Sally Keith: “Queen of the Tassels”

A Missive from Miss Mina Murray

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Sally Keith is one of the burlesque performers tied strongly to Boston during the Golden Age of burlesque in Scollay Square. For someone so famous, there is very little information on her personal life, especially before and after she performed in Boston. I’ve gleaned as much as I could about her life and career from newspaper articles, books, and some from people who knew her. The two main sources were her niece, Susan Weiss, and her protégé, Lilian Kiernan Brown (Lily Ann Rose), who wrote a memoir of her own time in burlesque. Memory is, of course, inherently unreliable, especially after decades, and research is made even harder by the fact that Sally seems to have fabricated some of her public story, especially her age. This is her story, as best as I have pieced together.

Known as “Queen of the Tassels”, Sally Keith performed at The Crawford House’s Theatrical Bar in Boston’s Scollay Square for almost 20 years. Her specialty was to twirl tassels on her breasts and buttocks. She was famed for being able to twirl in every direction, especially opposite. Her tassels were very long, I’d guess about 8 inches, and all the photos show them sewn to her costumes. I wish we could see her act, but it doesn’t seem to have been filmed. It was clearly memorable, since many people in Boston talked about seeing her, even decades later.

Stella Katz was born in 1913, in Cicero, Illinois, near Chicago. She came from a large Jewish family with eight brothers. Her father was frequently reported to be a Chicago policeman, perhaps because it made for better publicity. In reality he was a house painter, although Sally also said he owned a bakery. A beautiful blonde with lovely blue eyes, she changed her name to the less Jewish-sounding “Sally Keith” when she began performing in Chicago. “Keith” may have been an aspirational name, from the very prestigious B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit, onto which many performers dreamed of being booked. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any information about where she performed in Chicago and if she was doing tassel twirling then.

She told Lilian Brown that she won a beauty contest at the 1933 World’s Fair (where Sally Rand got her start) at age 15. You may have noticed that the math doesn’t work — she seemed to be in the habit of shaving a few years off her age all her life. She was then discovered by a Jack Parr, who became her agent and taught her the tassel dance. He got her started in Atlantic City and then brought her to the Crawford House in Boston. Another source said it was Harry Richman, a popular entertainer of the time, who spotted her at a beauty contest in a Chicago suburb and he got her started on Broadway. I’m not sure how much, if any, of these stories are true. Her obituary in the Boston Globe states she was discovered at Leon & Eddie’s, a popular burlesque venue in New York, by Boston theatrical agent Ben Ford in 1937.

Ann Corio said “Sally Keith, next to Carrie Finnell, was the best tassel-twirler I ever saw. She didn’t have Carrie’s huge bosoms and fantastic muscular control, but she could make those tassels spin with a fury.” 

For more tales of twirling tassels and the end of Sally’s story, you are cordially invited to visit me at Miss Mina Murray’s Manor.

Images courtesy of The American Burlesque Collection

Check out Miss Mina Murray’s performer listing here:  Miss Mina Murray – Burlesque Galaxy

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