I’m sad to say I haven’t seen or spoken to her in decades, but when I was in college, that titanic redhead, that Eiffel eye-full, Tempest Storm, was a friend of mine. For those not familiar with that hour-glass beauty, this story will illustrate how attractive she was: Frank Sinatra insisted she be cast as one of the showgirls in his movie PAL JOEY, and top-billed Rita Hayworth had her fired, because they looked too much alike.
I went to NYU film school in the mid 1970s, and while writing for their literary magazine, COLD DUCK, I managed to interview Tempest at Times Square’s SHOW WORLD CENTER, a porno emporium with the atmosphere of a Howard Johnson’s, where she was then performing her famous striptease. I’d turned on my tape-recorder, and said, “It’s a long way from Annie Banks of Eastman, Georgia to Tempest Storm – ”
And she stopped me, saying with astonishment, “Oh my goodness, you’ve actually done research!” She was a charming and funny Southern belle, and it was a great interview. I pulled out some pressbooks and lobby cards from burlesque films she’d been in, and she told me that her scrapbooks had been stolen from her dressing room not long ago. I gave her my Tempest Storm files, and that sealed the friendship.
It became a habit after then that, whenever she was performing in New York City, I’d drop by the theatre with her favorite drink, a glass of carrot and celery juice, and take her to lunch. She was headlining at The Star and Garter, which was on the corner of Broadway and I think 46th Street, up on the second floor. I gave my name to the lady in the booth, she checked her list, and she let me through the turnstile without taking my ten dollars. I went backstage to Tempest’s dressing room which, while not luxurious, was much bigger than the two shoebox-sized rooms the other six girls on the bill had to share. I brought Tempest her carrot and celery juice, and after chatting a few minutes, she had to change into her ‘taking off’ clothes, so I went into the theatre auditorium to watch the rest of the show, waiting until Tempest had done her set so we could go out to lunch.
Today, striptease has gained, if not respectability, an aura of cool edginess, but in the 1970s that was not the case. Burlesque, the musical comedy entertainment that spawned Abbott & Costello, Ed Wynn, Phil Silvers and so many other stars, is remembered mostly for striptease, ironic considering that striptease is what actually killed the form. As comic Rags Ragland replied, when asked why he left burlesque: “How do you follow an act where a woman takes off all her clothes?”
The showroom had a small stage, with a runway that jutted past the first three or four rows of seats. It could seat about a hundred, but these early shows were never very full. When I’d gone in to see Tempest, I’d heard an amplified man’s voice announce, “And now, the management of the Star and Garter is proud to present the lovely and sensual Desiree!” Desiree was still on when I found a seat. She’d gone on, dressed in her show-girl clothes, then teased and peeled, and danced her set, working to records. The pay was not great. The headliner, if she was a name, like Tempest, or Blaze Starr, made a thousand dollars a seven-day week, four or more shows a day, and the non-stars made far less. Most made more money from tips, and in these pre-lap-dance days a stripper would often work the length of the runway, bald head by bald head, showing special attention, and letting the men slip the money under the elastic of her g-string.
Desiree had been working the tiny crowd so long that her music had ended, and they’d had to start it again. A few voices called out, “Tempest! We want Tempest!” The girl in the black garters clung tenaciously to the curtain. “Listen,” she told the audience through her teeth, “I’m not leaving the stage until I get fifteen more dollars!” A collection was taken up among the front-row denizens, and Desiree was bought off the stage.
With the stage empty, I glanced around at the audience: that afternoon the clientele was all male, subdivided by servicemen with nowhere to go, groups of guys going as a goof, and the usual collection of chronic masturbators. Overall, that was always the audience, which is why I did a double-take to see a genuine movie star, Peter Boyle, sitting in the back row.
Younger folks probably only know the late Peter Boyle as Ray Romano’s father on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, but he was a major star in the 1970s. He’d done films as dark as TAXI DRIVER and JOE, and as light and funny as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, where he played the monster. And hip? He hung out with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, and when he got married later on, John Lennon was his best man. Which is a long way of saying I would have been less surprised to see a zebra in the next row than I was to see Peter Boyle.
Next the management of the Star & Garter was proud to introduce the lovely and sensuous Roberta Redford (she was a peach, and would never go out with me), and finally it was showtime! The curtains parted slightly, revealing a set of drums. All of the dancers performed to records or tapes, but Tempest was a headliner in a field where you could count all the headliners on the fingers of one hand, so she got one live musician, a drummer, to do the rim-shots for the bumps and drum-rolls for the grinds.
“The management of the Star & Garter is proud to introduce the star of our show. She’s performed all over the world! The Queen of burlesque! Miss Tempest Storm!”
Tempest had the sort of truly hour-glass figure that you will rarely see in a lifetime, and she knew how to slowly reveal it in a manner that was breathtaking. Literally, it seemed like no one in the audience was breathing for some time. When Tempest had taken her bows, following a standing ovation, she slipped backstage. I slipped into the lobby to wait for her.
Tempest came into the lobby ten minutes later, wearing a stylish pin-stripe suit, and said, “Okay Henry, let’s get lunch.” Just as we were crossing the lobby, a man stepped out of the showroom. It was Peter Boyle. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she said in return, and kept walking.
He moved to catch up with us. “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show.”
“Thanks,” she said as we kept walking. Being a tall, beautiful woman who makes her living by taking her clothes off to music in front of strange men, Tempest has perfect tunnel-vision – you cannot make eye contact with her if she doesn’t want to.
“My name’s Pete.”
“Nice to meet you, Pete,” she said without slowing.
“I’m Peter Boyle,” he clarified.
By now we were through the lobby and passing the ticket booth. “I’m an actor,” he told the back of her head. “I starred in JOE. I’m in STEELYARD BLUES…”
I understood exactly what was going on in Peter Boyle’s head. He was a big star; he had dropped into a dive, a strip show, and was going to give the star the thrill of her life when he told her he enjoyed her performance. Only it wasn’t working out like that.
Tempest and I were hurrying down the stairs to the street while Peter Boyle stayed on the top step, shouting his credits. “I’m in THE CANDIDATE! I’m in TAIL-GUNNER JOE! I’m in DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE!”
And Tempest turned back and called, loudly enough that he couldn’t miss it, “Henry, get me away from this nut!”
I yelled, “Taxi!” And as the cab raced us away to a deli, Peter Boyle was left on the curb, shouting, “MEDIUM COOL! T.R. BASKIN!”
Tempest turned to me. “What is wrong with that man?”
“Tempest, that really is Peter Boyle, and he really is a big star.”
“Yes. He starred in JOE. He starred in CRAZY JOE. He starred in TAIL-GUNNER JOE…”
She looked at me quizzically. “He only does movies with ‘Joe’ in the title?”
I only saw Peter Boyle in person one more time, when I was at JFK Airport maybe ten years later. Our eyes met – I don’t have tunnel-vision like Tempest – and we sort of acknowledged each other. But I didn’t remind him of the afternoon we spent together at the Star & Garter. I might want to give him a script one day, and I figured it was better if he didn’t know we had a history.