First Lady of Burlesque

TELLS HER STORY IN A NEW BOOK

WRITTEN BY MAUREEN WERTHER PHOTO PROVIDED

She was born Velma Fern Worden in a small town in Oklahoma and was raised by her grandparents because her mother, who was little more than a girl herself, had no interest in raising a young child.

By the time she was 15, Velma was already married – and would be divorced a year later. Not only was Velma beautiful; she was also extremely bright. But she was very young when she first started working and she had no experience in a business environment. When she showed up for her first day as the new copy girl for the “Daily Oklahoman,” her first – and last – job there was to manage the ticker tapes for the stock market.

“Let’s just say the stock market report didn’t make it into the paper that day,” she says, with the same dazzling smile she used for her audiences more than 65 years earlier.

Velma Fern Worden went on to become one of the highest paid and most well-known burlesque queens in the industry. Early in her career, she changed her name to the name she is most comfortable using today – April March. The name came from one of her early promoters – Barney Weinstein – who owned the club in Dallas where she got her start.

“He said I should be called April March because I looked like a breath of spring!”

After she left the “Daily Oklahoman,” Velma got a job as a cigarette girl at The Derby Club in Oklahoma City.

“I was 16 years old and I said I was 21,” she says with a smile. “Nobody ever checked back then.”

Her dream was to become a famous movie star. Velma had taken tap, dance, ballet and acrobatics growing up, and she hoped her talents and her good looks would land her in front of a big-name movie producer.

The Derby Club was, of course a striptease club, but Velma didn’t know it when she was hired as cigarette girl. This was her first exposure to burlesque and she found herself fascinated by the women, whom she calls elegant and ladylike.

“This was back in 1952, and the women were very elegant – nothing like it is today. I thought they were lovely and they acted very ladylike both on and off the stage,” she recalls.

During one of her shifts, she bumped into Barney Weinstein, who was in town from Dallas. He asked her, “When do you go on?”

“I don’t take my clothes off,” was her reply. “I’m going to be a movie star!”

Weinstein told her he couldn’t promise that she’d become a movie star, but if she would come to his club in Dallas and do burlesque, it might open doors for her.

“I know I’ll be seeing you soon,” were his parting words to the young cigarette girl.

A few months later, Velma was on a Greyhound bus headed to Dallas. She told her grandparents she had gotten a job tap- dancing at a nightclub there.

“I figured that, if I didn’t have to take off too many clothes, it could be a gateway to Hollywood.”

Weinstein had told her she’d be more covered up than if she was wearing a bathing suit, after all.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly true. But April March went on to become one of the most sought after and well-known burlesque dancers of her time, in the same category with Gypsy Rose Lee. She ultimately became known as the “First Lady of Burlesque,” both for the ladylike way she disrobed onstage as well as for her remarkable resemblance to First Lady, Jackie Kennedy.

During the course of her career, April March danced for the renowned Harold Minsky, she traveled to England where she performed for three months and she

 headlined with Anne Corio – who was even bigger than Gypsy – at a major show on Broadway, “This was Burlesque.” She even appeared in Jim Henson’s academy-award winning short film, “Timepiece,” and with an eight handicap in golf, she was the only woman in burlesque to appear in “Sports Illustrated.”

April’s personal life was a bit more tumultuous than her professional life.

“I think I was just looking for love,” she says, adding that she didn’t have any role models.

She was married to eight men, tying actress Elizabeth Taylor’s record. She was also engaged to several other men, some of whom were well-known – even famous – such as singer Mel Torme and Karl Ullman, a powerful figure in the Los Angeles Teamsters Union. She dated Joe DiMaggio and an Arab Sheik, before finally settling down for the past 39 years with husband, Jeff Edmiston. 

In 1985, April and Jeff came to Lake George one summer and fell in love with the area. She has been here ever since and she now travels around the country as a guest lecturer and performer. Although, these days, she doesn’t remove anything more than her elbow-length gloves.

She has appeared in a documentary produced by Leslie Zemeckis titled “Behind the Burley-Q,” and a film about her career,

“Becoming April March,” will make its debut sometime later this year or early in 2018.

In the meanwhile, at 81 years old, April March has lost none of her beauty, grace and style. Her book, “Reflections of My Life, April March, The First Lady of Burlesque,” was published in 2016 is available at Northshire Books. When she isn’t busy doing book signings and giving talks, April is traveling to appearances throughout the Northeast and in Las Vegas. And when she isn’t traveling or making appearances, she’s thinking about her second book.

“After all,” she says with that dazzling smile of hers, “there’s still so many stories to tell!” -SS


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