Snakes, the Mob, and Stripping in the ‘50s: BurlyCon Chats with Bic Carrol
~ intro by Crystal Tassels, BSP Contributing Writer. Interview by Czech Mate
Each year, our friends at BurlyCon – that sparkliest of conference weekends – invite burlesque legends and critical community members to be the conference’s Guests of Honor. (Previous guests have included the late Wild Cherry, Julie Atlas Muz, and Toni Elling, to name a few.) These individuals have shaped the way the art form has developed and offer their extraordinary stories and experience to the Con’s glitter-loving attendees.
This year, BurlyCon brings us three unbelievably fabulous Guests of Honor: belly dancer Princess Farhana, producer Jen Gapay, and living legend Bic Carrol. The following interview comes to us courtesy of the lovely Ms. Czech Mate and the BurlyCon team.
Part I: Early Life and the Mob
He’s danced on Paris stages wearing nothing but boa constrictors given to him by Zorita.
He’s choreographed shows around fan-dance icon Sally Rand, learned comedy from Redd Foxx and Lenny Bruce, and created award winning costumes for Siegfried and Roy, the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Ice Capades.
He’s Bic Carrol, and BurlyCon is proud to present him as our 2014 Living Legend Guest of Honor.
Bic is an internationally renowned revue producer, choreographer, and costumer. He’s considered one of the first male strippers and a godfather of boylesque. Bic is presenting several standout classes at this year’s BurlyCon: “Burlesque and the Mob” (yes, the MOB), “Easy Tips for Burlesque Costuming” (he’s a TWO-TIME Vegas Costumer of the Year) and “My Life in Show Business” (Snakes! Sequins! Strippers! Oh, my!).
As BurlyCon sits down for a phone interview with Bic, he’s in his Vegas home, getting ready for a dinner party fellow legend Tiffany Carter is hosting for Austin-based troupe The Jigglewatts. He’s just stepped out of the shower, and in true burlesque fashion, he starts our interview wearing nothing but a towel.
CM: You’re this year’s BurlyCon Living Legend Guest of Honor! How does it feel to be considered one of the first male strippers, a living legend AND a godfather of boylesque?
BC: First of all, Tigger is going by the “Godfather of Boylesque”, so I guess I’m the GRANDFATHER of burlesque. I never considered myself a stripper, I considered myself an exotic performer – because I never wore enough to start with!
It’s all very interesting because I hid all that for so many years when I wanted to have a legitimate career. I didn’t even think about it until a couple of years ago when it became acceptable. Now it doesn’t bother me, but 20 years ago you wouldn’t dare mention anything like this, that this is what you had done and this was where you had started. I think it’s hysterically funny. If you would’ve told me I basically started boylesque back in 1954, I would’ve told you you were crazy!
CM: You went from being a farm boy to teaching strippers to dancing in a nude revue in Paris all by the time you were 21. At a time when other male dancers refused to perform in g-string, what made you willing to dance naked on stage?
BC: Well, I became a father at the age of 20, and the girl did not want the baby. Being a good Catholic Italian boy, I decided to keep it. All the strippers were like second mothers. They helped me so much – I could not have gone through it without the girls helping me.
In those days it was almost impossible to be a single father because the child welfare people were always on your back. Either I kept moving every three or four weeks to keep away from them, or I left the country. So I left the country.
I had two snakes, a 6-month old under my arm, and off to Paris I go. There was no choice. I couldn’t raise my child in the United States because they’d try to take him away from me. When I went to Paris the only place I could get a job was Chez Noir, and you were completely nude there. It was all for the money. It never bothered me because the whole show was nude. My snakes were my cover.
CM: Most people dance with feather BOAS. You’ve danced with BOA CONSTRICTORS. Any advice on performing with snakes?
BC: DON’T. That’s my advice. When they get up to 10 or 12 feet in length and weigh around 100 pounds, it’s dangerous.
After I’d been teaching strippers and choreographing features for a while, Zorita finally said, “Look, you need to do your own acts,” and she gave me two snakes. Only later did I find out she gave me the snakes because they’d gotten so damn big she couldn’t work with them anymore! So I started doing snake acts when I got out of high school, as well as teaching.
CM: Sally Rand, Redd Foxx, Tura Satana, Lenny Bruce, Zorita – you’ve worked with them all! Who are some of your favorite entertainers you’ve worked alongside?
BC: Sally I first worked with in Calumet City, Ill. when I was 17. She was a wonderful crazy lady and she had fun being a grandma to my little boy. Tura Satana I have also known since I was 17, and we were always great friends through the years. Redd Foxx was a delight, Lenny Bruce and Honey Harlow were good friends of mine in Chicago, Zorita was a crazy woman, but I loved her – these people took me under their wing.
My very favorite was Bubbles Darlene. She was THE superstar in Cuba. She told jokes while she stripped and everyone loved her very, very much. Carrie Finnel was another dear favorite of mine in New Orleans, another “mom” who babysat my little boy.
But they were all my favorites. There were very few I could say I didn’t like, because we were all in it together. It was what we did for money – we didn’t do it for fun.
CM: “Burlesque and the Mob” is already one of the most talked about classes at this year’s BurlyCon. Was the mafia’s influence on burlesque in the 1950s and 60s as dangerous as it sounds?
BC: Yes, yes it was. There was no such thing as not working for the mob. I don’t care what anybody tells you. It was strictly mob-controlled. You did as you were told. You got paid well. As long as you made them money, then you made money.
One of the things I’m going to teach you in the class is how to B-drink. Because if you didn’t B-drink, you didn’t work.
CM: What’s B-drinking?
BC: You don’t know what B-drinking is?! (Bic laughs) Well, the average salary for a house girl in the 50s and early 60s was only $15 a night. But you got a $1 from every drink that was bought for you, and you got $10 for every split of champagne that was bought for you. But you didn’t really drink it – you faked drinking it, otherwise you would’ve been stoned! That’s how we made our money.
How did Bic go from dancing with boas in Paris to designing circus costumes for elephants? Find out in Part II of our BurlyCon interview, coming soon!
Catch Bic’s BurlyCon classes “My Life in Show Business,” “Burlesque and the Mob,” and “Easy Tips for Burlesque Costuming” at BurlyCon 2014, Oct. 9-12th at the DoubleTree Hotel in Sea Tac, WA. Visit www.BurlyCon.org for more information.