Saturday, March 7, 2015

Irene - the Glamazon meets Mickey on her 90th birthday

I've been doing some research for the Royal Alberta Museum.  They are in the process of building a brand new museum and populating it with new displays.  I've been doing some of the research for the displays, looking for the photographs that will help illustrate some of them.  I've been totally blessed to do something that I LOVE to do, and to get paid for it as well.  How lucky am I?

In the process of doing this research, I learned about and got to talk to a fascinating woman, Irene Jewell.  I wrote about her very briefly in this earlier blog post.  When I started the research, I only knew that Irene was a burlesque dancer who was born in Alberta and who performed at the 1959 Calgary Stampede.  She was rather famous due to her height of 6 feet 8 inches.  But I've learned more ...

Irene Jewell was born Irene Siewert on February 26, 1925 in Alberta - on a homestead north of Edmonton.  She graduated high school in Sangudo.  Her parents were not short, but she far outgrew them, continuing to grow well into her 20s.  As a girl she wanted to be a singer and dancer, but didn't have access to the training she would require.  So she became Ricki Covette - "The Glamazon" - the world's tallest burlesque dancer:

Throughout the 50s, 60s (and maybe the 70s?) she wowed them with her performances.  She was always very professional and in charge of her own career.  She made herself the success she was.  She  performed on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and was even on the Gypsy Rose Lee show!

In 1959, she was hired by Royal American Shows - a travelling show out of Tampa, Florida, that brought the Midway to the Calgary Stampede from the 1930s to the 1970s.  So that year she was a performer on the Stampede midway.

She even worked Bourbon Street in New Orleans:

After the world's first sex-change operation happened in 1957, people started to accuse Irene of being a man - this was too much for her and she left burlesque to become a real estate agent.  After some time, she told me, she also worked as a bookkeeper to a man named Chuck Mitchell - who played the title role in the movie "Porky's".  She worked for him, I believe, until he died - she mentioned having to put him into several retirement homes before he found one that would stand for his unique crassness.

At some point (I'm not quite sure when), she met Stuart Jewell.  Stuart was a cinematographer who worked for 7 years for Walt Disney.  He worked several Disney films including the Oscar-winner "The Living Desert" (1953).  He also worked on creating time-lapse photography - being at least one of the cinematographers responsible for the time-lapse footage of Disneyland being built.  They travelled around the world continuing with his photography, but he was no longer working for Disney and nature movies were going out of favour.

When I started doing this research, I told a friend of mine (who happens to do Burlesque in Calgary currently) about Ricki Covette.  She was fascinated and wanted to know more.  The following day, she told me about this article she had found about Irene - and that she was still alive.  The article was talking generally about her life, but also about the fact that she had donated some of her possessions to the Smithsonian Museum.

So I Googled and found an address I thought might work and I sent Irene a letter explaining the research I was doing.  I thought nothing more of it.  These things don't always work, and I'd done my part of contact her, if she didn't get back to me, that would be the end of it.  But a couple of weeks later I got a phone call from Irene.  And we chatted for quite a while.  She told me about Stuart and her life, burlesque, real estate, Chuck ... and how she is still concerned about keeping her weight down (!).  And then I asked her where Costa Mesa, CA (where she lives) is located.  And she mentioned it was in Orange County.

Well, my family has a bit of an addiction to Disneyland, and it's in Orange County, so as a point of reference, I mentioned it and asked if she liked Disneyland.  Well, she had never been there!!  She said she had an opening day ticket from Disneyland (not really sure if it's quite that old, but maybe) and that she was going to take it there on her 90th birthday (about a month later) and see if they would let her in.

Our conversation ended and I mulled over all of the information I had just received.  What a fascinating woman - and what an adventure she had lived.  Even at almost 90 years old, she was still as lively as ever.  She had a nurse and a "wonderful boyfriend" and seemed to still be living a very full life.  Someone to aspire to - if I live that long, I hope I am in the shape she is in!

Later that day, a bolt of lightning hit me (you know those thoughts that are just too brilliant to have come from your own mind? - yeah, one of those).  My husband had recently hired Doug Lipp of G. Douglas Lipp and Associates to come to Edmonton and do some training with some employees here.  My hubby had also been to the Disney Institute to take similar training a few years ago.  He knew people associated with Disney!!  So I asked him to send out an e-mail to a couple of people and see if anyone would be interested in asking if Irene could get in and maybe they could use it for some publicity.

Well, Doug Lipp's wife, Pam, took the bull by the horns and got in touch with the people she knows at Disneyland.  Nothing happened for a couple of weeks.  I sent her several e-mails pestering to see if Irene was going to get to go to Disneyland.  I was a little obsessed - but so was Pam.  And Pam came through - she arranged for a friend of hers, Joanne, who was the 1982 Disneyland Ambassador and who has a silver pass to the park to take Irene!  It was going to happen.

About a week away from Irene's 90th birthday, The Disneyland Public Relations and Fan Club Departments got involved, set up tickets for everyone (so Joanne didn't have to use hers) and an interview (with Erin Glover) and photo shoot.

So on Thursday, February 26th, Irene Jewell's 90th birthday, Pam Lipp (who bought a plane ticket to get down there), Joanne Duner, Irene, and her wonderful boyfriend (I think - still haven't confirmed that -it's either her beau or her nurse, but it looks like her beau) spent a beautiful sunny day at Disneyland.  They enjoyed Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, It's a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion attractions.  The Dapper Dans even sang her Happy Birthday:

Strangers from Canada and the U.S., all Disney fans, fell in love with Irene's story and pulled together (some at personal expense) to make her 90th birthday a very special one.

Irene ... I hope you had a wonderful day with some great memories.  And I hope you get to go back again sometime.

Pam sent me these photos that night - I know she took at least one of them, but the rest were taken by a photographer - you can see him and an interviewer in two of the photos. She really was a Disney Princess for the day.

Irene getting her "1st Visit" and "Happy Birthday" buttons at the same time - wonder if this is the first time it's happened on someone's 90th birthday?  Probably not, but maybe for an ex-burlesque dancer!

In front of the Candy Store.

The Dapper Dans sang Happy Birthday to her.

Irene handing over her vintage ticket.

Irene loving Goofy!  (from left to right are Pam, the beau (nurse?), Irene, Goofy and Joanne.

Irene being interviewed by Erin Glover.

Irene in the shade out front.

The photographer grabbing one of her in the sun with her shades.

Riding "It's a Small World" (I haven't found out what other attractions they went on).

The gang watching the Tea Cups - this one they didn't ride.


Please check out my postcard series starting here.

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