Even in its great days, when Burlesque was Burley-Kew and a tassel was more than a window-pull, Ann Corio had something special.
Get the scene, now: the Old Howard down on Scollay Square in Boston, the ta-ra-ra boom deeay band whamming away in the pit, the sailors and Harvard boys sprawled over the hard seats radiating causal from head to toe - except for the eyes - and on the stage maybe Georgia Scthern grinding out "Hold That Tiger" or Peaches rippling earily through her famous shimmy.
And the comics, Phil Silvers, Bobby Clark, Abbott and Costello, the guys in the horse-blanket suits with the raunchy lines (Top Banana, pulling out the waist of his baggy pants and looking down inside: "Somebody's been digging in here!") - a world of hard faces and soft flesh.
The band slides into "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," and out comes this 15-year-old girl, dressed as though she were on her way to convent school, red-haired and wide-eyed, and she begins taking it off to the music, nice and easy. But not all the way, never all the way.
"I always wore a body stocking, Ann Corio said yesterday when she dropped into town on a promotion tour. "I didn't use pasties, but I had brilliants sewn on at strategic places."
She also draped a chemise or something over a shoulder, and it was only at the last moment, far upstage under the pink floods, that she flung her arms wide and flashed for the audience.
"There was always a big roar," she said, "because they knew that was all they were going to get."
Stagestruck, she had moved in from Harford, where her immigrant Italian parents had settled, and after a few turns at amateur theater and the Old Howard chorus line, she got a solo spot. Within a year she had her own show, and her salary had rocketed from $100 to $1,000 a week.
"I really wasn't conscious of being a stripper," she said. "I was in show business, that was it, it was a job. Of course I knew something has to come off, but I also knew I'd leave something on. I never knew I was in Burlesque. I'd never heard of Burlesque."
If her parents had realized what her job was, they would have been appalled, she said. "They'd rather have me resign from the Church than that." But in 1930, a job was a job.
"I got one pair of shoes a year, in September, when school started, and if I wore'em out I'd go barefoot. But we never knew we were poor."
The innocent air about her made even the cold-eyed showmen want to protect her. Once the theater was raided, but not before the Boston police commissioner, Joe Tumulty, had whisked her away in his limo. So when the whistles blew at the Old Howard, there she was on the Roof of the Ritz, dancing with the commissioner.
"And the censors, oh, that Boston Watch and Ward. There was this long staircase up from the lobby of the Old Howard, and the ticket man knew them all by sight, and he'd push a button that turned on a red light in the footlights. So they'd cool right down and you wouldn't see any bumps or grinds for awhile, it was all very nice. The whole audience knew what was going on."
Possibly it was her sheltered look that drew women to her act. There was even a "women-only" performance, and it was SRO, breaking new ground for showbiz.
"Why did they come? For the comics. To see if the women have something they don't have. To see what their own men are looking at."
Ann Corio has little to say for the new styles in stripping. Nudity, she says, isn't sexy.
And this makes for a bit of tension between her and her traveling companion, a lady known only as Barbara V., who graces the cover of the current Gallery magazine. Gallery has a centerfold feature, The Girl Next Door, featuring amateur nude photos. The gimmick is that Corio's most famous routine also was called The Little Girl Next Door. The magazine is sending the two women around the country so that all of America can contemplate this amazing coincidence.
When Corio says, "Less is more," V. stoutly agrees, observing that she is ogled more when wearing a bikini than when lolling on a nude beach (though there is the problem of those low-flying airplanes). Still, the generation gap is definitely a problem, because V. appears in the magazine without so much as a sequin.
When the tour ends, Corlo will resume work with her traveling show, "This Was Burlesque," an immenselt successful adaptation of a book she wrote. It opens in Baltimore in December.
"Of course I'm in it!" Ann Corio said with just the smallest suggestion of huff.
It was a dumb question. She looks terrific. One might expect her body to be in good shape, since it is her fortune, but the surprise is her eyes. They are green, and they are not hard at all, and when you look at them you find yourself really believing about the convent school and the little girl up there on the stage and the tough guys sheltering her and the whole pitch.