A friend of Rusty Warren’s often tried to get the comedienne back onstage. Warren, who died last month, always refused.
“She’d say, ‘Nope, those days are done, I’m not that person anymore,’” recalls local historian Marshall Shore. “By then, she had COPD and was on oxygen around the clock. She wanted to be remembered for who she’d been.”
Who Warren had been was a proto-feminist comedienne whose schtick was sex and how to use it. She became known as “The Knockers Up Girl,” a reference to her million-selling second album of 1960, recorded at Phoenix nightclub The Pomp Room. The LP’s title track extolled housewives to use their bodies to take their place alongside men.
“I told women to march with their boobs held high,” she said in a 1978 Las Vegas Sun interview. “Knockers up, so to speak, and a new phrase was born.”
By 1960s standards, Warren’s material was too racy to score her any radio play or television bookings. Instead, she toured the country playing nightclubs and recording comedy albums, the kind that got played at backyard parties after the kids went to bed.
“Today, Rusty Warren routines sound regressive and the opposite of female-empowered,” says historian Tam Fiegel, who’s preparing a biography of Warren she plans to submit to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. “But in the early '60s, a woman talking about sex was a woman taking a place of power.”
The comic referred to herself as a “broad,” but never a feminist, Shore says of Warren, who made her home in Phoenix for many years before relocating to Hawaii and later Orange County, California, where she died of natural causes on May 25. Shore, who visited Warren annually, heard that Warren was cutting up till the end. “She was making the caregivers laugh, doing her usual naughty comebacks and making passes at the nurses.”
Warren wasn’t openly gay, Shore reports. “But then we went to a diner once and she was hitting on all the young waitresses and not batting an eye about it. She belonged to that era where you were out, but not really.”
Shore’s friendship with Warren nearly ended before it began. “One of the first things I said to her was, ‘Let’s talk about being an out lesbian in the early 1950s.’ I spent a lot of time backpedaling after that, trying to prove I wasn’t going to out her.”
Warren released more than a dozen albums between 1960 and 1977. When her pre-ERA brand of humor became passe, she took occasional stage roles, originating the role of Ma in a local workshop production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy before the playwright took it to Broadway in 1982. Local actor and playwright Greg Lutz, 16 at the time, played Warren’s son. He recalls that she didn’t talk to people so much as perform for them.
“Rusty always had her one-liners locked and loaded,” Lutz remembers. “She was hard of hearing, and instead of saying ‘I can’t hear you,’ she’d throw out an insult to make you laugh.”
Lutz says that he and Warren never really clicked, but that he admired her intelligence. “You could tell there was a lot going on in her mind all the time. When I first met her, I thought Rusty was a drag queen. Our friendship ended when I made the mistake of telling her she reminded me of Rose Marie.”
Warren had her own idols, most notably comedienne Sophie Tucker. “This guy kept coming into the Pomp Room claiming to be Sophie’s piano player and saying she wanted to have lunch with Rusty,” recalls Shore. “Rusty kept saying, ‘Yeah, right, get lost.’” Finally, the pair met, Shore says, and Warren was starstruck.
Artifacts of Warren’s career are housed at the National Comedy Museum in Jamestown, New York, and at ASU, though Shore thinks that isn’t quite enough. “She was a local celebrity, and she was the Knockers Up gal,” he points out. “So therefore, we should have Rusty Warren’s bust displayed in a prominent place somewhere in Phoenix.”