Contortionist with the stars, Elisa Jayne, dies at 88

 

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Miami and Miami Beach in the 1950s was a booming entertainment region where the world’s biggest entertainers came to sing, tell jokes and dance across our stages.

Frank Sinatra. Sammy Davis Jr. Louis Armstrong. Cab Calloway. Mel Torme. Buddy Hackett.

And circling, or in her case, entwining herself, on their stages, contortionist Elisa Jayne.

Jayne, 88, died Sunday of complications from lymphoma in Miami, said Donald Graziano, her boyfriend of 33 years.

“Seems like everyone loved her,” he said. “She was a very caring person and she loved animals and was just a good person.”

And she was a popular entertainer on the circuit at a time when the live performance was everything.

Kentucky-born Jayne knew from her school days that show business was for her. She rebuffed a high school principal who tried to talk her into accepting one of two university scholarship offers that came her way during World War II. “Two years later she comes back making more money than he was,” Graziano, a Miami chiropractor said.

Jayne’s first break was landing a spot at Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter, the New York Broadway and 47th Street branch. (His Miami Beach location on Palm Island burned to the ground in 1959.) She was living with humorist/TV host Herb Shriner and his wife Eileen when she met her husband, comedian Paul Gray in 1949. Gray died in Miami in 1980.

A friend suggested to Jayne that her contortion act would enjoy a broader fan base if she’d incorporate humor into her performances so she became adept at comedic antics with imitations of screen icons like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and others. A Reno Evening Gazette critic wrote in Nov. 1961: “Elisa, on stage, ... is one of the finest female comics of our time.”

Comedian Jerry Lewis tapped her for a cameo in his comedy, The Bellboy, which marked his debut as a film director. The 1960 movie was shot at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Collins Avenue during the day so Lewis, Jayne and her husband could do their respective acts at night. Jazz singer/bandleader Cab Calloway called her “the queen of dance.”

Ed Sullivan put her on a pedestal — literally — when, for his 10th anniversary TV show in 1958, strongman Paul Anderson hoisted a carousel plank upon which sat some of Sullivan’s guests: Betty Grable. George Raft, Carl Reiner, Ernie Kovacs and, yes, Jayne.

At that time, Jayne performed in Cuba, pre-Castro, where she was featured on a billboard smoking a cigarette. With her toe. She went unpaid.

Rose Thurston, 93, of New Orleans, a retired comedian, met Jayne in show business in Chicago. Jayne was 20 and the two were lifelong friends.

“We went on 15 cruises around the world together and we never had an argument,” Thurston said. “We always loved each other and liked to do the same things, to shop and go to hear music and read books. At one time she was a premiere acrobatic dancer and worked only the finest clubs and got the biggest salary. I love her and will miss her terribly.”

There were no services at Jayne’s request.

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