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John Compton on Broadway

Interview by Lynette
Written by Najia Marlyz

Laughing, the svelte and good-looking co director of the Hahbi' Ru Dance Ensemble, John Compton, (who does not use a Middle Eastern alias) proudly shows me his muscles in a comical way to demonstrate his current state of good health. "Look how I am beefing up," he says, with the famous twinkle in his eye. I start the interview with a very pointed question and receive a very open and honest answer.

"Yes I still have HIV and I'm doing well." "Do you remember that benefit in San Jose that Una did for me when everyone thought I was dying?" "You know," John says, "I never even knew that the so-called benefit dinner and performance was supposed to have been a benefit at all! She asked me to perform for a dinner show! I only found out about the concept after it was all over. Sharlyn Sawyer called me to apologize for not having been there to support me and she said she was sending me a check directly for $25. By mail. So that is the total amount that I received from that benefit! I don't know who received the money from that benefit, but it sure wasn't me."

I asked John to tell about the decline of the famous tourist attraction, Finnocchio's, on Broadway in North Beach, San Francisco; So John began to speak of that past time:

"I worked from 1980 through 1985, though I had a six year contract through an agent. My agent made ten percent of my pay but he became lazy in my behalf and I was able to get out of the contract after five years. I did not like the life, and though I received good money and was the only male dancer at that time, I was not happy. I made what was considered good salary and received dental and health benefits while the female dancers across the street were making twenty-five dollars per night dancing forty-five minute sets. My agent would tell the club owner 'we want this much, and they gave us whatever we wanted.
About this time other male dancers started appearing on the scene. It seemed to me that the dancer Rashid followed behind me wherever I performed, substituting at Finnochio's when I was on vacation, and, prior to that, in Hawaii at the Marrakech in Honolulu when I left. At Finnochio's I made $125 per night to start and then had Christmas bonuses and raises.

At Finnocchio's we had totally unique audiences: tourists and celebrities such as Bette Davis, the Ringling Brothers circus performers, and Martha Ray from the '30s and '40s Bob Hope movies. They all saw me dance and were a great audience! It was different from the Casbah and the Bagdad where there were largely Arabic audiences and a only a handful of tourists.

Finocchio's was full of characters! From transvestites and transsexuals, to the married men who dawned a dress to support their families. I remember one, Florencio Del La Santos, who has now passed away. He was the prettiest thing Finocchio's ever employed There was also Lori Shannon/Don McClean who was Beverly La Salle, on "All in the Family". Don received the series second longest laugh when Archie Bunker kissed him!

You know, I just remembered Juana and his transformation.I shared a dressing room with Juana. I was there when he took his first female hormone pill. I watched this Spanish guy who didn't speak any english and then he was sprouting little breasts. He was one of the Evettes, and very beautiful.

Laverne/Paul Cummings sang 1940's and 1950's songs like Everything Old is New Again. He had been there since 1956. Carol Wallace was the Mistress of Ceremonies, there since World War II. Eve Finocchio said to me, "I want you to sing." I said, "I don't sing!" but they made me sing anyway. I got stuck with singing I've Got Spurs that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle, Ferdinand the Bull, Mac the Knife, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It was a variety show featuring acts like a ventriloquist, a magician, a puppeteer, a comedian, a chorus of Evettes, etc. I was the staight act. I was for the women in the audience. The original Mrs. Finnochio died in the 1950s and I was told that she was the brain behind Finnocchio's. The new Mrs. Finnochio didn't have any vision (so the old timers told me). Our common joke was that she would wait at the border and offer a green card to any man that would wear a dress in her show.

The Broadway Scene
Here is a column you can use titled "In One Ear" by Herb Cain. We were always mentioned in the papers and were often treated like San Francisco celebrities. I always had to explain that I don't dance in a dress and that I am not a female impersonator! Anyway, the job at Finocchio's became harder as the scene on Broadway got uglier. (I got off work at two a.m.). When the 49ers won the Super Bowl, we needed a police escort to get to our cars. The street actually was closed.

There was no Casa Madrid at this time, it was "The Stone" (actually, The Keystone). The Greek Taverna was already extinct. Sometimes, when I got off early at 1:00am, I would go into the Bagdad or the Casbah and it was always quiet. In the 1970s, they were packed at that time of the night. Still, those times were fun because Fadil Shahin at the Casbah treated me like a celebrity .

"Did you know Bert Balladine?" I asked. "Yes, I know Bert, but I don't remember Bert dancing on Broadway. At that time, he was teaching. I took one lesson with Bert. His style was too seductive for me. Bert teaches very well. Instead of dancing alone, when he danced he was a personality. He framed the dancer he was partnering. I have never seen him dance a solo. I only saw him perform with women.

I, on the other hand, preferred to dance solo and remember looking at postcards of the famous old man from Moroccco dancing with a tray. In Egypt, I saw men belly dancing, not in a nightclub, but in the countryside.

Bal Anat
I asked John Compton to tell about his years with the Bal Anat and Jamila Salimpour before he went to work at Finocchio's. John sighed and began to answer: "I started with Jamila in 1973. One year prior to that she wouldn't teach any men. I had had one private lesson and two weeks in class when she put me on stage at the Renaissance Faire. My role was supposed to be that of a 14 year old dancing boy. Jamilla explained to me that I was dancing as a Kawal, a boy dancer who performed the dance during the time of the Ottoman Empire when it was taboo for women to dance.

They dressed up the young boys to dance as female impersonators. Once, after a show, a man from the Egyptian consulate came up to me and asked if I knew what I was. I told him I was a Kawal . He explained to me that the kawal were male prostitutes. For me, this was just another role to play.

At the Rennaisance Faire, dancing on stage, my little choreography was in sections of eight counts. At the end of my choreography, I would not know what to do, and I'd turn to Jamila and she would mouth something or motion "go longer!" She would do a small version of the next step, teaching me while I was on stage! I was so excited to be there and I was becoming a hit with the audiences. People began to respond to me. At that time I played Syrian cast cymbals and danced with a large tray. I was becoming a star in her show.

At the same time there was another troupe called the Baba Ganoush lead by Patty Farber. It had a group of musicians and did Belly Dance and Turkish Folkdance for the first half of the show, and they finished the show with Macedonian folk dancing. The members of the Bal Anat would run over to see their show during the breaks.

Jamila had a reputation for promoting people and then stomping them back when they became too prominent for her. Some would be strong enough to resist her. Rhea had a love/hate relationship with her. Many of us did. In 1975, Jamila announced that I would be alternating with Chipper. Chipper at the time, was a very beginning dancer. Jamila and I fought and I left Bal Anat. That same afternoon I opened in the other show with Baba Ganoush with a ten minute solo. I dropped the Assuit cloth and wore a Turkish coat. That same year of the fair, Patty and Jamila had a fight. 1975 was our last year, Patty and Jamilla were at war with each other.

Although Jamilla said that Patty stole her dancers and dance style, Baba Ganoush looked very different than Bal Anat. Baba Ganoush's costuming was very folksy, colorful and bright. Patty's marterial came from Margalee Vescarch from the U.C.L.A. Ethnomusicology Department. Jamillas's costuming and style, on the other hand, was very mysterious and dark. Jamila, herself, was very intimidating and had a personal power!

Sharlyn Sawyer was in her show, as was Kathy Balk and Mish Mish.

Then the Renaissance Faire people claimed that they had financial problems. They fired all the non-English paid performers. We were among the first to go! They fired Jamila's Belly Dancers, Patty's Turkish Dancers, the Flamenco Dancers, the Indian show, and others.

Patty Farber had a clothing line. She dropped her dancing and then focused on her clothing business. Troupe Baba Ganoush came to an end.

I interjected, " I heard that Jamila's dancers were always walking around in character."
"Yeah, John continued. In the 1970's, I walked around like that too, wearing bedoin clothing. I remember caravaning with her in another car, through a gasoline station. She would get gasoline, and then I would also fill up. The attendants just accepted our look. San Francisco was so full of characters that it was not a big deal - even in the service stations. Even Pier 39 used to have a slide show called the "San Francisco Experience" that showed the different characters around town. We were all characters! I remember seeing my head covering the whole wall! Jamila had created the mystic, this tribe to which we could belong. I'm thankful that she gave me a start in all this. I feel that I have continued with this with the creation of Hahbi 'ru.

In 1977 it had been almost one year since I had spoken with Jamila. Then I was involved in a bad motor vehicle accident. When I regained consciousness, the hospital staff told me not to worry, that my "mother" had taken care of everything! This "mother" was none other than Jamila. Jamila took care and cared about you. She tells you one thing and you know she thinks something else.

When Suhaila grew up Jamila dumped her loyal right hand helper, Aida, and when Suhaila popped up with her new style stuff, Jamila dumped her old style technique. Jamila wanted me to teach Suhaila's new stuff. I cannot do this new stuff. Jamila trained me to dance in her old style and that is the style that I carried on.

Post Bal Anat
In the late 1970s I was dancing in Sunnyvale, California, at Aladdin's Pizza Parlor. I gained notoriety at the Friday lunch shows which would get booked three or four months in advance. I did some Saturday night shows there also and it was almost like the Chippendales shows. There would be about three hundred frenzied women and maybe fifty men. The main part was the tipping.

Sharlyn did me a great favor during the 1970s: She taught me how to get tips. She taught me to be silly, just play it up with the audience. I'd see three hundred women out there in the audience and I knew I would make at least $200 in tips!

Many television shows and articles. One article was in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "Valentino is Alive and Well, Dancing in Sunnyvale". I was on a TV show about mating and dating. Well, all the television magazine shows did a segment on my dancing and me. Hour Magazine, Real People, You Asked for It! Evening Magazine in San Francisco screamed, "Here we are in San Francisco. The Belly dancer is coming out! Our Belly dancer is a MAN!"

I danced in the Marrakech in Waikiki, Hawaii for about one year. Jalaladin (Jalal) Takesh was there at the same time. Jalal was being paid for all the performers in the whole show. He retained half our tips and also charged us room rent. We were paid half of what we were supposed to receive. Then I had to return to San Francisco to take care of other business. That was good for me because the Marrakech got into the drug scene. They got in financial trouble and they burned the restaurant down, it was rumored, for the insurance claim.

I also worked in many places around San Jose, California. I worked at the Balkan Village in Los Altos. The San Jose places paid better.

I asked John about the American Tribal Style and what he thought of it. He answered, "The Belly Dance community is mistakenly calling my troupe, Hahbi' ru, an American Tribal Style, and we even wound up in the book titled "Tribal Bible"! We are not! They have, in my opinion, a strained posture and perform very different than we do. Their names of the movements are all the same as ours, but they perform more like a precision drill team with the steps fitting neatly in a structured form. Hahbi'ru is different and unique, we should perhaps be labeled "Tribal Folkloric". To me Tribal has to do with a family unit, and surely ATS, Jamila's Bal Anat, and Hahbi 'Ru all have that in common. We base our dances upon tradition, but interpret that tradition and with a bit of creative license change them and make them stage worthy. We do sneak in some modern movements but try to integrate them in an old-style way. Jamila's group was a 1940s or '50s look. It was a heavy Assuit cloth look that I believe she derived from old photographs. I would describe our Hahbi' Ru style as a flashy country or colorful folkloric look.

More on Finnochio's
As most conversations happen, we once again referred back to Finocchio's as I asked John to talk about the exciting things in his career. "My job at Finocchio's was not exciting; it was more on the boring side. I went to Finocchio's after working in Las Vegas. Upstairs at Finocchio's they did a lot of partying and drinking blenders drinks. Marguerita parties every night in order to deal with the boredom. It was boring because it was the same show every night. No, I didn't like the life. I was at the club until 2 a.m. and then slept away half of the next day. Then it was back to the club to do it all over again. We were not allowed out of the dressing room. Apparently some of the performers were actually hustling on the street. Laura (Florencio Della Santos) was also my dressing room mate. She had soft skin and was a pre-operative transsexual. Did you know that with hormone treatments even the genitals shrink? But back to the subject, it used to be required that to play our roles, performers had to walk in and out as a man.

At Finocchio's I worked to Middle Eastern music on audiotapes for about a year. Laverne Cumming complained that I mesmerized the audience too much with that music. So that did it! I had to dance to the music of the band that was a piano, sax, and trap drums. They played Jazz style show tunes. That is all they knew. I wrote down some Middle Eastern tunes but it was flat because they were so bad at it. I had to play finger cymbals just to keep the beat. Later, Mrs. Finocchio put the Evettes behind me as a chorus line and they were dressed in Patty Labelle Belly dance style outfits. This was near the end of Finocchio's.

After I left Finnochio's, I became a landscaper, a job that made good money. I became the foreman. I also danced at Magreeb Restaurant on Saturday nights, did lots of bachelorette parties. Jeez, I know what it's like to be a piece of meat!"

Las Vegas
"John, please talk a bit more about Las Vegas!" I urged. "Marliza Pons ruled the Las Vegas Belly Dance scene at that time. Oh, I danced for the opening of the film "The Mummy" a few months ago. It was for six thousand people, including the cast of the movie. I left Las Vegas in 1980. I was dancing at the Sahara for one month, but before that I was dancing for about a month in Reno. It was just myself dancing with an audiotape. There was no band. It was a lounge show with slot machines! My act was between a big country singer with a big hair and a comedian. I worked odd hours-one o'clock, three o'clock, five o'clock in the morning! There was no glamour-it was just a lounge show and dancing at odd times. If the audience was winning at the tables, they were great, but if they were losing, then they'd say, "What the Hell is this?"

John and Hahbi'ru Dance Ensemble will be performing Saturday, March 25, 2000 at the Rakkasah Festival in Richmond, CA. See their web site for more!

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8-15-07 Amina's North Beach Memories Chapter 6: Bert, by Amina Goodyear
On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.


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