Saga of the Preacher and the Stripper

 

Sally Ann Rand was ready to come to Fort Worth and strut her stuff.
Sally Ann Rand was ready to come to Fort Worth and strut her stuff.

THE MEN WHO HUNG AROUND FORT WORTH with money in their pockets and watch chains on their vests were worried. They wanted to bring dancing girls into the city, and some of those long-legged ladies might be naked, or at least give the faint appearance of being naked if the shadows from the footlights failed to properly hide them, and men with money and watch chains were betting on a flash of flesh even during the darkest of nights.

There was, however, a hellfire and brimstone preacher across town who, they feared, just wouldn’t stand for any hint of sin, much less the sight of a lovely line of dancers who had misplaced their skirts and stockings. J. Frank Norris did not like sin, and he was, he said, the chosen one to kick sin and all of its illegitimate offspring out of Fort Worth, or at least leave the remnants of iniquity smoldering beneath the brimstone he personally called out of heaven.

J. Frank Norris knew how to preach hell so hot that his congregation down at the First Baptist Church could feel the heat blistering the napes of their necks even during the chill of winter. Some even swore, as much as a Baptist dared in 1936, that they could smell the smoke and sulphur when the right Reverend Norris warmed up on a sermon about damnation in that pit of everlasting fire.

He would not understand at all that those naked dancing girls just might chase away the Great Depression, or at least the hard-scrabble blues it had left behind.

The men with money in their pockets and watch chains on their vests only sighed and prayed that the good Brother Norris would turn his head and look the other way when Sally Ann Rand undressed behind those now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t flimsy curtain of fans, and they knew he never would. Their prayers fell on deaf ears.

Fort Worth ached in the grip of hard times. Jobs were scarce, and money always belonged to somebody else. Bellies growled, and children slept in wagon beds. A bite of day-old bread was the taste of luxury. But in1936, Texas decided, in spite of the depression, to honor its hundredth birthday, and the Centennial Commission – a band of holier-than-thou historians and politicians – handed Dallas three million seed dollars to produce the celebration.

The Reverend J. Frank Norris
The Reverend J. Frank Norris

No funds were given West Texas, the commission explained, because West Texas had nothing to commemorate. Fort Worth exploded. By Gawd, said the men with money in their pockets and watch chains on their vests, they would just have a shindig of their own.

Into town rode Billy Rose, the producer of Broadway’s sensation “Jumbo.” He would create an extravaganza if anyone could, and besides, the men with money in their pockets and watch chains on their vests, had agreed to pay him a thousand dollars a day for a hundred days. Rose merely grinned and said, “You people stick with me, and I’ll make a big state out of Texas.’

Across town, the Rev. J. Frank Norris knelt on troubled knees. He had faced controversy eyeball-to-eyeball before. Brother Norris had once even talked the minister’s association into hiring a detective to investigate the filthy innards of Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre, and he discovered that eight owners of the area’s eighty houses of prostitution were influential and socially prominent leaders of the community. They were the ones who gave large donations to the churches. One was even a deacon. All the ministers had agreed to stand up in their pulpits and publicly read the names of the men who ran the houses of ill repute. All backed down, save one. J. Frank Norris preached that Sunday on “The Ten Biggest Devils in Town and Their Records Given.”

Back in 1911, he had fought for state-wide prohibition, and gunmen were hired to assassinate him. They fired their best shots. They missed. Beneath an old circus tent, Brother Norris began a ninety-day revival against the transgressions of alcohol. But six days before the liquor election, firemen chopped the tent down, saying it was a fire hazard. The wets won by six thousand votes. J. Frank Norris was no stranger to the battles against sin.

Billy Rose, perhaps, had met his match. Rose didn’t think so. He was not at all worried or concerned about a preacher. He was only looking for new ways to beat the pomp and circumstance, culture and refinement, of the almighty Dallas Centennial show.

“How will you compete?” he was asked.

“We’ll give them a ball of fire,” Rose answered. “We’ll have a ‘Lonely Hearts Ball’ weekly where all the lonesome women can come and find a partner in a drawing. I’ll get Shirley Temple, Mae West, Guy Lombardo, Jack Benny. I’ll get one thousand beautiful girls for the Frontier Follies. I’ll have two thousand Indians and a thousand cowboys, and guess who wins? I’ll have a chorus line of five hundred pretty girls.”

And most of them would be naked, more or less.

Rose continued, “Dallas has all that historical stuff, so we don’t have to worry about that. We can just show the people a good time. I plan to drive Dallas nuts. Every time Dallas says something about its exposition, I’ll give them Shirley Temple. This’ll make ‘Jumbo’ look like a peep show.” At his first press conference, Billy Rose told the newspaper reporters that his production would have neither nudity nor smut. Only once, he said, had the public ever responded to smut.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Publisher Amon Carter, who had money in his pocket and a watch chain on his vest, quietly told Rose, “I heard you mention smut.”

“I did.”

“You said the public responded to it once.”

“The public did.”

“Where?”

“At the Century of Progress in Chicago,” Rose answered. “Sally Ann Rand had a nude act.”

“Pulled them in, did she?”

“By the thousands.”

Amon Carter smiled. “Let‘s get her,” he said.

He did, and what good was smut without a little nudity? He figured the reporters would give him the publicity he needed, and they did. Sally Ann Rand may have been one of the most successful strippers in history, but she never removed her clothes on stage.

She simply said, “I am an exponent of truth in advertising, and consequently I stick to the bare facts when selling my merchandise.” What she did was dance naked behind fans or balloons while bathed in a baby blue light. Most thought they had seen a lot more than they really did, and they would pay again and again for the privilege of finding out if they had missed anything, and they always had.

Sally Ann Rand was the belle of Billy Rose’s ball.

He was a showman all right. But then, so was J. Frank Norris. The good Brother Norris, long ago, had learned – then polished to perfection – the power of sensationalism. He condemned bootleggers, standing before his congregation, his face glistening with sweat, speaking with a voice that sounded a lot like God, and bursting fruit jars of illegal moonshine against the side of galvanized tubs.

It was said that he kept two bootleggers in business just bringing him enough whiskey for his sermons. Norris rolled up his sleeves and openly displayed monkeys as part of his fundamentalist wrath against the falsehoods of Darwin’s ideas about evolution.

He even filled a number-two wash tub with writhing rattlesnakes just so the crowds would come to see what he might do next. No one knew for sure what kind of serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Fort Worth, in the trembling hands of J. Frank Norris, it was a rattlesnake, and a damn big one.

The crowds came. Norris condemned them. He saved them. He baptized them. He knew, however, they would all, sooner or later, be heading down to Casa Manana to take a look at Billy Rose’s naked girls before the baptismal water dried on their faces. One preacher said, “If I had the money, I would rent a concession stand out there and preach morning, noon, and night.”

That’s where the crowds were. That’s where the sin was piled deep. That’s where he belonged. The Fort Worth Minister’s Association adopted a resolution that condemned Billy Rose’s advertising of bare-breasted ladies. But the men with money in their pockets and watch chains on their vests were only worried about J. Frank Norris. They shouldn’t have been.

Amon Carter, in the dead of night, in a private meeting, far from prying eyes and the thumping of worn Bibles, had made a deal with the firebrand preacher.

“You might want to take a little trip out of town,” he said.

“Why should I?”

“Well, we’ve got this centennial show and some nude girls, and we’re going to sell whiskey.”

“I’m against it.”

“You’ve been preaching against it for years.”

“So I have.”

“I believe Fort Worth’s gonna need a lot more salvation after the centennial than it does now.”

J. Frank Norris nodded. Carter’s reasoning made sense to him. “Well,” he said, I have been intending to hold some out of town revivals. I guess I could start a little earlier than I had planned.”

“This might indeed be a good time for you quit worrying about Fort Worth and save the rest of the country,” Carter said.

“It takes money.”

“I might be able to find a little.” Amon Carter smiled.

J. Frank Norris packed his luggage. After all, if Fort Worth was dead set on losing its soul, and surely it would, he might as well go out and try to save some other lost and wayward sinners. Just how many, of course, depended on the size of Amon Carter’s bag of money.

Sally Ann Rand rode into Fort Worth in a chocolate-colored Lincoln touring sedan, attired in a sunbonnet and calico granny dress.

J. Frank Norris was already on the road.

Sally Ann Rand spoke to PTA groups, bought fifty memberships for the civic music season, and donated time and money to underprivileged children.

The trail of J. Frank Norris left a wide swath of brimstone from one end of the country to the other. He had never preached hell so hot.

Sally Ann Rand, in tight shorts, gave a pep talk to TCU’s football team, discussed crochet patterns and lemon chiffon pie recipes with reporters, and her winsome pictures appeared more than nine hundred times in Texas newspapers.

For J. Frank Norris, hell was getting hotter all the time.

One reporter walked into Sally Ann Rand’s dressing room and found her lying on her stomach, reading the Bible and totally devoid of any clothes. She rolled over, smiled her sweetest smile, and covered her most private of parts with Psalms 35:17.

J. Frank Norris would have blanched.

During the summer of 1936, however, the fire and brimstone preacher traveled twenty-seven hundred miles, delivering the word of God, saving souls that didn’t even know they were lost, while back home in Fort Worth, a naked Sally Ann Rand was given her own special day, was acclaimed and applauded for her consummate artistry, and thanked by the men with money in their pockets and watch chains on their vests for using her feathered fans and well-balanced balloons to bring “culture and progress to Tarrant County.”

Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his books.

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