24 June 2011

Sally Rand as an Opening Act

From the back pages of Harvard Magazine, a word-picture from F. Harvey Popell of the historic Freshman Smoker of 1951:
The Smoker started off in Memorial Hall with good fellowship (i.e., a lot of beer-drinking), after which we trooped across to Sanders for the show, which featured fan dancer Sally Rand—not to perform (imagine the headlines!), but to do stand-up comedy. Rand had a different idea.

The Korean War had broken out three months before our class entered Harvard, so after a few ribald jokes she pulled a sheaf of papers from her low-cut gown and started reading the anti-Communist speech. We thought it was the build-up to another joke, but the punch line never came and the unruly crowd grew restless.

Then a guy threw a penny, and Rand shot back one of the best retorts I ever heard. “Boys,” she said (itself a putdown), “there’s only one animal I know who throws a cent.” That drew a rousing ovation—and a lot more metal hurled her way. She gamely finished her speech, and the poor woman left the stage in tears.

Sensing a riot in the offing, the quick-thinking emcee hurriedly had a piano rolled out, and a bespectacled young math instructor sat down and started playing and singing his own catchy, satirical compositions. He was so good that soon everyone had forgotten Sally Rand. Tom Lehrer always acknowledged that this Freshman Smoker was his “first big gig.”
I of course am part of the generation of Americans who first heard Lehrer through “Silent E” (“Who can turn a can…into a cane?”) and “L-Y” (“Immediately, immediately, Immediate L.Y.”).

2 comments:

Richard Bensam said...

I hadn't heard Sally Rand was an anti-Communist before now, but it makes a lot of sense in connection with another aspect of her biography. As a youngster in Missouri, the former Helen Beck attended grammar school with none other than Robert Heinlein, who subsequently incorporated her name into a few of his stories, and the two remained friends more than sixty years later. In fact, Rand attended Heinlein's Guest of Honor speech at the 1976 Worldcon held in Kansas City. Given how strident Heinlein had become in his right wing anti-Communism, I doubt he would have remained friends with her if their views on this hadn't been similar; sad to say, he cut off other old friends when their world-views diverged.

(On an irrelevant side note, doesn't it seem like "Helen Beck" itself would be a wonderful stage name for someone with a racy act?)

J. L. Bell said...

I wonder if there are any other accounts of Sally Rand making that speech in 1951, or whether she pulled it out particularly for the Harvard freshmen. It clearly didn’t go over as well as she’d hoped.