The Gilded Serpent
As I have mentioned
before, I worked a lot with the oudist/comedian Guy Chookoorian.
We enjoyed working together not only because our personalities meshed
well, but also because we were both professional and dependable – no
misrepresentations or flaking out. We had some great adventures on
the road together!
In April, 1968,
I went with Guy and his band and a second dancer to Lompoc, California,
to perform for several days at the officers’ club at Vandenburg Air
Base. It was while we were there that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated,
and we all gathered in one motel room and watched the events in stunned
and horrified silence.
other dancer for that gig was Tahia Sirhan, one of
the dancers I saw at the Bagdad the
very first time I saw bellydancing. She was the fiery “Bedouin” who
argued with the band in apparent Arabic and seemed so real and dramatic. Well – it
turned out that she was a nice Mexican girl who didn’t even speak Arabic! The
whole act was, of course, a put-on! She and Guy also “fought” in “Arabic”
– though he didn’t speak it, either. One show, Tahia wound up
rolling on the floor in helpless laughter because the seemingly horrible
things Guy was saying to her were actually a list of Middle Eastern
foods, with “hummos” in there about every third word! Be careful when
you perform with a comedian!
in 1968 I went on road tours with Guy, his musicians – usually Pete
Peterson on drums and Joe Dabney or Bert
Pellish on piano – and another girl – a singer or dancer.
Our first stop was always Albuquerque, where we appeared at
the Tiki Kai Supper Club (which has since burned down). Despite
its Polynesian name, the Tiki Kai booked many big name acts from across
the spectrum of entertainment, and bellydancing had never before come
to New Mexico. It was a very nice restaurant with an adequate stage,
but the women’s dressing room had a good-sized hole in the floor, covered
insecurely by a rug – a trap for the unwary – I don’t know why they
didn’t fix it.
The first time
we went there we took a fairly new dancer who had studied with Masha
Archer – a young blond named Dhyana. I had
worked with her and found her to be a nice girl and a promising dancer,
so Guy gave her a try. She and I stayed in a very strange and
funky old hotel, which we thought was charming, while the musicians
stayed in a considerably more prosaic – but cleaner
– motel. We ate lots of green chili and sopaipillas (heaven!) at the Coney
Island Café, which was run by a Greek.
We also spent a lot of time shopping and sight-seeing in Old
All went well until the night Dhyana – to my horror – gave a couple
of joints to some guys in the audience after the show! Yes, it was
the time of hippies, free love, flower power and all, but Albuquerque
was not Berkeley or San Francisco, and her act of “love” could have
had disastrous consequences for the whole troupe! Guy fired her immediately,
and she was replaced by an old pro, Yasmina (BJ Kunkel). The
rest of our stay there was uneventful.
The next time
we went to Albuquerque we took a very good cabaret singer, Anna
Marie Mavros, who also appeared with us later in
We stayed in an upscale hotel and there was no funny stuff
(nor good stories).
Once we went from
Albuquerque to Tucson, where our show was featured at the Spanish
Trail Motel, following the DeCastro Sisters and
followed by Count Basie’s band. We had performed
for six days at the Tiki Kai, drove for a day to Tucson, and then performed
for seven days straight there. We were tired! We had with us at that
time a real bombshell, a short, sweet and flashy Mexican girl named Gabriella. She
sang well and bellydanced after a fashion. (Guy said that to watch
her dance and then mine was like seeing a mouse followed by a lion!) She
was a good addition to the troupe.
first night at the Spanish Trail was not our best showing ever. We
did the show as we had been doing it elsewhere, with us girls mostly
backstage, just coming out to do our numbers in between songs and Guy’s
comedy routines. Mr. Adler, the manager, who was
a bad dude (we heard Mafia rumors) told us that if we didn’t
fix the show by the next night, we were outta there! We hastily retooled
things so that we girls were on stage most of the time, playing tambourines
and singing along to some songs like “Hava Nagila”. The man was pacified,
and we finished our stay. We also kept the new format from then on,
as it really was better. The audiences in Tucson were, however,
the hardest to please we ever met. They had a tendency to look at
us as though we were some kind of spider they had never before seen
– yes, bellydancing was something new in Arizona, but their reaction
Mr. Adler expected
us all to stay at the Spanish Trail, but he charged us for our rooms
– and crummy ones they were – unlike most hotel venues where we appeared,
where we were given free rooms as a matter of course. Pete, the drummer,
and Gabriella took rooms at a nearby, rustic motel, and the Spanish
Trail manager was furious. When I tried to defect, too, Guy asked
me not to, as the situation was getting really unpleasant. Pete was
forbidden to join us in the Spanish Trail’s swimming pool, though Gabriella,
a tourist attraction in her bikini, was still welcome.
During the daytimes
at most of the places we worked on the road tours, we would frequently
go sightseeing. Tucson was one of the best places for this. We went
to Old Tucson, which had been built as a movie set originally, and
the Sonoran Desert Museum, as well as the mission
churches of San Xavier del Bac (gorgeous and spooky,
especially against the stormy sky) and Tumacacori (mostly
a ruin). We also went across the border to Nogales (except Gabriella,
who didn’t want any problems at the border) and all got sick from eating
in a restaurant called The Cave. Nights on the desert
were absolutely amazing – either more stars than you ever imagined
existed or a full moon so big and bright that it could make anyone
a little loony. Driving along under the moon, through the saguaro
cacti, it was very easy to imagine an Apache sitting his horse on top
of every cliff and mesa!
was still with us when we went on up to Nebraska, where we appeared
for two weeks at the Esquire Club in Lincoln and two
weeks at the Flamingo restaurant in Omaha. Once more,
as far as I could find out, I was the first bellydancer to appear in that state! As
much as the Tucson folks were appalled by us, so much the Nebraskans loved us! It
was most gratifying!
One of the things I remember most clearly about Lincoln, besides
the shady streets of beautiful old houses just meant for raising families,
was the approach as we drove to the city. There was no gradual easing
into the city environs – there were fields and then suddenly city, and
the fields near it were filled with wild fuchsia peonies! What a glorious
after we reached Nebraska, Gabriella had to return to
in connection with the divorce she was getting. Guy called his agent
in Los Angeles to have him send out another dancer or singer, but there
was no one appropriate available. That agent called one in Nebraska,
and he said that he had seen a girl from
fooling around in a dance club – just in her street clothes – and he
thought that she might be what we needed. And so we met the young woman
who was to become Badawia, the well-known and beloved
dancer and teacher in Oregon! When she came to us, she only knew the
common, folk-dance beladi, and we had one afternoon to whip her into
shape as a bellydancer for the stage – as well as to make her a costume! As
you can imagine, Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1969, was not a real good place
to find components for a bellydance costume!
After combing the stores, we found some green chiffon for a
skirt and cut up a gold dress to make a girdle (some coin-and-chain
dress belts hung on it gave it some style and movement) and to cover
her bra – we had to cover one of her own soft bras, as she, though thin,
had very large breasts, and there was definitely no Frederick’s in Nebraska
to help us out! Although her performance was not very polished,
the audience loved her, as her sweet personality shone through. Taking
the name Afrita, she stayed with us for the rest of
the tour, and I taught her every day. Eventually she came out to California
to continue her new career, took some lessons from Jamila,
and went on from there.
There was a funny
thing at the Esquire Club – Guy had continued to use some old publicity
photos, as we had never had a chance to have any newer ones taken.
One he used was of him with Diane Webber, with whom
he had worked for a while. (Though she was a dancer then, she and her
husband later became well-known nudists in Southern California.)
Diane and I were superficially alike in our faces, hairdos,
etc., though I was thinner and about a foot taller. Some of the patrons
of the club decided that I was Diane Weber, even though I, of
course, emphatically denied it. There were large bets laid, and there
was a big uproar about it every night!
There was a photographer
who came to see us frequently in Omaha and, I think, had a little crush
on the show – or at least on the dancers! He took a lot of pictures
of me one evening when I was dancing while suffering with a migraine,
and they are surprisingly sultry and effective. He also made a little
movie of Guy, Afrita and me in a wheat field – Guy is playing the oud,
and Afrita and I dance solo and together. It is a great artifact now! It
was a windy day, and, when we were through, our torsos were covered
with little red dots from the wheat that was whipped against us by
Dancing “on the
road” was a great adventure, but I was always delighted to return to
my own apartment in Berkeley and my sweet little son – until the next
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