2021-06-01 14:02:33 UTC
In the 1950s and ’60s, Ms. Warren made sex the central subject of her
nightclub routines, and of popular comedy albums like “Knockers Up!”
By Neil Genzlinger
May 28, 2021
Rusty Warren started out in the early 1950s performing harmless fare in
bars and clubs in the Boston area and the Catskills.
“Mostly I’d play the piano and I sang a little,” she said. “But every so
often I would get a heckler, and I’d talk back to him, and people would
start to laugh. And of course I liked that laughter much better than I
did some of that applause, so I started to talk more, and to sing and to
And what talk it was. In the wholesome era of “Our Miss Brooks” and
“Father Knows Best” on television, Ms. Warren, who died at 91 on Tuesday
in Orange County, Calif., developed a scandalous comedy routine that was
full of barely veiled innuendo about sex, outrageous references to
breasts and more, much of it delivered in a husky shout.
With that new risqué routine, she began packing larger clubs all over
the country. The release in 1960 of her second comedy album, the
brazenly titled “Knockers Up!,” only increased her fame.
It was a booming time for live comedy and comedy records — “The
Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” Mr. Newhart’s Grammy-winning
breakthrough, was released the same year — and Ms. Warren emerged as a
star in an out-of-the-mainstream sort of way.
“She was red hot,” Neil Norman, the owner of GNP Crescendo Records, who
made a documentary about her, “Rusty Warren: Knockers Up! The Lady
Behind the Laughs” (2008), said by phone.
Her humor may seem retro and regressive by today’s standards, but in the
late 1950s and early ’60s it resonated with a certain segment of fans,
especially women, who were getting ready to shed the straitjackets of
“Her demographic was housewives, because she would joke around about sex
and marriage and that stuff,” although she herself was gay, Mr. Norman said.
As she once explained, “I like helping inhibited females enjoy themselves.”
She released more than a dozen albums, including “Rusty Warren Bounces
Back” (1961), “Banned in Boston” (1963), “Bottoms Up” (1968) and
“Sexplosion” (1977), selling hundreds of thousands of copies (“Knockers
Up!” was a longtime resident of the Billboard 200 chart) even though for
much of her career some retailers wouldn’t display them prominently and
television producers wouldn’t give her the bookings that more mainstream
Ms. Warren was born on March 20, 1930, in New York City and adopted as
an infant by Herbert and Helen Goldman of Milton, Mass., who gave her
the name Ilene Goldman. Her father was in the Navy and was later a
railroad worker. Her mother, Ms. Warren said, having been told that her
birth family was a musical clan, made sure that she took piano lessons
as a child. Growing up in Milton, south of Boston, she showed a
wisecracking side as well.
“I had this comedy streak in me that was constant since I was a young
child,” Ms. Warren told Today’s Arizona Woman in 1983. “I would always
open my mouth, and partially my foot was in it.”
After high school, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music,
studying classical piano and voice and thinking she might become a
teacher. But after graduating in the early 1950s, she started performing
in nightclubs and bars. The singer and comedian Sophie Tucker was an
influence. She caught Ms. Warren’s act one day and heard her cover Ms.
Tucker’s song “Life Begins at Forty.” Afterward she gave the young
performer some advice.
“She asked me why would I ever do that song when I was 24 years old,”
Ms. Warren told the comedy website SheckyMagazine.com. “She also told me
to be honest with my audiences, as they will know if you’re lying,
because audiences are smarter than you think they are.”
She had taken a stage name — “Rusty because of my hair color and Warren
because we lived on the corner of Warren Street,” as she would explain
in her act. And, at the suggestion of one club owner, she started
working song parodies into her repertory. She started telling more and
more jokes, and a nightclub act evolved, one that led her to bigger and
bigger clubs. In the late 1950s, when she was playing at the Crescendo
in West Hollywood, Calif., the club’s owner, Gene Norman — Neil’s father
— told her that she had to get out from behind the piano because people
in the back of the room couldn’t see her.
“I ended up with a pianist behind me,” she said.
During an extended run at the Pomp Room in Phoenix, she recorded her
first album, “Songs for Sinners,” released in 1959 on Jubilee Records.
She had also begun perfecting the “Knockers Up March,” which, she said,
began a few years earlier when, as she was playing a marching rhythm on
the piano, a club owner in Dayton, Ohio, urged patrons to get up and parade.
“I told the women to march with their boobs held high,” she told The Las
Vegas Sun in 1978, “knockers up, so to speak, and a new phrase was born.”
The bit became so popular that Jerry Blaine, the owner of Jubilee,
decided to flaunt it by naming her second album after the phrase.
“And they said: ‘You wouldn’t dare. How are you going to sell it? Where
are you going to put it? No one is going to take it,’” Ms. Warren told
Kliph Nesteroff, a scholar of comedy, in a 2010 interview. “Jerry says,
Like that album title, Ms. Warren’s patter was full of suggestiveness
that was racy for the time. “If you’re interested in living the rest of
your life with him, don’t give it to him now,” she admonished women in
her audiences who were dating or engaged. “Give it to his friends and
let them tell him how good you are!”
Her material may have been saucy, but she always maintained that she was
less bawdy than the handful of other brash female comics of the era,
like Belle Barth and Pearl Williams. (“I was the tame one of all of us,”
she said.) She didn’t use four-letter words or go in for jokes about
things like bondage; she said conventional courtships and marriages
provided plenty to laugh about.
“Two fellas meet each other in the street one day,” went one gag that
always drew a sustained laugh. “One fella said to the other, ‘Hello
there, George, how’s your wife?’ He said, ‘Better than nothing.’”
ImageMs. Warren’s several generations of fans included the
comedian Scott Rogowsky, seen here in 2018.
Ms. Warren’s several generations of fans included the comedian Scott
Rogowsky, seen here in 2018.Credit...Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times
In the days before social media, Ms. Warren, who continued to perform
into the 1980s, helped sell her shows and her albums by maintaining an
extensive mailing list and using gimmicks like the Knockers Up Club. And
fans helped spread the word.
“You’d enjoy my album in the backyard with the barbecue,” she said. “You
wouldn’t sit there with earphones. That’s what I was selling: a sharing
Ms. Warren died at a friend’s home in Orange County, said Liz Rizzo, who
was her partner for many years. She leaves no immediate survivors. In
2016 Ms. Rizzo published “Rusty Warren: The Knockers Up Gal,” a
biography augmented with a wealth of memorabilia from Ms. Warren’s life.
Late in her career, Ms. Warren would sometimes have an odd experience:
Longtime fans would bring their grown children backstage to meet her.
“They would introduce me to the children they had hid my records from,”
she told The Sun. “Sometimes the children will tell me about playing my
records, and that their parents hadn’t hidden the records well enough.”