On Jan. 27, 1977, a St. Louis judge issued an order closing the Stardust Club, 309 DaBaliviere Ave. The closing was not contested by owner Al Charles or his wife, Aimee, who under the name Evelyn West performed as a stripper known for her $50,000 “treasure chest.”
When a police officer climbed through a rear bedroom window of a cream-colored duplex at 708 Columbus Parkway on Nov. 14, 2004, he found the body of a St. Louis legend.
Amy Charles had not been seen for several days. Friends from Tampa, Fla. — those who had known her in her heyday — had called and e-mailed repeatedly but got no response. They called the police, who found the door locked and no one to answer the knock.
As it turned out, Charles had died in her sleep. Nearby were medications for thyroid and heart problems. Officer William Comeford filed his report — death apparently from natural causes — and returned to business as usual.
He ignored the clues that this 83-year-old woman once had been famous. They could be found in the stacks of provocative photographs all about her quarters; three bedrooms stacked with boxes that made it impossible to walk through the rooms. Some contained the outfits she donned backstage and then discarded onstage to the cheers of hundreds each night.
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Amy Charles was known in St. Louis as Evelyn “$50,000 treasure chest” West. Her chief claim to fame: her 39 1/2-inch bust that Lloyds of London insured for the $50K. She performed twice nightly in a striptease act at the Stardust Club on the old DeBaliviere Strip, just north of Forest Park and its Jefferson Memorial. In St. Louis in the ’50s and ’60s, her name was as familiar to male adolescents and young adults as that of Stan Musial, though, of course, the two inspired different forms of adulation.
Evelyn West performed before as many as 1,500 customers a week at the Stardust, earning 90 cents for each patron. She enjoyed a national reputation, appearing in clubs from Los Angeles to Miami Beach and in 50-cent magazines with names like Blush, Wolf Bait and Fever for Men. She starred in a movie, “A Night at the Follies,” and you could find her posing on a deck of playing cards and in color photos suitable for a barracks or a frat house wall.
She may be best remembered for the ads that appeared in this newspaper and the old Globe-Democrat, touting her treasures and their ties to that very dignified London insurance agency.
And yet, Evelyn West’s death went unnoticed for months. She had no next of kin to make her funeral arrangements or to call the newspapers. Her body was cremated, and the disposition of her remains is still a bit of a mystery.
Evelyn West was born Amy May Coomer in Adair, Ky., and grew up on a farm in Petersburg, Ill., (population 2,400) just northwest of Springfield, Ill. When it comes to performers like West, it can be difficult to separate truth from legend. One story has it that her husband and promoter, Al Charles, discovered her in a farm field in Petersburg, immediately appreciated her potential and put her on the circuit. Another story has it that the two met much later in the San Francisco Bay area when West was already in the business.
Raymond Montgomery, a longtime Petersburg resident and contemporary of West’s — they both went to the one-room Brush School — recalled that she lived with her family for a time in a three-room house and that “she had a sad life as a child.” He remembers Amy’s mom taking a stick and “switching her all the way” from school to her house.
No one was particularly surprised to learn that Amy got into the profession. Petersburg was home to circuses and people who worked in the carnival business. Soon enough she was performing in a sideshow at the Illinois State Fair.
Her career was first recognized in newspaper clippings in the 1940s when she performed in Calumet City, south of Chicago. That was back when it was a mob-controlled striptease town with steamy B-girl joints up and down the main street.
In many respects, West was a kind of crossover artist. Burlesque, in the words of Francine du Plessix Gray writing in The New Yorker, was a “venerable American genre.” It included music, dance and comedy, with the stripping just one aspect. Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce and Rodney Dangerfield all honed their acts in burlesque theaters.
West embraced the comedic aspects, too. But at some point, burlesque as art form began to veer off into what many consider pornography and an increasing focus on the female anatomy, lust and prostitution. Over the years, West would get in and out of trouble with the law.
But it was her bust that drew the most attention and became a part of her legacy. In fact, she went to the Menard County Circuit Court in Petersburg in 1953 to have her name changed to Evelyn “$50,000 Treasure Chest” West.
“Evelyn is the girl generally credited with making burlesque bust-conscious,” wrote Lou Felice, a writer for Sir!, a men’s magazine from the 1950s. “Before she entered the strip picture, burlesque movements emphasized a sexy walk with the bumps and grinds. Relatively little importance had been attached to an eye-stopping bosom.”
As West’s fame increased, she began to market her wares. “The Post Office Department banned her pin-up pictures from the mails,” Felice wrote. “Postal examiners ruled that 22 of her photos, which were advertised for sale at one dollar, had a ‘lewd’ aspect. They also charged that other pictures of Miss West were being offered at rates that went up as the exposure increased. This is probably the first time a dancer has been accused of performing a striptease by mail.”
West starred in a “A Night at the Follies,” an hour-long black-and-white movie, apparently filmed shortly after the end of World War II, although the video box says 1956. Coming out in a skimpy dress and a fur, she opened by saying: “I know you’re looking at my shoes.”
By the 1950s, West had married Al Charles, the club promoter, and the two found their way to St. Louis and the Stardust Club on the old DeBaliviere Strip.
The DeBaliviere area had as many as five strip clubs — including the Stardust, Tic-Toc and Little Las Vegas — the Apollo Theater, bookie and gambling joints, and a famous old Garavelli’s restaurant. They are all gone now. The old strip district is now a strip mall.
Police raids and arrests were frequent occurrences on the strip, and West was occasionally taken to the pokey. Her longtime bondsman, Bob Block, said they never put her in a holdover. “We went to a judge and got the bond. I got her out six or eight times,” said Block.
Even given the numerous police raids, former Deputy Police Chief James Hackett, a St. Louis police legend, admired West’s moxie and her moves. He once called her “the Babe Ruth of stripteasing.”
The Stardust Club thrived in the ’60s, when hundreds of young men flocked to see West and a bevy of other dancers entertain in pasties and g-strings.
Rodney Dangerfield performed there once. Briefly. Pete Johnstone, then a drummer at the Stardust and now a jeweler in Crestwood, remembers it this way: “Al Charles was operating the green spotlight, and Dangerfield said, ‘The green spotlight makes me look dead.’ And Charles said, ‘Why don’t you take your junk and get out of here?'”
The Stardust remained open until 1977, but business had fallen off well before then. West and Charles left St. Louis in 1977, with the headline reading: “Stardust’s End Brings Strip Down To Nothing.” The club had been declared a “bawdy house,” and St. Louis Circuit Judge Gary M. Gaertner ordered it padlocked. Charles later admitted that the club was used for prostitution.
(An ironic footnote: The judge acted on a complaint filed by Circuit Attorney George Peach. In April 1992, after 16 years as a vigorous opponent of prostitution and pornography, Peach was arrested at a hotel near Lambert Field after offering a woman he thought was a prostitute $150 for sex. She was a St. Louis County decoy detective.)
West and Charles moved to Florida, and West gradually retired from the stage. After Charles died at age 95 in 2001, acquaintances said, West led a rather reclusive life. But she kept in touch with old friends in the burlesque business through e-mail. Among them was Eugene Hanlon of Tampa, whose wife was a stripper named “Candy Baby” Caramelo. It was he who called the Hollywood police when he hadn’t heard from West for several days.
“The last time I talked to her on the phone, she said, ‘I’m pooped,’ and that was the last I heard from her,” said Hanlon.
A Vietnam War veteran, named Terry Klasek had caught West’s act many times in his youth and established a brief online relationship with West the months before her death. The two exchanged memories. Klasek sent her some brassieres (size 42D); she sent back pictures and warm thoughts.
West wanted to know what had become of the DeBaliviere Strip. She said she still kept up with the Cardinals and told Klasek, “You are tops on my list!”
Now Klasek has only his pictures and his memories.
“I learned that all fame is fleeting as I mourn my friend,” Klasek wrote in an e-mail to STLtoday after West’s death. “The end of an era for sure.”
Or as her Florida landlady, Muriel Kirschner, said: “I have to tell you, she was a beautiful woman. The strip-geezers were right — she was quite an attraction.”