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Memoirs of A Stage Door Johnny

Or: The Hope Diamond I Knew

By A. DOUGLAS Matthews

And the weaver said, Speak to us of Clothes.

And he answered:

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.....

...Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.

And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind? --Kahlil Gibran   The Prophet

"I really love Gibran. The Prophet is my Bible on the road," smiled Hope Diamond nee Leona Bonaccolte), pointing to a well thumbed copy which lay on her dressing room table atop the pile of sundry boudoir exotica she was rummaging through.

"Oh darn," she observed as the rummaging progressed, "I don't have any adhesive tape to put on my pasties with. You think I could go on without them tonight. It's the last performances, they can't close us," she grinned, envisioning the spectacle of the Boston constabulary raiding that staid old brontasaurus, Tremont Street's Music Hall Theatre where she and Blaze Starr were heading up "Those Wonderful Days of Burlesque."

The image of pasteless pasties made me grin too, despite a resolve to be nonchalant about being backstage at the burlies, and as a guest of the star to boot. I had met Hope on a local talk show a few nights before when she had waltzed into the studio. We had talked for a while, mostly about Vietnam. Oddly enough she has a brother there and is against present administration policy. And she ended the conversation with the traditional "Why don't you call me? I'm at --." I did, told her we would like to do a story on her show. So there I was, sipping champagne out of a paper cup, notebook in hand, camera hanging, feeling like a dumb college kid.

Backstage at the burlesque (if this show could be called burlesque) is much the same as the stage door view of any other production. The same old naked lightbulb dinginess, the same sense of close-knit but often tempestuous community, the same jaded vitality. The only difference here was the injection of a vaguely nudist camp atmosphere.

The people are of course fascinating. There's sad clown Sammy Spears, the 82-year-old burlesque fixture who mostly just wanders around backstage, eyes staring ahead, his mind seeming little but a vast repository for tired dirty jokes, lips moving silently. But when the spotlight shines on him, he seems to draw the juice of life itself from it, speaking loud and clear, ad-libbing, coaxing laughs from the black beyond the footlights.

Or Blaze Starr, with her West Virginia accent and witty and predictably colorful repartee. Her complement of the tools of her trade, incidently, can only be described in terms of surfeit or inundation.

Then there's "Bill," the archetypal stage door Johnny, the spiffily dressed white haired type who loves to date those chorus girls, who pointed to one long-limbed lovely on the line and asked, "You notice all that intrigue when she came into the dressing room and told Hope to take good care of me 'cause I was hers. Bit of jealously there, heh, heh," he concluded with a conspiratorial raised eyebrow.

And then there was Hope Diamond, heh, heh. After the adhesive tape problem had been solved the conversation turned once more to Gibran and bourgeois morality. "I think of myself as a girl telling a story. While I'm up there, I'm completely un-self-conscious...a lot of burlesque is really all in fun... I'm glad you can't see the audience while you're up there. If I saw someone really leering, I'd be embarrassed," she said, starting from scratch to put on her costume ("I hope I'm not embarassing anybody.")

Of, course the question begging to be asked was "How did you get into the profession?" but in the context of the conversation it seemed a rude, insensitive, almost cruel thing to do. Daughter of an engineer, she was born and raised in Princeton, N.J., ("What did my father do? He didn't speak to me for three years!"), married young, is now divorced, lives is Edgewater, N.J., and has a five-year old child. He's getting a sled for Christmas. Judging from the real jewelry, the minks, and the quality of the champagne, she lives well.

Hope is also shrewd, well-versed in the ways of the world, and suffers fools and CRIMSON reporters patiently and gladly. While I was there she invited "Bill" in to chat (You should have seen him beaming.), wrote down the name of her New York clothes designer for a wide-eyed, empty-headed Boston chorus girl, cheered up the nine-year-old daughter of one of the performers, and dispensed champagne to the thirsty.

Miss Diamond is a practitioner of a medium which began fading before she started in it. (Demand for individual strippers remains high, however. There'll always be Elks convertions and nightclubs.) Most of the pros in the show seem to have been resurrected, or haven't admitted that the circuit ever stopped and still play the surviving houses here and there. But the good old days, like the beauty of the queens who reigned then, are gone forever, and she was never part of them.

Hope Diamond is a pro, but one gets the feeling that she's as much of an efficient businesswoman as a performer, that she draws a paycheck, not like the older burlies performers the very breath of life, from the spotlight. She's more of a respectable madame figure than a temptress. And when the show has closed and the props are packed, she is no longer Hope Diamond, gem of the exotics, but Leona Bonaccolte, reader of Gibran, mother, and resident of Edgewater, N.J

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