Sally Rand’s…Nude Ranch

Yes, you read that correctly. “Nude Ranch.”

In the 1930s, as the dude ranch got more popular with vacationers and started showing up in movies and books, one entertainer took the concept and gave it some sex appeal. Her name was Sally Rand.

Born Helen Beck in Missouri in 1904, she got interested in dance when she was very young and worked her way onto the stage via the chorus line and the circus. She worked in silent films for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, and after joining Cecil B. DeMille’s company, he gave her the name “Sally Rand.” She wasn’t able to make the leap to sound films, so she took her dancing skills and created a new career as a “fan dancer” at the Paramount Club in Chicago. Her dancing style stopped just short of obscene, and just within legal boundaries for burlesque theater (though she was arrested a few times).

In 1933 she crashed the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition (un)dressed as Lady Godiva on a white horse. Management hired her immediately to perform for expo visitors.

Her Chicago appearance got the attention of the organizers of Cheyenne’s annual Frontier Days, and they signed her for the 1935 event. There, she did her fan dance for audiences, and in her off hours she wore a white buckskin dress.

When newspapers announced that Rand would be performing at the 1935 Frontier Days, a reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune wrote: “With Sally Rand and her dancers coming to Wyoming for Frontier Days, now is the time for somebody out our way to go the resort one better and start a nude ranch.”

So that’s what Sally did.

The next year, 1936, she debuted a brand-new show at the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial: “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch.” One entire building was devoted to the “ranch” with the name displayed in large letters made of wood with frontier-style carving. At first glance, it looked like “Dude Ranch” but if you looked closer, you’d see that the “D” was crossed out and replaced with an “N” just above it. For a quarter, guests could go through the doors and watch girls in boots, hat, and gun belt twirl lariats and do non-traditional western activities such as playing badminton.

Three years later Sally was in San Francisco.

In 1939 the city put on a huge world’s fair to celebrate the opening of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Treasure Island was built in the bay to accommodate what was called the Golden Gate International Exposition. By this time, everyone had heard of Sally’s wildly popular show, and she was invited to open the Nude Ranch at the exposition’s midway, known as both the Gayway and “Forty Acres of Fun.”

Opening day was February 18, 1939 and a block-long line soon formed outside the Nude Ranch. The building was constructed to look like a southwestern dude ranch, with adobe walls and a roof of red tiles held up by rough beams. The sign with its crossed-out “D” was prominently displayed, and the forty “rancherettes,” decked out in G-strings, bandannas, boots, belts, holsters, and ten-gallon hats, were protected from the crowds by glass panels. The Nude Ranch was open for the full run of the GGIE, which closed in September of 1940.

The Nude Ranch soon moved into popular culture. A Palm Springs newspaper ran some short verses about the people who walked around town on Sundays, and how they were dressed. One poem ended this way: “Eleven A.M. until five / A mixture of dude ranch / And Sally Rand’s nude ranch / On Sunday on Palm Canyon Drive.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that my 15-year-old father tried to get into the Nude Ranch when he went to the Exposition, but they wouldn’t let him in because he was too young.)

The GGIE was the last time the Nude Ranch was on display. Sally married champion bronc rider Turk Greenough in 1941, and they bought a ranch near Wyola, Montana, but they divorced in 1945. Sally kept up her dancing career until almost the end of her life, and few people knew she was a devoted mother to an adopted son.

She had her pulse on popular culture and took the dude ranch into new and risque realms in the years before World War II. Sally Rand died in Los Angeles County in 1979 at the age of seventy-five.

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