Throwback Thursday – Burlesque Queen Noel Toy

The above circa 1940 video of Chinese-American burlesque queen Noel Toy performing her famous fan dance, makes it clear to see why she was was often billed as “The Chinese Sally Rand.”

Undoubtedly the most famous Asian-American Burlesque performer of her time, Miss Toy began her show biz career as a photographer’s nude model at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Since Asian nude models were a rarity at the time, word soon spread around the San Francisco Bay Area and Noel was contacted by the owner of “Forbidden City,” a once-popular nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Believing Noel was just what he needed to spice up his club, the owner offered her 50 dollars a week (good money for that time) to headline at Forbidden City, which is where she first became known as the Chinese Sally Rand. There, she made famous her fan and “bubble dances,” the latter in which she used large balloons, rather than fans. According to Miss Toy, some customers were successful in popping her balloons with their cigarettes “but they also go it on their bill.”

Noel’s popularity soon escalated and led to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. A spread in Life magazine soon followed and with the national attention she garnished from that, she went on to headline at premier clubs in New York, Boston, and Montreal. Her dance career lasted until she got married in 1945, after which she went into acting, landing small roles in movies starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names at the time. Miss Toy passed away in December of 2003, three days shy of her 85th birthday.

Noel Toy

From her feature in the February 9th, 1942 issue of Life magazine

Noel Toy

Giving a peek at what little she wore during her fan dance …

Noel Toy

…and occasionally during her performances, Noel would treat the audience to views completely unobstructed by her fans

Noel Toy

On of her more risque promo photos, circa 1942

Noel Toy

Promo photo, circa 1945, near the end of her burlesque career

Noel Toy

A then 36-year-old Noel in a still from the 1955 film Incident on the China Coast

Noel Toy

In 2002, at San Francisco State’s McKenna Theater for the Forbidden City, USA DVD launch party

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  1. Avatar of Bubalabobo

    Great post CEC! She had a great body, no wonder she was popular. Across the street was a regular watering hole of mine, and I had no idea that place nearby previously was the Forbidden City–it’s a small building, so the seating and show must have been somewhat close, probably adding to the entertainment. The clubs continued and turned into a pretty robust Chinese club/bar scene along Grant into the 60′s (I’ve been told by some of the old timers) but those days are long gone now. There was a pretty cheesy movie about the Forbidden City club.

  2. Avatar of JohnM941

    Great post! Nice to see you continue featuring old ‘pioneers’ such as the above Noel Toy. And it’s good you’ve also included the picture taken in 2002 to show the continuity of life. Noel was full of life!

    Speaking of burlesque, there is a Chinese lady in New York City who continues the tradition:

  3. CEC’s avatar

    Bubalabobo & JohnM941,

    Thanks guys! Yes, Calamity Chang is one of the most prominent Asian burlesque performers of today. I featured her at the old site and sent her an e-mail about an interview, to which she never replied.