Not many performers come to burlesque after having had a successful career elsewhere, but that’s exactly what Sally Rand did. Rand started in the theater as a teenager in Kansas City and enjoyed some success. Deciding to make her name in Hollywood, she joined the Ringling Bros. Circus and traveled west until she reached California, where she quickly started racking up bit parts before joining a stock company headed by young Cecil B. DeMille, who put her in leading roles in his silent films.
Rand’s beauty and physicality worked to great advantage in the silent film era. Unfortunately, a severe lisp pushed her out of the movies after talking pictures became the norm. So Rand put her expressive body to work in the burlesque theater, developing her fan dance at Chicago’s Paramount Theater before getting cast in the “Streets of Paris” exhibition at the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair.
Rand’s fan dance caused a huge sensation at the Fair. As attendees packed the theater to catch a glimpse of the famous dancer, the pillars of the community were outraged, eventually trying to shut down the show and arrest Ms. Rand. Charged with “degrading public morals”, Rand found herself in front of a judge. Fortunately, she was let go, the judge noting “There is no harm and certainly no injury to public morals when the human body is exposed.”
22 million people visited the World’s Fair in 1933 and ’34, and almost all of them saw Sally Rand, earning her an iconic place in American popular culture. Rand performed for decades, well into the 1970s. She was immortalized as Sally Strand in the 1941 Tex Avery cartoon Hollywood Steps Out. Over two decades later, she performed at the opening of NASA’s Manned Space Center, a moment immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff and the movie based on it.