I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the oldest of ten children. I attended public schools. I remember receiving a vaccination shot at an early age. Our school was just about seven blocks away, so it was a nice walk. On the street where we lived there were houses on one side and a park on the other. We used to go to that park as a family where there was a pool, as well as swings, slides, and seesaws. When I moved on to high school, I took a public bus since it was further away.
Growing up in a family of ten children, living on one side of a double occupancy house, and another family of ten on the other, we had a lot of family and friends to play with. Our father worked full time and our mother was a stay-at-home mom. My mother was born in Portland, Tennessee where she was one of eleven children. Some of her siblings settled in Indianapolis, others in Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago. During some summers, I went down to Tennessee to my grandparents for a week or two. I still remember the outhouse and oil lamps and gravel and dirt roads. My grandmother would send me to the hen house for eggs, which the hen was still sitting on. I was afraid to approach the hen with her wings raising up to protect the eggs and it scared me off. My grandmother would catch the chickens and after beheading them, she’d cook them for our next meal. Oh, and I recall milk straight from the cow – it was warm – Ugh!
Back in Indianapolis, during the summer we went to the Douglass Park – they had competitions for jumping rope, playing jacks, and arts and crafts. I guess the Parks Department ran the program.
I had a great relationship with my mother. She was only twenty years old when I was born. My mother showed concern when she thought I might be in danger. She worried when I left Indianapolis for Detroit, Michigan to join the Idlewild Revue.
Performers of Idlewild were registered to stay at the Gotham Hotel, where there was a lot of night life. My uncle had told my mother all this, so he convinced us to come to my aunt and uncle’s home. My friend and fellow showgirl and I stayed with them during the rehearsal period and leading up to the rehearsals in Idlewild, Michigan. In the end, however, our hours of coming and going interrupted their family routine, so we went back to the hotel.
My mother was really worried during the ‘60s while I was working in New York City. There was a Russian missile site being built in Cuba that seemed to threaten the East Coast. She said, “Just come home. We can get your belongings later.” Luckily the Cuban Missile Crisis subsided, and nothing happened. After a show-down between the U.S. and Russia, the ships with the missiles turned around and returned to their country.
The Artists and Models Ball event was really my first taste of being on stage. It was a local event in Indianapolis, and I was still a teenager when I was invited to participate. The Artists and Models Ball program excerpt, “It was the 3rd annual Frontiers Artists and Models Ball – according to tradition, will open the season to Indianapolis lovers of entertainment held at Indiana Roof which was on Friday, October 2, 1959. “
The entertainment included Roy Hamilton (the crooning baritone), Three Souls and last year’s winner of “Miss Frontier 1958”. There were twenty-four participants in 1959. The program further states, “The Frontiers Club is a movement of Pioneers. It seeks to harness the cooperative influence of the leaders of a minority group and direct their influence to the solving of major issues, civic, social and racial.”
As I look through the program today, after quite a search through my memorabilia, I recognize the importance of this event, of which a lot of people were involved. Each participant had her own sponsor and title. My costume/character was “Miss Hindustan” and was sponsored by Severin Hotel Rainbow Room. I lucked out by being a part of it all.
My next opportunities were as a showgirl with the Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue and then Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs . I remember both revues had the same format – three production numbers – the opening, the middle, and the finale. In between were specialty acts such as comics, magicians, etc. The opening act was a big production – showgirls, then dancers, next were boy dancers and the whole ensemble – exits, entrances – the works. We learned parts of the whole number, sometimes by counts, and not always in order, with music added later, and finally the whole number.
In Idlewild, I worked with Jackie Wilson, Roy Hamilton, The Four Tops, George Kirby, Sandman – a tap dancer [Howard “Sandman” Sims] , and many other acts. At that time, Jackie Wilson was already a big star and had many hit songs. Roy Hamilton had big hits also.
When I came into the Idlewild Revue, the show was a new production. The cast all started at the same time. We rehearsed first in Detroit and performed at the Detroit Latin Quarter [no relation to Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter clubs]. It was a one-time performance and then we went on to Idlewild, Michigan to perform at the Paradise Club, where we would at last perform as a real run. We were all starting from scratch, but I think most of the revue had performed together before.
Arthur Braggs didn’t direct the shows. He let his ideas be known and executed. He surrounded himself with, and hired experienced choreographers, musicians, specialty acts, stars, etc.
The shows in both Idlewild and Smart Affairs had themes. Each number or production had its own music, costumes, dance style – Caribbean, “Native Girl”, etc.
Lon Fontaine was the choreographer with the Idlewild. Mr. Braggs watched the show from the audience. There was a dance captain who kept a sharp eye out for unison. The costume sketches were drawn by someone, I don’t know who, but a company named, Variety Costumes made them. If a replacement performer came in after the show started, the costume would have to fit. I don’t remember anyone tailoring the costumes for various performers.
I recall learning my first routine with Lon Fontaine. He got down on the floor and put his hands on my feet (shoes) and directed them by count to make sure I was getting the movement. Remember, I had never danced before. After a while and with hours of rehearsing, I got it.
Larry Steele would sometimes borrow from Broadway shows such as Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, and Mary Poppins. Costumes reflected these themes, even down to the dress and blonde wig of Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, and My Fair Lady.
The Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue and Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs also had the same production calendar – 3 weeks rehearsals, performances during July, August and closing after Labor Day, then go on the road. We rehearsed in sections – showgirls, dancers and then the boy dancers were added – couples. There was always a Tiller line [origin, ]. When I was with Larry Steele, rehearsals were usually at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We would rehearse 12:00p.m. to 6:00p.m., break for dinner and then be back at 9:00p.m. to 12:00a.m. or later. We’d rehearse with and without music, do run throughs in rehearsal clothes and in costume. In between we had costume fittings at Variety Costumes in New York City.
I was in Idlewild, Michigan doing the Arthur Braggs’ show just for one season. I guess for two or three months. On days that we had “free” (no rehearsals), we leisurely spent the day doing what? I don’t’ remember. I think we were out and up late. Going to breakfast before going in. We stayed in small bungalow rentals. We had our own rooms, sharing the house with three other showgirls. I’m sure that the resort part of Idlewild was popular, but I can’t remember participating in any activities being a night owl, and also afraid of the water. It was a great introduction into show business on that level. Every day felt new and exciting. Jackie Wilson was one of the fascinating performers that I worked with there. Everyone was charmed by him, including me.
When I came to Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, I felt like it was a continuation of Idlewild. It had prepared me for the next step in the same direction, although Mr. Steele’s process was a little different than Arthur Braggs’.
Mr. Steele set the tempo as he was on stage singing the songs and giving the lighting cues. Some of the songs he wrote and published. He’d also took existing songs, and made adjustments such as, I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, from My Fair Lady. He picked up the tempo with the band.
I worked with many famous entertainers doing Smart Affairs, such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Nash, Adam Wade, Sam Cooke, The Platters, as well as comics, specialty acts, such as limbo dancer, Roz Croney. They all stand out as professionals – well groomed. In fact, I remember Billy Eckstine wearing color coded suits, socks, shirts, shoes in canary yellow, powder blue, grey, pink – always impeccable. Sammy’s shows were always exciting and different. You never knew what he would do, so we always watched him, of course we never had a finale production number because he just kept going.
Sam Cooke was another one who “brought the house down”, packing and rocking the clubs. While on the road with Smart Affairs, the show might run for four or eight weeks with options to stay longer. We knew that when we signed contracts. I always remember fondly Las Vegas Nevada. I loved the mountains. We did, I think, three shows in the lounge at the Thunderbird Hotel. When we finished to go home the sun was up. I would have liked to perform in the showroom instead of the Lounge though.
A few more memories stick out in my mind of Smart Affairs when performing at Club Harlem. The Miss America Beauty pageant was always held in Atlantic City. One year, I think it was 1962, we were invited to participate in the pageant’s parade on a float that went down the Broadway Boardwalk. Another is a tradition we had. It was to “bury the show”. The boys and girls would exchange costumes and do each other’s parts in the show. A fun time had by all.
We didn’t always go on the road directly after summers in Atlantic City. I’d often return to Indianapolis, Chicago or Detroit and wait patiently. Larry Steele always knew where to reach his show people, by phone, telegram, or many times by mail.
Norma Miller, the jazz dancer planted the seed in me for Broadway. I probably thought about the Latin Quarter [Lou Walters’ New York City location on Broadway] because I had seen the similar shows in Las Vegas and thought “I can do that”.
When I auditioned for the Latin Quarter in New York City, I was familiar with the nightclub revues by then having performed in clubs similar to the Quarter such as Casa Loma in Montreal, The Charade nightclub in Detroit, among other venues.
I probably felt the same onstage during performances in the Idlewild Revue, Smart Affairs and the Latin Quarter, all very different but so much the same. Different cities, but all had beautiful costumes, music, and big stars along with great audiences.
Because I was a featured showgirl at the Latin Quarter, that made the difference for me personally and professionally. With the Larry Steele and Arthur Braggs’ shows I was one of four showgirls. At the Latin Quarter suddenly I was standing out front. I loved it.
At the Latin Quarter I enjoyed working with Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Rooney, Roberta Sherwood, Nelson Eddy and others. We had publicity photos taken with Jayne Mansfield and she was so gracious. I also remember watching her act and being really entertained.
Mickey Rooney (it seemed) was being protected and shielded from us showgirls because he had been married so many times. But, I did manage to get a photo with him backstage. He was a nice guy.
It was Lon Fontaine who brought me to Marvin Gaye’s show at the Copacabana – plus timing – the request to work with Marvin at the Copa came at end of my engagement at the Latin Quarter. I was free to travel.
The Latin Quarter show, French Dressing closed on June 27th, 1966, and on July 17th, 1966, I met Marvin Gaye for the first time. His show was in Detroit, Michigan, and from there it went to Atlantic City, New Jersey to rehearse and have a run there before opening at the Copa on August 4th, 1966. We closed on August 28th, 1966. That was the end of my performance engagement with Marvin Gaye’s show.
It was a pleasure to work with him. He was a real professional. I felt fortunate to be part of the only show where he actually danced with the dancers as part of his act. It was fun. Marvin Gaye was rather charming and handsome. I think all of us dancers had a crush on him. It was during that time when he was quite suave and debonair.
When I reconnected with Larry Steele it was after the Copa, which followed the Quarter. I went with Smart Affairs to Puerto Rico in 1966 for eight weeks. Our option was picked up for an addition four weeks. But beforehand, I joined the cast in Atlantic City on August 28th, 1966, to sign contracts and arrange rehearsal for the show that he staged that summer season in Atlantic City. We went to Puerto Rico to perform at the El San Juan Hotel in the Tropicoro Supper Club from September 12th, 1966, to November 25th, 1966.
On November 26th I traveled from Puerto Rico to New York City, and then Toronto, Ontario I went out with the Betty George Revue. I performed with her show on December 25th and 26th, 1966 at the Cherry Hill, New Jersey Latin Casino. We’d rehearse until 6p.m. and then did two shows a night. On New Year’s Eve in 1966, we had a show in New York City.
Larry Steele continued to offer me jobs and invited me to return to his show at any time. When I was in Chicago, Illinois at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, he asked me to take a night off from Minsky’s Follies to do a show for him there. I think it was a presentation for investors who might want to finance a production or book future shows. Mr. Steele said that Harold Minsky would understand, but I was concerned about appearing unprofessional, so I declined. I felt bad about it, but I had left Minsky’s once before in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and so I was just too apprehensive.
I continued to stay in touch with Mr. Steele through the years. He always knew where to call or wire me and stayed aware of my performance schedule at least roughly. Timing is everything in show business, however. After that 1966 gig, fate prevented me from returning to Smart Affairs, even though I’ve always had fond memories of working on productions that felt both professional and like family. Opportunity ended up presenting itself with Minsky’s Follies. I kept with that production on and off between traveling overseas with my then husband’s ballet troupe. This was the early ’70s, and I ended up performing with Minsky’s until 1975. I am forever grateful to Arthur Braggs and Larry Steele for giving me my start of what would become a lifetime of wonderful experiences.
Working in Minsky’s allowed me to experience another part of showbusiness. We performed a wide variety of venues and in doing so I learned to constantly adapt to the different sizes and configurations of any location. Summer Stock, which was also called “the straw hat circuit” which meant that we performed outdoors under tents. We also did shows that had been choreographed for productions “in the round” (rotating stages), which required performers to enter and exit the stage through the house aisles. Not all aisles went as far as the stage, so there was always the risk of entering one that couldn’t take you to or from the stage. That meant you’d have to turn around and rush to the correct one. I was guilty of that mistake a couple of times. You always had to keep your eye on your mark.
We also worked clubs, dinner theatres, and lounges of all shapes and sizes. Memorable dates were at the Dupont Theatre in Wilmington Delaware, Latin Casino, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Scotsman Club, Totowa, New Jersey, the Lookout House in Covington, Kentucky, Granny’s Dinner Theatre, in Dallas, Texas, Three Rivers Inn, Syracuse, New York, and three or four of the Chateau de Ville Dinner Theatres that were sprinkled around New England. The Marine Room at the Edgewater Hotel in Chicago was a beautiful place to perform, as was the Blue Room at Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. For the show at the Marine Room, we did a publicity event where we met some Marines at the airport. They were gentlemen and it was fun.
Initially, the show was booked for a typical 8-week run at the Playboy Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. We ran out our 8 weeks in their lounge and then moved over to the Fontainebleau, Miami Beach. When we finished there, Playboy asked us back. We returned to their lounge for a year. I remember that around that time the hotel was sold because the Playboy Plaza Hotel was going out of business. A few of us were able to leave with some hotel memorabilia because it was sort of the end of an era in a way. For awhile those hotels and clubs were real destinations spots.
Martha Raye headlined with Minsky’s a couple of different times. Raye and the entire cast were invited to visit the White House. Nixon was president. He had a Yorkshire terrier, maybe named Pasha. I also had a Yorkshire terrier, so I was fond of them. I called her by name, and she came running over. The Secret Service wondered how the dog knew me. I said I just read about her and had a Yorkshire terrier myself. They thought that was funny. We were all invited to the White House because of Martha Raye, who was being honored. She did a lot to honor POWs during the Vietnam War. In 1972, while she was touring with us, she gave an interview to the New York Times about her performance in Minsky’s, and her then upcoming return to Broadway in No, No Nanette. The Times reported that Mrs. Raye made a closing speech in our show about the boys in Vietnam. I remember it. In the article, she was quoted as saying, “They ask so little and give so much.” [referring to US soldiers serving in Vietnam] The interview continues with questioning the meaning of her closing speech. She was quoted as saying, “…I’m not promoting the war, I’m promoting empathy for our fighting men. I’ve been entertaining troops since Pearl Harbor.” Her politics made an impression because she cared so much, whether you agreed with her or not. I remember that she was a committed hard working and friendly with the cast.
Rehearsals were always in Vegas, but I was part of the touring show, so I never performed with Minsky’s in Las Vegas. They had their own permanent show there and I was with the road show. The productions consisted of four showgirls, a production singer, one lead female and one lead male dancer (the leads would sometimes do an adagio), and four production dancers. This was a lounge sized act, but for larger venues we’d have to spread out which could become complicated in terms of the staging and choreography. If we only had eight counts to get across, we’d have to make adjustments. These shows were definitely more compact than Arthur Braggs or Larry Steele productions.
When I first saw Minsky’s, the production was in Long Island. The Mineola Theatre was a grand venue. It’s now a catering hall for weddings. There was a big chandelier there that was pretty spectacular. For the Minsky’s show they had a ramp from the stage that went out into the audience – about four rows out – and under the chandelier. They did a number where the showgirls wore satin coats in different colors and performed to the [Duke Ellington] song, Satin Doll. That was my introduction to the Minsky’s Follies. I was invited to see the show by one of the Minsky’s managers. His name was Maury. We met me there to watch the show and that was essentially the audition. He then sent a report to Mr. Minsky, and I was offered the gig as a replacement. Later I ended up doing that same Satin Doll routine. My coat was green.
As I worked periodically with Minsky’s over the years, I usually a replacement. Because I was coming into an existing production and part, I’d have just a little time to learn the routines. Sometimes same day. Toward the end, when I rejoined the show after traveling in Europe, they had switched to piped music. It went from a live orchestra to popular recorded tunes. Songs of the day, such as Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, Live and Let Die from the James Bond series for examples were what our routines were set to. The adagio dance was performed to It’s Cheaper to Keep Her. There was a dancer who called herself Saki Tumi, who wore a straw skirt and coconuts and performed with fire. The showgirls in the production went from an elegant and controlled performance to go-go dancing, swinging our heads around and so-forth. We were playing the same beautiful rooms, but the shows were completely different. To me, this shift seemed out of place. I suppose they were trying to adapt to the times, but to me it wasn’t quite the same.
Still, there were opportunities that Harold Minsky gave me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. At one point there was kind of a slapstick comedy scene where there was a straight woman who basically feeds lines to the person playing the comedic role. The skits were full of double entendres. I never thought I could do anything like that, but I played the straight woman, and it was a lot of fun.
Our contracts were always with “Pat Ava Corp”. Pat was Harold Minsky’s wife and Ava was their daughter. His son Danny was the manager. Minsky’s has a long history and even in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was still a family owned and operated outfit.
Harold Minsky was a quiet, kind, and calm person, who liked to stay in the background. He was a perfect gentleman. Even when I had to leave the show unexpectedly, and earlier than my contact stipulated. He followed with a telegram. It read, “All is forgiven”, which allowed me to return, and I was grateful. The Minsky’s experience was a long relationship and a good one.
End of Part II
This article was written by Betty Jo Spyropulos in collaboration with thein the spring and summer 2021.
To read Diary of a Showgirl: Meet Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos, Part I, visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/diary-of-a-showgirl-meet-betty-jo-alvies-spyropulos-part-i/