For several years, filmmaker Rick Delaup has been documenting the New Orleans burlesque scene of the late 1940s through the 1960s. "Evangeline the Oyster Girl & Other Tales of Burlesque," will be a television documentary and book about Bourbon Street burlesque dancers during a time period when there were few economic opportunities for women, but for some the shady side of the street beckoned with money, glamour and fame. The project is partially funded by the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Eccentric New Orleans will present profiles of several women that appear in the documentary. The first….Evangeline the Oyster Girl!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EVANGELINE THE OYSTER GIRL

On the limited opportunities for women after WWII:

"When I started, I was very young. I lied about my age. I was sixteen and told them I was eighteen. When I started drawing Social Security, the lady’d sit and laugh, she says, ‘Somewhere in your life, you lied about your age. I said, ‘Well, I had no choice, I had to.’ She says, ‘But I did, too. We all did.’" -- Kitty West

On her first night as a stripper:

"I wanted to burst with joy, and I wanted to tell somebody. I knew I couldn’t call my mother. I certainly couldn’t tell my grandfather. But, it was almost as if you would win a lottery, like someone had just given you something that you just never expected, and you don’t know whether to cry or shake. I know I was shaking. And when everybody is screaming, ’More!’ that was the most wonderful feeling in this world." – Kitty West

On the exploitation of young women:

"What happened to me, I hope no one has to live through it. And some things that happened to me on Bourbon Street were quite bad. Things that, even in that time, people say, ‘Well, those things – that doesn’t happen.’ But they did." -- Kitty West

In June of 1930, the baby who would become Evangeline the Oyster Girl was born Abbie Jewel Slawson into a poor Mississippi family. She was one of six children. Her grandfather was a minister, and they lived a very strict life in the quiet little town of Shuqualak. They very seldom saw a car, and would ride in a buggy to church on Sunday. By the age of 3, Kitty was picking cotton for her family. "My mother used to take old stockings and cut holes on them and put on my arms so I wouldn’t get any sun on them. My mother made my own cotton sack, and I used to pull it behind me."

Kitty became friends with the "little colored girls" who picked cotton with her, and had one favorite, Fannie Reynolds. "I’d drop my sack and run under a tree and we’d start dancing. Singing, dancing, and my mother would always turn her head. She used to say, ‘Jewel, that’s a sin to have those kind of movements.’ Once my brother said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to her Jewel, she’s not saying it to hurt you because I see her walking behind and then looking at you smiling.’ Kitty fondly remembers what she learned from the girls in the cotton fields, "They taught me movements, and they taught me rhythm, and many a day we sat with sticks and beat with tin cans and made our own music."

When Kitty was 6 or 7, the family moved to Jackson, where her father went to work building highways.

Kitty would sing and dance at The Majestic Theater to make a few extra dollars. "We were very poor, but my mother always found time to have a lady come in and clean house, and do my hair."

Kitty’s mother, Annie Mae, was a Presley. Her cousin was Elvis’s father. Kitty remember seeing Elvis as a young boy, "I’ve seen Elvis a few times, in the vines, we used to call them the vines in Mississippi where you’d swing on the vines and act like silly children. Elvis had one goal in life and that was to sing. Elvis used to snap his fingers a lot as a young boy. And then here I am running around thinking I was a ballet dancer, so I guess we both were kind of idiots in those days. People thought we were crazy, but really not. We just loved different sounds in life." Kitty recalls her carefree lifestyle when she’d run into the yard with a sheet wrapped around her, and dance like it was a flowing gown.

When Kitty was about fourteen years old, her father deserted the family. Kitty’s mother, unable to support herself and the children, soon remarried an abusive man. In 1947, at the age of sixteen, Kitty was ready to escape her harsh life in Mississippi. At the time, she was working at a hospital when she cooked up the idea, along with her friend Marzette Mooney, to go to New Orleans. Through one of the doctors in Jackson, Kitty got a job at Charity Hospital to train as a lab technician. This was her ticket out. "We were on the train making big plans of what we were going to do, how we were going to make our millions."

The two sixteen year old girls got an apartment on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter. They walked among the bright lights of Canal Street and Bourbon Street. "My first impression was ‘My God! What a big city!’ I was totally lost in the French Quarter. It was like Hollywood… all these billboards, these window signs and everything. And there were guys standing in the door saying, ‘Come on in! We have a show!’ And I just – I didn’t know what to do! It was all just so amazing!"

"You’d see the beautiful showgirls, and they looked so elegant. They looked like royalty to me. I would stand and just look at the girls as they would come out of the clubs or walk down the street with all their makeup and false eyelashes… it was something that I never expected to see."

Bourbon Street, at the time, was full of characters. There were club owners and businessmen such as Pete Herman, a former boxing champion, and Diamond Jim Moran, a restaurateur. "There were all these club owners that were wearing these gorgeous suits and very expensive shirts. Most of them were Italian and they had a lot of gold on, you know, gold rings and necklaces and chains and big watches."

Kitty would go into Gasper Gulotta’s club and watch Miss Hurricane, the featured act, perform. She was fascinated by the exotic dancers, the attention they were getting, and more importantly, the money they were making. "It was an awful lot of money. I thought, Oh, my God. It’s more than I’ve ever seen in my life." But one night, while Kitty, Marzette, and a friend were in the audience of Gasper Gulotta’s club, Miss Hurricane had an epileptic seizure backstage before she was about to go on. The club was packed, and the owner panicked. He ran over to Kitty and asked her to fill in, "You can do this. I know you can, because everyone tells me you can dance. Would you do me a favor and just do this show?" Kitty’s friends dared her to do it. They were all pushing for her to give it a try. Kitty relented, and headed backstage. "I was so nervous, I couldn’t even think straight." Kitty was dressed in Miss Hurricane’s costume, veils hooked around the dress. They put make-up on her, false eyelashes, and put on some high-heel shoes. "I looked at myself, and said ‘Oh, my goodness!’ I couldn’t believe it!" The master of ceremonies went out on stage and introduced her as Kitty Dare.

"I walked out on stage and I just stood there for a minute. I was dumbfounded! The lights – I stood there. All I could see at that particular minute was my grandfather. Like he was looking right at me saying ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Cause I felt so guilty, like I was really committing an unforgivable sin! Then all of a sudden the people were screaming ‘Dance! Dance!’ And they started dancing and clapping their hands. And the band started… I really didn’t know all of her routine but I more or less made up my own as I went along. And then I would take the veils off one by one and then I would put them over my eyes. But I made a big mistake, I was giving the veils away. The guys were hollering, "Give me a veil!"

"When I finished that night, I felt like a star. For some reason I couldn’t wait until the next night. I wanted to dance. I wanted to hear the applause. I wanted everybody to hear."

"I wanted to burst with joy, and I wanted to tell somebody. I knew I couldn’t call my mother. I certainly couldn’t tell my grandfather. But, it was almost as if you would win a lottery, like someone had just given you something that you just never expected, and you don’t know whether to cry or shake. I know I was shaking. And when everybody is screaming, ’More!’ that was the most wonderful feeling in this world."

"That first night, I probably got a hundred dollars or something like that. And I thought it was more money than I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I said, ‘Look at all this money!’ The next day, I bought a dress. I bought makeup and had my hair fixed. I thought I was rich."

"Poor Marzette, I love her dearly. She had two left feet. Marzette says, ‘Kitty, go for it.’ I says, ‘Well, why don’t you try to be a dancer?’ She says, ‘I can’t stand on one foot, much less two!’ Poor Marzette was clumsy but a beautiful, beautiful girl. Had gorgeous hair, face – but she was not made to be a dancer."

"I watched everything around me. I would sit when I’d get off of work. I would sit at the table and I would watch their eyes – mostly their eyes and their hands. I didn’t have a problem with dancing. Because I could out-dance 90% of them anyway."

All of the Bourbon Street clubs wanted the fresh new country girl at their club. Kitty went to work at the Gunga Den. The owner, Larry Lamarca, was notorious for making passes at the girls. "One night I was going back to the dressing room and he put his hand against the door like, ‘Stop.’ And he said, ‘I want you to be mine.’ I know what he had in mind. I was only sixteen, and I was scared to death. And finally, Laura (another dancer), was right behind me. She says, ‘I’m going to call my mother.’ She says, ‘You’re scaring her to death. She’s not used to this.’ And I did tell his wife, Zonia, which maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did." Kitty then went to work at the Casino Royale, headlining as "Evangeline, the Oyster Girl."

Kitty brought her first check to the bank and asked for it in money orders. "My number one priority in life was to work hard and get as much money to my mother as possible so she would have a better life." Kitty went to the bank every week for the money orders. "I was proud because it was good, honest money." She soon became acquainted with a teller named Anna May. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Anna May recognized her customer in a newspaper ad for the Casino Royale promoting the Oyster Girl. Anna May only knew her as Abbie Jewel Slawson. No stranger to French Quarter club-hopping, Anna May decided to drop in to see Kitty’s act on Bourbon Street. "She came in to the club and sat at the table and said, ‘Abbie Jewel! Abbie Jewel!’ And I said, ‘Shh! Nobody knows my name! Don’t call me that in here.’ She said, ‘Okay, Abbie Jewel.’ This was the beginning of a close friendship that lasts even to this day.

In 1949, a new act came to town – Clarice Murphy, known as Divena, the Aqua-Tease. The Casino Royale gave her top billing over Evangeline, which made Kitty none too pleased. While Divena was performing her underwater striptease in front of a full audience, Kitty appeared onstage wielding a fire-ax. "I just wanted to break the tank in a million pieces, and I did. I went out there and I just started pounding away at the bottom. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I was just in such a rage that I didn’t want her to take all the spotlight." Water rushed out of the tank, and Divena sunk to the bottom, dumb-founded. The patrons rushed to the back of the club as water from the 300-gallon tank headed their way. One soaked tourist from Brooklyn, Joseph J. Mentzner, told writer Howard Jacobs, "The management was profusely apologetic, assured me the episode was not a part of the act… this was a brand new experience for me. I never dreamed the hazards of night-clubbing on Bourbon Street included exposure to drowning."

 Curiously, a photographer from Life magazine happened to be in the club that night, and caught the whole feud on film, blow by blow. Life magazine reported that before Divena could crawl out of the tank, Evangeline reached in and pulled her hair. The police showed up and hauled Kitty off to jail. Kitty posed for a photograph with the arresting officer in front of the jail bars for the Life photographer. The next day, the story made headlines as it went out over the AP wire. Kitty did not spend one night in jail, and was fined only $10. Divena was asked how she felt. "As though I was beaten for hours with basketballs," she said. Divena described the pressure in the tank as, "pretty terrific."

Some speculate that it was a publicity stunt, while others see it as another high-drama catfight not uncommon among burlesque strippers. The incident raised lots of questions, but more importantly, it got the kind of national exposure that was much sought after, and envied, by the Bourbon Street burlesque queens. Today, Kitty dodges questions about the details of the Divena incident. She promises to reveal all in the documentary on her life currently in production.

While Kitty was was gaining notoriety, her family back home had no idea of the career path she chose. "I didn’t tell my mother about my act. I told her I was a dancer, and naturally she wanted to see it. But I felt bad. I couldn’t hide it any longer. She had to know sooner or later." Kitty’s mother called, and invited herself down to New Orleans. "I was nervous, I didn’t know what to do." Kitty met her mother at the train station. She had brought Kitty’s youngest brother along on the trip. "That night, they let my little brother, Johnny, go with her to the club. He perched up on the back of the booth. He was about three or four, I guess. When I came out on stage, I was so scared I was shaking… My baby brother kept saying, ‘Mama, is that Jewel? Mama, is that Jewel?’ She said, ‘Shh, Johnny, I’m gonna miss something.’ When the act was over I brought her into the dressing room and we hugged each other and that’s when she told me, ‘You took your clothes off.’ I said, ‘But I didn’t take my clothes off, I have as much on as they have on the beach.’ She said, ‘But you still showed your body.’ That upset me a little bit, but I told her, "Mother, where do you think you’ve been getting the money? I’ve been sending you money every week and it’s a decent living.’ I said, ‘I’m not ashamed of it.’ She said, ‘But you were not raised like that. Your grandfather would turn over in his grave.’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t think he hasn’t already.’"

Kitty’s mother eventually accepted her daughter’s career, and was quite impressed that Kitty made the pages of Life magazine. And, after all, Kitty was supporting the family. "I guess she had to realize at the time that I had no other choice."

Taking the Oyster Girl act one step further, Kitty decided to dye her hair green to represent seaweed. "Wherever I went, I was always the center of attention with green hair. On airplanes, trains, wherever I’d stop and get gas. It was like, ‘who is this?’ They would just stand and stare. It was quite funny to see the reactions of the people. They would all look at me like I was crazy. But when you’re young, you just don’t mind it." Kitty told The Fort Worth Press, "Even if I quit being the Oyster Girl some day, I’ll keep my hair green. My eyes are green, too." After nine months, her scalp had a bad reaction to the dye and she went back to blonde.

On a trip to New Orleans, and after he became famous, Elvis Presley stopped in to see his cousin Kitty perform. "Elvis looked at me and he says, ‘Jewel, I always knew you had talent.’" Kitty knew many politicians and celebrities. She was a friend of Governor Earl Long, and briefly dated Icecapades skater, Bob Ballard, and crooner Mel Torme. But even with the glamorous and lucrative life as a featured stripper on world-famous Bourbon Street, Kitty was willing to give it all up to pursue other personal goals. "I went into show business primarily to make money because I had to send money home. But all I wanted out of life was to get married, settle down, and have children." In 1952, Kitty married jockey Jerry West. She quit dancing for 3 years after her first son was born. She went back to dancing on and off for about 7 years after that. She danced in Dallas, Texas, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Newport, Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby.

The Oyster Girl act made a lasting impression on Bourbon Street. "Where would you go anywhere in the United States and see a huge shell on the floor with a huge pearl, all kinds of seaweed around it and a girl coming out of a shell dancing with beautiful music? Fluorescent lighting, and just a beam of amber… where would you see that?" After Kitty West, there were a slew of other Oyster Girls to follow through the years. Slowly the act diminished to nothing more than a naked girl coming out of a shell. Although times have changed, Kitty will always be remembered nationwide as the Original Evangeline the Oyster Girl!

-- Rick Delaup

 

 

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