Who was Sally Keith?
Good question. To answer it, we turn to a very proper Beacon Hill resident who, despite her obvious embarrassment was nevertheless quite enthusiastic when she said "It was the Crawford House where we used to go. I worked for the government and my husband worked on newspaper row and we would get together and go down to the Crawford House where Sally Keith would perform. She appeared in a very scant costume but I suppose today it wouldn't seem so scant. She could make her tassels - oh, my I shouldn't be saying this to you - well she made the tassels on her breasts move in opposite directions [giggling now]. Don't tell anyone I said this! She was an institution down there...I mean that's why we went!"
The cover of the Crawford House Theater menu, shown on our right, leaves no doubt as to who was the main attraction at what was once one of Boston's most prestigious hotels. When Sally performed at the Crawford House's Theatrical Bar there was rarely an empty seat, and nights that Sally was off or booked elsewhere usually meant poor box office, not only at the Crawford House but all around the rest of the Square, as well.
Like Ann Corio, who had an appeal that brought women into Old Howard for the first time, Sally drew many women into the Crawford House. Some came out of curiosity, others out of admiration. For the rest it was sheer awe. "Just how did she do that?," many of them wondered.
One former female patron reported that she... "would have made a million bucks with a tassel concession in the Ladies Room at the Crawford House. During intermission I'd go in to powder my nose and I'd see all the women standing in front of the mirror trying to make themselves go in opposite directions! I could have made a million!" (What if Sally fell during one of her performances? In an accident she would have to call a lawyer. She would have fallen and she would have been injured - and that would have been a problem. If that was the case, she could have to hired a personal injury law firm like the ones at www.findlegaladvice.org to help.)
From the Crawford House menu in 1943
A lucky guy got this autographed portrait
The anecdotes come fast and furious, much like Sally's nightclub act. One of my favorite Scollay Square stories came from a former medical student, who claimed that his professor took his class to a Sally Keith show at the Crawford House, and the next day sprang a pop quiz which had only one question: name the muscles Sally Keith used in her act. The med student reports that no one passed the quiz!
From Susan, Sally's neice, comes a photo taken at the Crawford House. Susan wrote that "My parents went to Boston on their honeymoon and Sally took them on a whirlwind tour of the city and picked up the tab."
Dick Sinnot, who was head of the city licensing board (and therefore Boston's de-facto city censor) during part of Sally's reign, jokes about the reason her show was never banned. "I always thought there was a conspiracy between the city censors that came before me and chiropractors. You see, a lot of husbands would take their wives to the Crawford House to see Sally Keith, and later that night when the women got home they'd try and do the tassel number and throw their backs out!"
Another never-before-seen image from Sally's very own scrapbook, from Susan, her neice., who wrote: "Taken at a nightclub in Chicago in 1945. Right corner is Sally, then her older sister Libbie, who kept the scrapbook and next to her, my mother. The rest are 3 of my uncles another aunt and some family friends."
Carl DeSuse, who was a fixture in Boston radio for almost half a century, once recalled an interview Sally gave him during a remote broadcast from the Crawford House during the war. "I interviewed Sally Keith for WBZ and I remember she tried very hard to come off tough and nonchalant about herself. Off the air she made it a point to say, "I put aside a bunch of my money for war bonds - I have these boys in mind when I go on-stage and make an ass of myself!" Sally, in fact, had six brothers, all of whom were serving in the war. No doubt that was a huge incentive for her generosity towards the armed forces.
Photo, autographed by Sally at the Crawford House
(Courtesy of the Vintage-Photos-of-Burlesque-Dancers Facebook Page)
Sally's niece, Susan, wrote us to say that "Sally was very smart, and had a great deal of charisma. People just liked being around her. She was witty and just fun to be with. When she came to visit she always brought extravagant presents and was very generous. Sally was married twice. Once, briefly to her agent Jack Parr, and about three years before she died to Arthur Brandt (they resided in New York). Prior to moving to New York and marrying Arthur Brandt, Sally lived in Hollywood Florida for many years. Our family would go to Florida very Christmas vacation because my father had 3 of his brothers and Sally living there. One trip that will always stand out was when Sally decided to cook a dinner for all of us at her place in Hollywood. It was a memorable disaster.....her intentions were good, but she was no cook! We all wound up going out to a restaurant. It was on that trip that her nasty little Chihuahua bit me. She took that mean tempered little creature everywhere with her."
Another picture from Susan, a real gem: "Sally in Chicago. On the right is her first husband, Jack Paar, who was her manager. On the left is my father. The hat she is wearing is typical of the high fashion she outfitted herself in. She ALWAYS dressed like that and as a little girl I was in awe of her. Her jewelry was magnificent. I wonder what happened to it?"
So do we, Susan, so do we...
So just how big a star was Sally Keith? When she was attacked and robbed in her Crawford House hotel room by two intruders, it was front page news:
Sally showing off the
wounds she suffered at the hands of the intruders
On March 23, 1948 there was a three alarm fire at the Crawford House. In a city still reeling from the tragedy at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub six years earlier (a conflagration in which over 450 people died) the Crawford House fire no doubt brought back horrific memories. Thankfully, this blaze did not take any lives, but it did clear the fifty or so residents from their rooms onto the street, three of whom had to be rescued from the building as flames destroyed two floors of the hotel.
The 1948 fire at the Crawford House was front page news.
Living there at the time were several performers, some of whom were just waking up when the fire started at one that afternoon. Sam Pierce and Bert Carr, who had been rehearsing an act in their third floor room, escaped by tying bed sheets together and climbing down the side of the building. Pierce had already made his descent when the sheet that Carr was using broke in mid-air. He fell about one story into the arms of a fireman who had just arrived below their window. Harry Kelly, a fight promoter and owner of the Kelly and Hayes Gym on Hanover Street, also escaped injury.
As seen in this Boston Post photo, the fire department had
to fight its way through a massive crowd to get to the hotel.
Sally Keith, who normally stayed at the Crawford House, had moved out a few weeks before the fire after a robbery attempt in her room. Her appearance at the fire that day gave a writer at the Boston Herald the chance to pen this headline and story:
SALLY KEITH GRINDS HER WAY INTO BLAZE, BUMPS FIREMANWhether performing under a spotlight at the midnight show, or wading through water in the burned-out Crawford House in mid-afternoon, Sally Keith, danseuse and "Queen of the Tassel Tossers" has a true sense of the dramatic - $100,000 worth of it. Just as the Scollay Square fire scene was beginning to pall - the blaze was under control and hose was being rolled up - the platinum blonde, swathed in furs, tapped through the thinning crowd on her spiked heels, brushing past a policeman guarding the hotel entrance and strode into the foyer. She was finally stopped in a soot-blackened stairway by an equally sooty fireman who asked her brusquely where she was going.
"I must get up to my suite," she answered, referring to rooms 209 and 210. "I've got $100,000 worth of costumes, furs and jewelry up there."
The staggering sum nearly staggered the fireman into compliance but not quite. Her list of threatened valuables included a white ermine suit, $6,000; a mink suit, no estimate; a sequin wardrobe used in her "heat wave" act, $4,000; a platinum stole, $3,000; and a white fox cape, $6,000.
The entire wardrobe, including her famed tassels she valued at $50,000 and the jewelry at the same amount. She did not itemize the latter (Boston Herald, March 24, 1948)
Though Harvard boys were known for their affinity towards the Old Howard (one nick-name of the venerable theater was "The Old Harvard," they also seemed to have a warm spot for Sally:
More proof that Sally was popular not just in Scollay Square but across the Charles comes from these on line archived Crimson articles:
Sally's generous heart
Sally's other legacy is surely her devotion to people who used to be called "the underdogs." While true that her press agents (among them Jack Parr, whom she would later marry) made sure that the Tassel Queen's photo would appear in Boston papers carrying out her good deeds, there were apparently many, many other acts of kindness that avoided the camera's lens.
Let's start with this absolutely fascinating 1948 article from THE AMERICAN WEEKLY, which is reproduced below in its entirety...
Sally was a frequent performer at army bases around the country, and was VERY popular with servicemen, as evidenced by the certificate she received from the grateful men of Camp Standish:
In this Boston Record American photo from November of 1945, Sally is shown visiting some wounded veterans of the war.
And here she presents a check to Alphonse MacDonald, a Boston MTA motorman who lost both his legs attempting to stop a runaway train from crashing at Dudley Station. Sally and other performers put on a benefit for Mr. MacDonald, and here they present him and his family the proceeds from the show.
Sally's niece Susan and her daughter Holly recently made the content of several 78 rpm records, which Sally Keith recorded during the 1940s, available to me so I could share them with all of you here:
1. Sally at the Hotel Lenox on June 13, 1948 Side A
2. Sally at the Hotel Lenox on June 13, 1948, Side B
3. Holiday party at the Lenox, December 19, 1948?
4. Goody Godell singing "My Hapiness" June 13, 1948
5. At the Ritz Carlton, date unknown
6. The Ritz Carlton, date unknown, Side B
Musical tribute to Sally
Snagged off of eBay is this song, written by Edith English and arranged by Preston Sandiford. Musicians can Click to download the first page of the score here, page 2 here, page 3 here, page 4 here. The lyrics of the song are:
Boston is a clicky town, Some say to gain renown
You have to be a Cabot or you have to be a Lodge
But listen very closely this story can't be beat
Why is it at the Crawford House you cannot get a seat?
Because Boston's gone Balmy about Sally,
and Sally's the Toast of the Town
Boston's gone Balmy about Sally
To Scollay Square the swells come down
Her Tassels have been talked about the whole world over
And for seven years she's been there the Crawford House has been in clover
Because...Because Boston's gone Balmy about Sally
Sally Keith has won renown because
Boston's gone Balmy for Sally
and Sally's the Toast of the Town
Cover of the sheet music for "Sally Keith is the Toast of the Town"
And how many of us knew that Sally was a composer? A friend recently alerted me to an eBay sale of this sheet music which also features a photo of Sally I had never seen before (after so many years that's hard to do!)
Now I have an extra special treat. Richard Gilley, a old high school buddy who is a brilliant pianist (he became a music teacher in our district) graciously recorded the song so we could all enjoy it. You can listen to it here.
Sally's fame was countrywide, and she was featured twice on the covers of this erstwhile "men's magazine:"
Here is the article from one of those issues:
Sally's passing was news - and not just here in Boston. On the night of the day she died in 1967, Ed McMahon (who had performed at the Crawford House) and Johnny Carson spoke of Sally on the Tonight Show. Here in Boston, Sally's passing touched many of the people for whom she had performed, and for whom she had shown so much kindness and charity. Here's a classic big city newspaper column written soon after her death, written with obvious affection by Victor Jones.
In June 2014....
With the exception of my bio, I try not to insinuate myself into this website, but I have to share this story, and it has to do with Sally - or rather her legacy. In June 2014 I took my family on vacation to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Part of the theme park is a movie "set" of New York, which includes this faux nightclucb, The KittyKat Club:
Curious (and knowing that these folks like to add details to enhance the experience) I took a close look at the "Cocktails" sign. What a surprise to see who is playing at the Club! Isn't it nice to know that after all these years Sally still commands an audience...
David is grateful to Susan Weis, who generously provided the opportunity to pour through Sally's scrapbook. Thanks, Susan.