that would later become Whitney Houston’s signature showstopper in The Bodyguard, and “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place,” a showtune that would become the go-to performance choice of future musical theater strippers across America. Undoubtedly, many young children of the 80s were first introduced to the very idea of prostitution by the film.

But before all that, the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas, was a real place, and a massive news story in 1970s Texas. The brothel was brought down thanks to the, ahem, consumer advocate reporting of Geraldo Rivera precursor Marvin Zindler. During its final days, the Chicken Ranch was run by Edna Milton (later Chadwell), who had started working (yup) at the brothel in the 50s and later bought it for $30,000. The real life Miss Mona said she’d never had an affair with the local sheriff and that their relationship was all business. Somehow, this doesn’t make her story any less interesting.

Edna died this week after sustaining injuries in a car crash last October. Unfortunately, she never published an autobiography, but went on the record whenever she was asked. Although she often said the fictional stories about the Chicken Ranch were sensationalized, it’s hard to imagine her actual story was in any way boring.

When Exotic Dance Costumes Were Actually Costumes

When I came across (on tumblr) this old photo of a proud stripper, showing off her turquoise fringe satin jacket and the matching chaps that bare her French-cut tan lines, I had to know where and who it came from. These days, Rhonda B-Chaparro, aka Odd Artist, works more with melting and painting found plastic objects, but she used to have a business sewing exotic dance costumes.

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers: Reliving the Decade You Survived

(Photo by Steve Rhodes of International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers 2010, via Flickr and the Creative Commons.)

By Caty Simon and Josephine

Ten years ago, the remains of four sex workers — Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello — were found close to Gilgo Beach, near Long Island, New York. The bodies were unearthed after a frantic 911 call from another worker: Shannan Gilbert spent 21 minutes telling a dispatcher a man was trying to kill her, then she disappeared. It became evident that a serial killer was targeting area sex workers he met on Craigslist, so the Suffolk County police commissioner asked the community for help. In response, the local SWOP demanded amnesty for sex workers, a request  the police department scoffed at. The case featured multiple suspects — including a former Suffolk County police chief — and remains ongoing.

That case, which came to be known as the Long Island Serial Killer case as it expanded to 10 victims, demonstrated how the internet revolutionized sex work, taking it online and out of the shadows without the help of pimps and traffickers. The public, however, interpreted the case differently; Craigslist made sex-for-money easy and accessible — and dangerous, it was surmised. The notion that the police department had erred couldn’t compete against the lurid narrative of sex workers naively meeting their killers online. Robert Kolker, who wrote a book on the subject, told TAS in 2013 that he was certain that the case might have unfolded differently if  the women weren’t sex workers, or “a different class of people” as he put it. Either way, Craigslist’s Adult ads section shuttered soon after, marking the beginning of the end of the internet as a safe haven. 

Today is Dec. 17, the annual day we rally to end violence against sex workers, and the last such day in this decade. The environmental changes sex workers have endured are too many to list but, in the day’s spirit of reflection and rememberance, we’re certain it’s paramount to revisit the challenges we’ve faced and the hard work we’ve endured.