‘A tour de force’: Holyoke native Bambi Jones named 2021 Living Legend by Burlesque Hall of Fame

  • A publicity shot of Bambi Jones during the early days of her burlesque career. Born Doris Shirley Rozelle in Holyoke in 1931, she’s been named a “Living Legend” by the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. PHOTO COURTESY OF BURLESQUE HALL OF FAME

  • Bambi Jones at a 2017 event at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. She’s known today as the “Fairy Kush Mother” for her support for legalized cannabis. PHOTO BY HEATHER SCHOFNER/COURTESY OF BURLESQUE HALL OF FAME

  • In her 2005 memoir, Bambi Jones recounted a tale that took her from Holyoke to nightclubs, dance halls and summer carnivals across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and South America.

  • Bambi Jones says her dancing career began on the floors of Holyoke factories when she was a kid, as she would dance for penny tips from workers during the Great Depression. COURTESY OF BURLESQUE HALL OF FAME

Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2021 11:13:53 AM

HOLYOKE — Her dancing career started, in a sense, when her mother would take her to some of the city’s factories as a kid and she’d perform for workers during their breaks, earning some change in tips. It was the Great Depression, she says, and every penny counted for her family.

She never took a dance lesson or had any kind of formal training. But Bambi Jones says she knew pretty early on in life that she wanted to be an entertainer.

Jones, born in Holyoke in 1931 — she turned 90 in April — has now been recognized for her longevity in the field. Now living in Las Vegas, she’s just been announced as the 2021 winner of the Living Legend Award by the Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHoF), also in Las Vegas, a museum and nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating the history of burlesque.

As the organization’s website puts it, the Living Legend Award “recognizes performers who created distinguished careers for themselves during the heyday of burlesque and who continue to distinguish themselves through their involvement with today’s burlesque community.”

In a recent phone interview from Las Vegas, Jones, who was born Doris Shirley Rozelle and grew up on Main Street in Holyoke, just down the street from the former Majestic Theater, said her career in burlesque has been “a roller coaster ride,” with ups and downs but one she’s never regretted. It gave her a chance to travel across the country and overseas and to meet “a whole bunch of wonderful people,” she said.

It was something of an itinerant life for years, where her “home” tended to be whatever hotel room she stayed in while on tour. Burlesque, which broadly speaking combined comedy, dance, music, exotic costumes, and striptease, had a long run in the United States in the first part of the 20th century, then faded by the 1970s. But Jones says it’s made a comeback in the last couple of decades (the new movement is sometimes referred to as Neo-Burlesque).

Her career began just after World War II, when she went to Buffalo, New York at age 17 to meet up again with a man she’d previously dated. The relationship didn’t work out, and Jones took a job as a waitress in a hotel restaurant in Buffalo. She says she tended to dance and sing along with the jukebox between orders, and a photographer who saw her there “told me I should apply for a job at this nightclub he worked at.”

“He said it was a burlesque club, and I said ‘What’s burlesque?’” said Jones. “I’d never heard that term in Holyoke.”

So she became a dancer, and a bit after that she was recruited by a former Rockette dancer to come to a nightclub in Chicago; from there she began touring burlesque stages in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and in countries in South America. She changed her name from Doris Rozelle to Bambi Jones in the early 1950s, a common practice in the business, she says, as performers took on different names to try to enhance their notoriety.

“It was kind of like our own Witness Protection Program,” she said with a laugh. (She had also previously used the first name “Dolores” in place of “Doris” on occasion.)

According to the Burlesque Hall of Fame, Jones became known for her “lyrical dance style” and was “billed as the ‘Mona Lisa Girl’ and then the ‘Panther Girl’ due to her cat-like sensuality.” She also spent time during summers working carnival girl shows, the museum says, including a stretch in which she “headlined shows like World of Mirth, where she appeared as the Aqua Queen inside a giant water tank.”

But Jones says many of her routines were built just as much on physical and verbal comedy: “That was always a big part of what I did, and that was always a big part of burlesque … the comics were the stars,” she said.

Looking back, she says part of her inspiration for dancing probably came from watching Shirley Temple movies when she was a kid.

“I loved going to the Majestic (Theater), and I saw all of (Temple’s) movies there,” said Jones. “I also danced at talent shows there and any place else they had them around town.”

After the childhood dancing she did on the floors of Holyoke factories for tips — one was the Livingston Worsted Mill, which made fabrics — Jones later worked for a while in a few of those places, including the Worsted Mill, and she says she couldn’t see making a life there. She attended Holyoke High School but left at age 16 before leaving the city a year later to pursue a career as an entertainer.

But she says she has fond memories of going to the former Mountain Park in Holyoke and to Look Park in Northampton; some years later, she says she served as a judge at a male body-building revue/contest that was held at Mountain Park.

She also notes that Holyoke actually had a history of sorts in burlesque, or perhaps its forerunner. Eva Tanguay, a popular vaudeville performer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was born in Canada but grew up in Holyoke, where she began her career. She says Tanguay became known as the “I Don’t Care Girl,” after the title of one of her most popular songs.

(Odd fact: Jones says her brother married Tanguay’s niece, whose first name was Doris, so her sister-in-law, after taking her brother’s last name of Rozelle, had the same name she had been born with — Doris Rozelle.)

Jones’ active career in burlesque lasted into the 1970s, after which she worked some different jobs, including as a massage therapist and delivering singing telegrams as a gorilla, according to the BHoF. She later managed the career of her daughter Grace, who was also a dancer and actress for a while. Jones says she later married a prominent pharmacist in Nevada and stepped into the “burlesque closet,” as she puts it, for a time.

But over the last 20-plus years, she’s reengaged with the community, attending events and performing at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which described Jones as a “tour de force” in the burlesque world at age 90 (she’s now also known as the “Fairy Kush Mother” for her ongoing support for legalized cannabis). Jones said she also performs with a “senior follies” dance group in Las Vegas, and she wrote a memoir, “My Journey Burlesque: The Way It Was,” in 2005. In addition, she’s given talks about the history of burlesque and her part in it.

And she’s forged connections with young dancers and performers who have revived the burlesque tradition. One of them is LouLou D’Vil, a native of Finland who’s now based in New York City and has tattoos of Jones and other former burlesque stars emblazoned on her arm.

Burlesque, says Jones, is still alive: “Look at me — I’m 90 years old and I’m still kicking ass.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.


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