Our Nimble Lass

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Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS

She was a brilliant product of the Queen City. A real girl-next-door type: attractive, shapely, her corpuscles surging with the eagerness to show what she could do. She came from a German family, in a home run by the hausfrau. She took dancing lessons at a high-profile studio, and began plotting the way to stardom. That is the origin story of Doris Day, unassumingly dazzling singer, charming movie star, hotelier, and all the rest. She bought a silver ticket out of town in the late 1930s, and barely glanced back.

But this isn’t that story.

This is a story about a different young woman who came along a handful of years before. Another local beauty who reached for showbiz stardom, was taught by a venerated dance instructor, and then plotted her way to the top. She too was the girl next door. The thing was, she stayed next door.

Back in March, a few of us here at the magazine got e-mails from friends who had seen an intriguing item listed on eBay. “1930s stripper/dancer scrapbook—Cincinnati,”  the posting announced, “Jean Harlow’s double.”  The newspaper clipping that illustrated the ad loudly verified the claim. It showed a fetching lady with daisies in her platinum hair, a slit skirt that exposed a leg from here to ya-ya. There were daisies around her waist. Over the picture some forgotten caption writer came up for air long enough to slug it “Nimble Lass.”

Hook, meet fish. We were intrigued. And so we bought the scrapbook, because our heads would not clear until we saw what else might be depicted in this time capsule from the underside of exotic Cincinnati circa 1930. A week or so later, when the scrapbook arrived, it was unwrapped in the meeting room—and let’s just say the meeting was unusually well attended. Inside was page upon page of newspaper clippings, handbills, programs from men’s smokers and nightclubs and political party meetings, all referencing the skills of one dancer. Her names were various: she was Estelle or Orma or Edythe Allyn, she was Irma Allen or Allyn, and she was Armaine, Romaine, Ur-Maine. Ermaine.

We have come to really like this dancer. And we think we know her, even though we know so little. Almost everything in the scrapbook relates to a career that stretched from about 1932 to 1942. The first page presents the program from the March 1932 Walnut Hills Fellowship Club’s Vaudeville & Minstrel Show. At an American Legion dance in Osgood, Indiana, she performed her “Sensational dance of the ages direct from Cincinnati’s finest nightclubs.” House of Rinck on Central Parkway simply taunted, “See her! Then try to forget her!” She was good enough to be the featured dancer in the floorshow the night Wooden Shoe Garden opened on Reading Road.

Turn these pages and you can hear the tom-toms and the cracked notes of trumpet players from Covington, turn the pages and you can see her dance. Sometimes there is glitter in the air, sometimes there is sawdust on the floor. And then: it all stops. And there’s nothing else to mark a life that continued outside those pages for decades.

Who was she? That is what we wondered most by the end of the book. What was her life story, and what was it like to dance in places with names like the Cat & Fiddle, Eureka Tavern, and Jimsie’s Playhouse? We contacted “bonzombie,” the eBay seller, and asked him what he knew. He said he had bought the book at a yard sale over a decade ago and had always wanted to try to reconstruct her life but had come up empty. We had to try.

First, we needed a name. In the middle of the book, stuffed into a pile of ads and notices, was this: “Miss Ermaine Allyn, daughter of Mrs. A. Lang, 2849 Lawndale Avenue, just returned from a successful tour of leading Night Clubs through northern Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. She is billed as  ‘Ermaine, Silver-Haired Danseuse,’  and is well known throughout Cincinnati and vicinity for her character dancing.”

That address and the name of her mother led to census information, then birth records, cemetery plots, and property transfers. The outline of a life floated out there beyond the city. Closer in lay the exotic world of a Silver-Haired Danseuse.

Erma Kunkel was born in town in 1905. Her mother, Henrietta Lang (folks called her Hattie), was probably born in Ohio. Her father, William Kunkel, came from Bavaria and seems to have traveled in steerage, with his parents and three siblings, on the Westphalia in 1880. A classic Cincinnati beginning. By the turn of the century, William was a barber, cutting hair at 1524 Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. His wife Hattie, daughter Erma, and son Leroy, who was seven years older than Erma, all lived across the street from the barber shop, at 1531 Vine. That building still stands, a four-story red brick soldier near the corner with Liberty.

The Over-the-Rhine that Erma grew up in was a crowded German enclave, home to as many people as it has ever seen. It squeezed grocers and clip artists, bootblacks and entertainers elbow-to-elbow. It was overripe, even risqué; a sturdy port of entry that had grown into a wooly thrill zone. A theater district had moved up Vine from Fountain Square after the Civil War, and wherever theater people went, burlesque houses and beer gardens soon followed.

By the turn of the century, the stretch of Vine north of the Miami and Erie Canal attracted “out-of-town visitors, suburbanites, politicians, show people, and a motley crowd of sports, drawn in part by the contrived German flavor,” writes a scholar of the era. An observer of the time put it even more succinctly. To him, the district possessed “all the tarnished tinsel of a Bohemianism with the trimmings of the gutter and the morals of a sewer.”

Messy, right? But it must have been a blast. One block south of the Kunkels’  home was Weilert’s Cafe & Pavilion, the largest beer garden in town. Busts of German authors and composers lined the wall. Holding court, comfortable under their stony gaze, was Cincinnati’s emperor, Boss Cox. Every day after five in the early years of the 20th century, Cox and his crew rendezvoused here, slurping beers, scarfing schnitzel, and ruling the city from around the Stammtisch—a huge round wooden table.

Such a scene could certainly give a kid a skewed sense of how the city, not to mention the world, worked. By 1910, Cox controlled the largest motion picture chain on Earth—the World Film Corporation—owned a chunk of the Shubert Theatrical Company, and controlled the B.F. Keith theaters in town. The life of the city could sure seem like theater, and to gain a foothold on stage was a way to be at the center of a great many things.

William died in 1911, at the age of 35. His death certificate lists cause of death as “Uremic poisoning, Bright’s disease, cirrhosis of the liver.” It’s possible that William had a drinking problem. After he passed, Erma’s mother, Hattie, and her two children took part in the exodus of folks departing downtown and the hot mess of Over-the-Rhine for higher ground: Corryville. Eventually Hattie remarried, and when Erma turned 18 she wed Jean Cohen, the son of a prominent Jewish family from North Avondale that owned a clothing store on Fifth Street. It’s an intriguing pairing.

One day, Erma saw a story in The Cincinnati Times-Star. She was nearly 30, already dancing. The article is about Miss Helene Marie Deau Virre, a star of the Folies Bergere in Paris and assorted moving pictures, on sabbatical in Cincinnati. Apparently it didn’t go so well. Deau Virre came “seeking rest and relaxation,” the article states. “Instead she found nothing but turmoil.”  Problems with her hotel rooms led the prima donna to deem Cincinnati “a much ‘wilder’ place” than Paris. But she had second thoughts. “To prove that she has no more ill feeling for Cincinnati, Miss Deau Virre plans to take two ambitious young girl dancers from this city with her to London, England…Miss Deau Virre promises a six-month contract to any two aspiring young Cincinnati girl dancers selected by her.” 
A wondrous tale. The article in Erma’s scrapbook is circled in pencil, and someone has written “Read this.” Imagine the stampede of young chorines racing down to the Hotel Gibson in hopes of making contact with the worldly Miss Deau Virre. Countless Broadway musicals have been concocted from less.

Around the same time, Erma was taking dance lessons from perhaps the best teacher in town, Pep Golden. Pep Golden was as sure a starmaker as Cincinnati offered. Born Samuel Goldberg in Columbus, Pep was a saxophonist and vaudeville dancer who had performed in shows with Eddie Cantor. Eventually he married a girl from Cincinnati and opened a dance studio. He was an elegant man with a zesty mustache who took notice when a new girl with legs and fine blonde hair walked into his studio at Sixth and Main.

It was Golden who worked his magic on a kid from Cheviot named John LeRoy Schotte, transforming him into Hal Le Roy, a gifted footman—namechecked by Madame Deau Virre herself!—who went to New York and became a star with the Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld was the solar impresario of Erma’s era, the showman who exerted the strongest gravitational pull on girls with dreams of dancing on Broadway. He was not unaware. “To get her picture in the papers is the more or less harmless ambition of many a girl who leads a remote and routine existence in a factory or in a general or department store or even on a farm,” Ziegfeld wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1923. “If her worth and beauty were only known! Or if, like Cinderella, she could only get to the party somehow!”

Who knows if Erma met up with Madame Deau Virre. But no matter: Pep Golden was capable of getting her to the party.

By the early 1930s, Pep’s dance EMpire embraced a thriving downtown studio, from which he launched his annual Follies, put on floorshows and recitals around town, and supplied a steady stream of dancers for parties, shows, conventions, and private events. The Pep Golden Revue reenacted “The Last Days of Pompeii” at Coney Island, with Erma in the chorus. It was the Depression, and spectacles that evoked feast and destruction were popular. Here was a standard route to success: You started in the chorus, worked your way up to featured spot, then got your own act. One bit of fun Golden liked to trot out was a kind of competition; dancers would wear a sash that identified them à la a beauty pageant’s “Miss Ohio,” the audience voting on who was the best—or most fetching—performer. In the scrapbook there are an assortment of sashes scored by Erma, bequeathed by a crowd that liked what it saw.

She was on her way. She became one of “Pep Golden’s Proteges,” and then one of his “Golden Dancing Debs.” Eventually she was simply “Ermaine, Golden’s Dancer.” There was plenty of work to be had.

In other press reports, though, she is on her own, with no more mention of Pep. She is a featured performer appearing in nightclubs, dancing in a variety of styles. In one clipping, a writer quotes her. “The cinema, she avers, has so educated the public to appreciation of the better dancing—chiefly through the musical films—that nothing save superb skill in a single type of dancing or wide knowledge of many types can satisfy them. Miss Allyn’s list includes tap, acrobatic, shim-sham-shimmy, toe, soft-shoe, and Oriental dances…”

The book is not arranged in strict chronological order, and few items have a date attached, but in a picture that seems somehow nascent, and shows her looking rather young, Erma flashes a generous smile, shining a light that boasts I love doing this. If dancing was work, it was something better, too.

There was a manager, Jack Middleton, with an office on lower Vine. Middleton had been in vaudeville before Erma was born, and owned venues in the region before he opened the Jack Middleton Theatrical Bureau, which booked dancers, singers, ventriloquists, and Midget Jackie Duncan, a master of ceremonies on the club circuit.

Then, not quite out of the blue, an ad for Golder’s Peebles Corner Night Club. The bill features Marna “in the beauty and the beast,” and Ermaine, “Lovely semi-nude.” The ad declares “Always 4 strip teases every week.” Erma was stripping. By the second half of the scrapbook, there are more indications that clothes are coming off. On a bill with a stripper, the copy reads “Ermain Allyn who gives out with her version of exotic dances.”

Some stories assemble themselves in your head like a movie. Well, this film was switching from Technicolor to 16 mm. We see the star struggling with her career, wondering if stripping will save her. Did Erma willingly embrace the evolution, sure in her skills, or lunge after it, desperate to stay in the game? Whatever her mindset, this pile of clippings instantly seemed to have a Before, and an After.

Erma took to the art at a propitious moment—the birth of the modern strip tease. True, men have always paid to see forbidden sights. “Let me put it this way: that business has boomed since the beginning of man,” barks Len Goorian, who managed the Schubert Theater downtown after World War II. “It’s a natural desire and a natural outlet. Go back to Rome, Greece, and Egypt and you can find anything you want.”

Fair enough, but something radical was happening in the 1930s, something that led a lot of women to explore this “natural outlet.” The Teens had featured plenty of floorshows that displayed young women’s legs in full force. This was just the sort of showgirl Erma began as, fresh out of Pep Golden’s stable. But the Jazz Age had brought assertive women in short (for their time) skirts into the public view. Hemlines were raising—who needed to go to the theater for legs anymore?

Lollapalooza shows went further—Earl Carroll’s Vanities, the Ziegfeld Follies, and more, weaving singing, dancing, and flashes of nudity together for the masses. That worked for a while in the biggest cities, but radio was cheaper than a theater ticket, and what about the hinterlands, where it was hard to mount a costly theatrical show? One answer was burlesque: working men’s humor and strippers performing before a painted backdrop, using a single prop like a divan or a giant, see-through martini glass. A maestro like Herbert Minsky saw one clear line forward, by downsizing the budget and the ambition. “The strip tease artists,” he said, “have to be taught to unstrip and unclothe in an atmosphere of lighting. They have to be taught rhythm in a manner synchronous with the music.”

Stripping began as one part of burlesque entertainment. But soon enough, it was the entertainment. And local talents like Ermaine, even more than national concoctions like Gypsy Rose Lee, were the sky queens taking a new performance to greater heights.

Herbert Minsky again: “Basically a mechanical dance, the striptease depends upon the ability of the stripper to inject novelty and personality into her performance.”
That word—personality—appears a lot in references to Erma. She was billed as a “personality dancer,” and as another dancer explained, it was a special thing. A personality dancer had “an intimate rapport with the audience. Those women could make every audience member feel as though she was performing just for them.”

Beyond the intimate rapport, the business was a hustle. Typically one performed in nightclubs or at a chain of theaters spanning the country, and the differences were striking. The theaters paid better, and when you were off the stage, you were out of sight. But the nightclubs and bars that booked Erma paid dancers to mingle with the patrons between performances, and shake loose whatever change was free.

“There was a time when the clubs were the sort of place where you would put your wallet in your sock,” explained Charles McCaghy, a professor emeritus at Bowling Green University who has amassed a voluminous collection of stripper lore that is now housed at Ohio State University. “Part of the job was to push drinks, and get the men to be so loose they’d say, ‘Gee, I’d like some champagne….’

“The business was rather complex. On the one hand you had these touring groups going from theater to theater. In Ohio, there was the Roxy Theater in Cleveland, and they would travel to Toledo, to Youngstown. They would spend a week at each location. It was a business. But on the other hand some of the nightclubs would have what would be called  ‘house girls,’  and they would come in and dance as long as the audience would accept them. That was their job. They did not tour, in other words.”

A house girl with a skill for bonding with the locals, Erma herself was in a complicated spot. She was performing in and around her hometown, connecting with men she might see in her daily life, even using a variation of her own name. If strip tease was a window on the exotic things daily life prohibited, here the daily life intervened and made work more complicated.

One place Middleton booked her into was the Cat & Fiddle, a legendary flesh ark of Cincinnati. It had been a speakeasy downtown during Prohibition, a place that had an “open carry” policy regarding firearms long before Chipotle. After the repeal of the 18th Amendment, the Cat & Fiddle moved to 1345 Central Avenue, rebranding as a delightfully crude emporium, casting an expansive funk and an aura of shameless glee.

The joint was famous far beyond city limits, and one thing that made its name was the way it favored novelty. “It was sort of a grungy place,” declared Goorian, “where they had acts with gals with snakes, doves, and things of that sort. But it was well frequented.” The Cat & Fiddle was built for dancers like Zorima, Queen of the Nudists, who swam the Ohio River—truly a death-defying act in those days—as a publicity stunt to spotlight her stand there. Or you might find Yvette Dare and her sacred parrot. In Dare’s publicity material from the 1940s, it was averred that the  “sacred parrot strips her of her sarong, which denotes her chastity. At this climax she is free to choose a mate.” The Cat & Fiddle was a monument to Dare and her chastity.

By the late 1940s, the Cat & Fiddle was rocketing to the top of the heap, establishing itself as the cradle of the new strip scene. But Erma wasn’t one of the touring acts that got the top billing. And though she had her “silver mask” dance, it was nothing compared to the likes of the star Brazilian stripper whose act finished with her lying on the floor, a python pulling her cache-sexe away.

During a stand in Pittsburgh, Erma was staying at the Kirkwood Hotel. She must have wanted to take stock, so she wrote out a year’s worth of dates and wages, from memory. There are nights when she is making $4, a lot of them. The tally peaks at $40, less often. At the bottom of the hotel stationery, Erma writes “$929.00” for the year. “Less 10%” to her agent. In the end, she wasn’t Doris Day; she wasn’t Yvette Dare. She was a girl from OTR who had made it to the burbs. We’d kill to see what her smile looked like after the dancing was done.

The book she kept is an amazing artifact. One final thing that amazes is what isn’t there. The last date we’ve found in it is June 19, 1942. Erma remarried, to a man named Samuel Ralph Frazier. He had been a railroad detective—a yard bull—based in Cincinnati, and then a traveling salesman for a Dayton, Ohio, company around the time they got hitched in the early 1940s. She died in October 1977. There were no children.

She and Frazier lived in Clermont County, where Frazier ended his days working as a Deputy Health Commissioner. Save a couple of pictures of the men in her life, and a few recipes scattered among the nightclub notices, none of this is accounted for in the book. She was a woman who was proud enough of her career to tell the 1940 census taker that she was an entertainer/dancer at “Nite Clubs,” a woman who embraced her stage name to the point that it was engraved on her tombstone: Ermaine, in parentheses. A whole story in one word—a last curtsy, a dropped glove, the sigh of the final veil. Like any great showgirl, Erma knew how to make an entrance, and how to make an exit, too.

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