by Don Paulson -
SGN Contributing Writer
"I was born for music on October 31, 1920, and began piano lessons at age four," says Wally Stevenson. "A piano fell on me when I was 12, resulting in back injuries that kept me out of the army. Later a blender blew up in my hand, and then a plate glass incident ruined my classical music piano career. I could still play well enough, but not for the classical stage. So I went into show business and did 6,000 U.S.O shows, as well as Hollywood Canteen shows with Bob Hope, Hedy Lamar, and Dorothy Lamour, plus giving my own concerts. I met Ethel Smith, who took America by storm with her organ music, especially after her hit record, Teko Teko. I studied under her and she taught me how to bridge piano over to the pipe organ so a loss became a gain.'
Norman Knutson, who played the organ at the Garden of Allah, says, "The origin of the organ dates back to the pipes of Pan. All the big organ builders built one-tone 'church organs.' But then in 1910, Wurlitzer came out with his orchestral version, adding what they call 'tremble' by shaking the air, getting a beat and getting a quick response, making it perfect for show business. It made you feel good next to the bark of the old church organs. Wurlitzers were installed in many churches, dance halls, restaurants, department stores, roller rinks, hotels, outdoor theaters, etc. Hope Jones did a lot for the development of the organ, but when it was found out that he was a homosexual, he committed suicide. He was a great electrical engineer.
Marvan, The Rivoli Burlesque Theater's co-owner and dancer, says, "Wally Stevenson was our organist. We fought and fought. He just couldn't get that dirty beat, then he couldn't see me because he was down so low.'
Wally says, "I'd done lots of theater work, but this was my first burlesque experience. I finally got the beat and stopped the music abruptly, so Marvan could get the immediate applause and milk it for more. Everett, the one-armed drummer, was above the footlights and could see what was going on, so I tried to follow him. That ultimately presented a problem because he might go off on a tangent or be drunk. Everett was into threesomes. He'd pick out a couple guys from the front row and somehow connect with them later and set up a threesome with his wife. Ginger didn't like it at first, but got used to it. They'd get drunk and start fighting. He'd say, 'Take out your teeth, because I'm going to hit you,' and did so. Once he hit her and she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her dentures. Another time he came into the dressing room with a gun. He was mad! 'Where is she?' he demanded. Then we heard Ginger cry 'Don't, don't!' before he shot her. She fell to the floor and he fled. We were in total shock. A moment later he came through the door. It was all staged using the stage gun that shot blanks.
"I played for many burlesque stars, like Gay Dawn, Lily St. Clair, Tempest Storm and 'Queen of the nudists,' Zorena, who was 70 years old in a full body stocking and 20 yards of silk with a huge dragon painted on it in florescent colors, glowing under black light. While twirling around the stage, her outfit hooked on to my light music rack. She gave it a tremendous tug and jerked the whole thing off the organ and it landed in the front row. Another time we heard a great explosion and lost air for the organ and years of dust hit two rows. We called Balçomb and Vaughan, who instructed us to patch the hole with Kotex and tape and I finished the show."
Marvan remembers, "Tempest Storm was such a bitch. She smelled like a $1,000 prostitute. She had that red hair and when the lavender light went on the red hair it was like a flame. She worked less than anyone I've known. She'd wiggle a bit and bring the house down. She had legs up to here and she'd spread those legs as far as she could and throw those size-48 breasts down and get a standing ovation. She would parade back and forth doing her show on stage above me and say, 'fuck the musicians, fuck the musicians.' All the acts involved a story, a scenario, a scene. We had a chorus, which were strippers most of the time. The comics were a necessary ingredient."
Wally says, "Hubba Hubba was one of the great comics of vaudeville. A burlesque routine: Give me a sentence using the word pistol, 'we drink till nine and piss till two.' We could get away with double meanings, but we had to be careful about the censors. We never had to pay off the police. Another routine: The husband went to work and his wife began doing these exercises. He forgot his briefcase and came back to see his wife with her legs open doing an exercise. 'For God's sake, Blanche,' he said, 'put in your teeth and comb your hair. You look more like your mother every day.'
"We had a gorilla act called 'Tomba.' That gorilla was realistic! The same gorilla suit was used in an Abbot and Costello movie. The act opened with offstage sounds, 'Tomba, Tomba!' and you heard the rattle of chains. Then you heard a lot of commotion and someone yelled, 'Tomba's escaped!' A moment later, Tomba would burst through the exit door near the audience. It shocked everyone, because you didn't expect anyone to enter offstage. A black man in the box seats thought a real gorilla had escaped. He jumped out of the box seats, over everyone in the front row, up the aisle, through the entrance and fled into the night."
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