She entertained in a Blaze of glory

WAY BACK WHEN

The Block's Queen removed clothes with panache

August 24, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The death two weeks ago of B film director Doris Wishman in Coral Gables, Fla., brought the name of Baltimore's premier ecdysiast, Fannie Belle Fleming, better known as Blaze Starr, back into the news.

Wishman, called "the greatest female exploitation director in history" by drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, in 1962 made Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, in which Starr plays herself - what else? - during a romp at a nudist colony. It was her only movie.

Until hanging up her G-string and pasties in 1984, Starr was known as the Queen of Burlesque and the nation's premier exotic dancer, honors she proudly held for decades.

Her forum was the Two O'Clock Club on Baltimore's Block, which writer Murray Kempton described as "Philadelphia, with Sodom," and where she first took to the runway in December 1950.

She rose to national prominence at the Two O'Clock Club, directly across East Baltimore Street from the famous old Gayety Theater. There she reigned until 1972, blowing rose petals to her admiring audiences over her ample (38 double-D) bosom.

She was born into a family of 11 children in Mingo County, W.Va., growing up in Twelve Pole Creek, across the Tug River from Kentucky.

Star-struck as a child, she left home at the age of 15 in 1947. Hoping for a career in show business and with an $85 grubstake, she bid Appalachia farewell and boarded a bus for Washington. There she rented a room and worked as a waitress in a doughnut shop.

"Through sheer determination and in conflict with her fundamentalist upbringing, she escaped the hardships of Appalachia by making use of her most formidable resource, her body," said Huey Perry, who helped her with her 1974 autobiography, Blaze Starr: My Life as Told to Huey Perry.

A friend introduced her to the Quonset Hut, a club near Quantico, Va., where she began her career as a stripper.

"That first time on stage she burned with embarrassment, not shame," the Washington Post said in a 1989 article.

"When she took her brassiere off, a riot of noise rose from the audience, shaking dust from the ceiling, rattling the electric lights. All she had to do was move a little and the thunder boomed," the Post said.

"Very few strippers have ever won respect," wrote Perry. "Most strippers are looked upon as sleazy, but not Blaze. To create that kind of an image from that profession is incredible."

In her early days in Baltimore, she decided to add an animal to her act, which she later abandoned.

"She knew she had all the necessities but an animal to accompany her act. The stripper Zorita had popularized the notion that nothing was so erotic as contact between soft female flesh and the scales of a hideous beast," observed the late R.H. Gardner, The Sun's former drama critic.

"Zorita used snakes. Blaze chose an alligator. `But it's so expensive,' she told me in an interview in a booth at the Two O'Clock Club. `First, I've got to have his teeth pulled. Then I've got to get his toenails clipped. It's going to cost a fortune before I even begin.'"

Through the years there was the celebrated love affair with Gov. Earl Long of Louisiana, which was made into the 1989 film Blaze, starring Paul Newman as Long.

After retiring from the stage, Starr made and sold jewelry at the Carrolltowne Mall in Eldersburg, still recognized by hordes of fans.

"I guess I'm still onstage because everyone in and around Baltimore knows who I am," she told The New York Times in 1989.

Then 57, she imparted a bit of beauty advice to the reporter regarding her false eyelashes.

"At my age, you can't afford to be out of your eyelashes, in other words, I'm 39 and holding," said Starr, with a laugh.

Today, she's living quietly in Sykesville, the Patapsco River community.

One of her G-strings is enshrined for the ages at the Exotic World Ranch and Museum in Helendale, Calif.

The sequined skimpy piece of lingerie that she once wore at the Two O'Clock Club is framed behind glass and hangs on a wall.

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