Woman was burlesque star

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To her family, she was Rosa Christine Mack. To the rest of America, she was “Baby Dumpling”, a burlesque queen with an innate talent for entertaining.

Rosa was born in Iowa on March 29, 1922 to William Mack and Anila Schultz. Anila, the daughter of a German farmer, was a vaudeville actress from 1919 to 1935. While traveling from Cincinnati to a performance in Chicago in Sept. 1931, she fell asleep at the wheel and her vehicle collided into the side of a bridge. She was critically injured, suffering two broken arms and serious cuts and bruises. Rosa was uninjured except for a few bruises and abrasions.

Rosa caught the showbiz bug from her mother and went on to become an entertainer. Burlesque had been introduced to America by traveling British dance troupes during the 1860s. The female performers dressed in scantily designed erotic costumes complete with boas, garters and stockings. Most performed partially nude in musical acts which were overtly provocative while highly comedic. 

Burlesque was very popular in America through the 1940s, crowds of people paying money to see the hilarious stripteases performed at carnivals, in theaters and at clubs. Rosa was popular in her line of work for several reasons. Tipping the scales at nearly 350 pounds, she was a voluptuous sight to see. Additionally, she had a talent which saw her coined “The Queen of Tassels.” By moving her body in certain ways, she could get all the tassels on her costume twirling in different directions. Her costume usually consisted of little more than sparkly shorts on her bottom half, and two gold tassels adhered to her chest.

Rosa went on to perform with Allen Gilbert’s New York Follies, Jack Norman’s Broadway to Hollywood Revue, and the Johnny J. Jones Exposition.   

She eventually married Walter Chagnon, an orchestra musician from Rhode Island, and they settled in Ohio where they worked for her stepfather, operating concession stands at drive-in movie theaters. They then came back to Walter’s native state, taking up residence in Johnston during the 1950s.

Rosa remained in show business, appearing in the film thriller “The Hostage” with John Carradine and Harry Dean Stanton in 1967. She died in Oct. 1986 and was laid to rest beside Walter at Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa. Two drama masks are etched onto their gravestone, a nod to the stage where Rosa had become a renowned queen of tassel-twirling entertainment.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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