Dallas — When legendary Dallas stripper Candy Barr shook what the good Lord gave her, stand-up Texas guys had to sit down and fan themselves with their Stetsons. It was the 1950s, and upright, uptight Dallas had not seen her like before. Tiny, blonde, green-eyed Candy danced in a strip club across the street from the grand Adolphus Hotel—and a few doors away from Jack Ruby’s joint, the Carousel. Out of her teens—but barely—she had the heart-shaped face of a Texas high school cheerleader, and (to quote an old movie line) “more curves than a scenic railway.” She wore a white cowgirl hat, a pair of pearly six-shooter cap guns on her hips…and not much else.
Actress and playwright Ronnie Claire Edwards—known for her role as tart-tongued Corabeth Godsey on The Waltons—explores the legend in her latest play, Candy Barr’s Last Dance, opening Aug. 11 at Theatre Three in a production directed by René Moreno. At Candy’s funeral in 2006, her dancer friends gather and remember—and tell their version of what happened back in the day.
If bare skin were all there was to talk about, it wouldn’t be much of a story. But Candy Barr did it all, for better or worse—and all by the time she hit 30. She dated gangsters, hid out in Mexico, shot one of her husbands, and taught a movie star how to dance. She also wrote poems, loved her daughter, and was close enough to Jack Ruby that there’s still a bit of buzz about whether Candy might have known…something.
Ms. Edwards, whose many stage credits include a “Fringe Best Award” at the Edinburgh Festival for her one-woman show The Knife Thrower’s Assistant, has written a number of plays and musicals, including The Last of the Honky-Tonk Angels (with Dallas fave Leslie Jordan), and the one-woman show The True Story of the Incarceration of Little Egypt (which ran at Theater Three’s Theatre Too! in 2007). In 2013, Edwards' play Idols of the King, a comedy about some of Elvis' most devoted fans, was produced at Theatre Three. She moved to Dallas from L.A. about six years ago, lives in a renovated 100-year-old church just east of the Arts District, and has reconnected bigtime with her roots in Texas theater.
Here’s what she told us about herself and her play:
TheaterJones: I was a little girl then, but even I can remember “the talk” about Candy Barr. What was it about her that made her such a sensation in the ’50s?
Ronnie Claire Edwards: Well, I think she was absolutely fantastic looking. Just an incredible, gorgeous body, that doll-like face, and very, very vulnerable. That made her terribly appealing. It’s rather like what [Marilyn] Monroe had, the exquisite looks with the vulnerability. And of course, she led a very, er, active life—a lot of stuff happened to her.
So that’s what drew you to her as a theatrical subject—all that drama?
She had a very adventuresome life. And at our early previews of the show people are coming out of the woodwork, folks who knew her or were associated in some way and want to talk about all that she did. Abe Weinstein’s twin boys came last night; their father owned the Colony Club where Candy danced. It’s been very interesting; some call her eccentric, a few even say she was crazy! [Laughs.] I don’t think she was crazy—I think she was just a little girl from Edna, Texas, who got in over her head.
Of course, one of the big stories back then about Candy Barr was her connection to Jack Ruby, which got tangled up with the many conspiracy theories linked to the Kennedy assassination. Where did you come out on that?
There was some connection, I think. She and Jack were very good friends, though Candy never danced at The Carousel. I’ve read so many books about the assassination, and at the end of every book you end up convinced that must be the true story. Then you read the next book, and you’re sure this one’s the real story. So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what all those girls knew—what was the strippers’ story?
So really, Candy Barr’s Last Dance is as much about them as it is about the “star”?
Yes, and about Jack Ruby, and the assassination, too.
You’ve written plays about “honky-tonk angels” and exotic dancers like Little Egypt. A writer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival said you seemed to enjoy “borderline” people, folks who are kind of out there for their times.
Yes, they’re eccentrics, and I like them. It comes from my family, I’m sure. My mother was a writer and my father was a trial lawyer. Combine those two, and you breed an actress and a writer.
You grew up in Oklahoma, and in a house full of people who loved to talk and tell stories, by all accounts. Why do you think so many of our best storytellers are from the South and Southwest?
There’s a great storytelling tradition in this part of the country. And it’s the last and only bastion of what I think of as poetic speech: rich, colloquial and colorful. So many of the people who settled the Southwest came from the South, in fact—many of them after the Civil War—and their stories took on a rougher, more western edge.
You set out to be an actress, but the path was not always conventional. You toured with traveling shows and carnivals, played in mining camps—was that good training for later on?
Oh, yes, I think any time you’re in front of an audience, that’s training. The audience is your best teacher.
What’s your working style as a playwright?
I often start with an idea about characters who are in a situation. Theater isn’t like a novel; you have to have an immediate conflict. A play really starts when the curtain comes up, catching the players in crisis, and you only have an hour and a half or two hours to resolve it.
Will we be surprised by the story line of Candy Barr’s Last Dance?
Yes, very much so. The presentation of the play is unusual and very theatrical.
I have to ask: TheaterJones is named in honor of Margo Jones, Dallas theater legend and friend of playwrights, Tennessee Williams among them. After you graduated from the University of Oklahoma, you came to Dallas for an internship at the Margo Jones Theatre—but did you know her?
No, I came in 1956 and she had just died [in July 1955]. But she was a genius, and I spent three seasons at her theater. Margo Jones is what Dallas should be known for; she created theater in the round and so much more. Now we just accept that, but then, it was a real stroke of genius. And she did nothing but original plays. I learned a new play every three weeks, and believe me, that was an incredible learning experience. I came from University of Oklahoma with a degree in drama, and that was my first baptism by fire.
And Jones was one of the biggest players in the whole regional movement—the idea that great theater could happen anywhere in the country, not just in New York.
Oh, absolutely. And I’ve known Jac Alder, too, for a long, long time. [Founding producer/director of Theatre Three, Alder is often called Margo Jones’ “heir”; he and his late wife Norma Young founded their own “in the round” theater in 1961, drawing in part on models from Houston’s Alley and Dallas’ Margo Jones.]
Going back to Candy Barr—could there be someone like her again, do you think?
I don’t know if her equivalent exists today. She was not the product of a publicity machine, like so many of today’s stars. She just sort of appeared—and I’m not sure that could happen now.
» Here's video footage of Candy Barr in a 1950's burlesque show. Adult warning, although it's safe enough to be on YouTube.