Today would have been my grandfather’s 97th birthday. In celebration of the event, I am posting, under the Creative Commons license, my previously unpublished article about Irving Klaw’s film career.
All About the Tease
As a child all I knew of my grandfather was that he was a pornographer, albeit a very tame one. My mother’s exact words were, “They show worse things on Cinemax.”
I first learned more about him while attending the 1989 San Diego ComicCon when publisher/artist Ray Zone first told me of my family legacy. Initially my grandfather Irving Klaw ran a mail-order business that sold pin-ups of Hollywood stars. He later expanded into pictures and films of attractive women in bondage and other fetishistic poses. Klaw pioneered both the movie star image and adult entertainment industries. His best known model, Bettie Page, was one of the most photographed women of the 1950s, appearing on more magazine covers than anyone else in the decade.
Inspired by the success of Jerald Intrator’s 1952 burlesque film Striporama, my grandfather produced and directed Varietease (1954), Teaserama (1955), and Buxom Beautease (1956). The films featured burlesque acts with stripteases, comedy acts, and musicians with famed beauties Page, Lili St. Cyr, and Tempest Storm.
Also during this period, Klaw produced thousands of feet of black and white film loops featuring striptease and fetish acts. These shorts featured only women, either by themselves or sometimes in pairs, in a variety of situations often involving bondage and spanking. The models– most famously Page– never appeared terrified and seemed to be enjoying themselves in a non-sexual, no-threatening way. As with his photos, these movies contained only the suggestion of nudity. My grandfather often required the models to wear two pairs of panties so no pubic hair could be seen. Not a pornographer, Klaw was all about the tease.
Thanks largely to his fetish business, Klaw testified before the 1955 United States Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The subcommittee, one year before, had famously forced the comic book industry to adopt a code to stop the publication of “inappropriate” comic book material. Now they were investigating my grandfather. The New York City press plastered the sensationalistic episode throughout the city, where Klaw became known as the “Smut King.”
My grandfather’s legal problems persisted for nearly ten years. Federal authorities intercepted his mail and bugged his phones. As late as 1964, Klaw was brought before a federal court on charges of conspiracy to send obscene material through the mail.
With the shifting political and social climate, Irving returned to filmmaking in 1963, producing two “lost” films: Larry Wolk’s Intimate Diary of an Artist’s Model and Nature’s Sweethearts, co-directing the latter. Unlike, his previous films, both pictures featured a lot of topless women.
The legal and cultural ramifications of his twenty year career ushered America from the sexually conservative 1950s to the sexually charged 1960s. His impact on the exploitation films of the 1960s was profound influencing everything from Barbarella to Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!. In his book Sinema, Douglas Brode argues that Klaw’s pictures of Bettie Page and “friends” inspired lesbian chic– the notion of women as “bisexually sensuous”– in both film and television. Rachel Schteir in the excellent Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (Oxford, 2005) asserts that “[Klaw's] movies did more to spread striptease across the country in this era [the 1950's] than any one burlesque short. [...] What they did was spread striptease, drag strips, and burlesque comedy to a provincial audience. In essence, they were giving these audiences what they might see in Miami, Las Vegas, or some other cosmopolitan city.” The contemporary popularity of his movies inspired the current neo-burlesque revival in major American cities.
In late 1955, legendary exploitation filmmakers David Friedman and Dan Sonney acquired the rights to both Teaserama and Varietease for $5,000. Sonney owned burlesque theaters on Main Street in L.A. and earned back the initial investment within a year. During the 1980’s, Something Weird Video introduced the movies to a new generation. Both Teaserama and Varietease are currently available on DVD.
At the time of his death in 1966– sixteen months before I was born– my grandfather lived in relative obscurity. Few imagined that nearly forty years later, his movies would be considered softcore classics and major precursors to the sixties “nudie-cuties” and the later hardcore porn films. Or that two features (The Notorious Bettie Page  and Bettie Page: Dark Angel ) would be made about Bettie Page with my grandfather as major character and that DVD compilations of Klaw’s films are bestsellers. Klaw’s work influenced a generation of filmmakers, photographers, and entertainers including Russ Meyer, John Waters, Madonna, Missy Suicide, and others. Ironically, without my grandfather there would have been no Cinemax.
All About The Tease by
Rick Klaw is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.