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The Star Still Smolders

Times Staff Writer

It’s five minutes to show time.

Jane Russell gingerly folds her glasses and sips her Sprite. At 84, she needs a little help up the single step to the tiny stage in the darkened hotel bar. Her eyes aren’t what they used to be -- she has macular degeneration -- and she wears hearing aids in both ears.

But the still-statuesque silver-haired woman decked out in a turquoise gown and heavy shell jewelry is unmistakably the brassy, sassy Jane Russell of yesteryear, the buxom bombshell whose pinup image defined the concept of longing for millions of GIs in World War II.

In the right light, her imperious gaze still can smolder -- combining “Jane Russell” and “smoldering”’ yields more than 40,000 hits on Google -- and, like it or not, she speaks her mind.

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“The music these kids play nowadays, it’s nothing but screaming and pounding drums!” Russell said. “You can’t hear the words, and that’s just as well, because the words stink!”

So when one of the Greatest Generation’s greatest heartthrobs wanted to do something fun, it was natural that she’d turn to Cole Porter rather than, say, Britney Spears.

It also explains how Russell came to be working a nondescript room at an airport hotel in a town where the biggest event of the year is the Elks Rodeo.

In 1999, after her third husband died, Russell moved from a Montecito mansion to a standard-issue subdivision in Santa Maria, home to her youngest son and his family.

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“When I moved up here, there wasn’t a lot for seniors to do,” she said. “And we were all so sick of today’s music.”

Like a troupe of eager youngsters working to pay off Pa’s mortgage in a 1940s movie, Russell and a couple of pals decided to put on a show. They work the first and third Fridays of the month at the Radisson Hotel, although Russell has just taken a travel leave that will last into the fall.

There was a time when she headlined with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Now she performs with a local choir director, a lay preacher, a retired police officer and half a dozen others, many in their 70s and 80s.

Most in the audiences at the Radisson are older folks as well. The revue -- called “The Swinging Forties” -- runs from about 6 to 9:30 p.m. so they can get home early.

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“Nine-thirty!” Russell said, freshening her tangerine lipstick. “Can you believe it?”

When she made her name in show business, such early hours would have been out of the question. .

For five years, sizzling still photos of Russell paved the way for the release of her first film, 1943’s “The Outlaw.” Until then, thanks to sultry shots of Russell reclining on a haystack with a come-hither look and a gun, she was the most famous star in the U.S. not yet to have appeared in a movie.

Eventually, she became known in films like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for a having quick wit in addition to a voluptuous body.

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But it was the body that moved men to grand gestures, like the troops in Korea who named two embattled hills in her honor.

Even the censors were given to lyricism, including the Maryland judge who ruefully noted that in one film, Russell’s breasts “hung over the picture like a summer thunderstorm spread out over a landscape.”

Deeply religious both then and now, she looks back with regret at the unrelenting publicity over her bounteous figure.

“Hollywood gook,” said Russell, who later sided publicly with an industry panel that urged the removal of provocative scenes from one of her films. “It was nauseating.”

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A proud conservative, she enjoys the company in Santa Maria, a conservative town that last year unwillingly drew global fame as the site of Michael Jackson’s child-molestation trial.

“I’ve always liked Santa Maria,” Russell said. “Ranchers and Western-type people have their feet on the ground. They say it like it is and can’t be bothered trying to be grand.”

At the Radisson, fans timidly introduced themselves and peppered her with the inevitable questions.

Yes, she told them, Howard Hughes, the producer and world-class eccentric who put her on the map, was a shy, delightful man.

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And yes, the consummate engineer really did design a bra just for her -- he didn’t like the seams in the store-bought models -- though she never wore it.

And, yes, Leonardo DiCaprio did visit to ask her what Hughes was really like before portraying him in “The Aviator.”

“Leo did a pretty good job,” she said. “But they really needed someone who was tall and lanky, someone like Jimmy Stewart.”

After starring in 18 films, Russell debuted a singing act in Las Vegas in 1957.

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“The brunet star was in top form, in shimmering, skin-tight gowns designed to display the Russell torso,” wrote a Times reviewer, noting that the crowd loved her rendition of “Be Happy with the Yacht You’ve Got” as she sat atop a grand piano.

At the Radisson, there was no grand piano.

In fact, the singers who marched to the stage one by one could barely see the keyboard player through a speaker and a tangle of cords. Tapping rhythm with her ring on the side of her chair, Russell pined for the piano man who recently had quit.

“He was the best,” she said, “but he decided he didn’t want to drive at night any more.”

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Some of the acts were lovely. A recent widow sang a soulful, heartfelt rendition of “It Had to Be You.” A man in his 80s, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, stuffed his hand in his blazer pocket to hide a tremor and did a heroic job on a mellow love ballad.

Russell sat at her table by the stage, entranced. She repeated the words as he crooned them:

We were like sister and brother ... till our lips found each other.

Between acts, emcee Don Fern, a 79-year-old retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, joshed with the crowd. In fedora, suede vest and bolo tie, he spoke with the machine-gun diction of a Jimmy Cagney, launching from time to time into the spirited delivery of chestnuts like “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye.”

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At one point, he said: “Now we’re going to have a young lady come up here by the name of Jane Russell.”

This was her last show for a while. She planned to take a train to New York, then a sea voyage to London, where she’ll celebrate the birthday of David Gest, Liza Minnelli’s ex-husband and a longtime friend.

Without a word, she started singing.

Seems like old times, dinner dates and flowers

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Just like old times, staying up for hours.

Russell paused ever so briefly.

“All the way till 9:30!” she said.

The crowd loved it.

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