RAND, SALLY (Helen Gould Beck, Billy Beck) (1904–1979) Dancer, Actress
Famed for her titillating “fan dance,” Sally Rand was born Helen Gould Beck on January 2, 1904, in Elkton, Missouri. When she was a child, her father, a retired army colonel, separated from her mother. To help support her family, Helen left home at 13 and made her way to Chicago. There, while studying ballet, she worked as a cigarette girl and nude art model. Still in her teens, she returned to Missouri and began her show-business career as a chorus girl in Kansas City and an acrobat in Ringling Brothers Circus.
By her 20th birthday, Beck was in Hollywood, playing bit parts in silent movies. She was billed as Billy Beck until director Cecil B. DeMille gave her the name Rand after glancing at a Rand McNally atlas on his desk. She christened herself Sally, believing the name would look good on a marquee. After sound was introduced to film, Rand had difficulty finding acting jobs. By the early 1930s, she had started working nightclubs with a sixminute act known as the fan dance. Bathed in blue light, Rand stood on stage naked, seductively moving two seven-foot-long ostrich feathers in front of her body to the music of Debussy and Chopin. In 1933, Rand began performing her act at the Chicago World’ s Fair for $125 a week. Overall, fair attendance was disappointing, but Rand and her fan dance were an immediate hit. As newspaper articles about Rand made her a celebrity nationwide, her weekly salary rose to $5,000. With Rand’s fame came notoriety. Although the fan dance was more teasing than revealing, she was arrested many times for indecency charges. In September 1933, she was brought to trial and found guilty. Sentenced to a year in prison, Rand appealed, and her conviction was overturned.
Rand’s act was also debated on the fioor of the U.S. Congress. In 1934, Congress considered pulling its funding for the reopening of the World’s Fair later that year. The fair was supposed to be educational, but its main attraction was anything but intellectually uplifting. Congress finally agreed to fund the fair, on the proviso that Rand would not perform. Without Rand, the fair had such trouble attracting visitors that its concession operators rioted. By July, Rand was invited back to introduced the bubble dance, performed with a 60-inch balloon in place of her ostrich feathers. After the fair, Rand returned to Hollywood for one picture, Bolero (1934). But aside from an occasional foray into regional theater, her career continued to revolve around the fan dance. Touring as many as 40 weeks a year, she took the act to fairs and nightclubs across the nation. The twicedivorced Rand continued performing the fan dance well into her 70s. One year after retiring from show business, Sally Rand died of heart failure at her home at Glendora, California, on August 31, 1979.
Bailey, Beth. “Rand, Sally.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 18, pp. 104–105. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Wilmeth, Don B. “Sally Rand.” In Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 10: 1976–1980. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995.