Thursday, December 20, 2012

Town Hall

There used to be a burlesque theater on St. Clair Street in Toledo, Ohio, called the Town Hall. I remember it from the late 1960s and early 70s, mostly from the daily ads it ran in the newspaper but there was also one particular Saturday matinee that I will never forget.

I used to marvel at the eighth-of-a-page ads for the Town Hall that appeared in the Peach Section of The Toledo Blade, "One of America’s Great Newspapers," as its masthead proclaimed and still does, even if like most papers that broadsheet today is flimsier and not as broad as back then. When I was in high school the Peach Section was printed on soft orange-colored stock and contained the TV listings, movie guide, features and a number of columns.

In one column that I loved to read, the author recounted life's mundane struggles and invariably credited his day-to-day triumphs to sage advice from his wife, referred to only as “Green Eyes.” As a boy I fell in love with Green Eyes. My reader’s imagination created an ideal woman around those emerald windows to the soul. To this day I am weak for women with peepers of that hue.

Other aspects of the female anatomy were alluded to in those Peach Section ads for the Town Hall. The strippers performed under tantalizing stage names and were hawked using impressive sets of measurements. One heralded headliner, for example, -- and the only act I remember by name -- was known simply as Irma the Body.

While I was in high school my best friend Blair had the genius idea of actually going to the burlies. So one Saturday afternoon four of us high school students rode downtown in Blair’s white Camaro. We lived in West Toledo. Before the interstate bypass was completed in the early 1970s, you drove downtown via a venerable artery like Monroe Street, which connected the western burbs with Toledo's historic churches and central city merchants.

I think we parked the car near the theater, possibly in a surface lot by Ted’s Hamburger Shop. Ted’s looked like a miniature White Castle, a small white box on a corner surrounded by parked cars. I think it could seat half a dozen at its counter and there might have been a few booths as well.

As we approached the ticket window beneath the marquee that jutted out over the wide sidewalk, there was a small line of old men purchasing tickets. Having observed this, and even though automobile traffic was sparse on St. Clair, Blair cautioned us to hold back. He didn’t want to be seen standing in line to buy a ticket to the striptease in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon. A few minutes later, with the ticket booth clear of other patrons we boldly walked up and bought our tickets, not even sure they would sell them to us. But they did and we quickly ducked into the dark lobby. Inside the theater were a couple dozen older guys scattered in seats around that vintage hall. Many held overcoats on their laps. Led by Blair, we took our seats in the second row at center stage.

A comedian came out in a plaid suit and did his shtick, old time vaudeville jokes. We laughed a lot probably more nervous than amused. After about 20 minutes of that corn the real show began. From the wings a woman danced out onto the stage to piped-in music while a real live drummer sat in a cage left of the boards and furnished the beat, the rim shots and high hat flourishes. The woman took her costume off while the old men squirmed. We sat eyes wide open, soon admiring for the first time a real live, nearly naked woman. When she was finished the audience applauded and the stripper dressed only in a g-string and pasties bowed and disappeared behind the curtain.

After a brief pause the next stripper would be introduced and begin her striptease. The women all looked alike to me: curly haired brunettes, in their 30s, kind of plump to be strutting nude on stage I thought. But what did I know. Still, I was secretly disappointed. I had expected to see women like in the movies, only finally without their clothes, stars like Rita Hayworth or that blonde in La Dolce Vita. I still applauded each one as did my friends. Only Blair was too cool to clap.

Then the headliner came on stage. Was it Irma?* I don’t remember. But she was a different class of woman. Her skin was pale, translucent. She had light colored hair, was lithe and pretty and appeared to be a half dozen years younger than the others. That burlesque star made the strippers who came before her look old, flabby and heavy-footed. When she was finished, standing before us in g-string and pasties, the applause was enthusiastic.

While the audience was still making known its collective appreciation she looked down at us from the stage – down at Blair sitting with his hands on his knees – and spoke, “What’s a matter? You didn’t like it?” Immediately flustered, Blair nodded his head and began furiously clapping his hands as the beautiful, nearly naked stripper, standing above us with arms akimbo, smiled and walked off the stage. We all agreed she was our favorite. And we decided to stay for the second show.

After a break, during which time other old men took their seats in the theater, the comedian came back out on stage. We of course remembered all his punch lines and yelled them out loud before he could spring them on the new audience. He soon got mad at us and began to threaten us under his breath, all the while setting up his next joke. But dressed in his silly suit he did not scare us. Besides, we were a gang of four, fearless of adult men, if not women.

The dancers returned in the same order as before and we continued to marvel at their twirling tassles and curvy flesh. When the pale-skinned princess returned on stage before us, no one, not even Blair, needed encouragement to applaud.

* Some Internet research convinces me I did not in fact see Irma the Body that Saturday afternoon. I must even wonder if my memory is accurate regarding the venue because the Town Hall apparently was razed before we ever got our driver's licenses.

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    1. EDIT: You may have been at the Esquire theater, not the Town Hall. That's where Rose La Rose moved the show after the Town Hall was torn down.

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