Burlesque Queen Zorita: Courtesan of Modern Times
There have been many great burlesque performers, but no one was quite like Zorita..
Born Katherine Boyd or Ada Petillo - ''Only my mother or the FBI calls me Ada'' - on August 30, 1916 in Ohio, she was adopted at the age of nine months by a Methodist family - ''I was the cutest little bastard in the orphanage''. At the age of 4 she loses her adoptive father. After being abused by the second husband of her mother, she leaves home at the age of 15 after being married to a young Englishman with whom she moved to Chicago. The marriage doesn't last long and to earn money she begins to work as a beautician. She discovered that her colleagues made extra money doing stag parties, in which they performed naked before an audience of men. At 15 and 'built to the hilt' she could pass as an older girl and she started to work at stag parties and visiting nudist colonies. Whilst working as a cigarette girl during The New York State Fair in 1934 she saw a performance of a sleeve dancer. Entranced by the act, she began to learn some moves and created her own costumes. She managed to get a job at the 830 Club, run by The Capones, and then went on to perform in The Nudist Colony for two years and at The California International Exposition.
Zorita: ' My first real striptease costume came from a thrift store. I made the under things by copying the costume of a star stripper, Mary Sunde, a big name in Chicago at that time. I always copied from the best and always watched them work, especially their hand movements. Finally, I learned about agents and that an act had to have pictures and sheet music. Everything cost money and I didn't have money, but I had me. I had big knockers and the ability to imitate what I saw and liked. I learned fast and could bullshit with the best of them. I always befriended the club owner's wife, who would send in a good report to the agent. That got me a lot of return dates. I quickly learned who was important and never go to bed with the owner. It's best to let them dream and fantasize.'
Following the exposition, she got a job at The Capitol Theatre in San Francisco, which is were she began performing her infamous snake dance and used the stage name Zorita, a name given to her by the owner of the theatre. Her first snake was given to her by the man who ran the snake exhibit at The California International Exposition. She owned a number of snakes throughout her career, always named Oscar or Elmer. She was known to create quite a stir, walking in public with her snakes before she opened the show the next evening. Although the snake act made her a star, it also causes problems. She stops with her snake act in 1949 after being fined $1.500 for animal cruelty and her snakes are confiscated.
After years of traveling the United States, Zorita decides to hang up her G-strings and work for herself. She buys a theatre in Fort Lauderdale and another in Miami Beach, which she calls ''Zorita's Show Bar'' The bar was very successful and ran for about a decade. Zorita retired from the burlesque scene in 1974.
Her personal life is a little bit of a mystery. Although some sources claim that she never married, others say that she married three times and had a daughter, named Tawni. She preferred women and had a one-sided crush on fellow burlesque performer Sherry Britton, whom she pursued relentlessly. Britton used to call her 'a courtesan of modern times'. She still dated men, if she, in her own words 'could use them for all their money's worth'.
Zorita: ' Men were put on this earth to give gifts to women. That's what makes them happy....I believe in making them happy. Sometimes that meant making sacrifices. Nobody wants to read that we were virgins or saints or that we just did good deeds for everyone. However, we were not trash either.'
Zorita passed away in Florida in 2001. Her signature acts still live on, the gender-bending half groom/half bride number, the rhinestoned spiderweb with unseen hands of the 'spider' removing articles of her clothing and the snake act are still performed by modern day burlesque performers.