Your Fan, Sally Rand

Dan Farren

"Who is it?"

"Hi Miss Rand. This is Dan, from the TV show."

It was 1979 and I was working my first industry job as a researcher on a series of  Where Are They Now? tax shelter shows. There was no Internet and it was my job to track down celebrities using old newspapers and library books. Then I had to convince them to be interviewed with no monetary compensation because it was news and they were public figures.  I was hung up on by some very famous people.

We had a lead on Sally Rand. I'd never heard of Sally Rand, but the mention of her name put a

smile on my producer's face.

"Sally Rand.  It would be a pistol if we could get Sally Rand," he said.

So now I found myself about twenty miles out of Los Angeles in the community of Glendora standing on the porch of the tiny apartment cottage complex that was managed by Sally Rand.

On the drive out I wondered what it must be like to go from being the sensation of the 1933 World's Fair to an apartment complex manager. When you research stories you have a tendency to always see that person as they were.  They are frozen in time and even though we spoke on the phone previously, I was quite surprised to see that Sally Rand looked like everybody's grandmother. The woman who ushered me in to her bungalow was a frail, tiny woman in her mid-70s wearing a pink house dress and ballet slippers.

She brought out a box of photos and placed them on the living room floor. She invited me to sit on the floor with her so she could stretch her legs. For the next hour she handed me yellowing photo after photo of her at the World's Fair, dancing in Burlesque and being lassoed by the great cowboy actor Tom Mix. She had pictures of herself with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Gary Cooper. But she knew them as "Bogie", "Eddie" and "Coop". Because she actually knew them!

"I was arrested four times a day during the Chicago World's Fair, but I was never really naked, not like today." She leaned forward and whispered.

"I wore a body suit."

Miss Rand smiled and took a sip of ice tea.

"You know I invented the bubble dance. I usually danced with fans made from real  ostrich feathers but if you were outside and it got windy, you'd be in trouble. A big bubble was much easier to control."

She handed me a photo of her acting in a silent movie.

"Do you know who Cecil B. DeMille is?" she asked.

"He was a famous director."

Sally Rand smiled.

"You know your stuff. My real name is Harriet Beck, but Mr.DeMille didn't like it so he named me Sally Rand after the Rand McNally Atlas."

I had everything I needed to give to the writers and would love to have stayed longer but Miss Rand looked tired. So I excused myself, but not before having her sign a photo I purchased at a movie memorabilia shop on Hollywood Blvd. She wrote: "To Dan, Your fan, Sally Rand"

She laughed.

"Hey, it rhymes!"

When we returned to shoot the interview I warned the producer that Miss Rand was a little frail and we should be careful about wearing her out. But when the front door opened, there was Miss Sally Rand in all her glory. She was dressed in a beautiful gown and had a friend in the apartment complex do her make-up and fix her hair.

She had more energy than the crew. She showed us her antique doll collection, told us all the best stories and when it came time to try and describe how she danced, she found it easier to just show us. Miss Rand pulled out two ostrich feather fans and danced in her living room.  

"I'm leaving my clothes on," she said. "If you want more, you gotta pay me."

A few months later, Sally Rand passed away.

I watched history that overcast Spring afternoon in Glendora. I saw the dance that the Chicago police studied so closely at the 1933 World's Fair. The same dance that she did for John Glenn and the first American astronauts that was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff.

I saw a woman who went to grammar school with the great sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein and served as the model for characters in several of his works.

But that day I beat them all. Because I saw the great Sally Rand dance for probably the very last time.

Dan Farren is a writer living in California.

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