As the oldest of 10 children, most memories of my youth involve taking care of my siblings. I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to my mother who was a homemaker, and stepfather, a factory worker and part-time restaurant employee. With a large family, my parents struggled to make ends meet.
It was under these circumstances that I chose to drop out of high school at the age of 15 or 16 years of age and took a nanny position for 2 young boys. I did that for around a year before becoming a babysitter, taking up residence at a nearby rooming house, which was close to home.
Eventually, I transitioned to a job in a grocery store stocking shelves, writing prices on canned goods, weighing produce, and occasionally working in the butcher department. At the same time, I was working at a restaurant on weekends.
Because of my economic situation, surviving was at the top of my priority list. There wasn’t a lot of room for dreaming back then. Growing up I had no real interest or encouragement to pursue the performing arts. As a kid I listened to the radio a lot. My only memory of seeing dancers or showgirls was on the Jackie Gleason Show on the television. I remember his June Taylor Dancers. Up to that point, I knew little of the world of entertainment. That would all change soon enough.
While working at the grocery, a woman customer approached me and asked if I would like to be in an Artists and Models Ball fundraiser. I agreed and participated by wearing a costume titled “Miss Hindustan”. My guess is the name was invented to represent India’s style of dress. At the time, someone told me I was noticed because of my smile. I placed 3rd. It was my first taste of the stage.
I was 19 by then and a friend of mine, Joella, and I used to go to musical events now and again on the weekends around Indianapolis. One of these evenings we went to a Catholic Church Center. It was here that I saw Little Anthony and the Imperials and Harvey and the Moonglows. Over the course of these outings, we met a lot of showbusiness people.
One day in 1960, the MC of a club, Mr. Baron Harris, called and said a producer was talent scouting for a revue. The producer’s name was Mr. Arthur Braggs. Mr. Braggs was auditioning showgirls and dancers for Arthur Braggs’ Idlewild Revue. The renowned show enjoyed long runs at Braggs’ Paradise Club in Idlewild, Michigan, as well as extensive tours across the U.S.
Arthur Braggs (1912-1982) was a leader in promoting and showcasing the top talent of the day, focusing on African American entertainers. Mr. Braggs informed me that the latest revue was to be based in Idlewild, Michigan for the summer season. He said to bring heels. I recall both Joella and I taking a taxi over to the club. We met with the producer and auditioned. Later we both got the call – we were in. It was my first venture into show business.
The Idlewild Revue was an amazing experience. I stayed for a year. We began at Detroit nightclub, the Latin Quarter [no connection to Lou Walters’ nightclubs in New York City and Miami Beach], then onto Idlewild Michigan where we performed at the Paradise Club, then the Black Orchid in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; the Orchid Room in Kansas City, Kansas; the Casino Theatre in Toronto, Canada; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland; and the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C, as well as The Apollo in New York City, and Basin Street South in Boston, Massachusetts.
When the tour concluded, I returned to Indianapolis and assumed my exciting and whirlwind life in the performing arts had come to an end. I was in fact, however, just getting started. Idlewild Revue choreographer, Lon Fontaine rang. He was working with Larry Steele and rehearsing for the producer/impresario’s revue beginning in Chicago, Illinois. Off I went to the windy city and stayed on with the show when it returned to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the summer season.
Larry Steele (b. 1913-1980) was a producer, songwriter and composer, bandleader, and impresario who developed all-star African American revues. Steele’s Smart Affairs staged productions that toured across the U.S., as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Widely recognized as a visionary, Steele brought overdue recognition to variety entertainers and focused on the beauty and talent of women of color that didn’t exist before in the broader world of the industry.
Touring with Smart Affairs was remarkable. Mr. Steele was very respectful of his employees and also rather protective. It was his policy to keep his show people separated from the club patrons, so we didn’t mix much with the audience. It didn’t matter though because Larry Steele and company were like family. We performed at the Latin Casino at its Cherry Hill, New Jersey location, and made our way up to Montreal, Canada and also over to Las Vegas, Nevada where we performed at the Thunderbird Hotel in the lounge. I remember that a production of South Pacific was in the big room while we were there. We were also at the Regal Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, Charades Nightclub in Detroit, Michigan, a Syrian Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and many other venues.
The Smart Affairs shows were made up of 3 production numbers which consisted of 4 to 6 showgirls, 4 boy dancers and sometimes up to 8 girl dancers. There was always a featured headliner and a comic. The headliners would stay with the show for a certain period and then move on and another headliner would come in for a number of shows or weeks.
It was with Smart Affairs that brought about a friendship with Sam Cooke (b. 1931-1964). He was an accomplished singer and songwriter who had become known as The King of Soul. This was based on his distinctive voice. He had many hit singles and is considered a pioneer of soul music.
We spent time together during his second summer with Larry Steele in Atlantic City. He and I would go on adventures between shows and it was Sam who gave me my beloved Yorkshire terrier, Cookie. Sam was a very charming man. After he left the show, it wasn’t more than a few months later that I learned of his untimely death. Needless to say, this was an unexpected shock. I am grateful to have known him though and remember him fondly. Cookie traveled with me everywhere and was a wonderful reminder of a special friendship.
I was with Larry Steele from 1961-65. A well-known jazz dancer, Norma Miller (b. 1932-2019) came through as a headliner with Smart Affairs for a number of shows. She approached me one day and said, “You belong on Broadway”. She was a celebrated entertainer, so I never forgot her words (decades later I got my chance to thank Norma in person). I had been with Smart Affairs for 5 years when Norma suggested I look beyond Larry Steele. Despite having some awareness of my beauty and talents as a showgirl, I never thought of breaking the ranks and stepping out. With Larry Steele I was able to perform all over the U.S. and settled in for wonderful summer seasons at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Still, I couldn’t shake what she said to me. And so, I was off to my next adventure – New York City.
In the fall of 1965, I arrived in Manhattan and auditioned for the Latin Quarter nightclub’s production of French Dressing. Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter was still under Walters’ leadership. The Manhattan location was on 48thand Broadway, which was the hub of entertainment in the city. My audition wasn’t an immediate success. I was turned away repeatedly, but Mr. Walters eventually brought me on and gave me new opportunities.
As a lead showgirl, I did numbers with the four boy dancers. They carried me out and around the stage above their heads. I introduced guest performers such as the Whirling Dervishes, Les Olympiads [also billed as Trio Olympiads] and Mademoiselle Jeannine Pivoteau, a French aerialist [also billed as Mlle. Pivoteau, the Goddess of Flight]. I learned how to make those announcements in French. I grew as a performer during that production because Mr. Walters gave me the permission and courage to challenge myself.
At the Latin Quarter, I quickly formed friendships with my castmates and fellow showgirls, Bernadette Brookes, Betty Bruce, Eva Carter, and Irene Dorson. We were inseparable for a while. Whether it be in our dressing rooms at the club or after the shows came down. Late at night when we were finished with the show, we’d head out to places like Howard Johnsons, Jack Dempsey’s, Danny’s Hideaway or P.J. Clarkes. On one occasion we went to the Hilton to see Jerry Lewis.
Sammy Davis, Jr. came to see the Latin Quarter show when I was performing. He and I worked together for 5 consecutive summer seasons with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Having worked that much together, we’d become friends.
Once in between shows the 5 of us showgirls visited Sammy, who was appearing on Broadway in Golden Boy at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th. When we arrived backstage to visit him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage were there. I had never met Mr. King before, but the girls said I introduced him as though we had already known one another. They were all impressed.
When I was performing at the Latin Quarter, the union American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) directed us to picket for better wages and working environment. AGVA wanted us to demand higher rates for additional shows and do something about the number of bathrooms and dressing room space.
To be honest, we weren’t really aware of the politics going on and just went with AGVA’s requests. We were young and didn’t really understand what we were being asked to do. Nevertheless, I continued to perform at the Latin Quarter after the strike was settled and until the show closed before moving on to other gigs. I’ll always be grateful to Lou Walters for the way he helped me stretch creatively and take more of a starring role that I hadn’t previously experienced at that level.
June 27th, 1966, the Latin Quarter show ended its run. It was one of the best experiences. Mr. Walters was very kind and wrote several letters expressing his interest in my return, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Other opportunities knocked.
Very soon after the Quarter, I was contacted again by Lon Fontaine. It was through him that I was contracted to perform with Marvin Gaye at the Copacabana in New York City. This production included Marvin as the headlining singer and 4 dancers, of which I was one. We did three production numbers around and with him.
I spent most of my life on the road in various shows between 1960 and 1975. Following the Copa run I reconnected with Smart Affairs and joined Larry Steele and his show in Puerto Rico, where we spent 8 weeks at the El San Juan Hotel.
Betty George (b. 1926-2007) was a singer that came out of the big band era. She performed with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. She also had a long run with Milton Berle and later in life she hosted radio programs. I joined the Betty George Revue after Puerto Rico and enjoyed traveling with her production to Toronto, and New York City. A couple of showgirls I’d worked with before on other shows helped bring me on. I was delighted because Ms. George was professional and very nice to work with. Her show featured 4 of us showgirls who performed with Ms. George. We were at the Blue Orchid in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for a time. I believe our shows in New York were at a place called The Living Room, which was a popular joint in midtown east of town back in the day.
The Broadway musical, Golden Rainbow premiered in 1968. The premise of the story revolved around a Las Vegas widower, Steve Lawrence who is raising his son by himself until his brother and sister-in-law show up to help. It also starred Steve Lawrence’s real-life wife, Eydie Gorme and actress, Marilyn Cooper. It was staged at the Shubert Theatre on west 44thstreet. My friend and fellow Latin Quarter showgirl, Bernadette Brookes was cast in the production before me. She called and said they needed another showgirl and helped arrange for my audition. I was with that show for 4 months before I decided it was time to move on.
By 1968, I was married to my first husband who was a dancer with the Harkness Ballet. The company was touring and encouraged their performers’ spouses to travel with them. Harkness was so supportive that they covered my travel and accommodations with my husband. So, I left Golden Rainbow early to tour with him in Europe for 8 months.
When I returned to the states, I began an on-again, off-again stint with Minsky’s Follies and alternated those gigs with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs. I was fortunate to continue a good relationship with Mr. Steele. He often requested my return to his show and whenever I was able, I gladly accepted. We even did a USO show in Needles, California, which was a thrill.
Minsky’s Follies was a long running show that originated with Harold Minsky in New York City at the Gaiety Theatre. The Minsky family produced burlesque entertainment from the early 20thcentury during the genre’s hey-day. The Follies was a continuation of that early era but was crafted to be more “family friendly” than your traditional burlesque stage act. This tamer interpretation allowed the show to travel more widely and attract a broader audience.
My first Minsky’s experience was in 1967 when I took a 3-week engagement. I believe my fellow Latin Quarter showgirl and friend, Darlene Larson, might have helped connect me with Mr. Minsky. I didn’t audition, but rather Mr. Minsky arranged that I see one of their nearby shows. After that I was hired.
During the first week we commuted from New York City in a hot back seat of a car to an even hotter open sided tent in the countryside. Lambertville, New Jersey was nice and peaceful, however, and it felt good to get away from the concrete jungle.
I traveled a lot with Minsky’s, touring throughout the East Coast, the Midwest, the South and also out West. This was periodic work that I jumped in and out of through 1975.
Some of the venues that stick out in my mind are The Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Marine Room in Chicago, Illinois; the Dupont Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware; the Lookout House Supper Club, Covington, Kentucky, and the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
In 1973, I stayed with Minsky’s for a year straight. We performed at the Playboy Plaza Hotel and the Fontaineblaeu Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.
During my run with Minsky’s, one of my favorite headliners who came through was comedic actress and singer, Martha Raye (1916-1994). She was another nice woman to work with. She’d been heavily involved in performing with USO shows. Families would come backstage to tell Ms. Raye about their sons, brothers and loved ones who were missing in action or prisoners of war.
At one point all of us in the cast got these silver POW and MIA bracelets that featured a POW or MIA name on each. The idea was to continue wearing them until the men were found. It was a way to make sure those soldiers weren’t forgotten. Although wearing those bracelets all the time meant that they’d break or fall off over time, I do vaguely recall that at one point we were asked to stop wearing them. I guess it was considered an inappropriate political statement and of course this was the era of the Vietnam War, which was rather controversial. I just can’t remember where that decision came from. Still, Ms. Raye really cared about our troops and made us all more aware of the sacrifices our service people made. I still own and treasure my bracelet, even though they broke apart from wear.
Ms. Raye liked spending time with the cast too. Sometimes after the show came down, we’d all gather at a local restaurant. She often came along and at one particular restaurant, the owner closed the doors, allowing the people who were still eating to stay. Ms. Raye went over to their piano and began playing. She entertained the cast and the whole restaurant. It was a lot of fun and she was lovely.
Throughout my performing career, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many amazing entertainers. Some of them I’ve already mentioned here. Others include Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Aretha Franklin, Roy Hamilton, Jackie Wilson – so many others. I’ve also had the good fortune of meeting the likes of Jerry Lewis, Bill Dana, Vincent Edwards and Harry Belafonte, as well as forming friendships with unforgettable figures such as boxer and political activist Cassius Clay, comedian Lenny Bruce and musician and actor, Adam Wade.
In fact, decades later Adam Wade would produce a stage production whose central character’s story was inspired by my own. I consulted on that show, which was titled, On Kentucky Avenue, and it has run on and off since 2011. I was able to be present at most of the performances. It was satisfying to see some of my life reflected in its story. It not only celebrates that period in show business, but also gives a glimpse inside the life of a stage performer.
Sometimes people ask whether I experienced racism or segregation during my career. I don’t recall any specific segregation, although venues often catered to certain communities where a particular race was predominant. When I was with revues that were more focused on African American entertainers, the audience was often dependent upon the venue and its location. For instance, in Idlewild, Michigan, we performed mainly to black audiences. That area was a popular resort town for African American vacationers. At Club Harlem in Atlantic City, it was more about the lead performer’s following. Patronage hinged on the city and the club. As far as bias goes, I’d say for the most part that I was very protected by the producers and shows I was part of. I feel lucky to have had mostly good experiences, as I know not everyone has had the same fortune.
A lot was going on in America in the 1960s and ‘70s while I was working and enjoying life as a showgirl and entertainer. Civil rights issues were even more fervently pursued than they are now. Protests against the war and other political resistance was everywhere too.
Because I was so busy performing, however, I missed a lot of the political activism that was going on in the outside world. Being on the road and living a life completely immersed in the business, I was a bit insulated. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the news or wasn’t part of conversations, but because of my work, the continuous travel, and intense hours it required, I was never grounded in one place long enough to get involved.
There were times when a performer friend would ask me to be part of a fundraiser show for a charitable cause or for a political figure. Those were sometimes hard to join in on because of my full schedule. Though, I did what I could, when I could. I always kind of wished that I had gotten involved in some of efforts going on during that period, but these days I stay active through volunteer work.
I look back on my career adventures with warm nostalgia and delight in sharing my history with those who have interest. Today, I am happy to talk my experiences with my local community, as well as with journalists and other platforms documenting this era in show business. I have a nice life with my wonderful husband, and we have two beautiful sons.
End of Part I
This article was written by Betty Jo Spyropulos in collaboration with the John Hemmer Archive in the fall and winter 2020.
To learn more about Betty Jo’s friendship with Lenny Bruce, visit http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers/lennybruce/
For more about Betty Jo and Sam Cooke, see https://atlanticcityweekly.com/archive/salute-to-mr-soul-sam-cooke/article_4d6d12e5-e460-55dc-b49b-80f637e52062.html
Watch Betty Jo’s oral history interview from a recent Latin Quarter reunion.