At 79, Penny Starr is a happy burlesque legend
Penny Roberts, 79, poses in her west Allentown living room and shows a short skirt she wears when she performs.
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ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- It's one thing to imagine meeting a 79-year-old exotic dancer, but quite another to actually meet one.
You anticipate brass, glitter and feathers, maybe a cigarette in an ebony holder. But you get a smiley, chatty suburbanite who drives a Honda and would look perfectly at home answering the phone at a dentist's office.
"Watch the dogs," Penny Starr said, opening the front door of her west Allentown home and gamely trying to admit a visitor while holding back her whirling, barking springer spaniels, Georgia, Savannah and Jessie.
Ms. Starr, whose real name is Penny Roberts, wore black pants and a black top -- not a sequin or boa in sight -- and sat almost primly on a living room chair as she recounted a dancing career as eyebrow-raising in its 55th year as it was in its first.
More so, really. As noted, she is 79, and most women of that age are active in social clubs and church groups, perhaps, but very few are active in burlesque.
Ms. Roberts, however, performed at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas just three months ago with her 43-year-old granddaughter, a dancer who took the name Penny Starr Jr. in her honor. They danced to "Harlem Nocturne," one of the elder performer's favorites.
"I think I'm one of the oldest girls, yes," Ms. Roberts said.
She mentioned 84-year-old Tempest Storm and a couple of others on the senior circuit but was clearly more interested in talking about the art of burlesque than her longevity.
That's because she is eager for people to know that she is not a stripper but an exotic dancer -- one who tells stories through peekaboo routines that leave the essentials to the imagination.
"There's a difference," she said. "We're dancers -- but no pole dancing. And everything is covered."
Covered, yes, by glittery sequined brassieres and panties hung with beads and, of course, boas.
"No pasties," Ms. Roberts pointed out, rummaging through a hatbox of stage accouterments and indicating the concentric circles of beads on her bra cups. "I don't need pasties."
She lamented how she had lost most of her vintage items -- costumes, high heels and other finery from her 1960s heyday -- in a 1995 house fire. When she was honored by the Hall of Fame in June, she was unable to donate anything beyond a recent costume.
"I can't even give them an old coat," she said sadly.
The woman who became Penny Starr was born Janet Gaynor Colby in Allentown. She had a quiet childhood, graduating from Allentown High School in 1951 and marrying soon after.
She said she did some modeling at Hess's department store at the behest of Max Hess but put off her dream of going into show business after having two children with the first in a line of husbands -- six of them, a string that ended when she met her true love and current husband, Aaron, 17 years ago.
When Ms. Roberts reached 27, her life took a turn that sounds like the plot line from a lost John O'Hara novel. Her children were school-aged, her husband had left and she was restless. Talking to a doctor one day, she mentioned her long-deferred ambition to be onstage.
"He said 'Honey, if you don't get this out of your system, it'll bug you for the rest of your life,' " she remembered. "He said, 'Your children are in school and your mother is around to help take care of them. Go make some money and send it home to your mother.' "
That was in 1957, and it seemed like good advice. So when the Christiani Bros. Circus passed through Allentown in the spring, she joined.
She had wanted to be a trapeze artist, a common ambition among the starry-eyed, but didn't have the rhythm for it and ended up in the safety net more often than not.
So they paired her with an elephant for a dance number.
"He used to pick me up and put me down," Ms. Roberts said, painting a vivid picture of a pachyderm waltz that ended with the elephant holding one hoof over her head.
It terrified her. When the circus wintered in Tampa, Fla., she signed on as a dancer at a burlesque club called Guys and Dolls, and a career was born.
In a field of va-va-voom stage names -- Angelique A'La Mode, Frenchie Kiss, Mynx D'Meanor -- she adopted the relatively modest Penny Starr. The suggestion came from her mother, who loved the movies "Pennies from Heaven" and "A Star is Born" and was thrilled to have a daughter in show business. Indeed, Ms. Roberts' birth name honored Janet Gaynor, the lead in the original version of "A Star is Born."
Ms. Roberts worked the East Coast circuit, dancing far from Allentown out of deference to her children but making a name for herself in coal-region clubs and in Atlantic City.
"Put in there that I was named Miss Bump-and-Grind of '63," she said. "That was in the Cotton Club in Atlantic City."
It was a good living. Ms. Roberts' granddaughter, Parkland High School graduate Augusta Avallone, studied burlesque history and culture as a documentary filmmaker before becoming a well-known performer herself. She said the circuit in her grandmother's time could be downright lucrative.
"We're talking about a time when nightclubs still paid for entertainment," said Ms. Avallone, who lives in Hollywood. "She could make $500 a night for three shows. Nowadays the going rate might be about $50."
What changed the nightclub pay scale, Ms. Avallone said, was the advent of rock 'n' roll bands -- youngsters who would play clubs cheaply for exposure as they pursued record contracts.
Ms. Avallone, who graduated from Temple University with a film degree and immediately headed west, said she found out only recently that her grandmother would often baby-sit her by taking her to shows, leaving her in the care of another dancer while she performed.
Burlesque "was in my blood without me knowing," she said.
It was a natural topic for a documentary, so Ms. Avallone spent three years following and filming dancers in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and elsewhere.
With an eye toward publicizing the film -- "The Velvet Hammer Burlesque" -- she learned a few dance routines by cribbing them from old movies and made her professional debut in 2003, taking the name Penny Starr Jr.
Four years later, they performed together for the first time, dancing in top hats and tails to Paul Anka's version of Van Halen's "Jump." They are, apparently, the only grandmother-granddaughter striptease act.
Ms. Avallone said her grandmother is held in high regard in the business.
"We're very respectful of what we call our legends," she said. "In her day, women who disrobed in public were pariahs."
Now they are considered trailblazers, though that makes it sound like Ms. Roberts' best days are behind her. She doesn't plan to stop dancing any time soon.
"If I can walk, I'll dance," she said. "And I'm not giving my high heels up for anyone."
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am