Feminist histories of the Golden Age of entertainment, particularly those that have gone underreported, take the spotlight in a large amount of Leslie Zemeckis’s creative work. My, how it shines ever so brightly in the author-actress-filmmaker’s latest endeavor, Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl.
Feuding Fan Dancers … unearths the lost stories of Bacon and Rand, two celebrated women from the early 20th Century who each claimed to be the inventor of the notorious fan dance.
No word yet if Zemeckis, the wife of famed director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump, Allied, and the upcoming Welcome to Marwen), would ever team with TV titan Ryan Murphy for a future round of Feud, however Leslie Zemeckis’s literary endeavor is quite compelling, which makes her book signing at Just Fabulous on Nov. 10 in Palm Springs all the more appealing.
“I’ve always loved the era of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s,” says Zemeckis, who is also a part-time Palm Springs resident—she and her husband own a midcentury modern marvel in the Movie Colony neighborhood.
“As a performer, I was doing a one-woman show a few years ago and it had elements of burlesque,” Zemeckis adds. “I patterned my character off of Gypsy Rose Lee and Mae West without even knowing really what burlesque was. So I started to research and found that there was nothing out there from the performers’ point of view.”
She wanted to know: Where did these women come from? How did they get into the work? What did their families think about it?
For Feuding Fan Dancers … we find Rand going from her Midwest upbringing to performing for many years as a nude and seminude dancer around the country. Her biggest triumph was the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair where, thanks to a pair of vibrant pink, seven-foot ostrich feathers, her performance practically assured her wider appeal. It’s curious to note that the following year Rand and Mae West became record earners amongst women in the entertainment industry.
Sally Rand’s biggest triumph as a dancers came at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
For Bacon, life flowed a bit differently yet it still ran parallel to Rand’s. Bacon began posing as an artist’s model when she was 13 and her natural ease within her body led to her becoming a bona fide Ziegfeld Girl. That’s a noble feat, but there were significant differences between the two women, as Zemeckis shrewdly reveals.
For starters, Rand was an expert self-promoter, somebody who managed to take fan dancing and extend it into a six-decade-long career. In her shadows: Bacon. At one point, the competition between the two women became so intense that Bacon filed a lawsuit against Rand over artistic theft.
Ironically—and figuratively—their “art” fanned their feud.
“These women worked so hard for so long,” Zemeckis is quick to point out. “Sally was always on the road. She wasn’t too proud to climb a ladder to build a set or sew her own costumes. They persevered.”
Zemeckis is the author of several other books about seemingly uncharted history, including Goddess of Love Incarnate, which traces the tale of Lili St. Cyr, a celebrated burlesque stripper, and Behind the Burly Q, a sublime read about the true story of old-time burlesque.
“What’s interesting to me about burlesque is that it’s so engrained in our culture,” she says. “There’s still elements of it today. There’s broad humor and that’s what burlesque was. Everybody thought it was stripping, or pornography or prostitution. But it’s not any of those things.”
Zemeckis’s creative work goes beyond the page, too. She’s been at the helm of several intriguing documentaries, particularly Bound by Flesh, which captured the story of vaudeville superstars and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. She also produced and directed the critically acclaimed Showtime documentary, Behind the Burly Q, which found its way from book to screen.
Audiences can also find her in one of the season’s most anticipated films, Welcome to Marwen, starring Steve Carell — the film is based on a true story of an artist who survived a hate crime and how he overcomes it though art.
When asked why she is drawn to documenting and, in a way, validating, women in show business in an era long gone, Zemeckis is frank.
“We all assume that we are all groundbreaking today—‘we’re doing this,’ ‘we’re free with our bodies,” she says. “ I like to look back and give props and shine the light on people. I like to get behind the headlines of who these people really were and what their very real struggles were, especially as women
“Faith and Sally’s work wasn’t accepted norms in terms of jobs,” she adds. “The fact that these women did what they did—the why of it—and getting to who they were, just fascinated me.”
Leslie Zemeckis will sign books for “Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl” from 1:30-3 p.m. Nov. 10, at Just Fabulous, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. For more information, visit bjustfabulous.com or lesliezemeckis.com.
VIDEO: View this trailer about the book, Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl.