Dames I: Rita Alexander
Reading time 52 Minutes
Dancer and poet RITA ALEXANDER performs that unforgettable dance at the beginning of byNWR presentation HOT THRILLS AND WARM CHILLS. Burlesque! Vegas! Carlos Marcello! She tells all in this impassioned interview with JIMMY MCDONOUGH!
MISS FABULOUS: RITA ALEXANDER
It’s Rita calling from Vegas. When that name appears on my phone screen I surrender. I could talk to Rita Alexander for the rest of my life. Funny, charming, honest, interesting–Rita is all of these things. Most likely she’s finished her job as a telephone psychic for the day, she’s lit up a joint and has a glass of wine in her hand. She’ll relate some detail from her wild life, leading you off into the past, present and future. Then suddenly she’ll say “I love you, baby.” And hang up. Poof, she’s gone, leaving you chuckling in the night. What a doll.
If there’s one reason to watch Hot Thrills and Warm Chills it is Rita Alexander. Looking like a monument to glamor with her blindingly blonde hair piled high and encased in a skintight glittery outfit that accentuates impressive curves, Rita slinks around a garish apartment that can only be described as early Arthur Lyman Album Cover, pours herself some bubbly, takes a sip, then balances the champagne glass on her knockers and downs some more. Then she struts her stuff as Perez Prado’s “Mama A Go Go” blasts in the background. She seems determined to bust right out of this grimy little movie. “Wild Madness That Will Make Your Innards Sizzle!” says the movie poster. This is a true statement.
–So, Rita—Hot Chills and Warm Thrills: what do you remember?
I don’t remember a damn thing. I can’t even watch it. You know I’ve never actually watched that thing the whole way through? I was so embarrassed. It was embarrassing, if you really wanna know the truth.
See, it was supposed to be a real picture. And then they put in sex scenes starring other women. That’s not the way it was sold to me. It was sold to me as a legit movie.
And then it opened down the street at the sex movie palace. In some ways I was lied to, because they wound up making a dirty movie–“What the hell, man? What did you do that for? Why did you stick that stuff in there?”
–How did your family react?
I was the disgrace, the black sheep. My father wouldn’t speak to me. I figured the only way I could make it right with my uptown uppity family—other than my grandmother who loved me and taught me everything I knew about love—was to make it big and rub their noses in it. As a dancer they were paying me like a thousand a week and some money under the table. I had champagne delivered to my dressing room every night, my act was being kissed by the public and by the Mob. I was like, 19.
I put all my money back into the act. All I ever did was create a better act. It went from a tiny little nothing dress I beaded myself to a thousand-dollar gown, y’know? It was a fun time.
But that movie didn’t help. Especially when it came out like I’d made a dirty movie, dude.
–A rather unfortunate turn of events.
Oh, it’s OK, honey. I have a wonderful attitude about life. But many people must’ve thought they were gonna see Rita fuck somebody and I don’t fuck a soul in it. I don’t even take my clothes off [Slightly inaccurate--editor]. One thing I will never do is anything on film I don’t want to do. And thank God, because this movie won’t die! This movie has a life of its own. It’s like the whole burlesque revival—I mean, I gotta life of my own.
I remember at the end in the cemetery scene the director said, “Tear that sweater a little bit”—tryin’ to get me to show a little boob, I guess—I said, ‘My grandmother knitted me this sweater! I’m not tearing this.’ I was living with my grandmother at the time.
–How did you first encounter the director, Dale Berry?
I was a stripper and I was onstage naked, so maybe that’s what attracted them to me.
You’ve got to remember how I was operating then. I was creating a very famous act that was becoming a big hit and I was in the creative stages of that. And the movie people want me to get up early and work all afternoon—then I’d have to race home to my grandmother, take a bath, do my makeup and hair, race to the show and do that all night.
The producer, Charles Martinez, he loved me.
Oh my God, some of those sets for the movie were so pathetic. It was all done in the French Quarter. I showed up did what I had to do—they were beautiful to me, loved me and I loved them, but it was a secondary thing because of my life—I was a teenager and I was overcoming a great difficulty in my life.
As a child I had lived in a big mansion in Belize. My parents were British, and they taught me art and poetry. They forgot to teach me how to make my way in life as a single woman with a bank account and a career. They were very 18th century. I guess they figured I’d get married and that was that.
When I was nine months old my mother got TB and back then there was no cure. They put you in a sanitarium on a mountaintop in Costa Rica. My grandmother saved me. She was the best human I ever knew, Mrs. M H. Biddle. They sent me away to boarding school when I was twelve. I did not want to come, my grandmother dragged us both here. I wept on the plane. They had sent me away to boarding school.
Which of course I never got to finish because I ended up in the French Quarter pregnant.
I was a teenager, I wasn’t even out of high school. There was no hope for me… I was seventeen and had a baby. The father was married, I didn’t even tell him. My life was ruined, why should I ruin other people’s, y’know? I often go back to that moment–had I not gotten pregnant if my body hadn’t been ruined and had I not gotten implants, what would’ve happened? Who would I have been? Would I have been an uptown matron married to a doctor or attorney with children? What would’ve happened?
My daughter actually found me on Facebook fifty years later, can you believe that?
I think she’s a little disappointed. I think she expected like, a mother instead of a showgirl mother. I guess the mother-daughter thing is forever some kind of weirdness.
I know that finding her completed my life. Because I had prayed every day—I’d worry, “Is she alive? Is she OK?” She’s married to some wealthy guy–older than me, no less. It completed my life.
Back then I had really no choice but adopt the baby out or abort her. And I adopted her. I had a Caesarean–I was in labor two days and they took the baby. I was young and healthy and my breasts were full of milk and it was some horrible, ancient time where—I could cry about this, if I start we’ll get off the subject—they put me in the same ward with five other women and they brought all the other babies but mine. And then they gave me a shot, which completely deflated my breasts.
To have a baby that young was scandalous in the sixties, so the French Quarter took me in. Cared for me, basically. Adopted me. Those people are all still my friends. All these years later.
And one of the people was a dancer named T.T. Red. She was a contortionist. A dancer out of Miami by the name of Zorita taught T.T. And T.T. taught me. She was part of that crowd that took care of me when I was pregnant. I think they all felt sorry for me, if you want to know the truth. During the time I was pregnant I’d become friends with everybody—the gay people, the show business people, the garbage man. Everybody loved me.
And T.T. took me by the hand and said, “I’m going to teach you something that will serve you well all your life.” And she designed an act for me and taught me this and that. I had no idea. And no excuses. I had been raised on the silver spoon. I had to dance on the wicked stage just for the hell of it!
–You’d consider T.T. Red (aka TNT Red) your mentor?
Oh yes, definitely. I would’ve never gone onstage if she didn’t take my hand. I remember her words, the way she took my hand, everything about that moment. I was barely eighteen, just had my baby… But I have to be honest: for many years I laughed at that “will serve you all your life.” And yet she was right because when it came back around recently I’ve made 700 dollars a day selling my old burlesque pictures. That’s my mortgage money! T.T. was 100% right.
When I first danced I copied a lot of her first number, where T.T. came out like a queen in a gown and fur. Then she did the panel part, which I’d go on and do at the end of my second number. I loved double panel. You’d have these panels in the front of you–you could work with them, twirl them…you’d have your back to the audience and your double panels up–if you worked it just right, it looked like a butterfly flying.
T.T. was a star. She couldn’t spell or write, but she could do all kinds of shit, dude. She’d be on her hands, her legs up twisted around her neck so that her torso would be wide open–the G-string and the pussy would be right there–and she’d swing. T.T. did some heavy-duty stuff. Back flips, everything. I’ve never seen anybody do stuff like that since. And she did it pretty. In heels—Springolators!
It was sexy, and it was something you weren’t gonna see many places. She had this beautiful red hair, and she did her makeup like you wouldn’t believe. If you saw her without makeup, she was a natural redhead, freckles, no eyebrows, you know how they are. And she would turn that into the most magnificent, beautiful creature you ever saw. She was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. T.T.’s problem was—well, there was a few—she didn’t pay the IRS, so they would garnish her salary and she’d be penniless. She was always fighting with that other redhead, Blaze Starr, out of Baltimore–fighting over the governor, because Huey Long was fuckin’ ‘em both. Her personal life was really where she focused, and she never got it right. She tried hard. But like me she had bad taste.
–Bad taste in guys and girls?
100%. And when she tried to square up she married a cop!
–T.T. and the infamous Zorita were an item, correct?
Yeah, yeah. It was that era—women who were sort of abused by men and turned to women. I don’t know, I don’t wanna talk about it…it was like you were stamped–Zorita stamped T.T., T.T. stamped me, it was a lineage…Zorita was a lot smarter than most of them, too. I knew a lot about Zorita—how she’d whack T.T. if she sat down on the gown she’d bought for her. Zorita owned her own club. She was no dummy. Girls out of New York told me in the olden days Zorita would call ‘em up and say, ‘I want you to do this with that one. There’s five hundred bucks at the end of the night.’ So she was madame, too. Five hundred back then? That’s big money.
–Before you became a stripper seeing the New Orleans dancer Lilly Christine—AKA the Cat Girl—made a big impression on you.
Oh, yes. I’ll never forget that moment. At Louis Prima’s 500 club. Sitting on stage left. She was the first dancer I’d ever seen. And I was so blown away by her. Because she lifted weights. And she put oil on her body. She’d come out and move her muscles and I’d never seen that on a woman before. I used to run into her late at night at the Café Du Monde. I’d be hangin’ out there writing poetry. She was a part of that world. She had an old station wagon—everybody back then had station wagons to put their wardrobe in. And she had a false ponytail. Blonde. Much like the one I took to wearing later.
–Tell us about the first time you danced.
T.T. got me a job at the Sho-Bar. Not as a dancer at first. While I was pregnant I did her lights for fifty a week so I had a little money. I was the little pregnant girl up in the ceiling, so the whole club knew me. T.T. sat there and beaded my outfit. We had to rehearse all the time. She had this old-fashioned lamp she took down from the attic where the props were and taught me a number to “Peter Gunn.”
My first dancing job was at the Sho-Bar. The intermission act–the band and everybody were on a break—so I was to dance to a record. So I trot up there scared to death, and T.T. had sewn so many beads on my panties they fell off. It was a disaster. A fucking disaster.
And I walked off the stage in tears. And Henry Morici, the manager, stopped me and said, “A bad beginning is a good end.” And this bitch–her name was Jade, she was never a star, she was always the one who came on two spots away from the feature, two people down–she laughed. She laughed at me.
And I remember saying to myself—it was the first time I ever felt the tiger within—and I said, “I will fuckin’ show you.”
I was the intermission act for two weeks. They had these little 45s play and those stupid girls stood there while the record dropped. Well, right away I said, “That’s not happening to me.”
My friend worked at the Sea Saint studios right down the street so I got a gay guy who was an MC at the My Oh My Bar who had a great voice and I made a soundtrack album for my act. I still have that album with the original cover all beat up with ‘Rita Alexander’ written on it.
Sam recorded it. She recorded for everybody. She was a lesbian that was in love with me. I don’t think they charged me much. I was an anomaly. I was the little stripper that everybody watched grow up with my pregnancy. So I got, like, first class treatment.
Then I got a boob job. Oh, I had to work like a dog to get those, buddy. Two grand, maybe? You had to go to Houston. I was one of the first to get it. I was always the first to do things.
Malcolm Faber had seen me at the Sho-Bar and said,” I want you to be my star.”
So I was Malcolm Faber’s little star at the Silver Frolics. Malcolm was how you’d picture any Bourbon Street clubowner—big, Germanish, a drunk. Drank martinis at the bar all night. Kinda had a passion for me, Malcolm. He kept putting contracts before me I was too young to sign. Malcolm got more insecure…he used to give me diamond necklaces, things like that.
My first big number was a voodoo act done to “I Put a Spell On You” at the Silver Frolics. I don’t know how they let me get away with that. I had black candles that the barmaids would light up while I was middle of all this chiffon. I could’ve burned down the whole French Quarter.
One night Malcolm got drunk and I was too busy to sit there and listen to his drunken slobber at the end of the bar. So he ran into my dressing room, goes crazy and beat me up. I went to the police station and pressed charges. . I go home, I sneak into my little bed at my grandmother’s, I get up the next morning, there’s the newspaper on the table–and my picture on the front page, getting beat up in the French Quarter. The front page. They put this beautiful picture of me in a white outfit with white heels–and my top down, showing them the bruise on my shoulder. Dude, it was horrible. I was so embarrassed.
About a year later I dropped the charges. Because I noticed that in the end it was a dramatic beneficial thing for me, y’know? Malcolm sent me tons of roses in the dressing room the next day. I don’t think we ever spoke again, Malcolm and I.
So while all that’s going on, I’m in hiding. My family is like, “She’s stripping and getting beat up on the front page.” And then Pete Marcello got a chance to get his paws on me. He ran the Sho-Bar. Pete used to come in and watch me at the Silver Frolics when I was packin’ the place.
All of the sudden there was money pouring into the club to make me a star.
Pete made me a star. And now I was old enough to sign contracts.
Opening night there was a half-page ad in the paper, the biggest ad I’ve ever seen for my show. I was the hometown girl. They gave the key to the city!
I loved Pete. They don’t make people like him anymore. Pete knew how to put a show together, a club together, he wasn’t cheap. I compare all club owners that I’ve met since to him and none of them come up to the class he had. That’s the word. Class.
He was fabulous, always in a beautiful suit. Pete had a mistress Cathy that worked at the club–I think he bought her a trailer–and he made us work on damn Christmas Eve so he could fuck around with her. Pete’s wife Penny was first class, too. She told me once, “Oh, I iron his shirts every night before he goes to work.” And I’m thinkin’ to myself, “If you only knew, my beautiful friend, that he was down there fucking that little piglet while wearing that pretty shirt you ironed.” Consequently I have never ironed a thing for a man. I guess it had an affect on me.
Pete’s brother Carlos loved, loved, loved me–and he started to pour money into ads and promoting me.
–The infamous Carlos Marcello was the head of the New Orleans Mafia (and suspected to be involved in the JFK assassination). Tell us about ol’ Carlos.
Carlos Marcello was like my dad. He loved me. My Dad quit talking to me and Carlos stepped up to the plate. We had a lot of fun. He said, “I don’t want you to waste your money. I’m gonna put you in a real estate deal. You’re gonna own this shopping center.” I said OK. So were sitting at a big long big table with attorneys and stuff, Carlos is at one end of the table, we’re getting ready to sign the papers and the attorney turns around and says, “She’s not old enough—she’s not even 21!”
Oh, Carlos and I loved each other. We loved each other, bro. He’d come to my grandmother’s house. I’ll tell ya a twist you won’t believe. In order to try to save my ass my grandmother sent me to a very high-class boarding school where all my aunts had gone, All Saints. Of course I ended up running away. So I’m there at the Sho-Bar in my dressing room getting ready to go on, the maid’s there and the hairdresser–and I hear knock, knock on the door so I know for somebody to get from the front of the club all the way back to knock on my door it had to be somebody that’s OK, right? They open the door, it was Carlos’s driver with a message from Carlos. He walks towards me, puts the message in front of me and we look up at each other and he says my real name. It was my old English teacher. He ended up Carlos’s driver! How’d ya like that for a twist? He spent his entire life writing a book about it all, he knew where all the bodies were buried, but he died. And he was totally in fucking love with me.
–I take it people feared Carlos?
I’m sure they did! I loved him. He would tell me stories about how he and his brothers would have to swim the river to get away from cops. Like I said, I think Carlos felt very fatherly told me. Who knows.
I would’ve gone to bed with Carlos, but I knew better. I knew that would be a fatal move–I saw some of my girlfriends go with some of those mob guys and they became possessions. They couldn’t do anything or go anywhere—they were afraid to go out and say, get laid by a lesbian. All for money? Money?
The Mob loved me. The Mob gave me everything. From day one, the Mob loved me. And I loved them. I got along really, really well with the Mob. I think they loved me because I was innocent and I didn’t fuck any of ‘em. I knew better than to fuck any of ‘em. Because I wanted to be free. If I’d gone to bed with some of them, I couldn’t do what I wanted, y’know? And I think they had a lotta respect for me because I played it my way. I never was nosey. I never asked questions. And I never talked. I was a straight-up chick.
The Mob ran the show everywhere. Finally I was living in Malibu Beach. Phil Augusto was running the Follies at the time, and he was renting the house for me. The guy next door to me in Malibu was the brother of a big movie star, and he’d sit on his side of the beach and I’d sit on mine, and there’s long staircases that go up from the beach to the house and we happened to pass each other—we had a vibe for each other—and I said, “Hi”—and he said, “I can’t talk to you, you’re with the Mob.” And right then I cut the Mob off.
–-You put a lot of work into your burlesque act.
I had a very complicated act. We didn’t do, like, seven minutes and goodbye. We had acts–twenty-three minutes. It was based on old-fashioned stripping, but produced in a completely modern way. That’s what made the act. Divided into parts—the entrance, the gun thing, the dance, the jazz number, the champagne routine–which involved a little comedy.
I’d come out in a gorgeous gown with a gorgeous fur, walking out as the curtain parted, center stage, looking perfect. I’d have a gun underneath the fur. I’d pull it out, do three shots at the audience and they’d all scream—all to the theme from Goldfinger. Then the great MC Joey Howard would run out, all dressed up in a coat and hat, and shoot me. It was intense, dude. You didn’t hear a sound from the audience. And when he shot me they screamed. This was the highlight–I died.
You can’t shoot a gun off anymore. This was the sixties–if you did that today, some asshole would have a heart attack and sue you. Or even worse—shoot back.
It was so fun, boyfriend. I did a dance number to this instrumental number, “Into Miami.” Oh, what a beautiful jazz song to dance to. I’d get this magazine called Dance, and I’d get a lot of issues, lay ‘em all out on the floor of my grandmother’s back porch. And I’d tear out each page that had a pose I liked. Then I’d put all the torn-out pages together and I’d say, “I can move from this pose to that pose…” At the end of that I had choreographed “Into Miami.”
During my dream sequence I had a strobe light play while I danced to “Moon River.” I used to order this stuff from New York that lit my eyes and fingernails –I’d hit this one pose, and in the black light everything looked naked except my eyes and nails.
Then we’d segue immediately to red light. Just me, the drums and the alto sax — we did it so many times together we knew what the other one was gonna do before they did it. if Lilly had any bearing on me, this is where it showed, because I did a crouch like her. I was naked, barefoot and we were in the jungle, baby. There was just dead fucking silence and the light was red.
I was down on my knees—I’d go over to the front of the audience…One night I cut myself on the floor lights, but I was in the middle of the fucking thing and didn’t feel the pain–but I noticed warmth running down my arms and I looked down and I see blood. I thought, “Well, the act’s almost over, I have to exit the stage, so I gotta use this somehow.” And I just rubbed the blood all over me! All down the front of me, my breasts. My lighting man said, “Oh my God, this guy came up to me when I came down the stairs backstage and said, ‘Does she do that every night???’”
It was a fun act, dude. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. I wish I could get in a time machine and do it for ya.
During the intermission they’d play a film that I made while I changed costumes. The film allowed me to keep the audience busy and to make a costume change without any dead air. I disliked dead air. I made the film myself–Jack Weiss filmed it and edited for me. It reminds me of a Lady Gaga thing—one minute I’ve got brown hair with streaks, then I’m in Jackson Square in a cute outfit. I take a bath in rose pedals to “Everything Is Beautiful.” Towards the end of the film the camera zooms in on a camellia, which was on top of my pussy. But it’s very sedate, nothing vulgar. I enjoyed the whole process—going to get the damn roses, finding the locations. I’ve always been in love with film. Back then you had to be a whore on screen, because that was the only job for women. They didn’t have women directors. You had to stay in your place.
LOVE, LAS VEGAS AND BEYOND
–Your moniker was The Champagne Girl. How did that come about?
I studied Gypsy Rose Lee’s book and she said you have to have a gimmick. So I started to think about a gimmick. I guess it came about because when you have breast implants they’ll turn hard on you. And I remember tapping them and thinking, “These are harder than hell! I could put anything here. I’ll put a champagne glass and see if I can balance it and drink it.” I would do a backbend and pick up the glass.
That was my gimmick. I used “The Addams Family Theme” for the champagne number. I worked it just right, so that song was a perfect match.
I’m schmooze them. This is where I did the con job, y’know what I mean? If my ass wasn’t big enough, if my legs weren’t long enough, whatever, when ya got to that champagne act, I was gonna get ya. I was just gonna make you laugh and I was gonna talk sweet and I was gonna drink champagne off my titties–and you were gonna applaud. Somewhere in my three big numbers I was gonna get ya.
–Didn’t some dentist make you flesh-colored pasties?
Yeah. Where are you digging all this shit up from? And for what reason?
–C’mon, Rita, that’s hysterical! And very clever of you.
I was sittin’ in the dressing room thinkin’, “It’s illegal to take off my pasties”—‘cause I like to push it in a stupid way—so I said, “What if I made nipples to go under my pasties, then took the pasties off?” My nipples are pink like the gums on false teeth, dentures. I could take the pasties off and there would be the nipples the dentist made. I wasn’t technically showing them.
One time we got raided at the Sho-Bar. This was when Jim Garrison tried to clean everything up. Garrison ruined everything.
It was a stupid raid, too. It was over my dentist nipples—the cops had turned on all the lights, everybody freaked out, I’m standing on the stage at the end of the act naked. I took the brush the maid handed me in the act and hit the fake nipples–I said, “These are like pasties right here. I didn’t have them off.”
They searched the place, looked for dope in my dressing room, tore the place apart. They took me and Henry Morici. Henry took the fall for Pete Marcello–there was a secret place outta there, way up in the attic of the second floor, and Pete disappeared ten minutes before the raid. They threw me into a cop car out front. I think I was maybe twenty at the time, and I started crying in the car. Henry ordered a bottle of champagne from Alice the waitress, had it brought to the back of the cop car, poured me a glass of champagne and said, “You’re Rita Alexander! Don’t you dare cry.”
I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to wake up and be on the front page, I’m gonna be so embarrassed, my grandmothers gonna see this.” Do you know with all of that—it was buried in an article about the size of an inch way in the back of the newspaper. I was amazed.
I still have those nipples—well, one of those nipples. People steal shit. man. People take things you’d never think anybody would want. I’m like, “Holy moly! Why would people steal that? A nipple?”
I had a boyfriend who practically stole all my publicity pictures. I made up once with him in Florida. And I walked in the door with two dogs and my cat—his entire living room, along the top of the wall, all my pictures were hanging there.
Well, I got the pictures back. I hated him for doing that. He stole them. Before I left, I hid all the pictures and I flew ‘em back to Vegas. And then we made up again. He searched my whole house until he found those particular pictures. And he stole ‘em back.
There were just head shots! It was like, “Really?” He’s the only ex-lover I have that I hate. All the other ones I love–I love. I don’t care what we did to each other, I love them all. But this one, uh-uh. I don’t like a thief. And do you know what he said to me once? We were fighting and he threw this in my face–“You even gave your baby away.”
–I hate him, too.
It still hurts all these years later. When he told me that, I was like, “Start inching towards the door. That is no person to love.”
–People fell hard for you, Rita.
[Pause] There does seem to be a little turmoil there with all of that.
–The way you tell it, Sam, the one who recorded your stage act all those years ago, is still in love with you.
Oh definitely. She had my fuckin’ name tattooed above her pussy. She got a dog she named it Atir. Finally one year I said, “That’s an odd name.” She said, “That’s Rita spelled backwards.”
I didn’t really like the lesbian thing. It always ended up in big scenes. Like in the movies.
Y’know, I’ve been through the world’s richest lesbians. They’re horrible, they’re crazy, the stories I could tell you about them are insane. I have one after me now, she was a bartender when I seventeen. She found me on Facebook–she wants me to go here, there. Whatever. They’re still lesbians.
Lesbians are meaner than guys in a way when they don’t get their way. After a breakup a cool dude’ll say, “OK, that’s a mess, see ya later.” But lesbians can be quite mean. I love men. I think men are just fabulous. I love everything about them. I love the fact they have all that extra stuff down there. And the responsibilities it gives them.
I play fair–I don’t want your money. I don’t want your dope. I don’t want your jewels. I don’t want anything. I don’t care what sex you are. But I’m supposed to let you take care of me, let you have all the power, and I’ll just…make dinner? Ugh. I can’t live that life. I couldn’t never trust anybody that much to let them have financial control of me. Because they always used it against me. People want to fuckin’ control me and it makes me crazy. Because I’m not even in control of myself.
–So did you fall hard for any of the dames?
Let me think…I’m wracking my brains here… That’s not a good sign. Chicks have treated me great. I can see T.T. with her hair on top of her head on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor of the little apartment we just rented. No makeup. Looked like a charwoman. I remember coming in, standing at the door and looking at her–and I fell in love with her at that moment. And that pure love never left. I still feel it for her. T.T. was very instrumental. Changed my life, baby. A lot of women that I met at 17 changed my life–and they’re almost all still in it. When I really like somebody I don’t let ‘em go.
–You were ahead of your time in the burlesque days.
I broke the color barrier, I didn’t know I was doing it. I liked blacks. My drummer Smokey Johnson, he was a great drummer. I wasn’t even thinking black and white. I just went to the boss, Pete Marcello, and said, “Pete, I want this drummer. He plays my soul.” I didn’t know that it was a black and white deal. If you’re creative I don’t think that black and white is one of the issues.
I kind of had it made–everything I wanted, I got. Because I packed the club.
It’s not how it is today—we didn’t mix with the audience, Jimmy. We went to our dressing rooms. We were not allowed to sit and have a cocktail with anybody. It was different in Washington, at the Silver Slipper. Nobody fuckin’ told me you’re supposed to drink with these people. I was stayin’ in my dressing room. I didn’t know any better. The owner, who was a nice gentleman, came back and said, “Rita, I want you to go sit in that booth with the Senator and drink a bottle of champagne.” I said, “Really?” That’s how I interested I was in that game. I was never good at it. And I never did it. In Miami I’d hang out with the news guys and the horse guys…
–So what happened to your burlesque career? As I understand it was ended pretty fast.
I left New Orleans. I was tired. The whole thing rolled on me, dude. Everything was me–the napkins were me, the cutouts were me the whole front of the club was me. If I didn’t produce, the waiters didn’t make money, Pete would start to whine, the band needed to be paid—it was on my back. I had to bring it. I had to give it. I had to get it. And they were paying me a grand a week so I had to deliver.
I was only in burlesque a few years. But burlesque is like a lover that never leaves me alone. Burlesque fell in love with me and it won’t ever let me go. It’s always been a touch fascinating to me. I just didn’t hang around forever and get fat and get on drugs. I disappeared. I’d get these letters—“What happened to Rita Alexander?” I just threw ‘em away. None of their business. Carlos would always try to get me to come home. Any time I’d be in town, I’d go visit him in the office. He’d say, “Are you ready to come home? Would you like to own a club? What do you want?” New Orleans was too little.
As soon as I got to be twenty-one, I knew I was legal everywhere, haha. I’d gone to Vegas, I’d seen the Folies Bergere. I thought, this is more legitimate than what I’m doing. So I went to Vegas and got into the Folies. I did that for eight years or so. Which was so fun, with the pink feathers and the rhinestones. They dropped me out of the ceiling in a cage over the audience.
But those showgirls were total fuckin’ bitches, dude. Cutthroat. Evil. Bitches. Those strippers, those burlesque girls, have no idea. They’re playing on a very small field compared to what I lived through there in Vegas. We were playing more on a world stage—and they were evil.
Unfortunately, the problem was I was the baby and everyone loved me. I represented the Folies Bergere everywhere—they were always pullin’ me out of the show to send me to Acapulco or some other fancy, fabulous place. So I evoked jealousy. That’s been my problem all my life. And it’s a very dangerous thing when people are jealous of you, because they turn on you and try to destroy you.
Then I went to Hollywood. I did Charlie’s Angels. Chuck Barris loved me, I did all the damn stuff he had–The Dating Game, The $1.98 Beauty Show. Never made it big.
I was a rebel, I was a hippie, I went to San Francisco with flowers in my hair. I was into the long-haired hippies with the good dope. The rock star type, with the stacks of cash in brown paper bags in the basement. I loved all that. I did as much as I could fuckin’ do, dude. I wish I had more lives to live.
It was a very fast-paced world that I lived in. We all did coke. I couldn’t get away from it. No matter what I’d do. I went to Hawaii and cleaned up, got off the plane—“Oh, we have Peruvian flake.”
And I lived in West Hollywood–Richard Pryor, I was around everybody. We were all just kind of starting our careers. Everybody made it, but they all kind of destroyed themselves My girlfriend Judy Mazel wrote The Beverly Hills Diet–she made a fuckin’ million bucks, then she went down to nothing and was on food stamps. People were setting their Rolls Royces on fire because we started to freebase. Richard Pryor set himself on fire.
And I had this beautiful house it overlooked Sunset Strip. I loved it, it was the best part of my whole life. The only place I ever felt at home. Huge picture window. At Christmas they had a cross on the hill across the way.
And one night I was freebasing alone. Which I had never done before. And when I lit the pipe, my grandmother’s spirit came to me. And she said, “You’re too good for this.”
And I left town. I broke everybody’s heart, including mine. I went back to Vegas–where it was a felony. I took an ounce of coke and two pounds of pot, and after that I never told a soul that I got high. So I just moseyed quietly back to Vegas, kept my drugs to myself and I told myself, “When you finish these drugs you won’t do drugs again.”
Because now I’d have to expose myself in order to score, right? So I finished everything I brought and I’ve never touched coke since. I’ve been offered it many, many, many times. No thanks. I beat that evil.
–These days you’re a telephone psychic. How in the hell did you wind up there, Rita?
I threw out my knees and couldn’t dance anymore. I was confined to the sofa, with a pillow. I had to make a living. I read the newspaper every day, and there was an ad for an astrologist right there in Vegas and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve been doin’ that all my life.” So my girlfriend came put me in the car and we went. It was the second floor, I had to crawl up there with my bad knee. They hired me on the spot. This was forever ago, man. Fuckin’ for-ever. Twenty years? Thirty years?
–Have any of your callers stood out over the years?
One call, many, many years ago. It was a black girl. And I worked with her and worked with her, and at the end of the conversation I told her I loved her. If I liked the person, connected with them, I’d tell them I love ‘em, right? I didn’t do it a lot. And she started to weep—sob. I said, “Oh my God–have I said something wrong?” She said, “I haven’t heard those words for so long.” She haunts me. I always remember her and then I think, maybe this person needs to hear these simple little words–even from a psychic they’re paying for. And so every I will day tell one of my clients I love them even, if they giggle or act like assholes.
When people call me on that psychic line and they say that they’ve never been in love, I’ll think, you poor son of a bitch–you missed the pain, you missed the glory. Everything else—fame, money, creativity–nothing compares to that.
–What does Rita Alexander look for in a man?
I don’t choose who I fall in love with. There comes a moment when a person enters into my gaze, cupid pulls back the bow and lets it go and I know in my heart I have to have this man. I hate to say it: I have bad taste in men. I like the bad boys.
–How bad, Rita?
I just don’t remember.
–Oh ho. So you’re gonna plead the Fifth?
The man that I would like now would be completely different from that. I’ve had enough of the fast life–and I want somebody that’s also had enough. They don’t
have to be rich, but smart enough to have security–and a good credit score, maybe. I’d like them to have some sort of family. And to be at least my height. Short guys have issues.
I had some wonderful lovers. I wouldn’t trade any of ‘em for the world. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful….wonderful. That’s all I have to say about it. I’ve always had strong sexual urges and desires. All my life. Still do.
This lesbian named Carmen was the best lover I ever had. If I were to ever write about my sex life, I’d title that chapter, “Teach a Man How to Do It, Girl!” She was fan-tastic.
I gotta be honest. Carmen could make love to a woman better than any man. I’m gonna write about that one day–her technique.
– I wanna know–what was her secret, Rita?
HAHAHAHAHA. You’ll have to buy that book! I think I’ll keep that one for later.
–-I’ll be first in line, baby! I wanna know.
HOLD EVERYTHING. Before we go any further in our relationship, let me see your soul. I have to do your chart.
[Rita investigates Jimmy’s astrological chart]
You have a lot of secrets. You have a lot of secrets.
[Jimmy changes the subject to today’s burlesque revival and some withering commentary is exchanged]
I’m just so old-fashioned. Lets just wear fabulous outfits, take it off and look beautiful. Beautiful women—nobody’s fat, nobody’s this, nobody’s that…That’s my time–classic burlesque. Those people were so wonderful, so one of a kind, you know. They were characters. Awesome fucking characters. Now everybody’s so cookie-cutter.
I don’t like to hear the stories who was mistreated, it makes me feel dirty. What do you say to that—“Oh my God”? “I’m so sorry”? Did you have an easy childhood, jimmy? You didn’t come out of any…circus, did you?
I had no excuses. I was born with a silver spoon. I had to dance on the wicked stage just for the hell of it.
To be honest, I’ve had this fabulous life. You’re gonna have to drag me outta here kickin’, God, because I’m so interested in what’s gonna happen next.
I’ll tell you the truth, dude–sometimes when there’s nothing on TV I lay in bed and I say, “Let’s relive part of my life.” Because it’s better than any stupid movie you’re gonna see.
Sometimes I’m onstage at the Sho-Bar.
At the end of my act it was just me, Smokey the drummer and one alto sax in the red light. And I would raise my hand a certain way…it was the end of the act. It was fabulous.
The dance–just me and the drum and that red light.
Rita Alexander’s book is called A Taste of Me: Poems. Rita has, upon occasion, threatened to write her autobiography. Let's hope she does.
TWO CUPS OF COFFEE
TWO CUPS OF COFFEE by Rita Alexander
Two cups of coffee and cocaine
Add a little smoke to ease the pain
Of nothing to do
And too little hope.
At night, the lights, and some cocaine
A few cigarettes while sipping champagne
And looking for you
No matter what I do.
Now thinking it through
It’s not very nice
Might hurt me, too,
This little vice.
But I’ll pay the price
To do like I do
Two cups of coffee,
Some cocaine and you.
Two cups of coffee and some cocaine
Keep ‘em kind of pure
To ease the strain
Of making big, I know that you dig
What I mean
It’s the scene,
I need to lean
On two cups of coffee
And some cocaine.