The Original Mish Mish
The Golden Age of Tinseltown
posted January 2, 2010
This is my second interview with a dancer from the mid 1970’s Hollywood Arabic nightclub scene. I first saw Mish Mish on stage at one of the early MECDA shows, and was impressed by her professional and authentic style. I was a "newbee", and realized I had a long way to go to attain her level of proficiency. There was so much opportunity for belly dancers at the time, and I was doing the Armenian nightclub circuit. The local version of the Holy Grail was the big Arabic nightclubs in Hollywood. Mish Mish was one of the established dancers. I met her on the set of a movie, and she and Jacqueline Lombard persuaded me to try my luck in "Tinseltown", which set my dancing off on a whole new course. As many of the dancers of this period did, Mish Mish split her dance career between California, Denver, Salt Lake City, and London. I am focusing on the ladies who were very popular with the Arabic audiences. I believe they deserve recognition because they were the top performers of their time, yet didn’t teach or write articles about themselves, so their history was in danger of being lost. There were no videos I know of, and very few pictures, so I am hoping these interviews give the reader a mental image of this era in American belly dance.
Kamala: when did you start Belly dancing, and who was your teacher (teachers)?
Mish Mish: The first time I ever saw a Belly Dancing troupe was 1971 at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Being vertically challenged, I made my way up to the front of the stage right at the exact moment a dancer did an incredible spin with a sword on her head and while turning, grabbed the handle and ended in a back bend stabbing the sword into the stage on the final drum beat right in front of where I was standing! I later found out the name of the dancer was Rhea who at the time was in the troupe "Bal Anat". I decided right then and there, I wanted to learn how to do this incredible art form. I began studying with Jamila Salimpour the following spring of 1972.
I learned very fast and became a principle dancer at that year’s fall Renaissance Faire. That year was so much fun! Besides dancing at the Faire, I started dancing at the Casbah on Broadway in San Francisco.
Between Fadil Shahin, owner of the Casbah, and Jamila, they came up with the name Mish Mish, meaning a sweet little juicy apricot. Hah! Or, as I was told, it was like the American saying "what a hot tomato". Fruits, vegetables…whatever? I liked it, it fit, and it stuck. I’d like to say that I’m the original and not to be compared with the other dancer in Seattle. After I got married I added the surname El-Atrash, to distinguish between the two of us. I feel dancers should choose their names more carefully and make sure it’s not being used by another.
I give credit and thanks to Jamila Salimpour for my formal training in the art of Belly Dancing, and also studied a bit with Samia Nasser. I’ve studied Tap, Ballet, Flamenco, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Polynesian, and I especially loved Balkan and International Folkloric Dance. Some of the groups I worked and performed with are: Bal Anat, Pitu Guli or later called Babaganoush, Avaz with Tony Shay as director, and helped form the Gypsy Moor Dancers, later to be known as Hahbi Ru .
Kamala: What do you remember about the Los Angeles Arabic nightclub scene from the late 70’s to early 80’s? Which clubs did you work in?
Mish Mish: There were so many clubs I worked at in LA ! I was there six years.
- Arabic Clubs: The Fez, Ali Baba, Khyam, Abu Nawas
- Persian: Delila, Caberet Teheran, Colbeh, Sahara
- Greek: Greek Village, Athenian Gardens
I remember having the time of my life! I’ve never been an early riser so sleeping in late everyday was wonderful. It was like getting paid to party. Unfortunately, many of us could have easily become alcoholics, with customers continually sending us drinks. That was the worst part of the club scene other than constantly being hit on by customers, club owners, and musicians. It was difficult trying to maintain a professional and businesslike manner and to keep everything separated- not mixing business with pleasure.
Unlike in San Francisco, the club owners were fairly flexible with letting us work in more then one club. That made it easy to have a full schedule. What I loved the most about working in LA was that most of the dancers stuck together and supported each other. We weren’t going to let the club owners take advantage of trying to pit any of us against each other. We even went on strike and tried to form our own union and got contracts with better working conditions. That original organization was M.E.C.D.A. (Middle Eastern Cabaret Dancers Association).
Delila’s Restaurant with Meghdi on drums and Manouch Sadeghi on Santur.
Kamala: Do you remember any of the musicians and what music was played for you at that time?
Mish Mish: Of course I remember many of the musicians but just a few pieces of music:
Maroun Saba, Maurice, Jamil, Adel Sirhan, Suhail Nasser, Saadoun Al Bayati, Najib Khoury, George Hyatt, Kasim, Ali Darwish, Suhail Kaspar, Hanni Nasser, Aziz Khadra, Tony Ayad, Henri, Manoush Shadeghi, John Belizikjian, Bashir, Raja, Semon Shabkie, Abdel Khalik, Ussri Esmaiele, Adel Moursi, Moustapha Sax, Reda Darwish, Ghazi Darwish, Abdulla Kdouh, Jihad Racy, Mohamid Murray.
Some of the musical pieces played for me were: of course I often got Hemawaya Mish Mish, but also Nebtidi Menien El Hikaya, Fatet Ganbena, Ala Hasb Weddad, Sawah, Sallam Alei, Zaina, Inta Omry, Toubie,Tamra Henna, Arousa, Leyl Ya Layali, Mashael, Sahara City.
Kamala: Do you remember when the scene changed in about 1977 or 78 with the coming of Egyptian music and dancers to Omar Khayam?
Mish Mish: What was so incredible when the Egyptian musicians arrived was the fact that they actually played entire musical pieces. That was when everything changed within the shows. I believe that was also the time when most of the improvisational style of dance changed as well. Some of us were even given rehearsal time with the musicians and able to choreograph our shows. It became more professional.
There was an Egyptian dancer who worked at Koko’s prior to Nahed Sabri‘s arrival. Her name was Sahar. I’ll never forget, we were all appalled at her color schemes in costumes! This was the first time we ever saw orange and green mixed together. She was so cute and different and that was actually the first time we had seen a dancer have a rehearsed and tight show, the way the shows were done in Europe. This was so completely new and foreign to all of us girls here in the U.S. We always had five parts to the dance, came out veiled, had our entrance, first taxim where we removed our veils, then fast again, then floor work, then fast again, then drum solo, and finale. Those were such long shows! The Egyptian style was usually three parts. A short entrance with veil and almost immediately discarded, taxim, drum solo and finale. Sometimes she used a prop. That was the first time I ever saw the candelabra balanced on someone’s head.
There was also another dancer prior to Nahed that did a European style dance that we later dubbed Egyptian style. Her name was Suzie Ashar.
She bought and opened a club on Hollywood Blvd. near Grauman’s Chinese Theater and called it Sahara. She was a wonderful dancer and I remember now that she resembled Mona Said in looks and stature. Her gimmick was to balance something like six canes. One on her head, one on her chest, one or two on her hip and one in each hand. I had the opportunity to work there for a while also.
What a little spit fire! She barely spoke any English so we always needed an interpreter. Luckily for my sake, she warmed up to my husband Faisal, and I was able to pick her brain, and get some constructive criticism when she’d come to our house for visits. I remember a really fun party that Shirin had at her house in welcoming her to our community of dancers. Everyone was there (most of the working LA Dancers) and we got a private show.
Her shows were hot and so was she! Being so very temperamental there were many times that she was not happy with something in the show whether it was the music not to her liking or someone saying or doing something in the audience like not showing her respect by talking during her show. She would sometimes start cursing in Arabic and walk off the stage, thus ending her show. She was so pampered by the musicians and nightclub owners and they catered to her every whim. Most musicians were in reality scared to death of her. But they all told me that she was their favorite dancer to have ever worked with.
I remember one night while watching one of her shows, she was dancing with a huge candelabra, one of the largest I’ve ever seen.
Customers were showering her with money, and she literally was burning the smaller bills on the candles. As if to say she was worth more than that, so people began giving larger currency!
Her style of dancing was unlike any of the other Egyptian dancers I was later fortunate to see. Her phrasing, timing and musical interpretation was incredible.
I was working one evening at Khyams and still doing my old style of dance. I came out for my entrance covered with a veil and right at the beginning of my show, she came up on stage and started peeling my veil off me and threw it on the floor. She shook her finger at me and said in broken English "Lah, this isn’t Egyptian!" I was so embarrassed and humiliated I could barely finish. Talk about being intimidated!
Kamala: What were the working conditions at that time? Can you give a description of a typical night in one of the nightclubs?
Mish Mish: Working conditions varied in different clubs. The Fez, Ali Baba, and Abu Nawas (later to be Grapevine and then Koko’s) had decent sized dressing rooms not like Khyams that was the size of a closet and didn’t have a lock on it for the longest time.
There were usually two dancers a night and shows were about a half hour long. There were always friends in the audience or regular customers that many of us felt comfortable sitting with. Most of the managers kept a pretty good watch on their dancers to make sure no one got out of line.
Many times at Khyam fights would break out. Someone would call someone’s mother a donkey or whatever and I remember several times tables and chairs being flung across the room with people scattering out of the way and running out of the club.
One such night another dancer and I ran to hide in the kitchen to get out of the way but then freaked ourselves out by thinking that someone could come in and get knives, so that wasn’t such a good place to be. We always had to be on high alert working there.
Kamala comments: Fights were a common occurrence at Omar Khyam! I remember a wonderful dancer Yasmin and I, ducking in the corner of the dressing room, fearing bullets might start flying! When things quieted down, the owner (Majid) knocked on the door to tell us he needed a dancer onstage! We peered out the door to see tables overturned, broken bottles and bruised bodies strewn about. What a time to make an entrance!
I remember one incident that happened to me one night at Khyam. There was a young prince from Saudi Arabia that used to frequent the clubs when he was in town and was a good friend to my husband Faisal. He invited me over to his table for a drink before my show. I realized it was time for me to go get ready for my show and excused myself. Well, he had a new body guard and it must of been his first time in this country, and he didn’t know the etiquette here. As I was walking across the room, I suddenly felt a vice like grip on my arm with this big brut trying to drag me back to the table where I had just left. He was cursing me in Arabic and saying how dare I leave the table without Prince So & So’s approval. I started screaming and yelling at this guy to take his hands off of me and how dare he, and things were different in this country and if he wanted to stay, he’d better learn the rules here. Finally Majid (the owner) came over, and even he had a hard time pulling this guy’s hand off of me. It was so humiliating and such an embarrassment. But, the show must go on. After all of that he was made to come over and extend an apology. I didn’t accept it and told him to just stay away from me.
Kamala: I met you on the set of "The Man With Bogart’s Face". As you are finding out, there are people out there obsessed with the dance scene we were in, which is considered the longest in an American film. What are your recollections of that experience?
Mish Mish: I went to the cattle call/ audition with Jacqueline. It was almost like they knew immediately that we were who they wanted for the film. I was wearing a cobalt blue costume that they insisted that I wear in the movie. Of course later finding out why. Because of Franco Nero’s character being obsessed with the color blue and the nightclub in the movie was called the Blue Fez.
I remember being totally embarrassed because I didn’t know at the time who Franco Nero was and stupidly asked him what films he had previously been in. I think he was a bit insulted….Sorry! Of course later found out he had been in the Godfather and was Rudolf Valentino and in many other films.
I sat one day on a break with Michelle Phillips and her child or children, and she was so sweet and friendly. Since we had no knowledge of the script, I was a bit shocked in the partial stripping scene that Cybil Danning did, but felt it was done tastefully.
It is really amazing how many people are aware of this film and I was shocked to discover parts of us on Youtube. But I am grateful to whoever posted it as I was able to reconnect with you after all these years. And so glad to see you are still involved in the art and thank you for this interview!
Kamala: Many of us who danced in LA at that time crossed the pond and danced in London as well. There seemed to be a lot of back and forth of LA dancers and musicians at that time. Did you go to London, and what clubs and memories do you have of the London club scene at that time?
Mish Mish: I was back working at Pasha and living in San Francisco and remember getting a call in 1983 from a couple of friends and musicians Khalil Aboud and Ussri that were working in London at the time. A new restaurant and nightclub named "The New Omar Khyam" was opening and they were looking for new dancers. The owners paid my airfare and I was supposed to be making 350 pounds a week. I was young and dumb and accepted this on word value and not knowing that the going price at most other clubs was 500 pounds a week.
My good friend Jacqueline was working at Omar Khayam on Regent St. and made arrangements for me to meet them. At that time they had more then enough dancers working there but opened up an early slot for me. My show was at 11pm, the first dancer of the night. Sometimes there wasn’t even anyone in the audience because most of the clubs didn’t fill up until just before the casinos closed at 3am. I really didn’t care though because I had a wonderful 12-16 piece orchestra playing for me. I was in heaven! All of the songs were played note for note like hearing them on a recording from beginning to end. The musical piece I chose was "Mashael."
I accepted this slot and a cut in pay making only 300 pounds a week. I was able to leave right after my show and not have to stick around to hustle drinks like some of the other dancers that were required to stay the entire evening till early morning hours.
The minute a dancer was asked to join a table of customers, a waiter immediately came over to ask what she’d like to drink. We were all asked to order champagne. If the customer okayed Dom Perion the better and bigger commission the dancers got. For every bottle that a dancer opened, she received an extra 10 pound note. The club usually closed between 6-9am. I also got a job over in Greek Town on Percy St. If I remember correctly, I think the club was called Grecian Taverna and Grill.
Aboud Abdul Al was playing at a club called La Roche and there was always another super star there like Fifi Abdu just to mention one.
At Omar Khayam, there was always someone there picking up all the tips as they dropped to the floor. Even while dancers were in the middle of a performance we had to be careful not to collide with him. The money was divided after the show in 3 ways, to the house, the musicians, and the dancer. Khayam’s star performer and idol of mine at the time was Mona El Said.
I loved watching her shows. I’ll never forget the first time meeting her. She actually scared the you know what out of me. She was truly treated like royalty by her audience and management. Every night she made an spectacular entrance just coming into the room.
Let me set the scene for you. First of all, the entrance to the club had curb service for all the limos, blacked out windows so you couldn’t see inside but the doorman and host or concierge could see who was arriving. Woman were not allowed into the club without an escort unless maybe she was another visiting dancer and could talk her way in. There were 3-5 flights of stairs you had to go down to get into the club. There was a coat check girl and also cigarette girl in this little lobby. You then went into the lounge area that looked like a Middle Eastern tent and then through there you entered the main dining room and night club area.
I discovered later the reason for having the club so far down below street level was because if there was going to be a raid, the doorman upstairs would step on a button that revolved rotating red lights in the ceiling warning the waiters to take off alcohol from the tables when it was after hours and give illegals time to sneak out the back door into the alley before the police got there. All of the dancers were required to have their purses with them while sitting at tables between shows so if any of us were illegal, it would seem like we were just customers too.
But getting back to Mona’s entrance. The minute she arrived at curbside coming into the club, word traveled all the way from upstairs announcing Ms. Mona had arrived. She would make her way down and stop in the doorway always in an elegant gown and most of the time with an incredible fur draped over her shoulder or dragging it on the ground as she went around the entire room greeting each and everyone there and blowing them kisses, until she made her way around the stage and into her private dressing room. What a trip! That was a show in itself.
8. Kamala: When did you stop dancing in LA? And briefly tell us what you are doing now.
Mish Mish: I moved back up to San Francisco in 1980 and worked at many different clubs and the Renaissance Faire there full time until 1992. It was at that time that I fell in love with a different culture and type of music. I began working with a group of Andean street musicians from Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. I became their booking agent and manager. I started my own entertainment agency called "World Rhythms" where I specialized in booking ethnic artists at different events.
I fell in love with one of the members from Ecuador (Cristobal Jaque) and got married. We traveled and toured all over the states performing at different venues. Using my knowledge of different rhythms throughout my dancing career made it became easy for me to become the percussionist in our group.
It was in 1997 that I set up work for us in Alaska. I fell in love with this wonderfully beautiful state. The end of 1999 I bought my first house in a little town called Chugiak which is about 30 miles north of Anchorage and moved here in the spring of 2000.
We continue to play music in the summers as we are only able to work seasonally because 7 months out of the year, it’s winter. People on the whole up here are so friendly and look out for each other. It’s a matter of survival.
I feel blessed at my age to be able to continue performing and sharing another art form with the rest of the world. I will never forget my past, as it has made me who I am today, and will always have these wonderful memories to look back and reflect on when I am old and gray!
Taken in Steven Arnolds LA studio who was the founder of the Midnight
This was the very first Kashlama dance at the Dickens Fair. Yes, that was Jamila in the background.
Nahed Sabri dances with Fard Al Atrashe
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