Complaints about tawdry midway shows and gambling at the Tulsa State Fair were boiling over in 1949, so the fair manager had no choice – she brought in the world’s most famous strip-tease artist as a headliner.
The Rev. J.W. Storer, pastor of Tulsa’s First Baptist Church, had complained about the “gyp joints and off-color” carnival shows following the 1948 fair and called for a boycott.
“If every church member of every church in Tulsa County would just stay away from the fair in 1949, there would be a fair to behold in 1950,” Storer wrote in a church newsletter.
The Tulsa Parent-Teacher Association had found the 1948 fair so objectionable that it adopted a resolution asking the school board to discontinue the traditional school holiday when children were admitted free to the fair.
So unbelievable as it seems, in 1949, burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee was hired to bring her lavish show to the Tulsa State Fair.
Fair manager Letitia Dabney tried to clarify the situation, as reported by The Tulsa Tribune on Aug. 17, 1949.
“I want the Parent-Teacher Association and all Tulsans to realize the show isn’t going to be a strip-tease or a cheap affair. We wouldn’t want to submit children to that,” Mrs. Dabney said.
“I’m just as interested in having the show all right as anyone is. I wasn’t happy with the carnival last year, and want it to be clean this year. That’s the reason we got the big Royal American Shows,” she said.
Royal American had hired Lee, guaranteeing her $10,000 a week to appear in the elaborate show.
“She has a very fine show, one that little kids can go into without restraint,” R.L. Lohmar, general agent for Royal American, wrote to Mrs. Dabney.
“Gypsy is a fine person and you will like her,” Lohmar wrote. “She has beaten Sally Rand’s gross in all towns that we have played so far, and is good copy with all newspapers of the entire country.”
A Tulsa newspaper editorial writer had this take on the situation:
“If this opposition is given enough publicity the adult attendance at the fair will exceed all records, for such is the perverse curiosity of human beings. Still, it will be a shame if a number of Tulsa youngsters miss the fine exhibits and the great grandstand spectacles just because Gypsy Rose is dropping her shoulder-straps over in a nearby tent.”
As it turned out, the school board agreed to the PTA’s demand and there was no official school holiday during the fair.
However, Tulsa School Children’s Day was celebrated anyway and thousands of youngsters – apparently with impunity – took the day off to enjoy free admission and reduced-price rides at the fair.
A Tulsa World story on Aug. 28 told all about the planned midway extravaganza.
It described Lee as a Ziegfeld Follies featured player, Broadway star and successful author.
Her supporting cast was to include the Beaucaires, a novelty dance troupe; Boyd Bennett, a promising young baritone; the Four Reasons, a musical combo; Bill Frazier, Broadway comedian, and a “bevy of beauteous chorines and specialty dancers.”
The finale of her show, according to the World, was the story of Cinderella, with Lee as the Fairy Godmother, wearing a 97-pound dress containing over 1 million hand-sewn rhinestones.
On opening night, the Gypsy Rose Lee show caused a minor riot as several thousand people tried to attend the performance, the World reported.
“The midway became so packed with visitors waiting for the show it was virtually impossible to get through the midway area,” the story said.
A World reporter later interviewed Lee in her “palatial” 31-foot trailer as she whipped up a rice pudding for her 4-year-old son, Erik.
“I love to keep house,” Lee told the reporter, “and being on the road with Royal American Shows gives me a chance to keep house in my trailer.”
Asked if she planned menus while undressing before large audiences, she replied, “I wouldn’t say that, but I’m not thinking too much about the men out there looking at me. I just forget ‘em while I’m up there on the stage.”
The interview ended abruptly when Lee jumped up and started running about the trailer with a flyswatter.
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” she said, “but I hate flies and I’ve just time to get rid of these before I go on at 6 o’clock.”
The 1949 Tulsa State Fair was the most successful ever, news stories reported, with attendance topping 150,000.
In her obituary in 1970, Lee is described as an intellectual stripper, who sprinkled quotes from Huxley and Spinoza throughout her act.
A drama critic said, “Miss Lee is very careful not to take off more than she has on.”
Gypsy Rose Lee’s life later became the basis for the Broadway musical and film, “Gypsy,” which coincidentally includes a character named “Tulsa.”