The 83-year-old burlesque dancer Rosie Mitchell died last week of complications from lung cancer, and while no one is making much of it, she was one of the last remaining links to the heyday of the Follies Theatre.
In an interview last year, Mitchell reminisced about those days. Her first job at the Follies, in 1952, was as a specialty dancer. She recalled Follies owner Suey Welch, a fabulous character. He was a Chinese man from Cleveland who came up through the rackets and owned pieces of local boxers like Gorilla Jones.
“Suey dug me,” she said. “He owned the theater and he owned the bar next door. Every Friday night between shows we’d go next door and he‘d treat us. He said, ‘Rosie, I sure wish you’d do a strip. If you do, you can stay here forever.’ I decided to try it because I was sick of going on tour as a chorus dancer.”
Unlike many of the Follies dancers who walked in off the street and got a job, Mitchell was already an accomplished professional when she hit the boards at Fifth and Main. Legendary Follies producer Lillian Hunt, who shaped the careers of burlesque stars including Tempest Storm, Gilda and Patti Waggin, immediately saw the value in Mitchell's versatility.
Using the stage name Novita, Mitchell was a featured dancer in any number of styles, and she could sing. Eventually, she stripped. Hunt produced a clutch of burlesque films that were remarkably faithful to the stage shows at the Follies, and Novita appeared in Too Hot to Handle (1950). “The Pixie of Burlesque,” as theater manager Bob Biggs dubbed her, glides gracefully and suggestively as she sheds clothes. Down to a diaphanous bikini, she wriggles suggestively without a hint of body fat. She must have driven men nuts.
Rose Marie Locke was born in Houston and began dancing at age 3. By her early teens she was performing in local nightclubs. Sent out on the road, she was hailed as “‘the Dancing Doll of Denver” by the Denver Post. AGVA rep Ernie Fast tapped Mitchell for a job in San Francisco: dancing a torrid pas de deux with Spanish flamenco specialist Lalo Pineda.
She dated broadcaster Bob Brownell. He took her to a San Francisco club where she saw something she’d never seen: a lithe, panther-like dancer who stripped, bucked and writhed on the floor. She was Brownell’s sister, who performed under the name Patti Waggin.
The Follies headliners were the athletically petite Patti Waggin, the angelic Dixie Evans (“the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque”) and the beauteous Tempest Storm. “Tempest had me stand offstage and she threw her clothes to me,” Mitchell recalled. “I was the only one she trusted because she didn’t want them to touch the floor.”
The monumentally endowed Tempest gave little Novita — who weighed 100 pounds wringing wet — a challenge: “Those bras of hers weighed a ton, and I had to brace myself to be able to catch them!”
Years on the road taught Mitchell how to cope with overwork, and she gave Patti Waggin her first taste of Benzedrine. “I was taking cross-grain bennies,” she recalled, “because I was working my ass off. Patti said, ‘Oh, Rosie, could you get some for me?’ I did, but I think she took too many. I looked over at her one night and she was sitting next to the wall in the fetal position. She didn’t know how to take them.”
As a singer, Mitchell knew how to project her voice — a quality that comics like Harry Clexx, Little Jack Little and Harry Savoy appreciated. “The comics loved me,” she said, “because I was the only dancer who could be heard beyond the third row for their sketches.”
Mitchell had a three-year run at the Follies. “And I never saw the light of day,” she said. “They wanted a new face, so they brought in Jill Adams, a pretty brunette. She married a tenor sax player who was killed on that drive between L.A. and Vegas.”
Mitchell met Lenny Bruce and his stripper wife, Honey, on the burly circuit. With her first husband, drummer Buddy Greve, Mitchell doubled dated with Bruce and Honey at Jazz City on Hollywood and Western. “When I wanted to divorce Buddy later on, Lenny gave me the card of his attorney.”
Bruce sweet-talked Rocky Colluccio, the owner of Duffy’s Gaiety on Cahuenga, into allowing him to become entertainment director. The sleepy club was turned into a nightly riot scene as Bruce ushered in a two-year bacchanal of strippers backed by him and his jazz-musician pals. The L.A. burlesque circuit was where Bruce perfected his comic craft, and it never got any wilder than the nights at Duffy’s.
Bruce recruited Novita and Jeanine France, “the Eyeful Tower,” for the grand reopening at Duffy’s on New Year’s Eve 1955. “When Lenny talked Jeanine and me into going into his girl show, I was really glad he did,” Mitchell said. “That meant I could get off my feet. I was sick of going out on tour all the time and playing all those different clubs. When I worked at Duffy’s, I had my days free.”
Among the band members were jazz pianist Lorraine Geller and her alto saxophonist husband, Herb. “Lorraine Geller was my dearest friend,” Mitchell said. “She was the only chick who didn't give me the green-eyed monster thing around her man.”
Novita married jazz bassist Red Mitchell in 1957. Her last burlesque hurrah was working on an otherwise all-black bill at Strip City (at Pico and Western), where jazz saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss played in the band. The brilliant comic actor Tim Moore — “Kingfish” in the old Amos ‘n' Andy TV show, was the emcee, just before his death.
As a jazz wife, Mitchell spent more time with her musician friends. One was alto saxophonist and bandleader Med Flory. “I used to watch him rehearse his band at the union, around 1954,” she remembered. “I saw Med not too long ago, and I told him that; I was sure he wouldn’t remember me being there. He said, ‘Of course I remember you sitting there, Rosie. I wasn’t blind, I was just married!’”