"Las Vegas. Sin City. My City.
The stage was my home when I didn't have a home. The audience was my family when I didn't have a family, and I'm not letting the curtain fall yet, I've got things left to do..."
- Tempest Storm
Born Annie Blanch Banks of Eastman Georgia the now formally (and legally) known Tempest Storm has lived a life of love, lust and loss as she shimmied her way through the decades, but at what cost?
Produced and directed by Nimisha Mukerji and co-produced by Kaitlyn Regehr 'Tempest Storm - A Documentary' explores the life of the world's oldest living exotic performer, and in her own words. "I first met Tempest while conducting my PhD research, and Tempest really stood out within the context of that work. She stood out not just because she was famous, or because she is arguably the last star of theatrical burlesque but because for someone who has made a career out of revealing herself, Tempest is actually a very private person. Her image has been disseminated all over the world – she has been seen but she has rarely heard. And that’s why this project is important to me and why it was a very brave thing for Tempest to do.." says Regehr.
The film opens up with today's 87-year-old glamour queen rummaging through her top draw revealing decorated g-strings and braziers. "It's a g-string", says Storm holding up her old performance panties. "I glued the rhinestones one by one. I sat there one day and said, that needs rhinestones..". Storm narrates throughout the 82-minute film bouncing around a timeline spanning over 6 decades of romantic tease and expose' in preparation for her most important and final act - to repair the broken relationships with her family, more notably her daughter Patti, whom she abandoned as a child over 50 years ago.
From today's popular burlesque personalities of Dita Von Teese, Claire Sinclair (Playboy 2011 Playmate of the Year), Danielle Colby (Burlesque performer and host of TV show American Pickers) and Bettie Page, having her own personal clothing line with popular pinup girl clothing label Tatyana, recording with famed musician Jack White and having friends like director and producer Garry Marshall (Happy Days/Pretty Woman), Storm had (and still has) fans in awe of her glitter and glamour in what she has done within the burlesque industry.
"Tempest Storm was one of my idols (when I was) growing up in New York and The Bronx. We were young, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds and we'd go downtown to see the burlesque shows. Among these other dancers she had a way, she was a class act, when she took her clothes off it was almost artistic" states Marshall (Happy Days/Pretty Woman producer) who sadly passed away this July after this filming. In 1955 Storm collaborated with the famous Bettie Page in the hit movie 'Teaserama'. "She played my maid. She was a delight. She was that pixie type of thing you know and we hit it off good.." Storm said.
Speaking of the burlesque industry Storm states "I chose the business that people looked down on but you can be classy in this profession if you make up your mind. You don't follow the leader you follow what you feel is right..". In a recording with Jack White Storm speaks on being classy in burlesque. The interview is available now through iTunes."I received a letter from Jack White about wanting to do a recording on teaching young girls on how to be classy in burlesque..". On this interview recording Storm disapproves on some of today's burlesque performances. "A downgraded and dirtier form of dancing" Jack White describes. Storm recalls, "I think it started fading in the 1960's. I know I was working in theatres in London and these girls started flashin', that's what they called it. They would have a certain way to flick their g-string real quick. They would come to see me perform if they weren't performing and it was like, I had them (audience) lined up down the street and I don't even flash them. I never resorted to that and today, it's not the burlesque that I knew. I still work (and) I do my performance like I use too, real classy, that's what it's all about, doing something classy and leaving it up to the imagination. Burlesque now, it's not what I call burlesque, I don't know what they're doing out there. It's all in the art of the tease and that is Burlesque" says Storm.
Yet behind all the sparkles and underneath the fame remains a broken girl with a troubled past. Growing up in the depression Storm recalls picking cotton and corn in the fields and running down the road to greet her father after work. She remembers him picking her up and placing her over his shoulder, and on one particular time her Aunt Edna watched on as she ran down the drive to meet her father. When Annie Banks yelled "My daddy is coming" her aunt replied with "that's not your real daddy..". It's here that little Annie Banks would never be the same again. "I was a happy little girl before that happened", she says. "A lot later on in years I woke up one night and he was on top of me. I kicked him off and got away from him. I never told my mother about that.." she says of her step-father. For years she tried desperately to get information from her mother on the whereabouts of her real father and who he was, but her mother refused to kiss and tell and took all she knew to her grave. "I never saw my real father, he left, when I was just a baby". Years later she found one photograph of her parents together in her mother's purse, forever trying to solve the puzzle on why he went away.
During her school years little Annie was bullied, not only by her classmates but her step-father too, did this have anything to do with her rejecting his advances? After making her first ever dress at thirteen years old, it was pretty, it was white, she wanted to wear it into the town centre. It was on this day that three boys from her school, including the local sheriff's son saw her, took her up into the hills and one by one, raped the young Annie Banks. "If you tell anyone we'll kill ya", they told her. To date these men remain unidentified and have never come to trial nor seen prosecution. Like her own mother, is this a deep secret Storm will take to her grave? Storm married at fourteen in Georgia knowing that if she were married she would be legally separated from her parents. "I got married to get away from home, I had a mean step-father", she said, and within two days the marriage was annulled.
Years on and another young marriage later she moved to Los Angeles. Giving her her big break whilst still Annie Banks, Lillian Hunt of the legendary Follies Theatre in Los Angeles once said that “Burlesque is an art, worthy of serious study”. After Annie walked into her office for an interview she was told to take her clothes off. In doing so Annie asked "Do you think my bust is too big for this business" to which Hunt replied "Oh hunny, they can never be too big for this business.."
That day she was hired and started back in the chorus line as a dancer and within a month her pay went from $40.00 per week to $60.00 (around $800.00 in today's market), the most she's ever made, then Hunt needed her to have a stage name. "What about Sunny Day", says Hunt. "Lillian I really don't feel like a Sunny Day" proclaims Annie. "What about Tempest Storm?" Hunt said, "I'll take it!" said the now former Annie Banks. Her first television break performing was for the Micky Awards, a comedy take on the Academy Awards starring comedians Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It was at the Micky Awards in 1951 she was awarded a Micky for 'The Girl with the Two Biggest Props in Hollywood', this meaning of course, her natural 36D bosoms. "I was on my way", she said.
For the next 8 years she shined like diamonds and went on to marry a further two times but it was her latest husband, famed country artist Herb Jeffries that finally stole her heart. "He was a handsome man, a highly educated person. We had a lot of fun (and it was) the first time I really experienced real love". For a girl that deserved to love and to be loved was then scorned once more, but this time by the tabloids. It was a moment in time where interracial relationships were looked down upon, simply taboo, and especially in the American south. Storm's family were displeased to say the least. "White Stripper Married Negro" the papers read. Herb Jeffries was American but of African descent, and was known as America's first black singing cowboy and so this union was frowned upon socially. "It was very dangerous at that time for us to be together" ,explains Storm, yet love conquers all, they were married in 1959 at the local courthouse. Storm wears a gorgeous gown made by Jeffries mother. As news of their love spread so to the hate. "My manager that managed me in the beginning, Lillian Hunt, well she never spoke to me again", Storm's voice shakes as she holds back the tears. Losing major contracts for films and modelling Storm soldiered on and was happy being in love.
Before meeting Herb Jeffries she was headlining at The Dunes in 1957, it's here that Elvis Presley came to see her perform, then snuck to her hotel room in the wee hours of the morning. "He was 22 and I was 29. I taught him everything he knew", she laughs. She told Elvis she didn't want the attention from their rendevu and didn't want him coming through the lobby, so he climbed over the fence in the back and in doing so split his slacks, "well, at least I didn't have to undress ya!", she laughs some more. She would also meet up with John. F. Kennedy prior to his presidential reign. "I met him when he was a senator, the first time in 1957 and it was a great relationship and he was a great man. We use to meet in Washington DC at the Mayflower Hotel. I felt like I was a teenager again..". In 1963 Storm gave birth to her first and only daughter Patricia, fathered by Herb Jeffries whom she was married for for 10 years. "She was a happy baby, (and) they called us the first family of Burlesque". At the age of ten, when a little girl needs her mother most Storm flew to Florida for engagements and never returned. Leaving her legacy behind to pursue her performance career it then took another ten years for Storm to get in contact with her little girl but by then the little girl had grown up and the damage had been done. "It was tough, performing and having a child at the same time", explains Storm.
As the years went on so did the silence between Tempest and her estranged family, especially her daughter Patti. "She's just cut off communication with us". Patti is now in her 50's and has a 20+-year-old child of her own with special needs. The phrase 'time heals all wounds' does not apply here, but I guess who could blame her? Storm states "I get unconditional love from my audience", it's where she feels in control, being intimate, yet still at a distance. "Every time I walk out on that stage, I feel safe, because I'm in control". The more her audience loves her the more her daughter slips away from her. Exchanging the love from her daughter to the love of her audience is something Storm has lived with.
Storm also had the chance to reunite with her ex-husband and the father of her pnly child Herb Jeffries one last time. Jeffries sits frail, yet not frail enough to tell her just how beautiful she is, it was one last sweet gathering. The next clips show Storm reading his obituary in the paper. Legendary Herb Jeffries dies at age 100 of heart failure on May 25 2014.
In a continuing effort to reconnect with her daughter Patti Storm goes to visit her and on film she calls her once again to let her know she is near and in want of seeing her. She finally receives a return call to her hotel room but it didn't go as well as she'd hoped. "We're your only family, and your career has always come first", says Patti. As Tempest tries to explain how she's been on the road traveling with the Burlesque festivals Patricia cuts her off and says "and that's more important, that's more important than me and my daughter? I just can't forgive and forget". It's been years since a visit and Storms only grandchild is now twenty-one years old. "What you did changed my whole life, and it still affects me. I don't want you coming to the house and ringing my doorbell, please, not now.." states Patti through the telephone. It's here the only time I hear Tempest tell anyone throughout the film that she loves them, and even after so many have conveyed their love for her throughout the documentary, her family, her fans, it's the love from her abandoned daughter she craves for most. With tears in her eyes and in absolute silence Storm stares dumbfounded into the distance, and the coloured clips of her dancing in the 60's turn to grey. Before she left her daughter all those years ago she recalls finding papers in the closet, husband Herb Jefferies had gone to court claiming Tempest Storm an unfit mother. Is this why she left? "I never told him I saw that", she says. The last day she saw her daughter, it was morning and Storm was getting ready to fly to Florida for engagements when her 10 year old daughter said "are you coming back this time mother..?" . A heart breaking statement from one little girl to her mother.
On reflection of this divine diva 'Tempest Storm: The Documentary' finishes up where it all began, in the bittersweet cotton fields of Eastman Georgia. She sways ever so gently in a white gown with the golden Georgia sunset behind her. A life well lived for everybody, yet seemingly having nobody Tempest Storm to this day is an active supporter throughout the burlesque industry and continues to take part in functions and festivals around the world.
At time of publication Storm is yet to reconnect with estranged daughter Patti but will continue to pursue communication in the hope of forgiveness, in tying loose ends and in righting her wrongs, having her final curtain call be her most important, the hope of reconnection from the one she needs most, because at some point in time, we all deserve redemption.
"...I made it to the top, and I'm still up there, but, sometimes I wonder - was it really worth it" - Tempest Storm