Give the manager of the Burbank Theatre in downtown Los Angeles his sleazy, but well earned, due: He knew how to exploit the overnight scientific phenomenon of the atomic bomb and he knew how to do it quickly. As a matter of fact, if the manager had submitted his “See Burbank’s ‘ATOM BOMB DANCERS’” ad any sooner he probably would have been brought up on espionage charges because the Hiroshima bomb dropped only two days earlier. Indeed, it would be a gross understatement to say that August 8, 1945 was simply an advantageous day for the placement of such a promotion. No, commercially, it was undoubtedly the day for such a stunt. For if the contemporary male reader of the August 8, 1945 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express was stunned by the screaming, large-type headline “ATOM BOMB KILLS 150,000 IN NIP CITY” that same reader was almost certainly intrigued and titillated by the burlesque house’s advertisement on page A-7. While it is impossible to know for sure, it is a safe bet that the Burbank had a full house on the night of the 8th.

To put the immediacy (and tastelessness) of the ad in its proper context it is important to note that (a.) Hiroshima on August 8, 1945 was a charred, flaming ruin and (b.) Nagasaki had not yet even been bombed (that city would be reduced to rubble the very next day). And you thought the blogosphere was a rapid response wonder. It is remarkable to consider that the front page of the Herald-Express with all its wartime bravado is not, from the hindsight of the 21st century, the most shocking keepsake from the paper—it is the small burlesque ad that captures an incredible moment in time: America’s head-over-heels, love-at-first-sight embrace of the atom.

The love affair with all things atomic would be an enduring one and—in a case of art imitating art imitating life—starlet Marilyn Maxwell would portray an “atom dancer” in the 1950 MGM film KEY TO THE CITY. Apparently someone didn’t tell the flacks who put together the official MGM pressbook for the movie that Maxwell was not exactly breaking new ground:


It had to come sooner or later, and here it is—an Atom Dancer! Curvaceous blonde Marilyn Maxwell is the girl who does the unique Atom Dance in a night club sequence of MGM’s fun-filled new romantic comedy, “Key to the City,” now showing at the ….. Theatre. Besides doing the sizzling dance routine in the new film, Marilyn tries to upset a romance between Clark Gable and Loretta Young—but here her atoms prove unavailing. Loretta gets her man!

And here's some dialogue from KEY TO THE CITY (The setting is the Blue Duck Club in San Francisco's Chinatown):

Mayor Steve Fisk (Clark Gable) to Mayor Clarissa Standish (Loretta Young): I believe you’ve met all the rest, Miss Unconscious, and of course, Sheila – the one and only atom dancer.

Sheila (Marilyn Maxwell): Oh, I don’t really dance with atoms. I just wear some little balloons that are supposed to be atoms.

Sheila (after she hears her cue from the MC): Well, that’s me, I have to go put on my bomb… I hope you like it (to Gable).

After Gable opens a bottle of champagne and its flying cork pops several of Sheila’s balloons, he exclaims: “Oh boy, I’ve just split the atom!”

And in perhaps an even stranger twist on the whole life imitates art thing, Ms. Maxwell herself became a burlesque dancer for a brief, well-paid stint at a New York establishment in 1967. By this time, however, atoms (and balloons) were passé. The columnist Earl Wilson wrote lightheartedly of the curious—and some claimed desperate—career detour:

Marilyn Maxwell did a satiric striptease at the Jamaica Hillside Theater, peeling to the waist (but keeping pasties on), and thrilling everybody with her heretofore covered-up charms. Rock Hudson, Jerry Lewis and Danny Thomas sent her wires. One said, “Hasties make wasties, hang onto your pasties.” For semi-stripping she’s getting about $10,000 a week.

Maxwell returned to do television and film work after her burlesque period, but died at the age of 49 of a heart attack in her home on March 20, 1972. The actress had suffered from high blood pressure and a pulmonary ailment. Maxwell’s funeral at the Beverly Hills Community Presbyterian Church was well attended as her friend and former co-star took note of in his eulogy: “If all her friends were here today we’d have to use the Coliseum.”

Marilyn Maxwell may not have been the first atom dancer, but she was certainly the best known. For much more on the fascinating life and career of Ms. Maxwell, CONELRAD recommends Laura Wagner's chapter on her in Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames.

Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express
August 8, 1945
Page A-7


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