Film Interview: Tempest Storm — “Tempest in a D-Cup”
The filmmaker chose, wisely, to emphasize Tempest Storm’s fortitude and self-determination.
Tempest Storm screening at the Regent Theater in Arlington, MA on March 29, 7:30 p.m.
By Tim Jackson
In the documentary Tempest Storm, the legendary burlesque dancer with the flaming red hair and a 44” bust recalls: “Lily Hunt, who owned the Follies Theater in Los Angeles offered me the name Sunny Day. I said ‘Lilly I really don’t feel like a sunny day.’” She took the next suggestion, Tempest Storm. In the film, Tempest, nee Annie Blanche Bank, looks back on her exotic career with sober refection.
“I came from the cotton fields of Georgia determined to become a star. And I still want to be a star when the man upstairs calls me.” she said in an interview from her home is Las Vegas. At 90 years of age, she is charming and reserved. She calmly recounts her long run as dancer and the traumas that accompanied her determined climb to success. Though she is not one to kiss and tell, she has had encounters with some remarkable men.
“Oh yes, John Kennedy. I was so fortunate. I wanted to meet him so badly. I was in Washington appearing at a club and they had never had any exotic dancing. And Kennedy came in one night and someone came up to me and said ‘Mr. Kennedy would like to meet you. Could he call you tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘Of course.’ And I met him at the Mayflower. All very discreet. And it was wonderful. I said ‘You’re going to be president someday’ and he said ‘I hope you’re right.’”
Did you meet Elvis?
“Yes. I was doing a live show and Elvis came in with a couple of other guys. And after the show — I was with friends — he got up and came over. I had on a beautiful white dress. He said ‘May I join you.’ The chorus girls hated me because I took Elvis home.”
Tempest Storm was married four times. Most of these were brief – in one case just a couple of days: “I was focused on my career,” she recalls with a chuckle. Still, her marriage to actor Herb Jeffries lasted 8 years and they had one daughter. Jeffries was Hollywood’s first black singing cowboy. The reaction to an interracial marriage at that time caused her to lose several film roles. As was her nature, she stuck to her decision and stood by her love. “I married a wonderful man.” In the film, they are reunited. “His wife, who is very nice, very kind, said ‘He found out you were coming and he spent all day getting ready and didn’t sleep at all the night before.’” Jeffries passed away at 100 in 2014, just after their reunion.
“I was nervous in front of the camera all the time, but I got used to it,” she admits. The documentary’s director, Nimisha Mukerji, coaxed Tempest to be forthcoming about her remembrance of things past. Ordinarily a soft spoken and private person, Storm recounts a life of difficulty and heartbreak. She never knew her real father, was abused by a stepfather, shunned by her brothers, and disowned by her daughter. Her efforts to connect with her child is a theme that runs through the film. There are several touching moments where she visits with her brothers after many years. “I do wish this film had a little more glamor,” she declares. But the filmmaker chose, wisely, to emphasize Storm’s fortitude and self-determination. She is woman who succeeded in a trade that some regarded (and is still regarded) as demeaning. There is footage from her shows, family interviews, and testimonials from managers and fans, including the late legendary producer and director Garry Marshall: “Tempest Storm was one of my idols growing up . . . She was a class act . . . When she took her clothes off it was almost artistic. Certain people have it — what I call the magic, the charisma.”
Though she more or less retired in her 60s, she danced until she was 86. Over the years she became an icon for independent, non-conformist women, particularly those entering ‘the life’ of exotic dancing. “I never retired” she confesses. “These women think I’m God. They come up to me and just start crying. Tears. I’m so honored.” She has continued to attend revivals, receive awards, and was signed to a clothing line with Tatyana Boutique. Musician Jack White produced a collectible 7” vinyl picture disc of his interview with her.
Asked if there is a high point in her career, she comes up with one: “I think it was playing with the James Gang. Their manager asked me and I said, ‘The James Gang? Who the hell is that?’ I toured with the band but I wouldn’t drink. They thought I was square. But they did talk Carnegie Hall into letting me dance, but only if I wouldn’t take off anything. I was pretty mad so I just ignored it. I am the only exotic dancer to ever play there.”
About her longevity, clear thinking, and physical beauty (at age 90) her answer has remained the same for decades: “I would always tell the girls who head to the bar because they need a drink in order to go on stage — you’re in the wrong business, if you need to do that. I never drank, smoked, or did any drugs. My work was everything to me. You have to stay focused.” Her final word on mortality: “The man upstairs doesn’t want me and the devil gave up on me a long time ago.”
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.