Legendary Costumes: A Chat With Burlesque Legend Rusty Warren
Rusty Warren is a comedienne who talked about sex when no one else did. She started her career in 1952 playing piano after graduating from The New England Conservatory of Music. The youngest of the female “fringe” comediennes at the time, she became infamous for her humorous sexually oriented songs and banter, and recorded her first album “Songs for Sinners” in 1957. More albums followed shortly after, including one of her biggest hits, Knockers Up!/Songs For Sinners in 1960. An anthem for a generation of women in the early 60’s who came to Rusty’s shows, she played the song, and encouraged women to parade around the room proudly with their “knockers up.” She is often referred to as the “Mother of the Sexual Revolution.” (rustywarren.com) Rusty recorded 11 comedy albums, and performed for over 30 years on tours in major nightclubs, casino showrooms and more, retiring in 1984 after a run at Trump Palace. Now, a youthful 86 years old, Rusty recently took the time to chat with me about her views on how sexual expression has changed, her current projects, and her experiences with a costume designer you may have heard of, Mr. Bob Mackie.
So, when you are the “mother of the sexual revolution” in a time between extreme conservatism and extreme sexual freedom, how do you choose your wardrobe? What did Rusty do right, that allowed her to cross the bridge between “risque’” and refined? The following excerpts from our conversation explain a bit about what it was like at the time, and how her look was created.
Rusty Warren: The 60’s was a wonderful time— the women’s movement, Gloria Steinem, the gay movement…people tried different stuff, that we wouldn’t have in the 50’s and the early 60’s. We didn’t do that.
We either stayed in our mother’s homes, we got engaged or got married, or whatever.
We just didn’t do what they were doing in the late 60’s and 70’s. And then the 80’s and now I think we’re coming back to what it used to be. The world is a madhouse, sexually a madhouse.
( Now…) At Twelve years old they’re doing it in schools, for godsakes. (Then) They didn’t know anything but three, three different ways. That was what I used to say, I only know three ways, but I know em good! Haha, that was my joke…
Everything now is oral and….things that people didn’t know about. And that’s more or less, the changes that we live in now in the 21st century. And sex isn’t such a big deal. Women are working, they are buying their own businesses, They’re finding their independence.
“But in those early days, we women DEPENDED on men for a, for a lifestyle. To live; someone who could afford, to take care of us. But now, women are making, are CEO’s in their own businesses. You know, it’s beautiful.”
Rosey La Rouge: Yeah it’s changed a lot. (She asks me how old I am, and when I tell her, she says:” Oh you were born after a lot of this change, you were just a small child in the 70’s…”)
RW: …”The interesting curiosity is I’m 86 years old. So, I have lived through the early 30’s and the 40’s, and then the war,
the war stopped, and the people (guys) came home, then women got married, and all of the sudden sex blew off the world. I mean the world just…the girls, women, wanted sexual freedom. Because the men had gone to fight the war, we took JOBS. Women took Jobs. The Fab three (jobs)…they either typed, or they were nurses, or teachers. Those were the things that women could do at that stage, in that era.”
“In the 60’s (after the success of Knocker’s Up!), I did talks at colleges about the changes in the sexual attitudes of people, young men. I was in my late 30’s.” (Now) They teach in college about sexuality, they teach a course somewhere, in college, and not sex itself as an act, but just the whole sexual world. And Emerson college is one of them. A lot of my things are going to go between Emerson college and The Library of Congress.”
RLR: Yes. I’m so glad that’s happening, we were just talking about that the other day.
RW: Yeah, it’s only because of the decade that I made my fame, that I became Infamous when it comes to sex, I know sex, but I knew a lot about sex? I knew what everybody else knew- I mean, I didn’t invent sex, I just can’t figure out how to get around it!”
RLR: You’re right, in that time, what you were doing; you were a voice for women’s sexual expression. So, If you don’t mind I’m going to switch to how that affected what you were wearing onstage.
RW: What I was?
RLR: What you wore, your costumes, your wardrobe. You knew what your role was, so how did that affect what you were wearing onstage? For your performances, how did you decide what you were going to wear?
RW: “I tell you why— when you’re risque’, so called “risque;” now Belle Barth, was older, I was in my 30’s, Belle was in her late 50’s at that time. She was the top of the risque (comics), well, it was more than risque, because she used the four letter word, which I didn’t.”
“Belle told me something— ‘Look as pretty as you can cuz you’re talking dirty;’ she was, you know, she was talking dirty. She really was in her 50’s, but she was a knockout, diamonds, jewels, hair done, The whole nine yards… But I was in my 30’s, just coming into my 30’s. And with Knockers up and In Orbit and all the rest of the albums—
It was interesting I knew something. I had a really nice smile, and the blue eyes came out really good, When I used the lavender, on the, you know when the lights came in. I had a certain, piece of paper they put up for me. (RLR: Oh yes, a gel.)
And I said, I need, not just a long skirt and a top, I need, a costume. Something I should, that I can’t wear outside (because the taxes came in, and if I wore it outside I was going to be taxed!)
And I don’t wear anything I put onstage outside anyway, but… it was the government trying to get their nickel.”
RLR: Ok so you knew you needed a costume. How did you meet Bob Mackie?
RW: Belle introduced me to Bob Mackie — we were on the east coast at the time and he had a friend. He had a little guy, I can’t remember, he was a big designer at the time also — Bob’s partner, and I can’t remember (Rusty is referring to Ray Aghayan, Mackie’s life partner), I been trying to wrap my brain, it’s been so long 40/50 years. And he took over some of my costume.
I had a meeting with this designer, and he did Shirley Bassey, and Lucille (Ball) and he did some of that stuff, so I got to know that there was this man in Hollywood that was doing this, a young man, and I went to meet him, and he agreed to take me on as a client. Cuz you know people were very…like that. You didn’t walk into a store, you had to be— it’s done through managers and agents…So I had my meeting, at that time, I think I was running to be a size 10, 11, and 12ish you know, but I was tall…”
RLR: But that was in the 60’s you said?
RW: Yeah, oh yeah, when I could afford to buy costumes for that. Yeah, oh yeah. When I made the money I had to do something with it…
It was the point where I started to get a designer, and that’s who all the, the gorgeous gowns, the royal blue was wonderful with my reddish hair, I’m basically a blondy—bleh— (naturally)
RLR: Strawberry blonde?
RW: Yeah yeah, we had to do something, so that’s what we decided on, the hair people decided on. Not, not, you know, Lucille Ball was too red. Lucille’s got dark eyes, well… she’s gone now, but I was blue eyed, and she wasn’t.
But anyway, when I was younger, I just needed a color. Something to stick to. I wore costumes that made the red hair look better, like the royal blue gown that’s on one of the album covers (In Orbit). If you look at a couple of the album covers along the way, oh I think you know, their names, maybe on one of the inserts, of the cd’s or something. I can’t remember what the designers were — they probably had a name on it somewhere.
RLR: So, when they take you on as a client, do you have any…you have input that was like “ok, this needs to show off my hair and my eyes, but was there any other input?
RW: They helped me, find out what my best thing was, and Bob was working with you at the time, until, they let the guy know, because they’re $30,000, they let the guy know exactly. I had a little, I had a curvature when I was young, on the right shoulder, so he’d say: ‘a little bit lower, a little bit more, a little bit lower’ and they had to do something, so they DO IT. They put it in that design.
And I chose my makeup. And then I learned how to use that when I had to do it myself, but If I was in for a shoot, they would do my makeup. And my eyes were (called) sloe, it was part of my Russian background I think, my parents. And I needed, it fixed below because I was getting older and it was looking funny. So I don’t have that lift now but I did have for many years, cuz I was still working.
But on my earlier pictures, you’ll see, this interesting looking eye, but later on, yeah, I just, it was not very distinctive, it didn’t make a big change, but I knew it was there.
And my clothes, we had one white with sequins on it, and brown, a burnt brown, I had a big gorgeous dress, chiffon, or what do you call that stuff they put, I don’t know anything about it, but it was gorgeous.
There were two sets I had that I wore pants in — everything was sequin fabrics and things like that… All of his stuff, nothing was bought in a store, all of it was created by the guys who did it.
I bought two gowns each year.
RLR: Two a year?
RW: Well, most of it was for Vegas, you know, because I did two shows. In the other shows (touring), when they come out to see you, it’s only one shot. You know, you go in for two days, or for the weekend, and you play one town, whether it’s Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, wherever you’re going —
But in Vegas I needed to get a new gown. Cuz, Vegas has a really steady customer, on and off, while the boys were in it (Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, etc)
RLR: You were talking about the pieces you had, so did you have a most favorite piece? Like the most favorite thing you ever wore?
RW: The blue one. The one that you see on that…
RLR: The evening gown? Or the big sparkly one that you’re in the videos on YouTube? That one?
RLR: Yeah that one.
RW: It was all sequins. And blue, with my eyes they’re really blue. My eyes are. With all the sequins on that it came out great. And my hair, when I was still a redhead, So it really, did a lot. Cuz I had been sitting for all the pictures we took. In fact the pictures that I was selling at the place, at the, you know, The Orleans hotel?
RW: Are all from the old big thing, I kept all these old pictures of me, all fall from the early 60’s. leftover prints. They take 50,000 shots, then they print em up, then what you don’t use they give you back. They don’t want it, they’re gonna toss it.
RLR: Liz (Rizzo, Rusty’s longtime friend) said that at some point you sold some of your pieces to drag queens just to pare down the collection—
RW: “There might have been drag queens, but I don’t remember. It’s been a long time. It’s probably during the course of working while I was there. I’d give them some of the costumes I’d used, which I don’t remember, what they were. But they weren’t the big ones. There’s a couple of, I think the pantsuit— I had a brown pantsuit with all these chingons on it— you know all the sequins or whatever they call them. And it looked great at the time. And I couldn’t get in it now if I tried! It must be a size, at least a size 10. And I was 5’8”, so I was long, no boobs, no boobs! Never had em!
(One day) I looked down and I said, oh, where did I get these? They showed up in menopause— GET READY HONEY!
You have to fold them up. You have to hoist them up!”
RLR: I’m gonna scoop em up and put them in a bra, it’ll be fine.
Is there anything else you want to add about burlesque or The Burlesque Hall of Fame, because BHOF found you and asked you to come to the weekender this year?
RW: What the girls were doing there, on stage. It was nice to be a part. And I got to know all the burlesque girls, the younger ones. Yeah, that I would never have known. Of course I was out of the business 30 years, and these legends were still around. So there I was. And the girls were so, so delightful. But all of you, are so beautiful. The blondes, the brunettes, short, tall, whatever, but they all had BOOBS! Every one of YOU! I don’t care! Big, tall, thin, they all had boobs. I said “good lord!” The place is loaded with boobies! They’re up and they’re out in short and deep v-neck things, flying around. I said Oh God! What a blessing! I was surrounded with boobs!”
I can’t think of a more fitting place for Rusty to be, surrounded by people proudly displaying their “Knocker’s Up”. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet her at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas this year. Special Thanks to Rusty, and to Liz Rizzo for their openness and willingness to share Rusty’s stories. (Source for Rusty’s career facts in intro from Rusty Warren’s website.)