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Penny Starr Sr. is determined to prove that age is no barrier.
The 89-year-old burlesque dancer from Palm Bay can be seen on the “America’s Got Talent” stage Tuesday, Aug. 2. She’ll appear in the final audition show airing at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
FLORIDA TODAY talked to Starr, who celebrated her birthday Sunday, about chasing her dream. Starr, whose real name is Janet Gaynor, dances under her stage name.
QUESTION: Tell me about your audition for “America’s Got Talent.”
ANSWER: It was wonderful! I had so much fun. Everybody was so nice. I wasn’t allowed to say “burlesque” at all. I was just was a “dancer.” Now, a burlesque dancer does not dance to a “Grand Old Flag.” Right? That’s the number they picked for me. I said, “Well, I can’t do my regular number but I can march.”
A. They were wonderful! I heard from a lot of people that they’re not going to be nice. But everybody was so nice. Even Simon. Because I was ready for him. If he would have blown the buzzer on me while I was working, I would have turned around and said, “Respect your elders.” But no, he was nice.
When I started my number, the music was starting to play and I started to do my march. And it was all right until I took my boa and my gloves off. You should have seen all of them, their eyes and their mouths got bigger and bigger. When I dropped my gown, Simon turned around to the audience and said, “What the hell is she doing?” From what I understand, they’ve never had a burlesque girl on there before.
Q. How did you pick your stage name?
A. My real name is Janet Gaynor. My mother changed it. I said, “Mom, I need to have a show name.” She says, “Janet Gaynor did ‘Pennies from Heaven,’ so Penny.” She said, “‘A Star is Born,’ there, ‘Penny Starr,’ there’s your name.”
Q. How did you get started as a dancer?
A. I started in 1957. I ran away with a circus. They wanted me to fly, but I was no good on the (trapeze) line. I was in the net more than I was up in the air. So they took me from the aerial act and gave me Lucy, the baby elephant. I worked a dance routine with her. I was with her for over a year. And then they got me into the carnival. The carnival owner’s wife taught me how to be a burlesque dancer.
When we wintered in Tampa, all the girls would go to “Guys and Dolls,” and, of course, I went along. That’s how I started in the business. Then the owner of that club, after working there for about a year, he said, “You know, Janet, you’re good. You’re a hell of a dancer.” He says, “Get yourself an agent and get started.”
Q. Have you met a lot of celebrities through dancing?
A. At one point I worked at The Flamingo, and I used to have breakfast with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra. The Rat Pack. Yes, they knew me very well. They were all nice guys.
Q. Tell me a story about your dancing career.
A. In 1962, I was in Atlantic City where I was playing. There was a pageant called Miss Bumps and Grinds of ’62. I won!
I have no thought about retiring. As long as they want me and can pay for me, I’ll work. So now I’m a legend, and I’m in the Hall of Fame in Vegas.
Q. What do you love about dancing?
A. I love the stage. You have to love the stage and the stage will love you back. And so will the people. If you don’t like the stage, don’t bother.
Q. Do you have a signature move?
A. I was known for “Harlem Nocturne.” That was one of my signature numbers. It’s not fast, it’s more on the slower side, you know, bluesy, with lots of hand and arm movement.
Q. Will you have a viewing party to watch “America’s Got Talent” on Tuesday, Aug. 2?
A. My dog and I, we’re going to watch it. I did it, but I didn’t get to see it, so I want to watch it. I want to see the audience. There’s a lot of things maybe I can incorporate into another number.
Christina LaFortune is the Entertainment and TgIF Editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/christinalafortune, on Twitter at @lafortunec, or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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