Beatniks, Broads, and Burlesque
Hepcats and kittens chasing the California dream
What originally brought Monte di Monti to California in June of 1955 cannot be confirmed. His previous known whereabouts was in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ where he hustled money playing billiards at a pool hall owned by local hood “Fat Vinny” Giancala. By June di Monti resided in an apartment in San Francisco’s North Beach and commuted to his job at the El Rey Burlesk across the bay in Oakland. It’s believed he made the connection for the theater job while still in Newark through someone he met at the pool hall. di Monti was one of many young easterners who had migrated out to the West Coast around that time, and his first friends in the Bay Area were people he knew from his past. One such friend was the poet and novelist Jack Kerouac who Monte reconnected with at poet Allen Ginsberg’s infamous reading in October at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street. Another was an old friend from Brooklyn, Andreas Fontagne who had moved to Los Angeles the year before to work in the film industry in Hollywood.
Fontagne came up from Los Angeles around that time to visit di Monti. We were fortunate enough to have him share his memories with us about that trip:
“Monte was still figuring out his local scene the first time I visited him. He’d only moved out there a few weeks before. He lived in a small North Beach flat that he shared with this young black woman… she was just a friend of his, a woman who dated a jazz horn player is all I can remember about her. One afternoon we were smoking reefer and listening to jazz albums in his apartment when he got a call from Jack (Kerouac) whom he had known from New York and he invited us to this gallery for a reading that same night. The reading was hyper crazy… there was this manic energy in the crowd that was kinda hip, kinda scary. Afterwards we ended up at an all night diner drinking coffee with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and their pal Snider. I think we saw Kerouac one more time at a party a day or so later… I always dug hanging out with Jack.
Monte had just started working at the El Rey in Oakland so the next night we drove out there in his ’48 DeSoto. I stayed out there the entire night, caught a few burlesque shows, and by night’s end had hooked up with one of the dancers Anya. She was this gorgeous red hot Filipino woman who shared a pad with other dancers close to the theater so I ended up staying with her in Oakland for a few days. I went to the El Rey several nights during that trip and met a lot of people, I can’t remember too many of them but Tempest (Storm) made a big impression on me. She was a force and really was the gasoline in the engine for the theater. I liked it up there a lot but I had to get back to L.A. to attend to my usual business. I came up to visit a couple of other times later on.”
It’s unclear exactly what di Monti’s responsibilities were in the beginning of his employment at the El Rey but by the following spring of ’56 the theater’s manager Lilian Hunt had promoted him to be their head liaison with the dancers which basically meant babysitting them when they came to town to work at the El Rey. This included picking up the dancers at the San Francisco airport or Oakland train station, getting them settled in at the motel near to the theater or at Lilian’s house in West Oakland, and looking after their various needs during their performance run (usually one full week for headliners). Most of the dancers were based on the West Coast and worked the El Rey’s other theaters in cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle. However, a few of the biggest names flew in from the East Coast or midwest.
The El Rey was one of the top burlesque theaters in the nation and attracted all the major headlining dancers of the day such as Tempest Storm, Lilly Christine, Dorian Dennis, Lili St. Cyr, and others. These were hardworking divas who lived out of a suitcase in a world of cigar smoke, tassel pasties, and hustlers. They traveled the circuit with their “old men” (boyfriends or husbands), “old ladies” (girlfriends), or occasionally solo. These were tough women who wouldn’t put up with nonsense from anyone and knew the ropes of the burlesque business. Many had done jail time after being arrested for “public lewdness.” It was a rugged life. While they liked to party on occasion, they all seemed a bit world weary and mostly kept to themselves.
During his first year or so in California, di Monti avoided dating any of the dancers. He revealed in a letter to Andreas that he had a tryst or two but nothing serious:
“So many of these dancers are smoking hot but I can’t mix work with play. You don’t crap where you eat.”
According to Fontagne, di Monti’s usual routine would be to leave the Oakland theater around 2am after the night’s last performance and return to San Francisco to socialize in North Beach with a young crowd that would soon become known as the “beatniks.” These were poets, hipsters, painters, musicians, and hangers-on who lived their lives for more “kicks.” Their haunts were coffee shops, art galleries, and the numerous jazz clubs of the North Beach. Their vices of choice were cheap red wine, reefer, and casual sex with each other. People drifted in and out… many were transients between the two coasts and some came up from L.A. to make the North Beach scene. Occasionally they would head down to Monterrey to hold an all-night party on the beach, but mostly it was all in San Francisco hopping between parties, poetry readings, and the nightclubs to listen to the Bay Area’s great jazz musicians. Monte was one of the few who had a steady job and paycheck. It was a different world than his job across the Bay but it appears he had learned to balance the two.
One of the headlining dancers who appeared regularly at the El Rey was “Miss French Riviera” Dorian Dennis. Dennis was one of the top dancers on the international circuit. By that summer she and di Monti had become romantically involved. They shared some things in common; both were originally from Brooklyn and both had migrated from the East Coast to California. While Dennis kept an apartment in New York she was primarily based out of Santa Monica with an apartment there as well. Dorian was big time, and worked burlesque houses up and down the West Coast and in New York, Philadelphia, Miami Beach, Newark, New Orleans, and Cleveland averaging $1,200 per week earnings. She occasionally toured England and Canada as well. When performing in Oakland, Dorian stayed with Monte at his North Beach flat in addition to frequently driving up from Santa Monica if she had a week or two off between tours. She was often featured in national magazines, like Vue and Cabaret. Her new affair was written up in a couple of gossipy magazine articles and Monte was mentioned as “her regular man.” Dorian was big time and di Monti seemed to dig all of the attention she (and sometimes he) got from her successful burlesque career.
However, there were troubles on the horizon. In his interview with us Andreas Fontagne noted:
“Monte and Dorian were a hot item. She was mad crazy about him. She was starting to make some serious bread around then and she spent a lot of it on him, wanting to get him to move down to L.A. and live with her in Santa Monica. I got to know her pretty well during one of my visits up to San Francisco. She was working at the El Rey that week but we all spent time together during those afternoons. She was so bright… I heard she had been a scientist before she became a dancer! A college girl turned exotic dancer… go figure. I was happy for him and it was hip that he was with a Brooklyn girl… ya know his roots and such. They just hit it off and they were both in the burlesque biz together so it worked.
One night out in Oakland, Monte and I went for a coffee while Dorian got ready in her dressing room for her show at the theater that night. Monte told me something that was really disturbing him. One of Dorian’s exes, this Greek cat named Alex was buzzing around and threatening to blackmail her about something or another that had happened to her in New York. I never got the full story as to what it was exactly. Alex had showed up at the theater one night a couple of weeks before and said he was going to go back to New York and tell detectives the full story and that he could put Dorian behind bars if she didn’t pay him.
Monte was extremely distraught and stressed out about it. He wanted to get rid of the guy forever if you know what I mean. Now Monte wasn’t a killer but he was connected ya know. He knew people out east that could take care of any job he needed. Dorian was ready to pay off the guy but Monte felt she could never get rid of him permanently that way. In other words, the guy could show up again in a couple of years and want another hand out from her if he didn’t keep his mouth shut to the detectives. Dorian was starting to roll in the big money and I guess crap like that came with the territory… extortion and blackmail. Monte was looking for answers.”
How this troubling situation of Dorian’s was resolved is not clear. Tax records show that di Monti continued to be employed by the El Rey until it closed down sometime in 1957. He and Dorian continue to see each other as she began to dance at burlesque houses in San Francisco. In 1958 di Monti began to work at Forbidden City in Chinatown helping to do their bookings.
Exactly when and where di Monti met the future love of his life, the exotic dancer LaVonne St. John is unknown but based on local newspaper advertisements her first appearance at Forbidden City was April 18–25, 1958. It is probable that she was booked for her week-long run by di Monti himself and we can speculate that the first time they met in person was that April. St. John was living in Southern California and worked only in California and Las Vegas with occasional bookings in the Phoenix area. She wasn’t as famous and certainly did not have the reputation of Dorian Dennis.
Andreas Fontagne noted about this time period:
“My last visit seeing Monte in San Francisco was sometime in ’58. Things had changed for him a lot. Dorian was gone and LaVonne was in. He wouldn’t say much about it but the vibe was that it had something to do with Dorian’s ex… that guy Alex who was trying to extort her. I never did get the full story about what happened with all that. Did Monte put a contract on the guy? I don’t know, but I do know that he wouldn’t say anything specific about what had happened with Dorian and it was all about LaVonne who he had totally flipped for. One time when I was there Dorian called Monte on the phone and they seemed to be friendly enough but they were definitely finito as a couple, as in totally Splitsville. Yeah, I got to know LaVonne some too. She was much different than Dorian. Less serious, less of a career gal with her dancing. Two different types of women ya know, even though they both danced burlesque.
Working at Forbidden City after the El Rey was a step down for Monte, but then the whole burlesque thing was starting to wind down in general. He saw the writing on the wall and was beginning to look for different business opportunities outside of the burlesque world. He even talked about moving back East but my feeling was that it was all just talk. He seemed to be just passing time until the next big thing came along.
I was between jobs and so I stayed up there for almost a month that trip. I looked up Anya the dancer that I had met from the El Rey. She had quit burlesque and was working a straight office job in downtown San Francisco, but it never went very far with us two… never amounted to much. That year the beatnik thing was exploding in San Francisco and every night there was a party somewhere with that crew. Monte knew them all pretty well by then and was well liked it seemed. The national media was just starting to pick up on beatniks — particularly Kerouac as On the Road had just been published. All those guys were around… Ginsberg, Corso, Cassidy. We’d see them at readings and the coffee houses. Kerouac was busy promoting his book I think.
I was in San Francisco for those three or four weeks and then came back to L.A. I kept in touch, but I didn’t see Monte again until he moved down here in ’60. Yeah that’s right, he moved down here to shack up with LaVonne.”
St. John and di Monti continued their torrid romance for several months through 1959 with Monte often traveling to Los Angeles to see her. She in turn, continued to perform regularly in San Francisco. In January of 1960 tax records show di Monti quit his job at Forbidden City and moved to Studio City to live with St. John in her one-bedroom bungalow. This set off the chain of events that eventually resulted in the two of them relocating to Texas in 1963.
While the burlesque business in California had treated Monte well financially, he never returned to it after leaving San Francisco. Nor to our knowledge did he ever cross paths with Dorian Dennis again. She moved to Miami Beach and became one of the queens of burlesque but is largely forgotten now. As the 1960s dawned, the country was looking for a different type of adult entertainment. Censorship and pornography laws became more permissive, and burlesque became marginal in the adult entertainment landscape of America. di Monti looked on to new ventures and opportunities in Southern California.