Al Stencell Interview
(Girl Show Into The Canvas World Of Bump And Grind)
Starting with the Oriental hoochie coochie dancers at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 through headlines such as Gypsy Pose Lee and Sally Rand, girl shows have been the main adult entertainment on fairgrounds’. A group would gather before the girl show tent, with perhaps one or two well-endowed ladies on the bally to entice the men inside. Then the curtains would part and out step some of the most beautiful girls the audience had ever seen.
You can’t attend these girl shows any longer. The last performances happened in the mid to late 1970’s.
But, you can re-live the history of them. Inside Al Stencell’s book, “Girl Show: Into The Canvas World Of Bump And Grind” (ECW Press, 2120 Queen Street East, Ste. 200, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. M4E 1E2. Website:www.ecw.ca/press).
Travel back to a place where the girls would put on a show for you if you were willing to pay the price of admission.
So, stop inside and take a seat down front! Everything goes when the whistle blows.
Q – Al, how many years did it take you to research and put this book together? I assume it took at least 2 years.
A – Oh, yeah. It did. How it came about was, I was down in Gibsonton, Florida. They have a trade show every year there for show people. I was sitting having breakfast there one morning and this guy come up and said, ‘You like all the back-end shows, the girls’ shows. I just seen a guy at a flea market selling all these photographs of girl shows’. So, I tracked the guy down and ended up buying 5 or 6 boxes of what he had left. It ended up being the remnants of Jack Norman’s stuff. Jack had produced girl shows for years and years. So, I showed ‘em to somebody else and they said that should make a good book. I thought maybe I could try doing something like that. I had just retired from my circus. So, I thought, well, I’ll give it a shot. I remembered I talked to this girl on Strates, Bambi Lane. She was one of the last strippers on carnival. I had her phone number in Miami so I called her up and asked her if I could come down and show her this stuff. I went down there and she said ‘Tempest Storm is over at this club. Why don’t you go talk to her’? So, I went over there and talked to her. She said, ‘Oh, no. I never worked on carnivals, but that lady in the ticket booth at the club in the theatre that’s all she pretty well worked. A big-time carnival stripper’. So, I showed her this stuff and she said, ‘Oh, my God. I know all these people. Where did you get this stuff?’ So, she took me home and showed me her scrapbooks and got out her Christmas card list and said, ‘Last year I heard from this one and this one and this one’. So, I’d write them and get an interview on the phone and they’d loan me some photos. And somebody else would say, ‘Oh, I heard from this girl’. It was all more or less with the Christmas card list. They’d include a little note or something. And that’s more or less how I just thumbed along from one to the other. Eventually I found Val Valentine who was a big stripper at that time. She’d really been in the industry. She’d been married to different producers and Candy Butchers. So, she put me in touch with some of the last Candy Butchers, producers and that sort of thing.
Q – Were the dancers eager to talk to you or reluctant to talk to you?
A – Oh, they were very eager to talk to me. I had no problem. Almost all of them were totally opposite of what you would imagine. Most of them had done very well for themselves. I was really quite surprised at that. They all insisted, ‘Oh, we never took off all our clothes’. (Laughs). It was just so interesting. Later on I did talk to some people who did take off all their clothes, when I got down to the cooch show stuff. Initially, when the book came out one girl said, ‘Oh my God! That’s a filthy book! Why’d you put those Cooch show girls in there’? Actually, she was the one when I was talking to her said, ‘Are you gonna talk to other people? Are you gonna talk to Little Girl Shows? Or just the Big Shows? You gotta put it all in’. So, I did put it all in.
Q – You said you owned a circus. When and where was this?
A – In Canada. I had a show from 1973 to 1991. I had a tent show for eleven years and the rest of it was an indoor circus.
Q – Did you have a Burlesque Show as part of that circus?
A – No. Carnivals had girl shows.
Q – I would assume then you’d sneak away to catch some of these shows?
A – No. I didn’t see too much of that because I was working. The thing about shows is, you never went into places like that. If people worked on the shows, it was never proper to go into a girl show. People on the show never hung out at those things. When I started out as a kid in a carnival I was 16. They had a Girl Show but, I never went in it. All I saw was the bally out front. I didn’t know anybody in the show that had gone into it.
Q – I often hear the reason Strates discontinued the Girl Shows was because they wanted to create more of a family atmosphere. But, the shows were doing pretty well for Strates weren’t they? Is there another reason they ended?
A – Well, they were on Strates, up to a point. Once the ‘titty’ bars started everywhere, every bar had dancers and that pretty well killed the business. You could never compete, although Bambi Lane did strip down to pretty well nothing in the last few years on Strates. It was just hard to compete. First of all there was no alcohol. It was just the wrong thing by that time. It just had it’s time and that was it, plus the front of the show took up 90’ (feet) of the Midway which if they put 2 rides in that space they could easily out gross what the Girl Show could do in later years. I watched Joe Boston try to get a crowd in the last few years and it was pretty tough. People were just jaded. They’d seen more downtown than you could show them in the lot. I think that’s what killed it. I think now you could probably have a revival and you might do alright ‘cause it’s new enough to younger people. But, it has to have the comedy and variety acts. That’s what made those Big Revues-----the comics and the odd-ball variety acts that moved it along. You had to have some production numbers and of course one or two good strippers.
Q – You’re absolutely right. Strippers alone will not get an audience in.
A – Yeah, on the ballys when they could put 12 people out there, 8 girls, a couple of musicians, the comics and a variety act, it made it look like something. The last couple years on the show, the only person on the show who was permanent was Bambi Lane and then they would hire agency girls at each spot, from a local agent that was booking go-go girls. You never knew what you were gonna get. The band was like a guy playing a synthesiser on the stage, in street clothes, with a baseball cap on. Years ago all the bands wore tuxedos. The big thing was wardrobe. Leon Miller, they spent a fortune every year on Royal American on the wardrobe, new designs, new production numbers, new gimmicks, a new feature stripper every year.
Q – In 1986, there was an acoustic guitarist/singer on the Strates Girl Show. He told me he was thinking of going on to the next stop which was Raleigh, North Carolina. I don’t know if he ended up going or not.
A – Yeah, they (Strates) used to jump from Syracuse into Raleigh. That was one of the biggest fairs. I guess the biggest fair they had was the State Fair in Syracuse. Then they went to Raleigh which was another State Fair.
Q – And they don’t have Raleigh any more?
A – They lost Raleigh a few years ago.
Q – Did they really?
A – Yeah. There ended up being a big scandal over either the Fair Director or somebody to do with the politics of it. There was some bribe money and so forth and people got fired. There was a big state investigation. Strates got the control back 2 years later but, he lost it the following year.
Q – Joe Boston who ran the Girl Show for Strates, passed away after the New York State Fair run in 1986. There was no one who could have succeeded him?
A – Well, him and his wife, Tirza were about the last Girl Show people out there. There was a few more people but they’d all gone on to other things. I think in truth, Strates had sort of kept that thing going because Joe had cancer for a couple of years and they didn’t really have any money. I think he just kept it going for them in a way.
Q – You were at the Girl Show on the Strates midway, for Bambi Lane’s last appearance in 1986. I too saw Bambi Lane dance that year and went backstage to interview her. She started talking about her personal life. Her husband and child were killed in an automobile crash. There was some tragedy in this woman’s life. I understood then why she was onstage – to forget if only for a short time, the tragedy in her life.
A – She’s a pretty interesting person because she’d gone through all the different stages. She sort of caught the end of the Big Burlesque era in theatres and then she went on to carnivals. Then she was sort of there in the Topless Bartender era and then she was there in the Go-Go dancing era. She told me a story about going someplace in Pennsylvania. She asked the guy where the stage was. He said, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna push the jukebox over and you can dance on top of that, or one of the (pinball) machines’. So, all these guys are leaning on the pinball machine and she’s dancing. She was afraid she was gonna kick one of ‘em just twirling around and so forth. The guys sort of got some of those road cones and made a little fence around it to keep the guys back. I mean that’s how funky it was, (Laughs), playing all these little taverns.
Q – I didn’t realize she had performed in the Philippines.
A – I think originally she was from the Philippines, or from one of the islands. Her real name was Estrella.
Q – I recall her telling me when she wasn’t dancing she would set up at local flea markets in Miami to sell merchandise and she did hand modeling. Did she tell you that?
A – I don’t remember the hand modeling. Later on I went and saw her in Newark when I was in New York one time. I came across for the day. She worked in the morning at a kindergarten looking after kids. Then she’d also become a minister. She had this church going on, on the side. She lived with this guy who was a fireman. He was just a really, really nice guy, but, he just loved these dive, stripper clubs. He was a good photographer. Took just terrific photographs in these clubs. He’d show me these albums of all these photographs. It was incredible stuff taken casually. I thought it was great. They seemed really happy. She liked dolls. She had a big doll collection. She still had all her wardrobe. They lived across from City Hall in Newark.
Q – You interviewed her in 1997?
A – Yeah.
Q – Where is she today?
A – She’s still in Newark. I hear from her at Christmas time. She’s semi-retired, living in the same apartment.
Q – What have you done to promote this book of yours?
A – I did a lot of interviews. There was quite a few write-ups of it in different magazines. It sold out the first run. It’s now gonna be re-printed with my new book and ‘Seeing Is Believing’ as well. The first two books are gonna be re-printed and be out there again, so that’s good.
Q – What’s the new book on?
A – The new book is on Sideshows. It’s the history of Sideshows. The title is ‘Circus And Carnival Ballyho and Sideshow Freaks, Jaggers and Blade Box Queens’. The first 5 or 6 chapters are all about the circus and how the sideshows started on them and how they evolved. It also includes a lot about the grift on the circus, the games and everything that took place on the sideshow. Then it goes in to how the tenawan shows started on midways and traces it’s history and it’s people, and how it works, and a few chapters on where you’d see this type of entertainment besides the show lot. There’s various touring museum shows and side shows that would just rent a vacant store in the winter time. There was even sideshow acts on whale shows when they used to cart those big whale carcasses around on 80’ (foot) railway cars. Then it goes into a little bit of film. I had a friend of mine; Cinplex bought the rights to the film ‘Freaks’. They put it out in French and toured in Quebec in theatres with 4 or 5 freaks on stage. It just did tremendous grosses. It knocked everything out of the ball park in Montreal City. They had it in 3 cinemas ‘cause they couldn’t keep with the crowds lining up to see this thing. Then, when they took it into Ontario, they didn’t take the ‘live’ freaks and it died. It didn’t do anything.
Q – Who’s publishing this book?
A – ECW Press, the same publisher.
Q – When did this “Girl Show” book come out?
A – It came out in the 90’s, ’97 or ’98. It took me awhile to put it together. When I first started I thought I was gonna self-publish it, because I didn’t know anything about publishers. I go to this gas station near my house to get my car serviced. I played hockey with these 2 guys and they would always joke, ‘What are you doing’? You’re retired from the circus. What are you doing? I said, ‘I’m writing a book’. I told ‘em what it was and they laughed. After awhile they’d say, ‘You still writing that book’? I said, ‘Oh, yeah’. They said, ‘Who’s gonna publish it’? I said, ‘I’ll probably self-publish it’. They said, ‘Oh, we just had a guy come in. We serviced his car and he said he’s a publisher’. So, they gave me his phone number and I phoned him up. He said, ‘Oh that sounds interesting. Why don’t you bring in a chapter and some photos and we’ll have lunch and I’ll look at it’. So, I did that. He said I’m gonna shop it around to some book people and bookstores and see what they think. He phoned me back in 2 or 3 days and said, ‘We want to publish it. I’ll have a contract for you next week. Come in the office’. And that’s how it started.
Q – That’s a great story!
A – Yeah. (Laughs). It’s really weird.
Q – If you had not been in touch with this publisher, would you have self-published the book?
A – I don’t know. When you go into these things blind it’s like opening a circus. You stumble around and learn as you go. I told him I’m not a writer. He said, ‘Yeah, We realize that, but, you’ve got the photos and you’ve got the stories. That’s the main thing. We’ll just put you through the hurdles. You do this, bring it in and we’ll look at it and we’ll say do this’. And that’s the way it was. I’d just come along and do this. He’d say that’s o.k. Do this. He finally said, ‘O.k. it’s time to get you an Editor and got me an Editor.
Q – Could you do a follow-up book to “Girl Shows”?
A – I could probably. I could probably do more on trying to find cooch show type people in the latter part of the Girl Shows. But, I’ve got some other books I’m working on. It’s sort of if you have enough time for everything. It takes a lot of time.
Q – Have you ever been approached by HBO to put a documentary together about Girl Shows?
A – I’ve been approached by a couple of people on stuff like that, but, it’s never really materialized.
Q – Well, that’s too bad.
A – Yeah. I have a lot of stuff. Initially that Girl Show book had a big section in the middle on legitimate Burlesque, but it was like a wall. You sort of climbed up it and fell over the other side. It just didn’t work so I took it out. I have a lot of Burlesque material because it all came along as I was interviewing these girls. I was seeing all this Burlesque stuff and everything. The ‘Girl Shows’ sort of kicked off that whole revival in Burlesque. I’d run into these girls who’d be lugging it around in their knapsack in the strip joints saying this is our Bible. (Laughs). This makes my business legitimate. We have a history here. I thought that was interesting. I still, if I go someplace and do a program or something, I get these girls come out lugging ‘Girl Show’ to get it signed.
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