Free Excerpt from the new book Private Photographs of a Burlesque Queen True Burlesque
Lynne O'Neill was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1918, studied in Evanston, Illinois but apparently lived most of her life on Long Island in New York. In later years, she kept a post office box in Manhattan for fan mail, but was also known to provide her Lynbrook, NY address in correspondence to those who appeared harmless.
A tireless stripper with a pair of long legs, Lynne O'Neill was a dancer, a business woman and a marketer. The original Garter Girl… so proclaimed by her own mother. Who else could claim the title? There were plenty of hoofers working the boards, but few had Lynne's gams or gumption, and fewer less had a business selling garters in the lobby during shows.
Lynne looked like a star but she really wasn't. Most of her work was in New York City. Acting as her own press agent, she didn't make the trades too often. A few mentions, name only, in Billboard magazine during the 1940s maybe, but compared to more traveled peelers of the day like Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr, mentions of Ms. O"Neill are scarce indeed. Magazines seldom ran her photographs.
Each night after her appearances in New York City, she traveled 28 miles back to her home on Long Island. According to Bette Frary in The Official Metropolitan Gotham Life Guide "Fans travel across the river to applaud her." Gotham Life was a freebie listing of entertainments available to conventioneers and visitors to the city, and randy drunken male conventioneers were her trade.
Burlesque revivalists refer to the glory days of burlesque. There were no glory days. Lynne danced late shifts in smoke and hormone-filled dumps, was stiffed by crooked promoters, sleazy club-owners with mob connections…and then walked in the dark to the Long Island Railroad after arousing an audience of drinkers.
Lynne survived by hard work, a good gimmick and a better slogan. She even wrote a column on her experiences as a stripper for Man to Man magazine. In one issue, she remembers through rose-colored glasses working what she calls "Midnight Shambles" in Baltimore with her mother handling her wardrobe.
Lynne did have at least one photograph appear in Abe Goodman's "joke" books under the Humorama imprint in the late 1950s. Her greatest "hit" may have been on the cover of a horrible concept record called "Treasure Chest" which consisted of "88 Spicy Tales told by Captain Kidd" produced by Joe Davis. Davis operated a budget record label out of West 49th Street, where he released some of the few authentic blues recordings which made it out Manhattan and a number of Jazz recording artists. He also put out some five "party records" with lame risqué jokes. The scarce records was released with two covers, but Lynne was credited on one. Needless to say, it did not chart.
In Show Magazine of December 1955, she appears with the headline "Burlesque - Is It Bouncing Back?"
Lynne also appeared, remarkably, on the cover of Leonard Burtman's Striparama magazine, holding a saxophone (!) in full color. There, despite Burtman's reputation, she was in good company, as others appearing in spreads include Evelyn West and Zorita, both strippers with far more fame than Lynne.
The March 1953 issue of Gala features her, and again three years later under the headline "Who's New in Burley-Q?" In 1957 she appeared in Scamp magazine.
Lynne made at least one "legit" film and dances topless in the color film "Miami Strip" early in her career.
Many of the commercial and amateur photographs of Ms. O'Neill were shot in her basement studio, where she ran a mini-industry selling garters, fan club memberships and more.
Professionally trained and THEN some, her resume lists no less than fifteen ballet and dance schools.
After Ms. O"Neill passed away in 2010, her effects were auctioned off. Along with the 50 photographs shown here, which the dancer stored in a dresser drawer, were neat piles of correspondence to and from her fans, many who requested garters, souvenirs, autographs and favors. The care and respect with which the performer saved these materials indicates how much she appreciated the fans. There is a website devoted to the performer called "Lynne O'Neill: The Original Garter Girl" with her resume, correspondence and more.
Photographs and artifacts above from the author's collection.
The new book "PRIVATE PHOTOGRAPHS OF A BURLESQUE QUEEN: LYNNE O'NEILL THE ORIGINAL GARTER GIRL" is available from Blurb.com in paperback ($22.19) and in Ebook ($5.99) HERE. Orders and a free preview is available HERE
Jim Linderman is a collector, artist, popular culture historian and writer. He maintains the art blogs "Dull Tool Dim Bulb" and "Vintage Sleaze" on a daily basis.