Rest in Peace, Betty Vee — The Famous Dancer at Memphis' Whirlaway Club
Today's edition of The Commercial Appeal (October 24) carried the obituary for Betty Vansickle McGough, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 72. The death notice certainly gives the impression of a life well-lived: a 23-year marriage, longtime employment at the Memphis Lamp Plant, Ellendale Baptist Church member, and more. She leaves behind a large number of children, followed by 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
But what the obit doesn't say is that this woman — better known at the time as Betty Vee — had a considerable measure of fame back in the mid-1960s, when she was arrested and charged with public indecency because of the "scandalous" outfits (like the one shown here) she wore as one of the city's first g0-go dancers, performing at the old Whirlaway Club on Lamar.
After what I expect was a very intense examination, Betty and another dancer, Sue Stennett, were arrested because their outifts were considered far too risque for the time (the police even measured the amount of cloth around the leg openings!), and also because they performed dance moves that were considered obscene, including something called "The Gravy Train," which I'll just leave to your imagination. But keep in mind that "obscene" back then was considerably more tame than anything you'll see today on Dancing with the Stars.
After a lot of court testimony, a judge decided the whole thing was much ado about nothing, since — as Betty and Sue pointed out — their costumes covered more flesh than most bathing suits you could find at McKellar Lake at the time. The dancers and the club owner paid small fines, and the two women went back to dancing, though Betty soon after left the Whirlaway Club and got a "real" job at the Memphis Lamp Plant.
I told the whole story of our city's bizarre "Dirty Dancing" incident in the June 2009 issue of Memphis magazine. Go here to read it.
After my original story came out, I actually got a call from Betty's daughter, who filled me in on many interesting details about her mother's "notorious" career. You can read all about that here, and you should. Betty was a true original, "bucking the establishment" as long as she could.
My sympathies to Betty and her family.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES