It’s around noon, late October, in a small town on the northwestern edge of the Colorado Desert. The outside air is clean and fresh, almost cold. A breeze blows through an open balcony door. Indoors, a modestly sized living room is jam-packed with dazzling paraphernalia, effects from the glamorous past of the lady who lives here. She’s worked in burlesque since the early 1960s.
Heavily sequined outfits hang from a chrome-plated wardrobe rack. Feather boas of all colors. In one corner a mannequin with a blond wig and white negligee, on the walls paintings and framed drawings. (“From artists and fans all over the world,” she later explains.)
Random sparkling knickknacks, accumulated manifestations of decades working the twilight zone, pushing sensual delights somewhere out there between rhinestone hallucination and flaming reality.
This is her place. Satan’s Angel. The Devil’s Own Mistress. Queen of the Fire Tassels.
I saw Satan’s Angel strip four years back, when I went to the Miss Exotic World pageant with my wife. This glamorous extravaganza was held on the grounds of the Exotic World Burlesque Museum, back then housed at a former goat farm in the Mojave Desert. The pageant went down in the middle of the summer, in a field next to the museum. It was very hot and there was a dusty wind—the audience and the dancers boiled in the sun and chewed sand the whole day. Around fifty performers attended that year. When Satan’s Angel took the stage as part of “the legends” section of the program, she ended her act by setting her tassels aflame, and then she twirled them around until the flames went out. It was stunningly bedazzling. We drove home in the evening, my wife and I, upbeat and energized.
“Look here,” Satan’s Angel says. She holds up a clothbound photo album, about 10x10-inches, shiny purple. A tag in a gold frame on the front says “Remember When.” She flips through it for me. Inside there are pictures of her, in various stages of dress and undress. In one she is Wonderwoman. In another she’s a glorious interpretation of a Native American. In one photo, wearing nothing but pumps and pasties, she seductively clutches a fur stole. In the next she’s innocent-looking topless, flower in hair, a Technicolor hybrid of Gaugin and Leeteg.
“I was very beautiful,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. Devilishly beautiful, one writer called her.
I’m sitting in her living room, opposite of her. Reclined in a deep, cream-colored loveseat, I sip black coffee and eat crumbling mini-croissants just heated up for me in the oven by The Queen of the Fire Tassels herself.
AMERICAN ETHNOGRAPHY: I saw you perform when my wife and I went to the Miss Exotic World pageant in 2005.
SATAN’S ANGEL: You saw me in 2005? Well, that was four years ago … you should see me now! I’m a thousand times better. If I could only still do the things that I used to do! But they still think I’m great, now …
At the Miss Exotic World pageant you took the stage as part of “the legends” section of the program. In the recent years there’s been renewed attention to the art of exotic dance. What do you think of the new burlesque acts?
See … Burlesque is all about the tease. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. So when we came out there, back when I used to dance, we had gloves on, coats, and we used fur stoles, we used feathers, we used props. And it was tease, it was sexy! And so the thing is, you’re there to please the whole audience, and that’s including the women. That’s hard to do! The problem with some of the contemporary burlesque performers is that they are not very good at that, they’re not good at pleasing everyone. I think a lot of them are closer to performance art than they are to burlesque.
But surely some of them do burlesque the old way?
I like Dita Von Teese. She does old style burlesque, and I love her for that! She started from the bottom, and worked her way up. And she was very well known before Marilyn Manson! But now she’s more notorious. There’s Dita, and then there’s Catherine D’Lish. And Michelle L’Amour. Vivienne Vavoom … Kalani Kokonuts! She’s gorgeous! There’s a lot of them that I do like.
So, you started out in the early 60’s, right?
My first time on stage was in an amateur strip contest in this place in North Beach. My friend and I went to see it. I decided that it looked easy, and I figured I could win. So I went home that night and practiced in the mirror, and the next day I went back and entered the competition. And I won. And the next day I entered, too, and won again. And then, instead of me coming to win the amateur strip competition every night, they offered me a job.
How much money could you make?
I had worked as a telephone operator, earning $99 every two weeks. And in the amateur strip contest I would pocket $100 a night. So I thought this is the type of jobs they should have told us about at the career fairs in school! Working as an exotic dancer I could make $350 a week. In other words, 7 times the pay I had as a telephone operator.
Now that you were hired, you had to put an act together … “Countless performers admire and respect her as a trailblazer in her profession. Satan’s Angel is a terrific lady!” — Catherine D'Lish, when asked to comment for this article
Yes, so I asked the manager who hired me: “Where do I go to get a costume?” And they said Bebe Hughes. Bebe did the costumes for practically all the strippers in San Francisco.
Did you have your fire tassels already?
No, that was a little later. The fire tassels was something I came up with after I talked to one of the dancers at the Moulin Rouge. Her name escapes me, but she was a little older, I was about 18 at the time and she was 35. I talked to her and she asked me “what do you do? What’s your thing?” And I said “I twirl tassels.” And she said “oh, they all do that, these days. You need something to stand out, honey, you need a gimmick!” And she was right, it wasn’t enough to just twirl tassels. There were girls out there who did that as well as one could, already. Like Tura Satana—who was, somehow, my competition—she would bend over backwards twirling her tassels. So I asked “What do you want me to do? Light the tassels on fire?!” And she said “Now, there’s an idea!” So I went to Bebe again, and she helped me engineer the fire tassels.
I've seen that you sell pasties and tassels online?
Yes. Let me show you, I have some here … These are the ones that I sell to the girls, see how nice they are? They are really beautiful … see here’s a pair of rhinestone blue ones. I make them in any color.
You make them yourselves?
U-hum. And I put them on Ebay … I’ll give your wife a pair. I’m going to give her some tape too, I have little strips of tape. All she has to do is put it on like a band aid, put it on the inside, and stick ’em on … now, she might want to cut the tassels down in length, because I don’t know what her breasts are, and sometimes when you go and twirl them they’ll tie themselves up in a knot. Some women like them long, because their boobs go that-a-way, but maybe she’s more this-a-way, so if she wants to cut them, it’s fine. So you just put these on like a band aid, cut these up and stick them in there … I use toupee tape, but this is good enough.
Thank you very much!
… so that she can have a little something, because they are not going to be here forever. And here’s what I do: Just don’t stick them on and go twirl them. Tell her to stick them on, then put her bra on, so that they’ll squeeze in a little bit. Then wait about ten-fifteen minutes, and then go. And, you see they have these little spinners … so I usually tell the women to get them going by giving them a swing with their hand. That’s what I do. Just give them a little swing. That’s why I use these little fishing swivels.
So you go to sporting goods stores to get your burlesque equipment?
Yes, these are made from fishing equipment. And then the fire tassels that Bebe helped me make are made from asbestos! So if I die from cancer, you know why!
Satan’s Angel’s fire tassels … they are such great cultural artifacts! I think the Smithsonian ought to be interested …
I still have them and use them, the same tassels from the 60’s.
How long were your shows back then? “Satan’s Angel is the most dynamic burlesque performer that you will ever see. She makes me feel alive!” — Kalani Kokonuts, when asked to comment for this article
The minimum length of a show when I danced in San Francisco back in the 60’s was fifteen to twenty minutes, so I usually did about six to eight songs, with a live band backing me.
That’s a long time! How did you fill it?
Yes, six to eight songs, that’s very long, so I’d do everything! First song, I’d just walk. My walk was very sexy, very classy.
Next song I’d be taking off this … this and that … the other song I’d be down to so and so, like say my nylons or something, so I’d do a nylon act, take that off, and then I’ll get in and do some bump and grind, so I’d grab my feather boas and wham! and bam! and boom!
And then in the fifth song I’d take the bra off, and I’d either do regular tassels, or I’d do the fire tassels, or sometimes I’d do fire tongs and fire tassels, and breath it, I did all that.
And then of course in the end, when you whip off one pair of pants, now then you’re down to a little thong, so you go get your fur stole, and you cover yourself up and then you pretend like you take off your thong, and you’d take your fur and pull it up and as you pull it up you’d take your pants up, pull it way up like that, and they go “oh my God she is naked,” and at your very last number you go like that … and you have a G-string on.
You used everything. You’d use your gloves, you had your paneled skirts. I worked the tornado twisters with my negligees.
You said you had a live band. What kind of music was it?
My music always started out slow and then went up, up, up, up, kept going and going and going and at the end it was always wild and frenzy. Kind of like sex, you start out petting, and making love, just getting into it, and then you actually do the act, and then as you get going it gets more and more and more … That’s how I always looked at the burlesque performance, too.
What venues were these that you danced in?
I worked dinner clubs or supper clubs.
Besides your performance, what kind of other stuff would be the night’s entertainment?
There would be a woman who came out and sang, there were comedians, jugglers, magicians, maybe a belly dancer.
And all the dancers all had their own special act, right?
Right. Like, one was known for working the chaise lounge, and doing cutesy things, little bit of spreads. Another girl was known for the nylons. I was known for the tassels. Say like Ricky Cortez, she was known as the Rain Girl, so she came out in a see-through, clear, short little rain coat, with an umbrella with the streamers like it was raining. Each girl had a different act. And believe me you were known for your act. So say, if somebody stole my act, boy, they’d say “wow, you can sure tell she worked with Satan’s Angel!”
When did you start using your stage name, Satan’s Angel?
When I first started I was known as Tassel Tossin’ Angel. I was also known as Angel Dahl, as in Arlene Dahl, the actress. I was known as Angel the Body. And then I wanted to use Hell’s Angel, because I thought it’d be real fiery and wild … This was around 1962 or '63.
So when you started thinking about using Hell’s Angel as a name, the Hell’s Angel Motorcycle Club was already around, right?
Oh, yeah, they’d been around since the 40’s, so, yeah …
But were you aware of them?
Oh sure, when I was a kid, Sonny [Barger] used to take me for a ride on the back of his bike. I didn’t know who he was, but yeah … So anyway, you couldn’t use the word “hell” on the marquees. You couldn’t put “hell” on the radio, on TV, in the newspaper.
So “Hell” was a no-no, but “Satan” was alright?
Well, not really. Instead, on the marquees of the burlesque theaters—they had huge marquees—often they would write Satana Angel, or Satin Angel.
Even to this day, people go, “oh, Satan’s Angel? What does that mean?” It means I’m the devil’s mistress, is what it means. It doesn’t mean I worship the devil, or don’t believe in God. I’m a Catholic school girl, I was raised Catholic. I believe in God.
I saw a crucifix over your entrance door…
I cover all bases. I have everything, I have my Buddha, something Zen … I’m not too sure what’s up there, so just to be safe! I’m an idol worshipper!
How did you get your gigs?
There was this guy, Davey Rosenberg. You couldn’t miss him because he was 500 pounds, smoked big, big Cuban cigars, and drove around San Francisco in a canary yellow Dune Buggy. He was a promoter, an agent in a way.
But he worked for the clubs, not for you? “I think it’s wonderful that Satan’s Angel is teaching a new generation of fire-burlesque performers. Now, both her art and her legacy will live on indefinitely.” — Vivienne VaVoom, when asked to comment for this article
Yes, but he would come up with these ideas. Like, once he told me: “I want you to be the first girl to meet the USS Carrier Ranger when it comes back from Vietnam, and I want you to go topless …” So I’m out there, in the bay, on the Salmon Queen tugboat, dancing for 4,500 sailors. And when they started shouting for me to take the top off, I figured it was my duty for my country, so I did. But of course it was against the law, so the boat police patrol came and shut down the fun.
I read somewhere that the topless craze started after Rosenberg suggested that the girls at The Condor should wear Rudy Gernreich monokinis. That was in 1964. They were sued for lewd behavior, over that, but they won in court …
The craziest thing Rosenberg did was the all girl topless band. He said: “Do you want to be in a band, Angel? We’re getting an all girl band together.” And I was like “yeah, cool,” because I could play a lot of instruments. I couldn’t play them well, but I could play them well enough to get by. I was going to be the bass player. And so we all get together around the table, and he goes: “Oh, did I tell you this is a topless band?” I’m a 44 DD and he wants me to play Fender bass topless?! Where am I going to put … you know … I had to play way down here, that’s what I had to do.
I saw some footage of The Ladybirds in The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. There were two all girl topless bands, wasn’t there, The Ladybirds and The Hummingbirds?
Yes. The Ladybirds was the first band. They went on tour, and so they started another band, The Hummingbirds, so they could still have one all girl topless band play San Francisco. That’s the one I was in, The Hummingbirds.
And you played in the band how long?
Oh, not more than a year. With the topless band we did eight 45 minutes shows a night, seven days a week. It was crazy, so I said “I need to stop this!” I made around $300-350 a week. An exotic dancer could make the same with only two or three shows a night. So after a while I decided I was going to do the dancing, go back into stripping.
Did you dance at The Condor?
Yes, I did. I danced at The Condor for the last half of the 60’s. That was after the motorcycle accident.
You had a motorcycle accident?
Yes. One of the girls—her name was Rusty, she was a natural red head—she had an old Indian motorcycle. And we rode that motorcycle up to Sacramento. They had a Harley-Davidson show and we were supposed to get up there because the Rolling Stone Magazine were going to be there, and Evil Knievel, and there was going to be a lot of press. It was one of Davey Rosenberg’s ideas. I had a motorcycle myself, but since we were both going, Rusty rode, and I was on the back of her bike.
On the way up a big rig hit us at 85 mph. I broke 32 of my bones, on the left side of my body.
So for about a year and a half I was in a body cast. I broke everything, shoulders, arms, pelvic, ankles. I’ve still got a bad ankle. I’ve got plates, pins, and rods in my body, yeah, I’ve got it all … one arm is shorter … I’m really screwed up.
But you got back into performing again after the accident?
Yes, I went to work as a go-go dancer when I got well enough so that I could walk with a cane. I looked around North Beach to find which nightclub had a little round stage or something, where I could lean against the wall. Because I was so beautiful, it didn’t make any difference! I could just stand there and swing my body a little! So I worked as a go-go dancer until I got my strength back, and then went back into burlesque.
Wait, sometimes you say exotic dance, sometimes you say burlesque …
Stripper! See, exotic dancer is the right way to say it. And burlesque is the same. Burlesque or exotic dancer… Stripper is a slang expression.
Okay. So you were still working San Francisco …
Yes. But then in 1968, one of the dancers—she was a beautiful Indian woman … it was very rare to find an American Indian dancer—her boyfriend had a two-seater Cessna. She said: “Let’s go to Vegas!” So we flew to Vegas in the Cessna. In 1968, let me tell you how scary that was, three of us in a two-seater. But well, we made it.
And in Vegas I saw Lily St. Cyr. And so Satan’s Angel was born, in my mind, as we flew back to San Francisco. I was thinking “I’m going to take Lily St. Cyr’s class, I’m going to take Gypsy Rose Lee’s balls,” because she was sassy … “I’m going to take Mae West for all her glamour and her beads and rhinestones. I want big, big! I want gorgeous! I want lots of furs and feathers. Instead of making a twenty yard negligee I am going to make a hundred yard negligee,” that kind of things. Then I took a little knowledge from Sally Keith and Carrie Finnell for tassels.
And basically that’s how Satan’s Angel, the Devil’s Own Mistress, Queen of the Fire Tassels was born. So I worked the strip in San Francisco, developing that act, before I packed my bags, and I flew to Vegas in 1968.
How long were you there?
I worked ten years on the strip in Vegas, every burlesque show there was. Barry Ashton, Minsky … I even worked the Palomino Club before it was nude … The Royal Casino, Burlesque As It Was, Burlesque ’74, Burlesque ’76 … I worked the Aladdin, Silver Slipper, all those places. I worked ten years as a stripper, there. I left Vegas in 1980.
So how was working in Las Vegas different from working in San Francisco?
Well … it was Vegas … I had to be really good. There was a full show production that I was part of. But, you see they didn’t give me my wardrobe. They’d do their show’s wardrobe, and then I would have to do my own. And my wardrobe had to be really good, because when I had all those show girls and all that stuff behind me, that’s fabulous stuff, and I had to outshine that. But I was good. Tempest Storm would be working one end of the strip, and I’d be working the other.
Who made your costumes?
Three of my outfits were made by Hedy Jo Starr.
… “America’s first sex change.”
Well, what I heard is that Christine Jorgensen had her sex change in 1952, and Hedy didn’t have hers until 1962. Let’s say Hedy was one of America’s first sex changes. When I met her in 1968 she didn’t look one bit like a sex change to me. One way or the other, she was a hell of a seamstress! She made my Indian costume. Then Big Fannie Annie did some outfits. And Kiva, Queen of Fans, did some.
Big Fannie Annie and Kiva, Queen of Fans … they were both dancers, right?
Yes. A lot of the time, I'd just go to other dancers who made their own outfits, and ask if they could make something for me. And so the outfits would be made by people who were performers themselves. Kiva was amazing at beading. My underpieces were made by her. Big Fannie Annie still performs in Vegas.
Oh, and you have a fan that Gypsy Rose Lee gave you?
Yes. But I never use that fan. I keep it in a box.
But tell me about it!
Gypsy Rose Lee had a television show in San Francisco. I was on the show as a guest. And so after the show I get the word that Gypsy wants to see me, so I go back to her dressing room. It's this beautiful space, with flowers and feathers everywhere, it was so glamorous. And she tells me that she likes my style, because I was a straight talker and really forward and honest. And she tells me she wants me to have this fan that somebody gave her 25 years earlier … I don't remember who gave it to Gypsy. And now I've had that fan for 45 years.
So, back to Vegas … I take it that performing in Vegas was a full time job?
Seven days a week, with a year’s contract. And one show a night, two on Fridays and Saturdays.
And the shows, how long would they be?
I’d be on three to five minutes. So here we are, all these girls who’re doing fifteen-twenty minutes, they’re going “oh my God, what am I going to do in just three to five minutes?”
So you’re working in Vegas, and it’s three to five minutes a night. What do you do the rest of the time?
Well, some places had finales, and some didn’t. So it would depend.
Still, that sounds like a lot of time off? But then, I guess, you have to maintain your costume, because that’s part of your job, too, right?
Yes. And you have to dress really elegant, because everybody dressed elegant in those days.
Would you work out, and …
… to keep myself in good shape? Actually, the only thing I ever … I mean … I would jog a little bit, and do like fifteen minutes, or something like that. The only thing I really worked on was my waist, because I was naturally a 24. And I wanted to be a 22. So I’d work forever, just on the waist. Because I also like to eat! It was a sad thing that I would have to go all day long, and wait until after the show so I could eat, so I wouldn’t be bloated.
So you actually didn’t eat the whole day?
Yes, just drinking water or something. Sometimes when we worked on the road, the towns were so small, everything would close at six-seven o’clock, and of course the show didn’t start until eight or nine, and you’re so tired from doing so many shows, and you’d sleep and before you know it’s time to get up and move on, and then a couple of days later you go “jeez, it’s been three days, did I eat?” I would go three to five days, I wouldn’t even eat. But I’d drink! No problem! I used to drink Grand Marnier, that orange liqueur from France. Very expensive! I’d drink it like a brandy. But I graduated, I’m into Martinis now.
What did you do after you left Vegas?
I continued to perform for a few years, here and there. But I quit in 1985. I couldn’t take the way the scene had changed. It was not very classy anymore, to put it mildly, it had just turned into porn and prostitution. And so I didn’t go on a stage again until 2000.
Since then I have been performing quite a lot. I did Miss Exotic World a couple of times. I’ve done Tease-O-Rama. I have been doing shows with the Scandalesque Burlesque Troupe (scandalesque.com). I'll be doing Viva Las Vegas in 2009. I’m having a blast! I also give classes in “The Art of Fire Tassel Twirling,” and so I’ve schooled a new generation of Fire Queens … let’s see, there’s Bambi Galore, Ladymonster, Jacquline Hyde, Honey Do, Pyra Sutra. I’ve passed the torch, so to speak.
If you want to book Satan’s Angel, or if you are interested in her classes, you can reach her through her web page: satansangel.com.
Martin Hoyem is a cultural anthropologist and the founder, publisher and editor of American Ethnography. Doing fieldwork among lowriders in Los Angeles and writing about outlaw aesthetics, he received his graduate degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Oslo in Norway. Hoyem has also done ethnographic fieldwork in fast food restaurants in Phoenix and Miami.
He spends a lot of time reading, and as a result he is outstandingly reflective when watching TV. All that education has—as we say—finally paid off … like, totally.