Exotic dancer known as ‘Racetrack Rosie’
By MAUREEN O’DONNELL firstname.lastname@example.org @suntimesobits July 19, 2013 9:01PM
Rosemarie Black, AKA "Racetrack Rosie," with Oprah Winfrey.
Updated: August 21, 2013 6:13AM
There were two things that kept 8-year-old Rosemarie Black going after her mother died and left her alone in a small Mississippi town with an alcoholic father who raged at her and anyone who he thought crossed him.
One was the knowledge that she had brothers in Chicago, where she hoped to escape.
Another was the little cowgirl outfit hand-sewn for her by a kind neighbor.
“She used to dress up and imagine herself somewhere else,” said her daughter, Rochelle Hill.
Mrs. Black would become one of Chicago’s most bodacious characters, a burlesque queen who performed for more than 40 years as “Rosemarie the Shake Dancer.” She never took it all off, yet she could achieve feats of Newtonian physics with three tassels. One adorned her callipygian derriere, and two decorated her bikini top, and she could twirl them — simultaneously — in opposite directions.
Also known as the “Bronze Temptress” and “the Leather Lady,” she appeared on bills with comics Redd Foxx and Nipsey Russell. She met Soul Brother No. 1, James Brown. According to her family, she even received a shout-out in Michael Jackson’s book, Moonwalk.
When she shopped at the grocery store, the men behind the deli and butcher counters elbowed each other out of the way to get a chance to wait on her.
Though she danced into her 60s, she stayed in a spotlight of her own making, thanks to sewing skills she acquired to help ensure that she’d never have to return to the days when she had just one pair of shoes.
She’d strut to the White Castle at 79th Street and Stony Island in outfits she made herself. Carapaces of electric blue, red and lime green, they were cut to show off her 34-22-40 figure. Sometimes, she wore a bra covered with real bullets. Her heels appeared around eight inches high.
Decked out in one of her 45 or so wigs, accessorized with parasols and hats, the effect was Little Bo Peep Goin’ to a Go-Go.
She didn’t just stop traffic. She almost caused accidents.
Mrs. Black earned another nickname, “Racetrack Rosie,” because of her love for the track. She was a frequent sight at all the Chicago race courses, wearing hats that were so broad-brimmed, they made their own shade. She used to switch the covers she made for the hats to match her dresses.
Mrs. Black, 79, died last month at Provena St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet after a decline from Alzheimer’s.
Born in Summit, Miss., she lost her mother when she was only 8. It was just her and her father left at home, and “He was just mean,” her daughter said.
But, “The neighbor used to sew clothes for my mother.” Her favorite was the cowgirl outfit, complete with vest and cowboy pants. It sparked a lifelong affinity for all things fringed and leathered. Even her purses were embellished with saddle horns.
She wrote to her brother, who sent for her to come to Chicago. She was only 11 or 12, and he couldn’t afford to feed and clothe her, so she wound up with a foster family.
The young Rosemarie went through what used to be called “reform school” because she got pregnant and had two daughters at age 14 and 16. “She was just looking for love,” her daughter said. She placed both girls for adoption and stayed in touch with them and their adoptive families her whole life.
In 1953, she began working as an exotic dancer. The color line was still a Continental Divide, so she performed in African-American clubs. In one, she saw a show-stopping performance by a young Michael Jackson. She knew he was going to be a star. His autobiography’s mention of a stripper named “Mary Rose” is actually about Rosemarie, her daughter said.
Later in life, she liked to patronize all the area race courses. “Anyone who won the race, they wanted her in the winner’s circle to take a picture with her,’’ said Duke Johnston, president of Maywood Park. “She was just flamboyant, with the big hats and the bullet bra.”
In 1991, Sportsman’s Park held a “Racetrack Rosie” Night in her honor.
She used to joke to men at the track, “ ‘I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,’ ” Johnston said. But it was done with the mischievous flair of old burlesque. “Very nice lady,” Johnston said. “She was an old-time, classic burlesque dancer; never got naked.”
At the track, she sometimes won big. “That’s actually how my parents were able to buy their first home,” said Rochelle Hill. Mrs. Black’s husband of 45 years, Cornelius, was a handsome man who worked in a meatpacker’s freezer. He was as quiet as she was outgoing.
It could be tough, being a teenager with a mom who dressed like Jessica Rabbit. “We were sitting at the bus stop, and they would almost have an accident trying to look at my mother,” her daughter said. “I hated report card day. I’d turn around; all the classrooms we’ve gone past, everybody’s come out of the classroom to look at my mother.”
But as Rochelle grew older, she realized her mother marched to her own boom-chicka-boom.
Occasionally, someone shouted out a crude comment, like “How much?” But Mrs. Black strutted with pride. “Hookers don’t look as good as me,” she’d say.
Even around the house, she wouldn’t be caught in jeans and flat shoes. The 5-foot-2 Mrs. Black continued to wear eight-inch heels until she went into a nursing home in 2011, her daughter said.
Mrs. Black can be spotted in a nightclub scene in the 1997 movie “Soul Food.” In addition to waving her hands, her daughter said, she is the only person onscreen flashing sequins.
Mrs. Black is also survived by daughters Linda Doss and Patricia Thomas, 10 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. She was buried in her favorite creation, a black-and-white cowhide-print dress in which she was photographed standing next to one of Chicago’s “Cows on Parade.”