‘Always make eye contact with the punters’, was the first—and only—advice given me upon the occasion of my arrival and hiring by Mr. Tompkins of the Majestic Palace.
I’d not run away from marriage to a distant neighboring widow more than twice my age with grown daughters eager to breed sons and willing to barter with livestock and land. I’d simply left on the local train to Memphis rather than return with the monthly dry goods.
Brave? Reckless? Comely girls were a useless surplus to many farmers: My mother grew too old before she passed.
So, after some excitement, and fending off of roving hands, Mrs. O’Malley’s Boarding House become my residence of record. My meager savings would not last long in the hurly-burly atmosphere of the big city.
Alas, swine lasses and milkmaids were not in high—or even low—demand, except on their backs. Dressed in my Sunday best, toes pinched by third-hand shoes, I tromped all over the business district seeking honest employment. I admit my eyes were opened. Vice was everywhere. Men undressed me with blatant leers and tawdry phrases. I was not innocent—country girls started young—but a quick tumble in a hay rick felt pure and wholesome compared to the awful dregs lounging on every street corner.
The Palace was barely twenty years old; older than I, so I lied. My big break came when Foster and Lawrence—a vaudeville trio reduced to duo when their assistant ran off with Samson the Strongman—hired me. The role required the wearing of short frilly bloomers, a corset that plumped up my average charms and a blouse evidently salvaged from a sleeveless low-cut gown.
Thus the admonishment: Keep your eyes smiling at the men in the seats.
I can tell you I was shocked during my first ‘performance’, when I realized the focus of the act was me… well, my bottom in fact. Foster and Lawrence were a comedy team that revolved around a shapely damsel [that would be me] getting herself into naughty situations that could only be resolved by repeated spankings during the thirty-minute act. Mock blows they were not, and it took little time for me to race around the stage for real, pursued by swinging switches. I needed the money though; so, after a short chase, I ‘allowed’ myself to be caught, bent over under a perspiring armpit with thinly covered butt thrust at the cheering audience and chastised for my own good.
I was a trooper though: I peered back between my legs and kept eye contact with the punters.