Longtime singer, bawdy comedian, and retro icon Rusty Warren talks about her career, the Pomp Room in Phoenix, the early days of Las Vegas and the unbreakable bond among veteran female performers
by Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham
Rusty Warren is sitting in a Polly’s Pies restaurant in southern California in the early weeks of 2018. Her once-fiery red hair is now snow white. There’s a bottle of oxygen standing by where a fifth of bourbon may have once balanced within arm’s reach. She’s still got the raspy voice of a good-time gal, only now her words are interrupted less often by cackles of laughter than by a hacking cough.
She’s still got it, though: an 87-year-old lady who walks with a cane but will bounce her boobies — illustrating an anecdote by actually clutching her designer sweatshirt and giving them a lift and a jiggle — prompting double takes from a couple of nearby diners.
She orders the grilled cheese, fruit on the side, from the transgender waitress. The waitress doesn’t get a double take from anyone — and there it is, another small victory in the suburban revolution, the feminist revolution, and the sexual revolution that Rusty Warren helped lead, knockers up.
“Shall we lift our glasses up and toast sex? It’s such a wonderful thing. A lot of people don’t realize it when you’re sitting in the group like we are tonight, but sex is very important. Look at these youngsters over here… He’s what they like to call ‘biding his time’ until later. He is preparing her for the future. And she’s gonna get it. Yes she is, dear. He doesn’t know quite when, but whenever he’s ready, she’ll get it!”
Flashback to sixty years earlier. June 1958. Rusty Warren has the hair of fire, perfectly coiffed in an orange-red cotton candy swirl, her body stuffed into a sexy gown, seated at the piano in The Pomp Room on the southeast corner of North 16th Street and East Camelback Road in Phoenix, Arizona. When Rusty pulled in four years earlier for the first of many extended engagements, the lounge was named The Pump Room, same as the world-famous “jumping Pump Room” restaurant in the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago that Sinatra gave a tip-of-the-hat to in “My Kind of Town,” but the Phoenix Pump got an overnight vowel adjustment when the boys in the Windy City threatened to sue.
The Pomp Room, six miles from downtown, out past the Phoenix Mountains, was turning people away when Rusty performed, and not turning anyone away when she wasn’t. Rusty was pulling in about $225 a week, not counting tips. In June 1958, that was all about to change.
“Every wife in this room tonight is a chosen woman!” Rusty would announce. “He doesn’t have to give it to you, you know. He chose you to give it to! For the rest of your life! You can at least appreciate it because man was born for this purpose. Girls, he has so much to give… to so many… with so little!”
Rusty Warren was never supposed to be this bawdy and saucy when she was born in New York City in 1930. After she was adopted at six months by Herbert and Helen Goldman of Milton, Massachusetts, she was named Ilene. Ilene Goldman started out all proper and such, and spent much of her early years preparing to become a concert pianist. She took her first piano lessons at six, attended the New England Conservatory School of Music in Boston, and was mentored by Arthur Fiedler, longtime conductor of the Boston Pops.
Her concert career peaked when she performed under Fiedler at Tanglewood in a 21-piano tribute to Chopin (Fiedler reached the apotheosis of his career at Tanglewood when he and the Pops backed Allan Sherman on his Peter & The Commissar LP). Ilene had planned to go into teaching, but in her first summer off from school, got a job playing piano in a lounge, tickling the ivories as background music for the lushes, couples and unwinding businessmen. The money was better than piano lessons, and there were many places to make even more. So, by 1952, barely old enough to buy a drink, Ilene Goldman had become Rusty Warren, working hotels and rooms like The Rendezvous in Fort Myers, Florida, where she was billed as “a sensational musical entertainer… with high class music and song.”
“But something didn’t satisfy me about just sitting at the piano, so I started talking,” she recalls.
Rusty Warren started talking to the customers, and as she gained confidence, wrote a few jokes to tell, stole a few others (as was the practice of the day) and, putting the high class aside, was soon talking about the customers, teasing the ones on dates, pointing out the broads with the attributes that stuck out a lot farther than her own, reminding the young women that the men escorting them probably didn’t pack quite the impressive attributes they claimed — at least not in comparison, and how would a girl know if his was the only one she’d seen? Rusty claimed to have seen more than her share — she was playing a character, of course — and then she told the joke about the bride who wanted to take a photo of her husband when he stepped out of the shower — so she could have the picture enlarged.
“A lot of people you know, especially the young gentlemen that are here tonight, they bring these young ladies out and they figure they like to get her drunk to do it. (giggles) Girls, isn’t it fun playing drunk?”
“It was nice because I wasn’t risqué, dirty. I didn’t talk dirty. I was a lady and looked it, with the clothes and all,” Rusty said in Polly’s Pies. “I said ‘damn’ and something — ‘knockers’ I’d say — but I never said ‘F’. There were males who did that. Comics. But the females? I didn’t.”
Rusty would riff on the piano throughout her monologues, accentuating the patter with Liberace-like glissandos, buttoning a punch line with a hard chord, then maybe ease into a racy version of “Frankie & Johnny” or “Red River Valley” (rewritten as the saga of hooker Red River Sally). Her talent at the keys, her ability to occasionally sing on key, and her knack for working a crowd clicked. Within months, the billing changed. Rusty was now “singing saucy and naughty songs… the way you like ’em,” a modern version of bawdy vaudeville queen Sophie Tucker, a refined Pearl Williams — a more acceptable Belle Barth, who down in Miami Beach was getting arrested for her dirty words and stories nine years before Lenny Bruce was busted. She said “F.”
“Pearl Williams? Pearl had a sense of being naughty — risqué, not too ladylike,” Rusty said. “But Belle was the star. She had the guts! When I was playing in Lauderdale, I’d come to watch her all the time.”
She recalled. “There was this fella I went with, when I had the day off, he’d take me down to Miami where Belle played. And it was great. She was so nice, she’d say, ‘Don’t fuck around with them, they don’t know shit!’ And I would say — well, what else could I say? You know, Belle is Belle!”
Belle Barth’s welcome advice to the younger, more attractive competitor was only one example of the sisterhood support among the funny women who fought for a place in a cutthroat business dominated by neurotic, competitive bastards in suits.
“Ruth Wallis was before me,” Rusty said, referring to the cabaret singer known as The Queen of The Party Song. “She was quite a star, and I did a couple of her songs. One night, her husband came in. He said, ‘How many numbers of my wife’s are you doing?’ I said, ‘I do two of them. I do two of them, because they’re funny.’ And I said, ‘Can I get permission to do that?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ Davy’s Little Dinghy, The Dinghy Song (“the cutest little dinghy in the Navy…”). It was cute. Nobody talked about that. Lord!”
“One night, when I was young and in Arizona, one of the guys came into the place and said, ‘Sophie Tucker’s in town. They gave her a suite at the Biltmore. I’ll take you to her.’ Sophie Tucker! I was like a kid, and I said to myself, ‘Will she say hello?’ And he took me there. That night, we talked about being honest, about life and the nightclubs and what to do on stage. She really was very, very nice. [Taking time] to talk to some kid, and she was a legend.”
Within a couple of years, Rusty had gotten herself a rental near downtown Phoenix and made The Pomp Room her home base, perched at the piano about ten feet from the door, making wisecracks and exchanging repartee with just about everyone who walked in or out of the club. The crowd ate it up — and why not? These were adults, her contemporaries. She was talking to them about what concerned them most, and what concerns any mixed group of adults in a smoky room where music is playing and cocktails are flowing can be boiled down to three letters: S-E-X.
Rusty Warren didn’t need to use profanity like Belle Barth. She was talking to the women, encouraging them to stand tall, throw their shoulders back and their knockers up. At the same time, she was making the men laugh like they didn’t know what was hitting them.
“I had to,” she said. “I had to make friends. Men were the ones buying the stuff for their wives, they dragged their wives in. One guy, his wife had a V-neck. A V-neck was not that common at that time, the women’s V-neck –”
“I notice, young lady, that you have a V-neck dress on, slit down to your navel with a stunning ruby in your navel. I think it’s quite gorgeous of her to do that, it’s sort of chic. Oh, that’s wonderful. You look lovely. It’s a large ruby.”
GUY IN THE CROWD: “A large navel!”
“Yes, quite a large navel, sir. Do you know the young lady?”
“Yeah, that’s what you get for carrying the flag at the Girl Scout parade… That ‘V’ on the dress, does that V stand for virgin? Oh, it does? (laughs) Must be an old dress…”
“– And he was real proud: ‘These are tits, these are tits, honey!’ The whole male thing. And it was funny. Most of it was the comedy involving a little bit of a risqué number about people, things about your boyfriend, your husband — that was all family stuff. It was risqué because I was risqué. I was talking about good stuff and I had wonderful audiences.”
When asked about the men, Rusty said, “The men loved me. The men would give me dollars, five dollars; they’d say, ‘That woman in the pink, that’s my wife. Give her hell! She’s got big boobs!’ So I’d come out and do some stuff toward the women. You know, ‘Someone with your size boobs–‘ and they’d say, ‘Yes! How did you know?’ It was hysterical. I mean, they were such a group. No one knew each other, but by the end of the night, it was a group of people who loved each other.”
“We’ve got a lot what we like to call ‘poontangers’ here this evening,” Rusty would say. “We have a few of the mixed couples here tonight. I see we have daters. Yes, we have a few daters over there. Young ladies that are out — and they’re going to be out — mmm, I know how you feel, girls. Saturday night, tonight all the girls go out to sow their wild oats. And Sunday morning, they pray for a crop failure!”
That June of 1958, Rusty’s impression of Phoenix was not so different from her fond memories sixty years later.
“I love the climate, the people and just everything about the place,” she told local showbiz columnist Jack Curtis. “Phoenix is big enough to be interesting and just small enough to be intimate.”
She was even more enthusiastic about where this love affair was leading. Rusty and people around her knew something special was happening in The Pomp Room. So one night, she set up a reel-to-reel tape recorder and let it roll. “Most of her idle hours right now are spent preparing for the release of a record album,” Curtis wrote, “based on actual performances at The Pomp Room, complete with spontaneous applause and customers’ remarks.”
“I’m very excited about it because it will be an opportunity to show many people just what I can do,” Rusty was quoted. “I think I can make a lot of people happy with it.”
She said the record would be called An Evening with Rusty Warren. The guys running Jubilee Records on New York City, an outfit that specialized in R&B and was moving into the new adult “party records” craze, had a more down-and-dirty marketing strategy. When Rusty’s debut elpee hit the stores the following year, the title was Songs for Sinners.
“Come right in, good evening how do you do? Hmm. One gentleman and three ladies. There is man that is contemplating a busy weekend. Cost you three times as much, you’re lucky to have a third of the fun, believe me…”
Songs for Sinners was a hit. Rusty moved out of The Pomp Room and into clubs throughout the Midwest. In a move pioneered by her idol Sophie Tucker, she collected names and addresses of customers at each stop, and compiled a mailing list. Women would get Rusty Warren news updates, find out when she was coming to town. Soon they were chartering buses, buses full of women, to attend her shows.
One night at Mike Longo’s in Dayton, Ohio, Rusty Warren was encouraging the gals to throw off their sexual inhibitions by throwing back their shoulders and showing their knockers. The owner got into the act, walking around the tables, urging the women to stand up and “throw out their chests.” Rusty went with it. She began pounding out a marching rhythm (Hup two three four!) on the piano and adlibbing. “Come on there, girls! Throw those shoulders back and get your knockers up! Put a smile on the world’s face! There we go, now doesn’t that make your navel tingle? There we go, we’re about to start our march of the knockers! Where the ladies get up and march through the room with their knockers held high, flapping in the breeze, proving that we have something to give in the world today! Ladies, march! March with your shoulders roundabout! Throw your knockers up and out… hut, two, three, four! Knockers up, everybody, Hey, ho, knockers up! Hey! Ho! Let’s go! ”
Knockers Up – Audio Preview
With her second album, Knockers Up! Rusty Warren’s fans had an anthem with “The Knockers Up March” and Rusty Warren was now the Knockers Up Gal. According to Billboard, the record would sell something like four million copies and remain on the charts for three years. Rusty’s Knockers Up Fan Club boasted 70,000 members from all walks of life. At niteries like The Club Alamo in Detroit and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, Rusty was pulling in five grand a week, then seventy-five hundred. She traded that rental in downtown Phoenix for her own sprawling Graceland ranch house on East Horseshoe Road in the new suburb of Paradise Valley. She called it The House That Knockers Built.
Rusty was well aware of the wave she was riding, and how much of her recording success she owed to demographics. She’d always had the vacationers in resort towns like “Fort Liquordale” and the drinkers and conventioneers in the cities, but at the turn of Sixties, couples and families were moving out of the cities and creating the suburbs. They were partying at home, inviting the neighbors over for barbecues, moving the cocktails inside, and after they put the kids to bed, throwing a naughty album or two on the hi-fi before all the men threw their keys into a bowl for the women to fish out at random to determine which husband they’d be paired with for the rest of the night.
Rusty cleaned up this scenario for syndicated Hollywood columnist Dick Kleiner. “In today’s suburban living, a couple moves into a new house and they buy a bed, a stove and a hi-fi in that order,” she said. “To break the ice with the new neighbors, they play party records. It starts conversations.”
Decades later, she’d tell Shecky magazine: “I guess I was ‘doing my thing’ at the right time and the right place, in the years of the sexual revolution.”
When she followed “The Knockers Up March” with a tune called “Bounce Your Boobies”, there was little doubt that in her own ice-breaking way, Rusty was leading that revolution. “Bounce your boobies, get into the swing! Bounce your boobies, the swing is everything! Loosen the bra that binds you! Take it off if you feel like it! Come on, bounce your boobies!”
The song appeared on the album Rusty Bounces Back in 1961. Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich didn’t shock the world with his “no bra look” until 1964. The women’s liberation protest that allegedly featured the first “bra burning” took place four years later.
“Here we go. Doesn’t that feel good? Bounce your boobies!”
As the cover of the Knockers Up! album stated, Rusty Warren had “Mr. and Mrs. America rolling on the floor — from coast to coast.”
“Her material isn’t really blue — you might call it baby blue — it isn’t abnormal or sick,” Dick Kleiner wrote. “Miss Warren might be called the queen of the flat-chested set,” reported the man in the Shreveport Times. “She is the spokesman for the woman-in-the-street, the happily married or happily single lady who likes a laugh now and then. Miss Warren supplies the laughs, and at no one’s expense. Everyone enjoys her.”
Yet, at the peak of her popularity, radio wouldn’t play her records and television wouldn’t touch her “adult humor” with a ten-foot tongue-depressor. Rusty Warren never appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show or Tonight Show (Johnny Carson, when he took over, had a thing against female comics, anyway). The blackout cut both ways. Rusty was able to enjoy what Kleiner called “reasonable anonymity,” with “so much money that she doesn’t even know what investments her business manager has made for her and the privilege of walking around the streets without being mobbed”.
Without television, however, she could never become a true A-list, mainstream star. Even so, her albums weren’t bootlegs, sold under the counter and slipped to customers in brown paper bags. Rusty Warren records were on display in department store and music shop comedy sections at a time when comedy albums were king — or in her case, queen. Local newspaper ads had Songs for Sinners, Knockers Up!, More Knockers Up!, Rusty Bounces Back, Rusty in Orbit and Sin-Sational listed along with the latest albums by Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, Allan Sherman and Vaughn Meader.
“I want to tell every parent sitting here tonight, you don’t have to worry about anything. It is now 9:15 and all your teenagers are home in front of the television set watching the Beatles… Those kids today, boy. Can you believe ’em today? Can you believe the dances they do today, sir? The Jerk? The Watusi? The Frug? (laughs) Can you believe it? Can you imagine a guy coming up to you, sir and saying, ‘Pardon me sir, may I frug with your daughter?'”
The comedy album boom took a hit after November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot, Lee Harvey Oswald was framed, and Vaughn Meader was, as Lenny Bruce observed that very night, “fucked” (Meader had great success imitating JFK in his 1962 comedy album, The First Family. That was his only impression.) After the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, Rusty found herself clearly aligned with Allan Sherman’s Pop Hates The Beatles crowd.
Fortunately for her, that side of the generation gap was dumping truckloads of money into a playground called Las Vegas, where she was a natural for the lounge scene pioneered by the likes of The Mary Kaye Trio, The Newton Brothers and Louis, Keely & Sam.
“Joan Rivers was always nice to me, even when she was working the main room,” recalls Rusty. “Phyllis Diller gave me her house when she was gone. I was there three times a year and she let me use it. Totie Fields, she was younger. Her house was nearby, she’d come round. She made it big, but she came to me as a friend because I was one who didn’t go on in the main room.”
“They wouldn’t let me go to the main room, because I did that kind of act,” she said. “Naughty. I didn’t say ‘F’ or anything like that. ‘Cause we were in a section of the world where women wouldn’t talk about sex with their husband or whatever. They didn’t talk about that. Their husbands didn’t talk about their other thing. You know, that they had women on the side and stuff. But most of my people were not ‘women on the side.’ The men were bringing their wives to the show — which was great. And the boyfriend would bring a date and ask her to wear a pretty dress. ‘Do you have something low?’ You know, the young, young, young! She’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and she’d have a nice black outfit. And they had breasts, these gals, so when you push ’em, you see all the tit! And we’d make the maître d’, that’s the guy that’s running the front of the house, make sure she gets front row, make sure the tits are out — I’ll get to them. And she would be so proud, poor girl. She’d be so proud…”
The lounges were intimate hideaways, Pomp Rooms with three walls open to casinos, lairs for losers to drown their sorrows after dropping the nest egg at craps table, for winners to meet a nice hooker or girl from out of town, and for folks to have a nightcap after watching a headliner in the main room. The lounges were a man’s world, all right, featuring vicious tuxedo-clad maniacs like Shecky Greene and Don Rickles.
“In Vegas, you’d always have three comics, myself and two other people,” Rusty recalled. “We’d trade off. The men were all dressed to go onstage, except they’d pull their pants down and the gals came over and gave them blowjobs. And then: ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen… dadadadada…’ Up… Zip! Pull up, out and get out to go on. My room was right next to theirs.”
Whether working the lounges or the big rooms, the male performers went their own way, she said, kissing up to the mobsters running the casinos or hoping to pal around with big stars like Milton Berle or that prick Jerry Lewis. The women supported each other.
“Joan Rivers was always nice to me, even when she was working the main room,” recalls Rusty. “Phyllis Diller gave me her house when she was gone. I was there three times a year and she let me use it. Totie Fields, she was younger. Her house was nearby, she’d come round. She made it big, but she came to me as a friend because I was one who didn’t go on (in the main room) where she goes. She’d ask, ‘What should I do with so and so?’ She was very nice. It was a nice combination of friends. “Las Vegas was different then. I don’t go to Vegas today.”
Rusty Warren continued to play Vegas into the 1970s and eventually made it to the showrooms. She made national news in December 1969, days before she was to open on Christmas Eve in Las Vegas at the International Hotel — months after Elvis’s return to the stage there. While Rusty and her live-in designer and hairdresser were out delivering Christmas presents, thieves broke into The House That Knockers Built and made off with $100,000 worth of loot. Cops called the crime the “Candy Wrapper Caper” because the crooks ate candy bars when they were inside and left wrappers all over the house. They made off with Rusty’s furs and jewelry, opened presents and took the best gifts, and “even took an autographed picture of Phyllis Diller,” said the designer, Allyn Maix. “They had copies of Rusty’s records thrown all over the floor. For some reason, they didn’t take any of her records, not one. She was a little hurt by that.”
On the southeast corner of North 16th Street and East Camelback Road, there’s a Chick-fil-A where Rusty Warren once packed ’em in at The Pomp Room. Paradise Valley, where Rusty had her home all those years, recently made the news when someone bitch-slapped Harvey Weinstein at a neighborhood restaurant (the disgraced producer has been holed up in the Phoenix area for months, dealing with all those rape allegations).
Rusty Warren now divides her time between Hawaii and southern California. She retired officially when she turned sixty, after a run in Atlantic City in the Casino Lounge at Trump’s Castle Hotel & Casino, but she’s made appearances at various tributes and benefits. She’s even got a new book to promote. Rusty Warren: The Knockers Up Gal is a chronological compilation of articles and clippings and photos from her long career.
She finishes most of her grilled cheese sandwich, gets the rest of it and the fruit boxed for later. She works her way out of the booth at Polly’s Pies, steadies herself on her cane and heads toward the front of the restaurant. Nobody in the place has any idea who she is or what she’s accomplished. Rusty is amazed and confused about this whole Uber thing, but goes along with the idea, and the Lincoln Navigator gets her home in the gated community not far from the ocean. After she puts the take-out box in the refrigerator, she sits on the couch, tired and a little out of breath — all those years in smoke-filled lounges with a pack of cigarettes close at hand will take their toll — but she’s happy to spend time with some fans who are well aware of Rusty Warren, and autograph her book and old album covers. She signs them, “Knockers Up!”
“Have you followed this Me Too movement, where all these women are coming forward?” she is asked.
“You see, it’s that decade of today,” she says. “I don’t follow what’s going on.”
“Listening to your act with the ears of today, it’s almost as if you were an evangelist for the women’s movement.”
“That’s cute, yeah.”
“Were you?” “
“No! You made it up, but it came out good.”
“But you were standing up for women back then, right?”
“Sure, women. Yeah!”
BURT KEARNS wrote the book Tabloid Baby and produces nonfiction television and documentary films. JEFF ABRAHAM is a comedy historian and public relations executive who has represented comedians from George Carlin to Andrew Dice Clay. The two of them wrote a book together that is soon to be published.