Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Roaring Twenties Topless Duet

Betsy on stage (circa 1970)
Today is the 13th anniversary of my wife Betsy's death.

I first met Betsy in San Francisco when she was living on Stanyan Street, studying and teaching modern dance at Ann Halprin's Dancer's Workshop on Divisadero St. While searching for something else in my files this morning I ran across some excerpts from Betsy's Journals concerning those days (during the reign of Herb Caen), when Betsy performed "The Topless Duet".

10/28/82

Lying in bed this morning,  I thought about Maude Meehan's suggestion to write about my topless dancing career. Some opening lines drifted into my head.

Eight of us shared the job, four men and four women. We were part of a dance class taught by AA Leath. He was the guy who scored the gig. We performed in pairs and on alternating nights, the Topless Man-Woman Duet at the Roaring Twenties in San Francisco's North Beach. On the marquee on Kearney St we were listed underneath the Topless Girl in the Swing. She was the feature. Every night, at 10, 11, midnight and 1 AM she climbed aboard a pink-cushioned swing hung 2 stories high in a wide stairwell and arched her back for all to enjoy.

"Come on down tonight," AA said, "See what you think of it." Twenty-five bucks a shot, 4 performances a nite. That amounted to about 30 minutes of dancing for $100. Never in a whole decade's career had I ever dreamed of getting paid like that. It was tempting but terrifying. Nevertheless, at 9:30 that night I found myself bound for North Beach in my bouncy little Citroen.

A big place, the Roaring Twenties, with lots of red plush decor. A long bar off to one side, tables all around the swing's staircase and up to the stage. On stage, a young and sprightly rock band. the manager points me to the dressing rooms upstairs. There's two of them, one for the girl-on-the-swing, the stripper and the topless waitresses and the other for the duet contingent. I open the door to find AA stretching and muttering in his usual fashion and with a southern drawl about getting in touch with some psychological phenomenon. Susan, his partner for the evening, was busy wrapping up in the several yards of chiffon which, atop a G-string, comprised her costume.

It was the Winter before the Summer of Love, 1967, and lots of us were driven by the idea that the Beautiful People could make a difference wherever we found ourselves. AA had that in mind for the clientele of the Roaring Twenties. "We'll show them that they can love their bodies". Sounded intriguing, but looking at AA in his G-string there in the dressing room didn't have me convinced.

I went downstairs, found Jim and Nancy sitting at the bar. They were also in AA's class and considering topless employment. the Girl on the Swing was waving goodbye to three tables of men from this week's convention. We ordered 7-Ups and waited, eager but figgety. the topless waitresses moved about, adorned in high heels, tights, miniskirts and pert aprons. Above the waist they were wearing a sheath of numbness.

The band leader announces The Duet and moves his musicians into a lively number. AA and Susan approach the stage through the audience, from opposite sides of the club, each clothed in chiffon. once on stage there is a lot of self-conscious shedding of chiffon. Reduced to G-strings and each other, the dance of seduction begins. I sit entranced, wondering what it would be like to be in Susan's place, all-but-naked, on stage.  It is dark out here in the audience and the stage lighting is soft enough to be kindly. They seem protected by each other and the movement, which shifts from modern-dancey to Fillmoresque and never leaves the realm of self-consciousness. I look at the tables of convention men and a collection of couples watching. They are looking but they don't seem to SEE. AA and Susan skirt each other, do-se-do, retreat and occasionally touch...

More on Roaring Twenties piece. What I remember about what it was like to perform the duet:

i remember that the band, whose name I can't now recall, who eventually was successful enuf to cut a record, played a piece with the lyrics "GI Joe, come back home. You'll have the best old time you've ever known," Real upbeat.

I remember going to buy my G-string downtown at the dance wear store. What a fuss over absolutely nothing! Well, practically nothing.

The commute to North Beach was by cable car.

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill. 
                ---Wallace Stevens


6 comments:

peripateo said...

13 years with your gedankenbride. Condolulations.

valerie corral said...


What an absolute delight to read Betsy's words & recall her work.. her impact on my life, on art, on our community, on dance on making her own life into art... and on yours... because you still bring her from time to time into our lives by bringing us these jewels.
Thank you... I recall that day that she jumped out of her body... She did some majical work in the days leading up to that leap and on that day, her last work of art in this realm. In the whatever realms of who knows, I cannot comment, except to say that today she has reentered my world.

nick herbert said...

Thanks, Val. I remember your welcome presence/participation during Betsy's Last Performance.

Anonymous said...

Wow, 13 years. We still think about her when we drive by the school.
Thanks for sharing the parts if her life with us that we never knew about.

nick herbert said...

Nashama Franklin, one of Betsy's Halprin pals, recounts her own version of the Roaring Twenties dance scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBflFjgSwiY

South Street said...

Those were the days, my friend. Betsy brought all that excitement, innovation, daring ,dancing,and whoop - de- do to our lives in Boulder Creek, where we used it all to build an innovative community