Legendary Costumes: A Chat With Burlesque Legend April March
Every Burlesque Legend has stories. So far, in my few, delightful experiences talking to legends about their careers and costumes, they never cease to share candid moments, insightful tips, and tales of romance, travel, and life from the burlesque of yesteryears.
I met April March at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender, 2016, during the legends’ signing. When I approached her at her table, she was so very friendly and happy, I felt at ease immediately and asked her if we could have a chat about her costumes. She was more than happy to oblige. We talked over the phone in early July, 2016, and the excerpts below are details she shared with me about her costumes, stolen pieces, her biography, Sports Illustrated, and the long road to getting her tagline trademarked.
RLR: Well, I talked to you in Vegas a little bit— we spoke about the (costume) pieces that you still have. You told me a story about how you had all these beautiful beaded pasties, and they got stolen!
AM: Yes, well, I, I’m a very trusting person, and, oh I guess it must have been, oh, at least 8 years ago, maybe a little longer, uh, a friend of mine that used to be in the Ice Capades, Ruth Jackson, she had a friend from Florida, that sold 14K gold jewelry out at the race track here during the racing season. Ruth asked me if I would let this woman stay in my house and I said “sure, I’ve got like a bedroom, I have a finished cellar or basement”, and I said “she can stay there, just have her give me $100 a week, and she can have cooking privileges and everything upstairs.”
AM: So, you know that was, that was, really cheap!
RLR: It was REALLY cheap, very generous, yes.
AM: So anyway I figured, a friend of Ruth’s…so she stayed here, and she really, she kind of took over the house. When she left after the sixth week of meets at the track, I didn’t THINK of checking for, I mean, I just never thought, you know…if she would ever take anything of mine.
AM: And, sure enough, I mean, it was, quite some time later. I don’t know what I was doing, I think I was, OH I think at that time I was going to Boston or something, and I was gettin’ stuff out to give for, you know to put in the museum for that four day expo that Old Scratch used to put on?
AM: So anyway I went down there lookin’, and sure enough, every set— ‘cuz I had like, I had every set to match my gowns. I had like seven or eight sets. And they were GONE. The pasties were gone, the g-strings, everything, the whole outfit! The bras, garter belts, you know, and I mean, at that time, now it was years ago, there was a woman by the name of Caroline in Brooklyn. That made these beaded sets, EVERYBODY had these beaded sets and…
RLR: Do you know what her whole name was, Caroline? Do you know what her last name was?
AM: No. I think she was Puerto Rican, but I can’t, I just knew her as Caroline. And, she put the tags on her stuff as Caroline, I don’t remember…
RLR: Oh, nice! And she was in Brooklyn?
AM: Yes, she was in Brooklyn. And at that time, I think I got the whole set for like $85. Heck you’d pay that almost for a G-String today!
RLR: Yes you would! You would! If it was fully rhinestoned or beaded, for sure!
AM: It was all beaded. Turquoise, red, silver, I mean, you name it. I was, I was just dumbfounded. And then I called the number in Florida, and the phone had been disconnected. So I’m sure she had a different number. But anyway, there was no way, I just didn’t pursue it anymore because what could I do, you know?
RLR: You know at some point, those outfits are gonna show up on somebody.
AM: You know, I was wondering that…because she had a great figure, and I know she had a condo, she said, and she said she was at the pool all the time. But I can’t envision her wearing, you know, something with her rear end out!
RLR: Probably not by the pool…
AM: (Laughs) Yeah, probably not by the pool. But you know I, I never heard from her again and, and, I just never pursued it, and I said well, that teaches me a lesson, Just like it taught me a lesson, you know, going to Boston. I would never go to Boston. I would never go anywhere around that Scratch, ever again. ‘Cuz he ripped me off bigtime.
RLR: Oh no!
AM: Oh yes.
AM: Well he took, he— my trademark, “First Lady of Burlesque”?
AM: Well, I’ve had it so long, and the trademark law here in New York City said I really didn’t have to trademark it. But I didn’t trust Scratch, and so I figured, I’m gonna get it trademarked anyway. So he said well this Tracy somebody, Delgado, I don’t know, some woman attorney of his, which I did meet at one of the expos- she gave a workshop on something pertaining to something about law. He said that it would cost me $2800, to get my trademark, but it would take awhile. And so I sent him a check!
RLR: Oh my God!
AM: Well, so anyway, two and a half years later I found out he never paid the money to the lawyer. And, I never got the money back.
RLR: Oh my God!
AM: Yeah! And then he was selling my pictures without my knowledge and keeping the money.
RLR: Oh, April, Ugh! I can’t!
AM: I know, but it wasn’t only me, he’s done stuff to a lot of other people. You know, like not paid ‘em and everything. I taught classes and he didn’t pay me for that. But anyway, I just don’t go to Boston anymore. So, it cost me double, but I found a trademark attorney in Los Angeles that I got, and I got my trademark, and it didn’t take any two and a half years! It took about 8 months because it has to go through the government and everything, you know? ‘
AM: But I now have it!
RLR: That’s good!
AM: But it was a very costly trademark.
RLR: Right? You paid double and it took three and half years! Well, I’m glad you got it-
AM: Me too, and it’s on the wall in my bedroom!
RLR: I would put that in a frame! Goodness you have to gold plate that piece of paper now!
AM: Yeah, right? Oh my gosh…
RLR: How long did you perform? When did you start performing and when did you stop?
AM: Ok, I started performing in 1952- and my first time on stage was for Barney Weinstein that owned the Theater Lounge in Dallas, Texas. And, his brother Abe Weinstein owned a real fancy nightclub in downtown Dallas called The Colony Club, and he put Candy Barr in the business the same time Barney put me in the business.
AM: I knew Candy Barr, very well, I just didn’t know all that stuff about her until I read the book like, maybe a month ago! I had that damn book for I bet ya, two years, and I just got around to reading it. It’s very depressing. She led an awful awful, oh my god, awful life. Which I never knew about her. I thought, I mean, she was a nice, sweet person to talk to and be around, and I, we were friends! And you know, we didn’t see each other that much, because we were booked in different places, but she was very kind hearted, very nice. But when I read that book I thought “oh my god how could anybody have endured a life like she led.” You’ll have to read it.
RLR: Yes, I definitely have to put it on my list.
So, you started (performing) then, and you just kept on going?
AM: I kept on going. Um, I quit for a few years, and I married a pharmacist that owned a couple of drug stores in Tulsa Oklahoma. And, I belonged to two country clubs, and I took up golf, and that’s how I got the 8 handicap in golf, and I got written up in Sports Illustrated! So, then I talked him into selling the drugstores, and we moved to Florida. I decided I wanted to go back to work, because I missed show business.
I mean, there were a lot of men at those country clubs that swore up and down they knew me and I kept saying, “oh I think you’re mistaken.” But I’m sure that they saw my shows! Around Tulsa, or Oklahoma City, or Kansas, wherever. But, I went back into the business again, I got an Agent in Miami, Roland Muse. I went to work at The Clover Club in Miami. I went in as feature, and then they brought in Lili St. Cyr, and I was demoted to Co-Feature!
RLR: Oh! So about when was that, how many years passed?
AM: That was, gosh, I think that must’ve been around 1960! Yeah, must’ve been around 1960.
AM: But I made friends with her, she, she didn’t make friends with, she was kinda off limits to everybody, but she took a liking to me, and I used to go into the dressing room and have a cup of tea with her. One time somebody had taken my white gloves at (the club), and I always wore gloves on stage. She heard about it and sent her husband at the time to my dressing room with a pair of white gloves that she loaned me. That was the start of our friendship.
She had wanted to sell me her bathtub act! But Sam Shanker that owned the Clover Club, he said “April, you can’t afford that bathtub act! She’s making $5,000 a week plus the expenses” and this and that. He said “there’s no way you can afford to carry that bathtub and a maid around”, you know?
RLR: Exactly. God. The expense.
AM: But, you know I sure did, I sure did wanna do that act! I sure wanted the damned bathtub! But oh well, you know?
In between that time (before re-entering showbiz) I had, I went, for 6 months and I taught ballroom dancing for the Xavier Cougat dance studio in Oklahoma City. I felt that it would help me, my poise, and be good for me on stage. Which it did. You know, I enjoyed teaching ballroom dancing.
Let me see, when I finally quit the business, I was working again for Sam Shanker, seems like he always, after I got a name for myself, and became a star, he had me keep opening every new club or theater that he purchased.
AM: So finally, I was working for him at the Silver Slipper. That was my last job in 1978.
And I decided that show business, the theaters, had become…like they were showing the porno films in between, the live acts, the shows on the road, you know? And then, most of the clubs had gone to lap dancing and pole dancing—
Now, I think pole dancing is beautiful when it’s done, you know, the way it’s supposed to be done— I think boy, I think it’s pretty! You know? But not the way it was being done in a lot of the sleazy clubs.
And I think now, see people had a very low opinion on burlesque performers, years ago. They all thought they were sluts, you know…
RLR: Yes, I mean, I think in a lot of mainstream society you find that, but I feel like we’ve crossed over quite a bit. But do you still get that now?
AM: No, I don’t.
AM: In fact, when I came home last Sunday, from Oklahoma City, I had to come home— I wanted to stay a few days but I couldn’t because on Monday afternoon, well I had to be ready by 11 o’clock Monday morning and didn’t get to bed until like 2 in the morning! But I went to a luncheon with my ghostwriter Susan Baird, and she had gotten tickets to the, membership only club, very hoity toity place in Lake George called The Lake George Club. And it’s mostly, you know, the members are mostly millionaires, and multi-millionaires; people that own these homes, you know around the lake?
RLR: Yes. It’s beautiful there.
AM: So, anyway I went to this luncheon, and there are like, 250 women there, and they were all very wealthy, well-bred women. Yeah, so, my name tag was on me, April March, and everybody knew I was April March, and they were fascinated with me. They all grouped around me and asked me questions— when the book was coming out, when the movie was coming out, oh would there be a premiere so they could attend it? Well anyway, that luncheon led to eight of those ladies inviting me to luncheon at The Sagamore Hotel! Which is really elite. Ha! It’s like a very famous hotel. So, you know, I got in with a good group!
RLR: Yes, well that’s wonderful! That’s a really nice example of good things happening regarding people’s opinion of burlesque.
AM: Yeah, I wish it had happened earlier instead of waiting till I’m 81, you know, it could have happened right at 61!
RLR: That would have been cool—
AM: That would have been cool.
But, anyway, I’m plugging along. I had open-heart surgery in ‘97, and I have a titanium aortic valve, and a leaky mitral valve, but I’m still here! I’m still, well, ha, Adele, and everybody in Vegas, they couldn’t believe that in six days, that we were in Vegas this last time? I had, nineteen and a half hours sleep. (RLR: Oh my GOD!) I stayed up, listen, I stayed up at the after parties until like four in the morning!
RLR: Oh my God you were raging!
AM: Yes! Haha! I was tired!
RLR: So, ten years ago, in 2006, you made it to Exotic World for the first time. How did you find out about it? How did you get involved?
AM: Oh, they found me.
RLR: They did— they reached out?
AM: Yes, and so, I went there when it was Exotic World, and I think the first place, it was at The Plaza, and everyone was staying at Binions, you know in old downtown Vegas.
AM: And, then I just kept going back! And of course I was over weight, and I wasn’t, you know, really up to par to perform anymore, and so I just got up and told stories on stage.
AM: Which, everybody loved listening to the stories. That’s what I kept doing, there, and then Boston, where, oh, Canada, Toronto, and then I decided that I should go to the gym, and I should get that fat off of me.
AM: I went on the medifast diet. Which reminds me, I’ve been to Vancouver, Vegas, and Oklahoma City in the last, what? 6 weeks? And I’ve put on a few pounds— that I have to get off.
RLR: But there’s so much good food where you’ve been!
AM: I know! I’ve been eating ice cream, oh god. Well, instead of having to lose 6 pounds, I now have to lose 19 pounds.
RLR: Don’t…you know, just take it a day at a time, because I always say if you make it to 80 you get to do whatever you want.
AM: No you DONT!
RLR: I knoooowwwww.
AM: Ha! Because If I had to do a show in two weeks, I don’t think I could get into anything!
It’s tough! I’ve got one (a costume) that was made for me in New York, a corset and everything. I couldn’t get into that when I went to Vancouver!
RLR: The stuff that you’re wearing now, are you wearing stuff from before, or did you have new things made?
AM: Everything new. No, because I was, I was like a size 10! Back then.
RLR: Which is really small. Size 10 then is something like a 6 or a 4 now.
AM: Probably yes. I don’t know what it is, but I know that Adele* (Wolf) fits perfectly in my old clothes. (*Adele did a tribute to April in a vintage costume at The Oklahoma City Burlesque Festival).
RLR: So you had them made in New York— did you have them made in New York City at a shop?
AM: Well most of everything (new) Grant Philipo made for me. But most of the stuff, that I wore on stage for him, you know, I don’t pay for, (because) I don’t keep it. The last, did you see me perform in 2015? When I did that number with the six boys? And the special music, the April March thing from Chicago?
AM: Well, let me see, I paid for that gown. And I kept that— but I haven’t worn it since because its very heavy, and it cost me $310 to ship it home.
RLR: Oh dear, just because it’s that heavy?
AM: And I thought, well I’m not gonna do that, and not only that, but I can’t get in or out of it by myself! ‘Cuz the six boys, well Grant, Grant dressed me. And then, the 6 boys undressed me. Hahaha!
RLR: So, you also need the 6 boys…(jokes)
AM: Ha, yes!
I’ve got one of those things from Bed Bath and Beyond? Those zippered things— that’s where it is. It fit the whole costume, it’s downstairs.
RLR: Just in a big tent.
AM: It is a big tent!
RLR: So, your older costumes from back when you were performing before 1978 and before that— what do you have left?
AM: I sold all of my like really elaborate ones, and I sold my props, back in the, gee, the 70s! Well, when I quit in 78.
RLR: Did you sell them to drag queens, or who did you sell them to?
AM: No, I sold them to the girls that were on the shows with me, and the theaters. Yeah, so somewhere those gowns are floatin’ around, you know.
RLR: I like that they were taken over by other performers, I like that idea a lot.
AM: Yes, I sold them all to people that were performing. Girls that were performing, and mostly uh, well I sold the last one, I had it made, and I never wore it. It was like a, I don’t know if you remember reading or seeing pictures of anything that was like a flesh-colored nude look that Marlene Dietrich wore?
RLR: Oh yeah!
AM: Well I had one made like it, and I never wore it, so I sold it to Hope Diamond in New York City.
RLR: Oh wow.
RLR: So you have the stuff that Adele wore— that was all older stuff, and you still had that set.
AM: Yes, that Simon Soar in, well he was outside of Philadelphia, but actually he was in Moorstown, and, anyway, Simon Soar used to make all of my wardrobe for me. I think Rex (Harrington) made one costume and then I had, oh what’s his name in Chicago, he’s passed away now, he made a couple of gowns for me. But most of the gowns Simon Soar made for me. And I have, let me see, I have, the white one with the duster that Adele wore, and then I have like a, kind of a gold lace one, with a big full duster, and I’ve got a red one, a red velvet that I still have, and let me see, I gave Grant a purple one.
At this point in our conversation, I am realizing that I could actually go see April and spend some quality time with her at home, documenting some of her costume pieces. This was the best idea I’d had in a long time.
RLR: And you’re still, you’re in Saratoga Springs, is that where you are?
I’m just wondering if there’s a possibility of setting up a visit? I would love to photograph the costumes, would that work for you?
RLR: Ok, that would be awesome!
AM: Anytime you wanna come up, you’d be more than welcome. Gee we’ll have a good time!
On July 8, We had lunch and visited all afternoon. April showed me her MASSIVE jewelry collection, shoe collection, and costumes, including her last remaining beaded bras, pasties, and g-strings. I found out she is a Gemini, and that she was mostly raised by her grandparents. She told me about her eight marriages (including one to her hairdresser) and engagements (including one to Mel Torme!), as well as a lost love. She posed for a portrait at home, and then it was time to head back to the train.
Together we went to the station in her little red Volkswagon beetle, and the train was running behind. “Time for an ice cream cone!” she says to me, and we proceed to giggle like little girls with our giant swirls of ice cream goodness. Then a hug, and back to Brooklyn I went, with a huge smile, a full heart, and a treasured memory of our afternoon together. Since then, April’s biography: Reflections of My Life-April March: The First Lady of Burlesque, has been released by Northshire Books in Saratoga, NY. (Collaborator: Susan Baird.) In addition to her stories, it includes over 100 images from her career. A documentary film by Craig Jackson is also soon to be completed.
Thank you so much, April, for your time and your kindness; I am so happy to call you a friend!