Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Mid-Summer's Night "Heaven Lee" Dream



While we were students at Vanderbilt, the legal drinking age (along with the voting age) was lowered to 18.


That meant many of us (if we could get off campus) got our first chance to experience a bit of Nashville's nightlife (such as it was in the early 1970s).


One place some of us got to visit for the first time (legally) was Nashville's (World Famous) Printer's Alley, a hidden-away collection of smokey nightclubs and bars located between Third and Fourth Avenues North stretching from Union to Church Streets downtown.


At the beginning of the 20th Century, Printer's Alley, as its name suggests, was the location of many of Nashville's printing and publishing companies. It was also part of Nashville's "Men's District", with saloons, gambling halls and speakeasies, a tradition that was still in full swing when we arrived at Vanderbilt (although the approval of liquor-by-the-drink for Nashville in 1968 began a decline of The Alley after people could go to respectable restaurants and get their mixed drinks).


The Alley, especially The Black Poodle Club, was also known for exotic dancing. And during the days we were in college, when someone said the words "exotic dancer" in Nashville they were usually talking about Heaven Lee (yes, she was), a Cuban-born daughter of a wealthy plantation owner (according to one Nashville-history website I found) whose real name was Vianka de la Prida.


She performed off-and-on at the Poodle Club (if you'll pardon the pun) for over a decade, reportedly earning as much as $57,000 by 1980. She developed something of a following at Vanderbilt. The photo of her above was taken on a trip to campus where she visited a fraternity house (anyone remember which one?) for dinner.


There are also reports I found on this Nashville history web site that she "once lead a panel discussion on women's rights for a Vanderbilt fraternity." Was this on the same visit or another time?


I also remember a picture in our COMMODORE Yearbook of her being interviewed by Class of '73 member and WRVU Station Manager Steve Womack when she came to campus (hey, who could miss a scoop and a news assignment like that!).


If anyone has some memories of her visit or visits to Vanderbilt please share them below. Or tell us about going downtown to see her at the Black Poodle?


Or maybe you remember another big splash she made in the local news in 1970 when, again according to a Nashville history website, she appeared to ride (ala Lady Godiva) nude on horseback down James Robertson Parkway "to protest environmental pollution.... she later told a TENNESSEAN reporter she had worn a body stocking."


Things got a bit devlish for Heaven Lee after we graduated. Metro passed a law that made her wear pasties (her's were lace because, she said, she believed nudity was art). She had a couple of bad marriages, a drunk driving arrest, a near fatal car crash and finally had to declare bankruptcy. But perhaps, worst of all, she angrily denied reports she was really a tranvestite.


Heaven Lee seems to have left Nashville about 1990, and was last reported living in South Florida with her mother. For a while it appeared Printer's Alley was headed south too. But the area has been revitalized and might be a place to go visit if you want to sample current Nashville nightlife you come back for Reunion weekend October 24-25.


By the way, the old Black Poodle Club is no more. The building it was located in is now "The Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar", also known (according to Printer's Alley website) as the "Cheers" bar of Nashville and "a place where musicians, artists, tourists and Nashville locals meet to listen to the finest country music in Nashville since 1996."


But Heaven Lee is not completely forgotten. The write-up on the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar mentions that "back in the '60s, it was the home of the world famous Heaven Lee. The club was always packed when she was in town."


Heaven Lee...yes, she was, and you are welcome to leave your memories below.














2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was the ATO house (not surprising). That is Jack Muench ("Muenche") pretending to be looking at her plate of food.

She actually came to a couple of football games, and sat right behind my parents. So, her tickets must have come from a player (in the same section). I think it was Mac Brown, but don't quote me on that. My Dad was sure glad that she was behind him, as he had traveled 600 miles to watch the game, and was too old to take much more of a beating.

See you in Oct,
George Tomlinson

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