With big eyes, full lips, and long legs, the statuesque and talented Bernadette Brookes enjoyed her fair share of notice over the decades. It was her infectious sense of humor and child-like wonder, however, that endeared her to those who knew the actress, showgirl and songstress. An introvert who loved inspiring a smile, Brookes once described herself as a clown trapped in a showgirl costume.
Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada where she studied dance, Brookes made her way to New York City as a young woman eager to make her way in the arts. By the mid-1960s, Brookes found herself at an audition for the latest Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub’s production, French Dressing. There she met a fellow performer who would become a life-long friend. Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos says she and Brookes immediately connected, eventually becoming roommates for a time in an apartment not far from the supper club.
“She was playful”, says Betty Jo. “When we were living together in 1965 and ’66, Bernadette’s cat had kittens. She decided it would be a good idea to incorporate them into the show at the Latin Quarter. So, we tucked a cat into our costumes and went out on stage with the cats peering out through the fur. The audience loved it. I’m not sure how we got by with it since cats weren’t exactly part of what was choreographed, but we just did it and no one told us to stop. That sort of thing wouldn’t happen today, of course, but we were young and adventurous and the cats didn’t seem to mind as memory serves.”
Decades later, Bernadette recalled, “I like being a little mischievous. At the Latin Quarter, sometimes I’d go around and tie my castmates’ shoestrings together just for fun. I don’t know if they ever realized it was me doing it. I was a clown trapped in a showgirl costume. I should have joined the circus, but I guess that was not to be.”
“Bernadette was ahead of her time too”, remembers Betty Jo. “She was always researching and taking different supplements. Those type of vitamins are commonly known for aiding in one’s good health now. Bernadette was that way though. She was a seeker who was always working on self improvement.
She took classes, painted and trained in voice. She encouraged me to pursue similar interests, but I wasn’t as disciplined in those ways. I admired that about her. With a passion for the arts, she painted quite a bit when we lived together. The artist name she adopted was ‘Alta’. She signed all her paintings that way. I never knew the inspiration behind ‘Alta’, but it has stuck in my mind to this day. Bernadette was a very creative spirit.”
She was also active in her performing arts community as chronicled by the press. The New York Daily News published on September 8th, 1967 that a “Latin Quarter eyeful” visited City Hall to call for an end of the identification cards required of cabaret workers. Bernadette was the eyeful and she was joined by 20-some other performers who turned out in support of abolishing the law, claiming it was a carryover from the Prohibition Era. Representatives of AGFA and Actors Equity turned out to offer statements. The article further reported that “Next came Latin Quarter impresario Lou Walters, who said, ‘In all my experience I’ve never run across anyone who should be finger printed in order to get a job, whether it was a chorus girl or a star.’ Walters then introduced the last – and most formful – witness of the day, miniskirted, strawberry blonde, Bernadette Brookes, one of his showgirls. ‘The girls wanted me to come down and speak for them… because a number of them have children and they have to find babysitters and go to the added expense and inconvenience of coming downtown to get their police cards.’, she said.”
The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton Alberta Canada) printed on April 23rd, 1966 “Ambitious Showgirls Say It’s Hard Work But Fun”. The profile on Brookes by Rod Currie stated, “Perhaps one of the most erroneous images to come of Hollywood is that of the glamorous showgirl, the toast of the town, wined and dined by handsome escorts and pursued by wealthy stage-door johnnies. But for Toronto—born Bernadette Brookes, a statuesque brunette who graces the stage of the famed Latin Quarter, it’s all hard-work-but-fun.”
Fellow showgirl, Eva Carter recently recalled, “I spent a lot of time with Bernadette (Bernie) and Betty Jo in the [Latin Quarter] dressing room. We sat next to each other. There was always laughter and fun. We got along beautifully. The three of us would often go out between shows. If one of us had a date, the others were always welcome. It was safer that way and guaranteed laughs. We would go to Mama Leones for dinner, or after the second show to Jilly’s, on West 49 street, where we could sometimes see Frank Sinatra seated at the back of the lounge. He was a friend of Jilly’s. I believe I worked with Bernadette in about two shows, 1965-‘68. If I remember correctly, the shows were about a year long. Then when a new show was being prepared, we continued to work at night and rehearse during the day.”
Bernadette Brookes took to the stage at the Latin Quarter in productions The Venus Touch, Maid in Paris, and French Dressing. While performing at the nightclub she worked with notable talent such as director Donn Arden, choreographer Bob Herget, and costume designer Bill Campbell, among others. Some of the novelty and dance acts who made guest appearances during these productions were Aldo Richiardi Jr., “South America’s Greatest Illusionist”, the acrobatic team, Wazzan Troupe, The Barry Sisters, the Ballet Zigani, and headliners such as Nelson Eddy and Gale Sherwood.
Following the Latin Quarter, the original 1968 Broadway cast of Golden Rainbow with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme came calling. “My journal from back in the day reminded me that it was because of Bernadette that I got the gig on Golden Rainbow”, recalls Betty Jo. “She had suggested me as a replacement showgirl in the production. She called one afternoon and told me to come in the following day to meet with Steve Lawrence and the board. The rest is history.”
Bernadette enjoyed a career that included dance, modeling, and acting on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, film, television, industrial and commercial work, and performed on tour with Minsky’s Follies.
As an actor, she performed in More Stately Mansions at the Irish Rebel Theatre, Irish Arts Center, New York, New York. She joined the 1965 cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as Panacea, staged at the Westport County Playhouse, Westport, New Hampshire. Her castmates were Dick Shawn, Danny Dayton and José Ferrer.
In 1966, she performed as Gloria Coogle, alongside John Forsythe and Corbett Monica in Who Was that Lady I Saw You With with the Kenley Players in Warren, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. Additionally she played The Young Wife in Inglewood Playhouse’s production of La Ronde and Estelle in No Exit, Los Angeles, California. Other regional productions included stagings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Maggie); Bus Stop (Cherie); The Owl and the Pussycat (Doris); and I Am a Camera (Sally).
Throughout these years Bernadette had the pleasure of working with such directors such as Harvey Hart, Norman Campbell, Norman Jewison, Howard Zieff, as well as choreography legends Ron Fields, Ron Lewis, and Jaime Rogers. As a constant student of acting, she studied under Paul E. Richards, Peggy Feury, Doe Lang, and Ginger Howard Friedman.
Television credits encompassed popular series of the day, Dan August; Medical Center and Adam 12. Bernadette appeared in many industrials over the years for various corporations. Her favorite was a production co-starring Paul Lynde for American Express.
She explored other aspects of creativity by way of voice work with a various of vocal coaches and even learned film editing at City College in Los Angeles, California.
Later in life, having a strong interest in health and wellness practices, Bernadette attended Hunter College and worked at the Swedish Institute for Acupuncture in New York City. Without compromising her stage work, she continued to perform in Ziegfeld Society productions and enjoyed singing.
As an active member of the Latin Quarter Showgirls, Inc. charity, Bernadette lent her talents to several of their performances, which helped raise funds for children in need. She continued to attend the Latin Quarter performer reunions that developed after the charity dissolved in the early 2000s. She most recently attended the Latin Quarter Social Club New York City gathering in 2019.
As a dear friend to many, the loss of Bernadette Brookes is profound. Her contributions to performing arts and her passion as an artist are only documented here in broad strokes. Having lived a full life beyond her stage work, she was an avid reader on all things related to the arts, politics and natural health practices. Bernadette enjoyed discussing fine art, as much as reminiscing about her life, and genuinely liked learning about others. A wonderfully flirtatious tease, she charmed everyone around her. Bernadette retained her humor and sense of curiosity throughout her life and will remain a vivid figure in her community’s minds and hearts. Although originally hailing from Toronto and lived in Los Angeles for a time, Bernadette was a tried and true lifetime New Yorker.
Special thanks to Eva Carter, Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos and Leatha Sturges for sharing their memories and reflections of their friend, Bernadette Brookes.