New Year’s Eve is just around the corner … a time when we remember days gone by as well as ring in the new. A recent review of High Heels and Headdresses reminds us of just that!
From The Nevada Review Vol. 4 Fall 2012 No.2
by Patricia Cooper-Smith
For the young “gypsy” dancer from small town Texas, the names glittered across the desert—a Dunes, Flamingo, Sands, Royal Nevada, Stardust, Riviera, Sahara, El Rancho. It was 1955. Eisenhower was in the White House, Disneyland opened, and Rosa Parks was arrested for not behaving. Rent averaged $87 a month and yearly wages hovered around $4,100. Gasoline was 23 cents a gallon. A new house sold for around $11,000. People were readingAndersonville, Marjorie Morningstar, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Movie theaters featured On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and The Seven Year Itch. Top songs were Maybellene, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, and Folsom Prison Blues. Gunsmoke, $64,000 Question, I Love Lucy, Dragnet, You Bet Your Life, and The Mickey Mouse Club lit up televisions in darkened living rooms.
Betty Bunch was a twenty-one-year-old long-legged, high-kicking, brunette dancer, and Las Vegas was the shining city on the hill. She was star-struck, ambitious, and looking for a good time in high heels. High Heels and Headdresses: Memoir of a Vintage Vegas Showgirl is her story.
Memoirs are everywhere these days with a plethora of Internet websites devoted to encouragements and “how to” write your story. Some advise: be kind to yourself; memory is unpredictable; bad guys are good guys, too; turn off your inner critic, etc. Bunch’s memoir is an erratic montage of pictures that flit by, settle down, and take off only to return at the flash of an image, sound, or smell. She gathers memories like she is herding cats—the little varmints keep runnin’ every which way. Don’t try to keep a chronology; your head will spin, but enjoy the ride.
Bunch focuses on her “professional” career as a showgirl and small part actress, not her personal life. She tells us about husbands and children in no particular order. Who raised her children while she was working, traveling, and carousing? In one short paragraph, Bunch tells us she married the father of her children, Joel Rosenthal, in 1964 (or thereabouts), and relates their courtship and marriage ceremony, comfortably switching from first to third person. “I fell in love with the boy next door. We drove up to Tonopah, Nevada, on our one day off, and got married. The bride wore lavender matching jeans and jacket; the groom wore cowboy boots and hat with his jeans.” We learn from her son, Rick, that Bunch performed until 1970 when her second son, Dan, was born; she then became a Las Vegas “cookie-baking, stay-at-home mother.”
Is there a method to her madness? As Bunch recalls her salad days, she is entitled to some leeway in a shotgun approach to a life remembered. Many of her anecdotes are stuffed with cliché and crammed with adjectives in case you didn’t get that dining at the Sultan’s Table in the Dunes, circa 1962, was “grand” and “upscale,” or that someone was a “very classy” guy or dinner was “very fancy” with violins. Yet, Bunch transmits sincerity and the reader feels she is trying to tell it like it was. Bunch is a woman looking for love. “Love is forever, and so are memories,” she tells us, and this is her theme. In High Heels and Headdresses, Bunch takes the reader on a journey deep into the rhinestone jungle of Las Vegas.
It all started in 1934, in Wills Point, Texas, where Bunch was born in “the big recession”—one of several bloopers in her story. Bunch tells us of early “disapproval and rejection” when her parents denied she was a red-haired baby. She was her mother’s “little black-haired baby,” and, she says, this rejection was a “factor in my success as a dancer and an actress.” Here, Bunch is checking the requirement of memoir subjects to have a difficult childhood, but it comes across as inconsequential. Bunch then segues to one of several optimistic maxims—“You can’t go home again, you just go to the next audition.”
Bunch shares the trials and travails of a working showgirl with the Moro-Landis Dancers, and long-time Vegas show producer, Don Arden, “what gay people call an Evil Queen.” She also danced in films such as South Pacific and Imitation of Life. Her “black nylon duffel bag” held the tools of her trade: Two inch heels (“character shoes”), ballet flats, and high heeled pumps, black leotard, dance hose, Tylenol, quinine tabs for leg cramps, towel, comb, extra hair pins and nets, hand mirror, tissue, nail file, Band-Aids, screwdriver to tighten taps on shoes, head shot and resume. There was hard work, long hours, and lots of after show parties. Bunch says, “My personal schtick[sic] arriving at a party, was to do a cartwheel, high heels and all, into the center of the room.” The girl knew how to make an entrance.
A serious moment of High Heels and Headdresses is Bunch’s recollection of Vegas as the “Mississippi of the West.” She recalls being told to avoid contact with a group of black musicians—The Treniers—who had “a reputation of liking white women.” It was 1956 and the Moulin Rouge was the integrated “black” hotel on the west side. It was popular, it made money, and the strip hotel-casino owners were angry and insecure—a bad combination. The Moulin Rouge attracted the Rat Pack—Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, and many other performers. It had “the best jazz,” but it did not last six months. Here, Bunch is fearless in naming names—Nevada names. She points a red lacquered fingernail at State Senator Floyd Lamb and his brother, Clark County Sheriff, Ralph Lamb. Bunch’s story of the confrontation between the good old boys and the progressive upstart is quick and solid. This is a Nevada long-time residents know. Another and better story of segregated Vegas is Sammy Davis, Jr.’s memoir, Yes, I Can, written with Burt and Jane Boyar.
High Heels and Headdresses covers a time when women were “girls” and arm candy—“bookends”—who showed cleavage and leg and kept quiet. Clothes made the girls, and Bunch’s description of fashion is a romp through time. There was the “gorgeous blue silk shantung Capri set and Bernardo sandals,” and the “elegant cream wool boucle Lilly Ann suit with cream fox collar and cuffs, black cashmere sweater with pearls, real of course, black leather Andrew Geller pumps and handbag from Joseph Magnin.”
In the blink of an eye it was the Sixties, the Pill had arrived, and women began taking on more confident sexual roles. Bunch says, “Las Vegas in the Golden Years, was just one long never-failing-never-ending party,” and she was one of the “it” girls in town. She lived at the Playpen Apartments, “an elegant but racy” address. It was the “chic address for singles.”
When the clock began ticking on her dance career, Bunch looked towards Hollywood. She succeeded in landing small parts in television and films, including Lookin’ to Get Out with Jon Voight and Starman with Jeff Bridges. In Oxford Blues with Rob Lowe, Bunch was the cast hairdresser because she owned a hot roller set. It was a simpler time.
A serial namedropper, Bunch regales the reader with men, famous or not, who wined, dined, and sometimes bedded her. She tells us she prefers “rhinestones, no tacky sequins,” but she doesn’t appear to understand that both, like much of Las Vegas, are artificial.
Bunch never met a Nevada stereotype she did not use. Her Las Vegas is glamour and glitz, but she also portrays the darker side of gambling, 24/7 parties, alcohol, loose sex, prostitution, divorce, the Mafia, murder and bodies buried in the desert—something everyone knows is a Nevada hobby [sic].
She says, “I am a truth teller, and humor is hidden in truth.” High Heels and Headdresses is the story of an outsider who found the guts of Las Vegas and survived, smiling and standing on two feet. Bunch’s stories are entertaining but hard to nail down—like cats.