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Burlesque Dancer Sally Rand Took the Chicago World's Fair by Storm

Sally Rand danced at the Streets of Paris exhibit. Postcard printed by Curt Teich & Co, Chicago.


Sally Rand was never supposed to perform her iconic “fan dance” at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. The dancer’s requests to perform inside the Streets of Paris exhibit had been turned down several times. But Rand decided to take matters into her own hands by riding into a pre-opening party on the fairgrounds, uninvited, on a white horse wearing nothing but a velvet cape. The crowd loved it. Rand was arrested but released the next day, when she promptly accepted an offer to perform as the headliner in the Café de la Paix’s floor show for $90 per week. While her dancing broke boundaries and city decency ordinances at the time, her legacy was born and Rand made her cultural mark on the world.

According to The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair by Cheryl Ganz, 29-year-old Sally Rand had previously worked as an acrobatic circus performer and film stuntwoman. She had also already built up a reputation as a star dancer at Chicago’s Paramount Club. It was while auditioning for her gig at the Paramount that she came up with the idea for her signature fan dance when, pressed for time, she was unable to sew a costume out of two ostrich-feather fans she had purchased from a second-hand shop. According to the Chicago Tribune, Rand had already been arrested for indecency many times before performing at the fair.

An astute businesswoman, Rand did her own bookkeeping and negotiated her own contracts. She saw in the 1933 fair the opportunity to reach a wide audience and keep her career going during the harsh years of the Great Depression. During the fair, Rand was also doing shows at the Chicago Theater. She performed her 8-minute act up to 16 times per day during this time. On one occasion, she was arrested for obscenity 4 times in a single day. Her performances became one of the fair’s most popular and profitable attractions.

A variety of exhibits in the foreground of the fair. Postcard published by Curt Teich & Co., Chicago.

Rand’s performances and other similar burlesque acts at the fair were a constant source of controversy, which likely only boosted their popularity. Some fair attendees and officials, including both the administrative assistant and the wife of the fair’s general manager, complained that these acts were obscene. After touring the fair and seeing its adult-oriented entertainment, Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly threatened to shut down the shows if they weren’t cleaned up. In response, fair performers were banned from performing nude.

The inventive ways that the performers complied with this rule soon became its own source of entertainment. Some performers made minimal costumes out of gauze or tape, while others jokingly wore red flannel underwear. Rand clothed her horse in lace underwear to match her own costume. Regardless of these shenanigans, decency codes were not strictly enforced at the fair because the acts were bringing in so much money amidst concerns that the revenue generated at the fair would not be enough to cover its lavish expenses.

Plans for the Century of Progress Fair were already underway before the 1929 stock market crash that set off the economic depression of the 1930s. The fair likely ended up being nothing like what was initially imagined. The burlesque performers at the 1933 World’s Fair provided one example of women exercising greater freedom and using ingenuity to meet financial necessity. Many fairgoers came to see Rand’s performance as a much-needed symbol of beauty and optimism during the dark years of the Great Depression.

Written by Emily & Joseph Ruzich

Sources:

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress by Cheryl R. Ganz (2008).

“A New Book Remembers the ‘American Sex Symbol’ Sally Rand, Who Created a Scandal at Chicago’s World Fair” by Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune (November 11, 2020).




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