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Alice Schiller dies at 95; businesswoman ran the Pink Pussycat

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Alice Schiller was a bit of a prude who didn't swear, drink or smoke, much less endorse women disrobing for entertainment. So when her husband told her he wanted to turn his struggling Hollywood nightclub into a striptease house, she cried.

But once she dried her tears, she got down to business, transforming an erstwhile Latin dance and jazz club on a rundown stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard into a Los Angeles landmark: the Pink Pussycat.

Opened in 1961, it was pink through and through, just like the inside of Schiller's house and her entire wardrobe. For the next two decades, Schiller was the club's hostess extraordinaire, who took pride in marketing burlesque to fit mainstream tastes.

"She came to see burlesque as an art form and fun entertainment. She treated people with respect and dignity and wanted to make the place something she was proud of," Carole Feld said of her aunt, who died in her sleep Dec. 19 in Washington, D.C. She was 95.

Schiller owned the club with her husband, Harry, a former traveling salesman who ran a Beverly Hills haberdashery before he plunged into the nightclub business in the late 1950s.

Although it was his idea to turn what had been Club Seville, and then Jazz Seville, into a strip club, his wife had the vision that elevated it into a classy burlesque and supper house where husbands brought their wives for a night on the town. When guests came through the door, Schiller, coiffed and dressed to the nines, greeted them along with pink-clad "pussycats" who planted two pink feathers in each guest's hair.

She also invented stage names for the strippers -- including Fran Sinatra, Samya Davis Jr., Dina Martin, Peeler Lawford and Joie Bishop -- that drew on the popularity of Frank Sinatra and the other members of the so-called Rat Pack, who were among the era's leading entertainers. That helped draw the Hollywood set, including the Rat Packers themselves, as well as politicians, sports figures, visiting dignitaries, wealthy businessmen and droves of tourists.

Comedian Bob Hope confirmed the club's status when he quipped at the 1964 opening of the downtown Music Center, "L.A. needs culture and the Pink Pussycat can't do it alone."

Schiller was born Alice Feld to Polish immigrants in Indiana Harbor, Ind., on July 14, 1914. She moved to California when she married a doctor.

The marriage didn't last, but she remained in Los Angeles, where she met Harry Schiller. They were married in the mid-1950s and repeated their vows several times over the next 30 years. "He was the love of her life," her niece said.

In a 1967 article for The Times, writer Burt Prelutsky described the well-matched couple: "If Harry is easygoing and eternally good-natured, Alice is determined and ambitious. He's the perennial father of the bride; she's the eternal mother-in-law. They make an unbeatable team."

Their club arrived at a time when America's sexual mores were loosening. Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine was nearing 1 million in circulation and the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960.

When the Pink Pussycat opened the following year, it quickly drew national attention.

A feature in Time magazine in 1961 focused on the club's striptease school, run by Sally Marr, mother of comedian Lenny Bruce, who taught such courses as "The History and Theory of the Striptease" and "Dynamic Mammary, Navel and Pelvis Rotation." Along with the intricate moves, the pussycats were taught not to fraternize with the customers and not to touch themselves while performing their dances.

Schiller schooled the waitresses herself, giving tips on personal grooming and beauty. "I've probably glamorized 1,000 pussycats. Twenty of my pussycats married multimillionaires," she told The Times in 1967.

Schiller and her husband drove a pink Cadillac and a pink Rolls-Royce, which bore the words "Follow Us to the Pink Pussycat." She knew L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, who made her an official city hostess. She was a mystery guest on the TV game show "What's My Line?" and stumped the panelists, Feld said, because she looked more like a socialite than a striptease operator.

When the Pink Pussycat folded in the late 1970s, Schiller turned it into the discotheque Peanuts, which broke ground by welcoming gays and lesbians. It was succeeded in the late 1980s by Club 7969. Its sale last year ended the family's nearly half-century in the nightclub business.

In addition to her niece, Schiller is survived by a grandnephew, Alexander Wolf Levy.

Funeral services will be held today at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles. Memorial donations may be sent to City of Hope in memory of her nephew Joshua Solomon Feld.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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