The Desert Room’s Delight: Miss Toni Elling

Miss Toni Elling, “The Duke’s Delight”. Promotional flyer for “America’s Foremost Sepia Singing Ecdysiast”. From early 1960s.

Miss Toni Elling, “The Duke’s Delight”. Promotional flyer for “America’s Foremost Sepia Singing Ecdysiast”. From early 1960s.

The Desert Room was one of the hottest nightclubs in Portland during the 1950s-60s. Today this space is occupied by Hal’s Café (formerly Zeus Café, 2011-2023) within McMenamins Crystal Hotel. If the walls could sing, they would belt out a tune for the vivacious entertainer, Toni Elling. She was a frequent performer in the Desert Room during the 1960s, an international touring act, and a personal friend of the owners, Nate and Tilly Zusman. Starting out as a somewhat reluctant performer in Detroit and blossoming into a sensational burlesque dancer, her story is a fascinating window into classic show business and music history.

The audience at the Desert Room was typically a mixture of men and women, tourists and locals, with seldom a rowdy crowd. (Toni also can’t forget the excellent dinner menu. “I had many a steak there,” she remembered.)

During that era, Toni recalled that Black burlesque dancers were frequently shut out from bookings in clubs or were paid less than their white counterparts. “Nate didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body,” Toni states. He featured an all-Black revue at the Desert Room that showcased Toni along with Stella by Starlight and Anita Dare, other Black Portland strippers, which was rare at the time. Toni usually performed three shows a night, with a late show at 3:00 am! Even when Toni was just the opening act, Zusman paid her the same as the headliner.
“Nate and Tilly Zusman were beautiful people to me.” She even kept in touch with the Zusmans through letters over the years.

Toni Elling was born Rosita Sims in 1929. Before becoming a performer, she tried the regular career life, but her ambition found no opportunity there. She worked at a telephone company in the 1950s, but was denied promotion because she was a Black woman. Toni had friends who worked as strippers and they convinced her to try it… and make better money, too. Her drive for success found an outlet in the world of burlesque performance, and her stunning beauty certainly opened the doors.

Toni Elling, performing in Portland, Oregon, circa late 1960s. This photo is displayed at McMenamins Crystal Hotel.

Toni Elling, performing in Portland, Oregon, circa late 1960s. This photo is displayed at McMenamins Crystal Hotel.

Starting out at 32, Toni began her dancing career later than most showbiz standards, but perhaps that lent her a certain air of sophistication and maturity. “They called me ‘Prude the Pure in Heart’,” Toni said with a laugh. She was initially shy and hesitant to strut her stuff. Her innate shyness, however, mellowed into a fine sensibility of class and good taste. She always preferred to put on a clean (yet spicy) show and detested vulgarity. She aspired to aim high, and her first show was with the incredible R&B soul singer, Jackie Wilson, at the crème de la crème Flame Show Bar in her (and Jackie’s) hometown of Detroit, Michigan. It’s astonishing to hear how Toni already personally knew many of the big name acts at the height of early rhythm & blues.

Toni’s passion for music began early. Her mother was an avid music fan and she brought young Toni to popular concerts in Detroit at the Paradise Theater. And her uncle owned a concert ballroom in Flint, Michigan. In high school, she listened to local radio DJ Ed McKenzie, aka “Jack the Bellboy” who spun the hottest new jazz, R&B and soul music by Black artists in the mid-1940s-1950s, groundbreaking at the time. He received a lot of hate mail from racist whites whose minds were closed to Black music and thought rock n’ roll was corrupting the youth. Yet as a white disc jockey, “J the BB” stood firm and played what he knew was good music, while mocking those hate letters and smashing boring records on air. Toni contacted Jack and suggested he interview musicians on the show. She became the go-between who brought the top touring artists into the studio, including Ella Fitzgerald, the first guest. Through her connections with the radio station, Toni met and befriended not just Jackie Wilson, but also Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis Jr. and Duke Ellington. (Her stage name is an anagram of Ellington. And his song, “Satin Doll,” was written for Toni.)

Then there was the night Count Basie’s Orchestra performed in Detroit. Vocalist Jimmy Rushing encouraged a shy Toni to sing as part of her act. She remembered that night.

“He said, ‘I’ll go out on stage ’ I got all the way to the curtain and I wouldn’t go on!” Toni laughed at her early hesitation.

“He said, ‘These people don’t know you, you’ll never see ‘em again if you flop.’”

Later on, in Portland, Toni, feeling more confident, started singing and would often perform a request from bandleader, Charlie Gabriel at the Desert Room.

“Charlie used to like to hear me sing a certain song,” she said. “Everywhere he’d see me, I would sing an old Basie tune that Jimmy Rushing sang: ‘I Want A Little Girl.’ I changed it to ‘I Want A Little Boy,’ naturally.”

Toni Elling performing, 1960s

Toni Elling performing, 1960s

In 1966, Duke Ellington stopped in Portland on tour and made a surprise appearance at the Desert Room to see Toni’s show. (She was billed as his protégé, after all.)
Being from Detroit, Toni was already well aware of the notable jazz musician, Charlie Gabriel, a native of New Orleans who became a popular bandleader in the Motor City and an in-demand saxophone session player on Motown records (and more recently Portland). When Charlie heard the Duke was dropping in at the Desert Room, he switched the band’s set to all Duke Ellington tunes. On another occasion, the “Hi-De-Ho Man” himself, Cab Calloway stopped by the Desert Room and Toni was persuaded to dance with him after the show.

Toni Elling in her African-inspired ensemble, 1960s

Toni Elling in her African-inspired ensemble, 1960s

Toni’s burlesque performances varied in mood and style; she could come out on stage in anything from an elegant bridal gown, a colorful Carmen Miranda-like costume, or an African-inspired leopard print bikini, complete with bongo drum, Afro wig, and fluorescent face paint. No one could imitate her style. She believed in letting the music move her more than staged choreography and therefore no two Toni Elling performances were the same. Her talent, beauty, and charismatic shows took her touring all across the US, Canada, and even Japan.

In the late ‘60s, Toni decided to settle in Portland, but initially had a difficult time finding a house, as many racist home owners would not sell to Black buyers. Incredibly, none other than Robert Kennedy offered to buy a house for her. He was in Portland for his 1968 political rally.

“Mr. Kennedy said he’d buy me a house and give it to me, ‘See how they like that!’ Honestly! This is the truth,” Toni emphasized.

She was even asked to sing to the crowds along the rest of his presidential campaign tour. But after RFK’s assassination shocked the world, many dreams came to an end.
Toni eventually did buy a house in Portland near Peninsula Park and opened a flower shop and boutique for exotic dance accessories on Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard). Sadly, the tragic death of her brother and father soon brought her back to Detroit in 1970 to be with her mother.

As the ‘70s shifted culture and the nightlife landscape changed, the burlesque world of striptease lost the “tease” and full on strip-shows were expected. Toni was not interested in these kinds of gigs and decided to hang up her feather boas and retire from dancing in 1974.

Toni Elling at Miss Exotic World in Las Vegas, 2007

Toni Elling at Miss Exotic World in Las Vegas, 2007

Toni went on to college and established herself in other conventional careers. Then, in the early 2000s, classic burlesque made a comeback in popular culture. A new generation of dancers reached out to Toni and her star shone brightly once again, as she was recognized for her legacy. She taught burlesque dance to upcoming entertainers and performed well into her 80s. Toni Elling was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in 2016. Today, a framed photo of Toni is displayed at McMenamins Crystal Hotel in downtown Portland. Her gorgeous image charms and mesmerizes, inviting you to imagine nights of classic splendor, from over half a century ago.

McMenamins History Department was thrilled to interview Toni Elling back in 2010.

Editor’s note:

Miss Toni Elling (Rosita Sims) passed away on April 2, 2023, one month shy of her 95th birthday, in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan.

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