Ex-Broadway showgirl marks 80 with Petaluma bat mitzvah

All but one of Red Tova Halem's mementos from her days as a burlesque striptease artist got lost somewhere in Nazi Germany.

The one that remains is a photograph of Halem smoking a cigarette at the Howdy Club in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope is sitting next to her and Jackie Gleason is signing an autograph nearby.

Looking at the picture a few days ago made Halem pause in the midst of preparations for her 80th birthday celebration, which includes a bat mitzvah at Petaluma's Congregation B'nai Israel, to reminisce about her teen years in the '30s.

"Bob and Jackie, they were in vaudeville," she recalled, adding that vaudeville was family-style entertainment that paid less than the bawdier burlesque.

"I was a stripper making $400 a week," she said. The two comedians "were making $60."

Hope gave Halem a cigarette holder "to aggravate" Buddy Abbott, who went on to acclaim as Lou Costello's partner. Abbott's wife, Betty, also a stripper, "was a very devout Christian Scientist," said Halem. "We never smoked or drank because of Betty."

Halem and the Abbotts traveled in a road show that opened and closed in New York. "That's how the Wheels worked," she said, using a slang term for the burlesque circuits. "You were on the road eight months a year. You did a week or two at the Gaiety on Broadway, and came back to the Star Theater, a crummy joint in Brooklyn."

It was a thrilling experience for the teenage runaway from Massapequa, Long Island, who had hitched a ride from New York's Holland Tunnel to Hershey, Pa., with 7 cents in her pocket after she found out she wasn't her parents' biological child.

"My father died when I was 13," she said. "I never knew I was adopted. When I was about 15, [my mother] confided to somebody, who, in a fit of anger, called me `a dirty bastard.'"

Hurt and planning to escape to Chicago, she thumbed as far as Pittsburgh, and kept body and soul together by "stealing bread and milk off people's front doors."

With 3 cents panhandled from a holy roller chanting church songs in a public park, Halem bought a copy of New York's Daily Mirror at an out-of-town newspaper stand. Flipping to the personals, she found a message with her name on it that read: "I love you and need you, come home." It was signed, "Mom."

Overcome by emotion and possibly hunger, the poor girl passed out and "woke up in jail" with a streetwalker for a cellmate.

Her mother came and got her. Because Halem wanted to be a dancer, her mother let her take a job at the Roevling Theater on 42nd Street. Max Rudnick, the owner, thought Halem belonged on the road and sent her on tour with Buddy Abbott.

Halem's stage name was Toni Lurrey, but everyone called her "Wiggle Jiggle."

"In those days, we had on more clothes than the kids on TV's `Baywatch,'" she said. "We wore G-strings and net bras that were beaded. Ninety-nine percent of the audience were men. I'd be up near the curtain going into the wings. They'd yell, `Take it off.'"

In a Betty Boop voice she'd reply, "I can't; I'll catch cold."

Once when Minsky's — the legendary 42nd Street Theater where Gypsy Rose Lee "used to strip under a mink coat" — locked out its stagehands for wanting a raise, "Gypsy called our theater" and asked for some pickets.

"All of us strippers put robes on over our G-strings," said Halem, and paraded outside the theater flashing passersby and admonishing, "Don't go in there, boys.

"Believe me," she said, "that strike was settled that night."

Because Halem earned a good living, she was able to snatch 13 relatives out of Nazi Germany.

"It cost $26,000," she said, "$2,000 per person, so they wouldn't be on the dole to New York."

Her mother sent the photo album documenting Halem's theater career to Germany, to show it off to the family.

"Then Hitler marched in."

Some relatives who didn't make it to America resettled in Argentina. But Halem cannot account for all of her father's ancestors who lived in the ghetto of Lodz.

In 1937, Ethel Merman offered Halem a part in one of her shows. They rehearsed six weeks, then the backers pulled out.

"The day I walked out with the pink slip," said Halem, "Ethel and I were walking down the street. Buddy and Lou Costello were opening at Loew's. `Let's go wish 'em luck,'" Merman suggested.

But New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had just put the kibosh on burlesque and Halem was walking out of show business for good. She declined Merman's invitation.

"That was the end," Halem said. "The chapter was closed."

She took a job with labor leader Harry Bridges and met her future husband at the coffee shop he owned on New York's Canal Street.

"I went in to sell him the union," said the former delegate of the 923 Local Culinary Workers. "He didn't want any part of the union, but he did want a part of me."

She married Alan Halem four months later. They co-owned Powell's Hotel in Seaford, Long Island, for 12 years, produced three children and four grandchildren and moved to a Petaluma trailer park in 1970.

Her husband suffered a couple of heart attacks and died in 1982, but he is very much alive to Halem as she prepares to celebrate her 80th birthday on April 27. The date falls during Passover this year; that's why her bat mitzvah is set for April 12.

She plans to tell the gathering of 100-plus invited guests that her late husband is "sitting on Cloud Nine and kvelling with pride at the wonderful job you and our kids did to make this most important day so very special."

Wearing a black dress, black lace yarmulke and a floral shawl her teacher Doris Popky fashioned into a tallit, Halem will read her Torah portion phonetically. There wasn't enough time to cram three years of study into the two months of preparation available since she made the decision to celebrate her bat mitzvah.

"I'll join a Hebrew class later," she said.

Following the service at the synagogue where Halem has been a member for more than 20 years, and where she has served as its second woman president, she'll offer "an old-fashioned kiddush" of tuna, egg, macaroni and bean salads as well as "coleslaw, herring, of course, and lox and bagels."

Dismissing the stroke she suffered last June and the heart attack she survived last month, Halem said, "You can be a crotchety old lady of 80, or you can be someone who loves life and wants to do a bat mitzvah."