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Discover Mid-America — February 2007

Sally Rand Museum recalls
‘fan-tabulous fan dancer’

Aficionados of old-time Hollywood and burlesque lore will find a treasure trove of memorabilia at the Sally Rand Museum in St. Joseph, MO.

The museum is located in the Barnard Tour Home and Restaurant, a two-story, circa-1877 Italianate mansion at 1617 Francis St. The house is considered to be one of the city’s most original tour homes in that only five families have occupied the house since it was built.

Amber DiGiovanni with original Sally Rand fans from her collection. (photo by Ken Weyand)

But the heart of the Barnard Tour Home is the proprietor, Amber DiGiovanni. More than a decade ago she became captivated by Sally Rand, the “barefoot girl from the Ozarks” who gained world fame for her jaw-dropping fan dance at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. For the past dozen years, DiGiovanni has portrayed Sally Rand in a one-woman show.

Considered a leading authority on the famous fan dancer, DiGiovanni entertains tour visitors at the Barnard House with stories of early Hollywood and the days of big-time burlesque.

Walls of the mansion’s high-ceilinged living room contain photos, movie posters, framed newspaper articles, brochures and other artifacts of Sally Rand’s career. On an old piano the fan dancer’s famous fans are displayed near a glass case containing a pair of her high-heeled shoes. An antique stereopticon shows a 3-dimensional view of the dancer. However, DiGiovanni says these items represent only about half of her total collection.

How did DiGiovanni become a Sally Rand enthusiast?

“I happened to meet someone who did one-person shows,” she said. “He asked me if I knew who Sally Rand was. When I said I did, he said I needed to look up a picture of her — I bore an uncanny resemblance to her. I had a theater and dance background, and it wasn’t long before I had put a one-woman show together.”

The collection began soon after that.

“People started sending me things,” DiGiovanni said. “Her shoes were the first gift, from a close friend of hers. There was a wounded GI who met Sally in 1945 when she was on a hospital tour. She asked if there were any GIs from Missouri, and spent twenty minutes with him. At the end of her visit, she gave him a lifetime pass to her show, and he gave it to me.”

DiGiovanni takes pride in having the only Sally Rand museum in existence. “A burlesque museum in Las Vegas has a couple of items, and the Chicago Historical Society has some others, but they aren’t on display.”

The Barnard Tour Home and Restaurant in St. Joseph. (photo by Ken Weyand)

Sally Rand was born Harriet Helen Gould Beck on April 3, 1904 in the small town of Elkton in the Missouri Ozarks. From small beginnings -— as a teenager she ran away to join a carnival — she would become a sought-after star of stage and screen. A serious student of the legitimate theatre, Rand traveled with a professional stage troupe and performed in several plays, including Rain with then-unknown Humphrey Bogart.

Stranded in Hollywood when a touring company folded, Sally Rand became a movie actress, working in some 21 silent films for Cecil B. DeMille, who came up with her stage name “Sally Rand.” She performed in a few “talkies,” but her pronounced lisp stalled her movie career and she turned to the “fan dancing,” which would be her trademark.

Her professional career as fan dancer got a rousing boost at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and another with an appearance at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Her last movie appearance was in the 1934 movie Bolero with George Raft, Carole Lombard and Ray Milland. Rand performed her trademark fan dance.

Sally Rand’s fans were artfully crafted and manipulated to conceal her private parts. Measuring up to six feet in length, they were subject to one major problem — wind, when she performed outdoors.

To counter the problem, she developed a dance using a giant inflated ball measuring 60 inches in diameter. Clothed in little more than white theatrical makeup, she performed with the ball when use of the fans was impractical.

DiGiovanni knows some interesting lore about Sally’s inflated ball.

“Shortly after she invented the bubble dance, the military confiscated her mold to make weather balloons,” DiGiovanni said.

A publicity photo of Sally Rand doing her famous “bubble dance.”

“In 1978, she was appearing at the Midland Theatre in Kansas City in a production called “A Night to Remember.” She brought several balloons with her to be blown up, and the stagehands broke them all. So they called the U.S. Weather Service, asking for help. One good turn deserved another. The Weather Service sent weather balloons for her to use in the show.”

Rand’s act drew a mix of adulation from male admirers and clucking condemnation from church groups. But the attempts at censorship only served to publicize her act. She continued to perform at state fairs and other venues into her 70s.

“She was still performing 40 weeks out of the year until her death,” DiGiovanni said. “You know, she was a legend, and a national treasure during her latter years.”

Sally Rand died of a heart attack in 1979 in Glendora, CA, at the age of 75. But her memory lives on in St. Joseph.

Tours of the Barnard House are by appointment. The restaurant, a tearoom by day and an Italian trattoria by night on weekends, is open Wednesdays through Saturdays. Call 816-671-0670 or visit

Ken Weyand can be reached at

> Traveling with Ken Archive — past columns


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