How times have changed. These days, the term burlesque conjures the safest kind of sexiness, a retro-flirty striptease that’s tame enough for hipster bars, dates and even a family-friendly Hollywood blockbuster staring Christina Aguilera as a small-town girl who makes it on the big-city burlesque stage. In this narrative, vintage burlesque was a quaint fad that helped pre-feminist-era women express their vibrant sexuality in a society that wanted to cover it up. And the heroes are women like Candy Barr, Texas’ most famous burlesque dancer.
But women like Barr paid a price that’s hard to fathom these days. In the early ’50s, women were expected to settle down and raise a family. Candy Barr bucked all that: She strapped on some pasties and a couple of six-shooters and took to the stage. It wasn’t an easy life, and Barr had a much more complex and multifaceted view of herself than the official accounts would lead you to believe. I knew Candy Barr, and Christina Aguilera, you are no Candy Barr.
I’m from Victoria; Candy was born and raised in nearby Edna. It was in our daily paper, the Victoria Advocate, where I first read about Juanita Dale Slusher and her larger-than-life exploits as Candy Barr. But when she died in Victoria of pneumonia on Dec. 30, 2005, the Advocate failed to print an obituary. Even in death, her persona was too dangerous to pay tribute to.
I first met Candy Barr in 1984 while on assignment for the Los Angeles Times. She was living in Brownwood at the time. Her lakeside cottage had an emblazoned, burnished sign: “Fort Dulce.” The gated property with its tall wooden fence was to “keep the crazies away.” The modest cottage was filled with bric-a-brac. There were no photos of her younger, famous self. A picture of Jesus hung on her bedroom wall.
Juanita Dale Slusher was born on July 6, 1935 (in her words, “a delayed firecracker”), in the tiny town of Edna. Her hardscrabble childhood was scarred by sexual abuse by a neighbor and babysitter. Her mother died when she was 7, and her father Doc Slusher remarried. Her stepmother proved a piece of work.
“I’m Juanita Dale Slusher,” she told me. “I didn’t like ‘Wan-eat-ah’ because they never pronounced it right in school. I never heard the beauty of ‘Juanita’ with its Spanish inflection. And growing up with the stigma of poor white trash, I went along hearing that my daddy was a bad man, and I grew up associating me with the thing that meant bad, too.”
Her stepmother would make her father beat her if she asked for new shoes, if she sprinkled too much water on her dress when she was ironing it. “I couldn’t take it anymore, and when I was 14, I ran away wearing the only dress I had that wasn’t a complete rag,” she said. “I walked off my father’s farm early one morning and headed for town.”
She made her way to Dallas, found work as a waitress and saved enough money for her own room in a boarding house. She bought a new pair of shoes. “I carried the shoes to bed with me the night I got them and slept with them in my arms.”
In an account in a men’s magazine, Slusher recounted that in 1951 she was down and out after the arrest of her first husband, a crook named Billy Joe Dabbs. Only 16, she heard about a way to make some quick money. “I went to the address a friend gave me. The man behind the desk looked me over. He told me I had a great figure. Then he explained he wanted me to act in a risqué film. Then he opened his wallet and counted a bunch of ten-dollar bills. He counted them out on the desk before me, one by one. The purse I clutched in my hands contained exactly seven cents. I made the film.
“The dinner I ate that day was the first decent meal I’d had in weeks. It was warm inside me. Only when my hunger was gone could I think straight. But I was still too young to understand fully just what I had done. I’m still sick with shame over what I did, but when you’re (young) and all alone and your insides are crying for food, you can’t always figure out right from wrong.”
It might have simply been her 15 minutes of fame and notoriety, but instead it transformed battered Juanita into devil-may-care icon Candy Barr. Later in life, Slusher would say she did the film because she was drugged. Whatever the case, the film became a hit at frat houses, Elks and Moose lodges, and private servicemen clubs. It was the most popular of all the underground blue movies. Once the word was out, Dallas nightclub owner and promoter Abe Weinstein hired the underage teen for $85 a week to headline his Colony Club as Candy Barr, her blue movie name.
On stage, Candy Barr was among the best—a whirling dervish dancing to the beat of Artie Shaw’s spooky “Nightmare” or segueing into a sensual slow-mo tease set to a jazzy “Autumn Leaves.” She recalled, “Dancing was my greatest pleasure. It was my world. I danced a picture. I just lived it up there, and whatever I was painting came across—charcoals, oils or pen-and-inks.”
Slusher played the tease, but she didn’t let men control her. The plot of her porn debut revolves around her refusal to provide fellatio on demand. And when Candy’s estranged second husband, Troy Phillips, tried to break down her door and rape her, she shot him. Phillips survived and Slusher was cleared of all charges. “The last thing in the world I wanted was notoriety,” Barr said. “The shooting brought it to me, and I was worried that it might hurt my career. Being cleared, however, did me good. People came out of curiosity to see the girl who shot her husband to defend herself.”
In 1957, while Barr was the toast of the Dallas burlesque circuit, she had an opportunity to break out in a new direction as an actress. The director of a little Dallas theater group in dire financial straits approached her to star in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in the role of Rita Marlowe, which fellow Texan Jayne Mansfield had played on Broadway. Barr agreed. The production became the hottest ticket in town and saved the theater.
But conservative Dallas blue-bloods were not about to have Candy Barr become a respectable actress. They encouraged the Dallas police to set her up with a small amount of marijuana—or so her lawyer later argued in court. During the prosecutor’s closing argument, he told the jury: “She may be cute, but under the evidence, she’s soiled and dirty.” Slusher was found guilty of possession and sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary. While the case was being appealed, L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen, a co-founder of Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel, put up her bail, and they moved in together. Slusher starred in what was billed as the “biggest strip show in the world,” at the Largo in Las Angeles. 20th Century Fox hired Barr to teach Joan Collins how to “dance” for a film role as a stripper.
But two years later, on Jan. 14, 1959, Slusher’s appeal was turned down and her life in the fast lane ended. She was sent to Goree, then a women’s prison in Huntsville, to serve her sentence. Prison life changed Barr. She was pregnant when she entered Goree and had a miscarriage. She was medicated with Thorazine, which she later became addicted to. She spent most of her free time in the library and taking education courses. She was assigned to work with the night sewing crew.
It was then that Slusher began to read Emily Dickinson, saying she identified with her “loneliness.” She wrote more than 50 poems in prison that would later become a collection. Here’s the title poem:
A Gentle Mind … Confused
Hate the world that strikes you down,
A warped lesson quickly learned.
Rebellion, a universal sound,
Nobody cares no one’s concerned.
Fatigued by unyielding strife,
Self-pity consoles the abused,
And the bludgeoning of daily life,
Leaves a gentle mind … confused.
Slusher was paroled on April Fool’s Day 1963 after serving three-and-a-half years. She went back to Dallas to return to her profession as a stripper, although she kept writing in her spare time. “It was then that Jack Ruby called me and said he wanted to hire me to dance in his Carousel Club,” she said. “Actually, due to parole stipulations, the only thing I could do was raise animals for profit. Jack came down to Edna to help me out. He brought me a pair of dachshund breeding dogs out of his litter.”
A few months later, Jack Ruby would be bigger news than Candy Barr. And 12 hours after Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the FBI showed up. They interrogated Slusher as she was making Thanksgiving dinner. “The FBI thought Ruby told me names, places and people, which he didn’t. What they didn’t realize is I don’t believe in the propaganda they put out. I don’t believe the CIA killed Kennedy; I don’t believe Jack Ruby was aware of a plot to kill Kennedy; and I don’t believe Lee Harvey killed John Kennedy. That is what I don’t believe. I can’t really tell you what I do believe since that would be my opinion which could be as incorrect as all their theories.”
Slusher later said the same to the Warren Commission under oath. In 1967, Gov. John Connally called. “He told me he was proud of my testimony before that commission, and as of that day, I was pardoned. I never knew why he did that unless he studied the case and knew it was an injustice whether I was a victim or not.”
She briefly returned to the strip circuit in Las Vegas and at the Colony Club in Dallas. But in the late ’60s she came back to Texas for good, to care for her dying father in Brownwood. It was there I met Slusher, as she lived in seclusion at “Fort Dulce.”
Even in middle age, Slusher continued to reinvent herself. She joined an organized prayer group. And for a time, she was also a live-in caregiver for an elderly Czech woman in Moulton. Slusher reflected on how the public continued to view her alter ego: “People will always see Candy Barr as 23. They really can’t associate me as I am today because that’s the only time she was here. I am not that personality any longer. And I pity those out there who only have memories to live on or a faded career. I have an edge over all of them.”
I told her that I was writing a play about her complicated and conflicted life the last time we spoke, Hard Candy: The Life and Times of a Texas Bad Girl. Four different actresses portray her at different times in her life: the young runaway, the famous showgirl, the prison poet and the reflective recluse, conversing with one another.
She thought about it, then said, “Well, good luck, buddy.”
On this fifth anniversary of her death, I still remember her humor and ability to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. “When I have a bad day, I walk to my room and talk to my buddy, the Chief, up there on the wall.” Then, addressing a picture of Jesus in her bedroom, she said: “I didn’t do too good today, did I? And I may not do too good tomorrow either, but I’m aware of that. It doesn’t mean I failed, it’s just I couldn’t handle a few of your jokes today.”
Watch one of Candy Barr’s performances.
Gregg Barrios is a journalist, playwright and poet living in San Antonio. His book of new poetry La Causa was published this year. His play Hard Candy will premiere later this year.