For several years, filmmaker Rick Delaup has been documenting the New Orleans burlesque scene of the late 1940s through the 1960s. "Evangeline the Oyster Girl & Other Tales of Burlesque," will be a television documentary and book about Bourbon Street burlesque dancers. During that time, there were few economic opportunities for women, but for some the shady side of the street beckoned with money, glamour, and fame. The project is partially funded by the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Eccentric New Orleans presents profiles of several women that appear in the documentary.
On sex and marriage:
On vindictive strippers:
Cherry Labrech started her career in the girlie shows on the carnival circuit. She was raised in a circus family. Her grandfather was the head electrician, and her mother and grandmother ran concessions. When Cherry was 18, after her grandfather and mother passed away, she married for a brief time, and then began working the girlie shows and nightclubs as a stripper.
It was not her first career choice, but she couldn’t find any other opportunities. “I just wanted to make a living, because I had not had any formal schooling. I was taught to read and write at home on the circuses. I had no paperwork, couldn’t get a job. At that time, they wouldn’t even hire you as an elevator operator without a high school diploma. And I tried to lie about having a diploma, saying ‘it was lost,’ blah, blah, blah. Of course, they’re used to the lies, and I wasn’t a good liar, I guess.” Between the ages of 18 and 23, Cherry tried to find other work. She didn’t like the way the girls were treated in the strip clubs, and it was not a good place to find a husband. “Working in the clubs, you could either be someone’s mistress, or marry some riff raff.” She did find employment at a few restaurants. “I didn’t smile enough as a waitress. I was fired from several waitress jobs because I couldn’t smile. I was concentrating on getting orders right. And ya know, I just never was a real smiley type anyway. [Dancing] was about the only thing left to make a living at.”
Cherry was a good dancer. As a young girl, she’d watch musicals and emulate the dancers in front of a mirror. It was never her dream to be a famous dancer on Broadway or Bourbon Street; she just enjoyed dancing. Living and working in Tampa, Florida, she became fascinated by “The City That Never Sleeps” while listening to radio shows broadcast from New Orleans. Stories about the French Quarter, jazz music, and Mardi Gras enticed Cherry to move to New Orleans. “Being young, that was what I wanted. I wanted something that was action all the time, going on all the time.”
Cherry arrived in New Orleans in August of 1958. She got her first dancing job at the Mardi Gras Lounge. The club owner, Sid Davilla, gave her the stage name, “Torchy,” after a character in the movie Mardi Gras, which was released that same year. It was a name that wouldn’t last for long. When Cherry first started dancing, she came up with an exotic oriental dance. “I did a lot of freestyle jazz and stuff. My major number was the oriental, and it went into afro-cuban. I did oriental afro-cuban. And then I did just regular strips too, standard strip dances. But I liked a lot of jazz… A lot of numbers I liked, and could do, but they didn’t fit me. They were cutesy, bouncy, and didn’t fit with my look. I had a more exotic look, so I looked silly doing cutesy stuff.”
After a year and three months in New Orleans, Cherry fell in love with a waiter/bartender at the Poodle’s Patio and soon married him. But married life didn’t tame her wild streak. “I got along pretty good with the girls. It’s just mostly customers I’d fight and argue with. And so the club owner changed my name to Wild Cherry.” B-drinking was common in all the strip clubs. The club owners would require each stripper to sit with a customer and persuade him to buy her a drink. The girls would try to get the customer to order an expensive drink, and in return the club would give the girl a percentage off the price of the drink. The stripper would often avoid drinking the beverage, or would be given a drink by the bartender with little or no alcohol. (This tradition is still practiced today in some strip clubs in the French Quarter.)
“It started off with my temperament. That’s how I got the name Wild Cherry. I was real picky. I liked the dancing and all, but I didn’t like the mixing [with customers.] Of course, if the guys bought you a drink, they figured they owned you, and they’d want to get too handsy-feely. And I didn’t like that. So I would object, and then of course they wouldn’t want to buy you a drink. And I was not the type to ask for drinks, either. I didn’t like to ask for drinks because I didn’t like the rejection when they said no. I wasn’t good at rejection. I’m still not.”
“And I would argue with the customers. And, of course, the club owners didn’t like that.” One night, Cherry was B-drinking with a customer who was being “particularly ugly and rude.” She got up and went to the bar and bought herself a drink. She went back to the man and said, “now it’s my drink, I can do what I want,” and threw the drink on the guy. It was behavior like this that caused Cherry to bounce from one club to the next. As soon as a club had a good stable of girls who knew how to B-drink, Cherry was the first to be sent on her way. “One club owner told me I wasn’t hungry enough for the money. And I said, ‘well, you’re correct.’” So Cherry made her way through the Quarter working at such places as Pete Herman’s, the Blue Angel, the Gunga Den, the 500 Club, Poodle’s Patio, the Sho Bar, and the Old French Opera House. She also toured New York, Kansas City, and Mexico.
“I stayed out of a lot of trouble with the girls that I worked with. But I got into fights after hours, when I would be drinking and all. When I would drink, I thought I was indestructible, which I wasn’t. And I was always gettin’ into scraps and stuff then. I never won any, but that didn’t bother me any at the time. It was just the fun of the fightin’ and scrapping. And I was always argumentative, so it got me into trouble after hours. One bartender said that I was the only person he knew who could have an argument with a cactus in the desert.”
“There wasn’t hair pulling and scratching, these girls duked it out with fists. Everybody pretty much did. There wasn’t a lot of that catfight stuff. Nah, these girls were pretty rough. And if they did decide they didn’t like somebody, in theaters I’ve seen, they would take a rolling pin and a lightbulb, break a lightbulb, and grind that glass up fine like a powder and put it in your face powder. They would put shoe polish in the eye mascara tube. They could get really rough. They didn’t play.”
Cherry danced until her mid-forties when she decided to quit the business. Her best memories as a stripper on Bourbon Street are of partying in the French Quarter - dancing in the clubs at night, and then after hours spent at the Dream Room on Bourbon Street, or the Latin clubs on Decatur Street, drinking, dancing, laughing, and fighting. Now, she spends her days caring for her granddaughter’s horses, cleaning stalls, and doing various arts and crafts projects. Although Cherry lives a quiet, anonymous life in the suburbs, some nosy neighbors discovered her past identity and confronted her with it. Although Cherry was “wild” in her youth, she has since controlled her temper and mellowed out. But, she won’t let anyone get the best of her. “I had a problem with a couple of [neighbors] down the street asking me if I was a stripper. I said, ‘yeah.’ And they were putting me down for it. I told them point blank, ‘not only was I a stripper, but I was a good one, and proud of it! I made very good money at it. And people paid dear to see my behind!’”
--- Rick Delaup