Project 49 is a monthly series from the University of Alaska Anchorage, highlighting characters and events from Alaska’s rich history that have been preserved in our archives.
Who says archival research can’t get a little racy? We’ve all seen depictions of historic Gold Rush Alaska, complete with ruffled-petticoat dance hall girls and swinging-door saloons, but here’s a chance to learn more about showgirls of a different vintage.
When Alaska’s free-flowing “black gold” transformed Anchorage into a boomtown 40 years ago, the increased demand for pretty ladies attracted dancer Lynn McConnell (stage name: Labelle) to work in the Kit Kat Club. A carefully compiled slice-of-life album from her year in Anchorage (1977–1978) sits on the shelves of Archives & Special Collections between a collection from Anchorage artist Sam McClain and the scrapbook of 1940s steamship traveler Dorothy McCurrach.
Signed by the Jess Mack Agency in 1977, McConnell was booked as a featured performer at the Kit Kat Club and the Sportsman Club for an initial run of six weeks at $300/week in addition to the price of a round trip California-Alaska airline ticket.
Destination: Showgirl Museum?
In 2009, head archivist Arlene Schmuland fielded an email inquiry from California resident McConnell. She was moving to Italy with her husband and wanted to find a home for her memorabilia. She could gift it to the Las Vegas Showgirl Museum, but thought it might be of interest to an Anchorage archive since it offered a glimpse into community history. (She saved two photos of 1977 Cal Worthington Ford, which doesn’t look too much different from the 2014 version.)
Included with McConnell’s Alaska postcard collection and photographs of her fellow dancers are typed explanations that put photos and clippings in context. In them, she details the inner workings of an establishment like the Kit Kat Club.
Everyone is expected to B drink, that is, sit with customers and drink watered down or non-alcoholic drinks. The first time I have ever seen a “spit class”, a chimney (tall frosted) glass that the old timers would carry on their tray to spit out their drinks, while pretending to drink water. We were also expected to push drinks, and sell bottles of cheap champagne (of various sizes) outlandishly high-priced.
Fun fact: No matter your line of work, you’ll always find something useful at your local library. Designers for the 2013 John Cusack film The Frozen Ground perused the McConnell collection for period costume ideas.
What they found was a little more fabric than they bargained for, judging by the costumes that made it into the film’s final cut. McConnell’s elaborate costumes were largely handmade and much more about telling a story (fairy godmother, mermaid) than you’d expect from a roadside nightclub with four-foot letters advertising GIRLS across the blue siding.
McConnell writes, “Because Alaska was remote at the time, and there were not a lot of costumers, most of the feature girls did some sewing and designing.”
Newcomers shared a trailer behind the club for $35/week. Between sets and sewing, they found time to have a little fun, exploring the city and skiing at Alyeska, as well as planning a wedding for another dancer, Raven.
Happily ever after, ‘Addams Family’-style
Black-haired Raven was the club’s snake dancer whose love story is detailed in a newspaper clipping McConnell saved. Raven met the man of her dreams, a mortician’s assistant named Kenney Voltz, while dancing one night when she handed him her python and he didn’t flinch, notes the article that went on to dub them the “Addams Family” of their new midwest hometown.
Scrawled on the back of McConnell’s Polaroid from the Voltz wedding is a quick explanation: “Raven wedding at the funeral home across from Kit Kat Club.” To save on ceremony costs, the couple took advantage of the flower-filled mortuary where hubby-to-be worked, wheeling the casket aside to make room for cake and revelers.
It’s not your typical fairytale romance, though Raven did have an inside line to her own fairy godmother Labelle.
To learn more about the Lynn McConnell collection, visit the UAA/APU Consortium Library Archives & Special Collections guide to collections. The archives are open to the public for research.