D Magazine (March 2011): Miss Excitement
The city has seen a resurgence in the playful art of striptease. Meet one of the pioneers.
By David Hopkins
I’m sitting with a 72-year-old woman, looking at a scrapbook filled with naked photos of her, naked with the exception of pasties and a G-string. She’s smoking hot, and I’m not quite sure how to react. She turns the page in her scrapbook. There’s a business card for the Carousel Club: “Offering Sophisticated, Risqué, Provocative, Delightful Entertainment—Your Host—Jack Ruby.”
She smiles. “The Sixth Floor Museum wants all this stuff when I die.”
In the 1960s, Nancy Myers, better known as Tammi True, headlined at the Carousel Club, the striptease venue owned by Jack Ruby. Throughout her career as a burlesque dancer, she performed in several downtown Dallas clubs and traveled the country with her routine. They called her Miss Excitement.
Unlike some associates of Ruby’s, Myers remained reclusive, shying from interviews. She gave Esquire an interview decades ago, but felt the magazine misrepresented her. It was not easy to find her. The townhouses in her part of Grand Prairie all look the same. The address numbers are not clearly visible from the cracked street, and the lane in the housing complex weaves in an illogical pattern. Fortunately, she stood outside on her small patch of front yard. As I drove past, our eyes met and I knew it was her. I stopped the car, introduced myself.
A few minutes later, I’m in her living room, digging through the contents of a large plastic bin filled with scrapbooks, old newspapers, playbills, and pocket guides to Dallas entertainment. Inside her house, she has a poodle and a cat she named PITA (“pain in the ass”). A finished newspaper crossword puzzle sits folded in half on her coffee table and nearby on a bookshelf there is a crossword puzzle dictionary. There are framed photos, antiques, numerous plants, and crafted knickknacks. It looks like any grandmother’s home. No one would suspect her former life.
Before she became Tammi True, Myers was married to Cecil Powell. He was a burglar. “Cecil was probably the best safe man in town,” Myers recalls with a sense of pride. “That was fun and exciting, I thought, until I got pregnant.” They divorced when their daughters were 2 and 4. Powell left and took his line of work to California. Myers moved in with her grandmother in Fort Worth.
Now single, Myers liked to go out dancing. She met Guy Parnell from Carswell Air Force Base. He had a band. The twist was a popular dance craze, and the band wanted Myers to dance for them. The club that booked them, however, wanted a striptease dancer. Parnell urged Myers to try it. “I said, ‘I cannot do that.’ I was raised Catholic. I was kind of a moral immoral bitch back then. He thought I’d be great, and then they’d book them.” Myers’ friend Elizabeth Klug also encouraged her and offered to make her a dress. “ ‘I’ll make you a costume,’ she said. We bought some green satin and green sequins—a bra, panties, and a short dress. We didn’t know anything about breakaway zippers, so she put hooks and eyes all the way down the side of this little dress that she made.” Jimmy Levens, the owner of the Skyliner Ballroom on Jacksboro Highway, saw her dance. His club did striptease on Friday and Saturday nights. Sherry Lynn, a stripper from Dallas who worked at the Skyliner, offered to train her. Lynn told her to just dance, and then she would cue Myers when to take something off.
“I just couldn’t do it,” Myers says. “They kept pushing me out. I made it. When I got through, she agreed with Jimmy that I had a lot of talent. She took me under her wing.”
Myers danced at the Skyliner on Fridays and Saturdays under the stage name Tammi True. She made $50 for both nights. In contrast, she made $35 a week at her day job. Myers was ready to make her weekend side project a full-time affair.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Jack Ruby struggled with his new Carousel Club. He had owned other clubs with varied levels of failure. The Carousel started as a supper club, but it wasn’t working, so he decided to try it as a striptease venue. Ruby had to get girls, but he didn’t want to go through booking agent Pappy Dolsen. Ruby didn’t like Dolsen.
“Pappy wanted to sign girls up right away, especially new girls, to a two- or three-year contract,” Myers says. “Sherry had already told me. ‘Do not sign with him, because if you do you’ll have to work where he tells you to work and he’ll get 20 percent. He’s got control of you.’ ” Sherry Lynn recommended Myers to Ruby. He hired Myers without even meeting her. “He told me what he’d pay me, and then that he’d give me extra because I’d have to drive from Fort Worth to Dallas and back. And I said okay. I knew him well enough to know what to expect. He was very nice to me. I did my first show, and he was pleased.”
Myers leans forward and taps on an 8-by-10 publicity photo. “I didn’t feel like doing my hair that day. So that’s a wig.” She admires herself. “I looked like Kim Novak.”
Myers says downtown Dallas looked different back when she was working there. “Downtown used to be vibrant. All the big hotels had a big showroom and a big entertainer.” Several burlesque clubs operated along Commerce and Jackson streets: the Carousel Club, Montmarte Club, the Colony Club, and Theater Lounge, owned by Ruby’s rivals Abe and Barney Weinstein. Across the street from the Carousel, the Adolphus Hotel had a musical comedy revue with a live orchestra called Bottoms Up. The show ran six times a week.
The Carousel Club was open seven days a week. Myers worked from 9 pm to 2 am. The show consisted of four girls, each with her own 15-minute act. There was a band—a trio of drums, horn, and piano—that performed original music composed for each routine. Between the strip acts, the club would feature other entertainers such as a comedian, magician, or ventriloquist—maybe a puppeteer.
Tammi True’s routine had a reputation for being raunchy. “Other girls said I was the dirtiest thing they’d ever seen,” she says. “I could dance, but I could do it tongue-in-cheek. I learned a long time ago that I was little and cute, and I could get away with stuff other people couldn’t.”
Myers then puts aside the scrapbook. “I’d do a thing where I’d be dancing, lean over, and look through my legs,” she says, standing up from the couch to demonstrate. She turns her back to me, spreads her legs, and tries to bend over. She’s able to bend only at a 45-degree angle. She looks back to me and says, “Can you see the whole show?” I laugh uncomfortably. Myers then turns around. “I’d do a half split.” Myers does not attempt the half split. “I’d fall down into it, and I’d go, ‘Would you say that’s stretching a good thing too far?’ ”
Myers sits down. “When I got up on that stage, I had everyone standing up on their damn feet, hollering, screaming, and hooting. You gotta work the crowd. Fifty percent of it is projection, and the other 50 percent is costuming and talent.”
Her dresses were hand-tailored by Tony Sinclair, a drag queen. “He made costumes for another girl. I really loved her costumes. I met him when I was in Kansas City. They were having a gay convention, and I met him after work. He was being a bitch that night. I asked him about making me some costumes, but he didn’t want to sew.” Myers did not let this stop her. She began to befriend Sinclair. They worked shows together, shared hotel rooms on their travels. Then Sinclair finally relented and sewed costumes for her. “He was right behind the curtain catching all my stuff. He made it and he wanted to take good care of it.” The dresses would cost around $300, which, accounting for inflation, would be more than $2,000 today.
As Tammi True, she was featured in the United Press International news feed for a $150,000 lawsuit against Jimmy Levens. They got into an argument. Levens turned the spotlight off on her at the Skyliner, and a customer pinched her. A lawyer friend convinced her to sue. Myers decided to file a suit “as a lark,” but it never went to trial. When Jack Ruby discovered she was in the news, he was elated. The headlines made her the headliner of his show. “It was worth $150,000 in publicity,” she says.
Myers’ neighbors had no clue about her secret life. During the day, she was a PTA member who baked cookies and helped out with school carnivals. “Our family sat down every day at 4:30 in the afternoon. We didn’t watch TV and eat. We all sat down and discussed our day. Then, I would leave to go to Dallas about 7 o’clock. Of course, I didn’t get home until 3 or 4 in the morning. I would go to bed and get up every day at around 10. So when my children came home, I was up and spent time with them.” Myers stresses this point. The fame was exciting, fulfilling a lifelong desire to be in the spotlight and to be adored. But it all came back to her family. Being Tammi True allowed Myers to buy a house for them, to support her mother and grandmother, and to do it all as a single mother.
A priest discovered Myers’ secret after visiting her mother. Father Fisher was new to the parish, and he came to introduce himself. Myers’ mother had put some of Tammi’s publicity pictures on the wall. While talking, Father Fisher kept stealing glances at the photographs. Then he had to ask, “What does your daughter do anyway?” Her mother replied, “She’s an entertainer.” Later, when Myers was home, the priest returned to introduce himself.
“I noticed that you’re an entertainer,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m a striptease dancer,” Myers answered directly. “I don’t know whether that’s a sin or not. Do you think it is, Father?”
“Are you doing it with the intention of making someone go out and do something bad?”
“No, I’m just doing it so I can get paid at the end of the week.”
“Then, in that case, it’s not a sin.” Father Fisher paused for a moment. “But I’d be glad to come over and watch your show and let you know what I think.”
Myers declined his offer.
When Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Tammi True’s legacy would forever be tied to his club and his name. Her secret identity was revealed. “Nobody knew what I did until Jack shot Oswald. In the paper, they put my name, my real name, and I was devastated. My neighbors were great. I had lived there long enough that they knew I wasn’t a dipshit floozy. I was an ordinary, regular person. My kids took a little flack. One or two of their little friends weren’t allowed to play with them. The kids would say, ‘Your mom’s a striiiiper,’ and be ugly to them.”
Myers closes her scrapbook. “I never participated after Jack did that. I’d never go see him. I didn’t work the club. I had actually closed out to take off for Thanksgiving, and I never went back,” she says.
She found work at Weinstein’s club, Theater Lounge. She would sometimes fill in at the Colony Club, and would run back and forth between the clubs to perform, changing in between. Myers also found steady work in Oklahoma. But burlesque entertainment waned in the ’60s and ’70s. By the early ’80s, none of these Dallas clubs would survive. The once vibrant downtown Dallas would be reduced to parking garages and office buildings.
Myers noticed the downward trend. The girls started dancing to “canned music,” and the band was no longer used. It was more economical for club owners. In exchange, the clubs lost a bit of their glamour and class. The strip clubs lost the variety show aspect as well. No more comedians, magicians, or ventriloquists. New bars opened along Greenville Avenue, near the Granada Theater, featuring smaller stages and catering to a lunchtime crowd. Where once women crafted routines, now they just danced naked. The expedience of these new clubs sidestepped the bawdy fun of burlesque, and it became seedier as a result. Nancy Myers withdrew back into civilian life. She remarried. “At the age of 30, I hung up my G-string.”
Recently, burlesque has returned to Dallas. It’s a new attempt at restoring theatrics and glamour to the fine art of removing clothing to music. Viva Dallas Burlesque produces sold-out shows at the Lakewood Theater every month. They feature the biggest-name burlesque dancers from all over Texas. In February, Viva Dallas produced a Cirque du Soleil-inspired show with aerial acrobatics, juggling, and a snake charmer. Yes. Midair striptease. Troupes such as the Lollie Bombs introduce new burlesque stars to a new audience. According to Shoshana Portnoy, a photographer and the editor of Pin Curl Magazine, “It’s so much more. A lot of people go for the sexuality and they go for the glamour, of course, but there’s comedy. It’s an entire theatrical production. Once you go, you’ll know how different it is.”
Dallas is the premier burlesque city in the South. The reputation of Dallas being plastic is actually well-suited for burlesque, where everything is supposed to be glitzy, playful, high-flying, and artificial. Dallas is a city that likes to be entertained. Not that burlesque thrives in Dallas, but Dallas, it seems, thrives in burlesque.
The mystique of Jack Ruby, Tammi True, and the Carousel Club has fueled the imaginations of new performers. I met one burlesque dancer, Pixie O’Kneel, who says, “I really respect the ladies from back in the day. They worked their asses off and were truly artists. Not that burlesque performers today don’t work their asses off and are not artists, I just think it was harder for them than it is for us because of the way society of that time perceived women and people who were onstage.” Last year, the Ruby Revue Burlesque Show invited Myers to appear at the House of Blues for its show. They sent a limo for her.
Angi B Lovely met Tammi True that night. “She came backstage and told us she’d be watching to see if we were doing it right,” Lovely says. “Made me nervous as hell. She went onstage later that night and absolutely blew me away. I love watching the legends. There is so much to learn.”
Though Myers enjoyed herself, she criticizes the lack of live music and a comedian. “I told them you need to do it the right way. It wasn’t
just girls—boom, boom, boom.”
Last year, Teddy’s Room, a burlesque-themed nightclub, opened in Dallas. It features a brief show, with a single dancer, twice during the night. I went one evening by myself. I stood in the corner with my rum and Coke. Clusters of woo-girls, each wearing the same uniform black dress, crammed into the bar. I counted five bachelorette parties. It was a stylish place. The room pulsed with pop songs. Then, close to midnight, the music stopped. Everyone dancing looked mildly irritated. A three-piece band on the narrow stage behind the bar broke into a swanky version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then a twiggy woman in a black sequined dress appeared from the edge of the bar. She rocked her hips from side to side, leaned against the back wall, and gave a high kick. In a move that reminded me of Myers, she spread her legs and bent over, looking at the audience from between her thighs. The audience couldn’t quite figure out how to respond. A piece of clothing came off and then another. The crowd grew increasingly excited and confused. When the final piece came off, revealing a sheer bra with pasties underneath, the audience applauded. The music resumed and so did they. The days of Tammi True may have returned, but it was for a moment, and it was fleeting.
At Myers’ house, after putting away the plastic bin, she stands in front of me, her audience. She holds her arms up, as though waiting for the music to start, turning her head to the side.
“When I walked out, I was a star,” she says. “I was going to do a good show and wow them. I took it very seriously.” Her arms fall to her sides. She looks at me and shrugs. “And when I was through, I was just plain old me.”