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Burlesque Past and Present: Betty "Ball of Fire" Rowland

The art of the tease is on everyone's lips; with a rising interest in burlesque, cabaret clubs are in full swing and new acts are cropping up every week. At Playful Promises we just adore a bit of cheek, and would love to introduce you to our favourite burly girls, past and present! Keep your eyes firmly peeled, as each week we feature inspiring performers guaranteed to set pulses racing!

This week's Burlesque star is a real force to be reckoned with; Betty "Ball of Fire" Rowland was named after her stunning red hair and vibrant stage presence. Her fiery attitude contrasted against her petite stature that originally earned her the name "the littlest burlesque star". 

Born on 23 January 1916, she is said to have had a tough life. Her and her sisters had originally wanted to go to college, however "we got cheated out of it because of the Depression", she recalled in 2009. Her father lost his accountancy job in the 1930s, and after taking dance classes Betty and her sister Rose-Zell took to burlesque to help raise money for the family. 

Betty started her career as a Minsky's girl in New York, and would have continued there if a crackdown hadn't been put in place in the mid 30's. Mayor LaGuardia and several citizens groups considered burlesque to be a corrupt moral influence, and after much dodging and fining, Minsky's was finally busted thanks to a dancer not wearing her G-string. 

Even while the venue was still at it's peak, Betty found life tough, often earning herself dinner rather than cash.

Her troupe headed west in 1938, headlining the Follies Theater in Los Angeles for a short run. The LA audience loved Betty and she continued to dance there for 14 years. In her heyday she was considered one of the best paid burlesque dancers, even appearing in a few films and said to have dated Orson Welles. 

Betty and Liz Goldwyn

The hit 1941 film "Ball of Fire" was at least partly based on Betty; the costumes themselves were flagrant copies of her burlesque ensembles. As a publicity stunt she sued the producer Samuel Goldwyn, unaware that she would later be interviewed by his grand-daughter, Liz Goldwyn, in her 2005 documentary "Pretty Things". 

Like many burlesque dancers of the time, Betty had her run ins with the law. Joan from "In SRO Land" had the chance to ask Betty about her arrest in 1952. Despite working for some time in LA with only one misdemeanor arrest in 1939, she was suddenly arrested for a lewd performance. According to Betty, "one night two LAPD cops arrived at the Follies expecting to get a free pass, but theater manager Maurice Rosen was firm – no freebies." Seeking revenge, the policemen arrested Betty and Maurice. 

They were faced with a 4 month sentence, which was soon dropped with her attorney spinning a media story that Betty was quitting burlesque to open a perfume shop in Beverly Hills. According to Betty, the real reason was more a case of a substantial pay off placed in the right hands, allowing for her release. 

Betty was said to retire from burlesque in the early 60s after getting married, yet still receives fan mail to this day!

In the late 60s she inherited a Santa Monica bar called Mr. B's, and operated it until 1995 when she partnered up with some investors and renovated the bar into the 217 Lounge. Judging by the most recent interview I could find, Betty was still working as a bar and restaurant host in her early 90s, still showing off her fiery personality. 

In 2010 a post on the ministry of burlesque calls for donations to the Betty Rowland Trust. At 93 she suffered a heart attack and while in hospital recovering some of her "family friends" helped themselves to her furniture, burlesque memorabilia and let her insurance lapse. I couldn't find any further details on whether the trust reached it's goals and whether Betty is well - if anyone has any further information we would love to hear it!