"Oh, honey!": A showgirl still kicking at 100

Edna Raphael Belle, who danced as Sandra Lydell, celebrates her 100th birthday at the Oaks of Weymouth retirement community in Atlantic County, greeted by Nancy Kneble.
Edna Raphael Belle, who danced as Sandra Lydell, celebrates her 100th birthday at the Oaks of Weymouth retirement community in Atlantic County, greeted by Nancy Kneble. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2014

At the Copacabana, Edna Raphael Belle would stop the show with a swirl of curls.

"Oh, honey, let me tell you," says Belle, 100, whose professional dance career as "Sandra Lydell" spanned four decades, including a six-year stand at the fabled Manhattan night spot.

"I had real long hair, beautiful black hair, up in a Mexican hat. I'd take the hat off, put my back to the audience, let my hair fall . . . and the house would come down. The house would come down!"

The retired showgirl - whom one writer described as "torridly terrific" - and I are chatting in her home at the Oaks of Weymouth, an Atlantic County retirement community close to the casinos she loves.

A hand-tinted glamour shot from the Copa years is framed on one wall, and an equally fabulous 1953 photograph from her featured role as queen of a Mardi Gras parade adorns another. A Southern regional magazine's 2012 story about her is on the coffee table, along with enough birthday bouquets to create a garden.

"I've got all my teeth. I want you to know that," says the lively little woman in the recliner, flashing an intact grin. "All my teeth and all my marbles."

And all sorts of stories: About working at Atlantic City's 500 Club, being on the bill with Johnny Carson "when he was a magician," and dancing in an iridescent costume on the Copa stage as Tony Martin crooned "You Are My Lucky Star."

"Oh, honey," says Belle, her eyes bright under dramatic arcs of eyebrow, her voice rich with Mississippi, where she grew up. "It was gorgeous. I was living in a dream world that became reality. I'd go back to it, if I could."

Her parents were Catholic immigrants from Lebanon. Little Odma (later Americanized to Edna) won a swimsuit contest, took lessons in something called "dramatic expression," and left Natchez by bus, bound for Chicago, when she was "19 or 20."

"My parents didn't want me to go," she says. "They wanted me to marry a man named Tom."

Belle's exotic looks and expressive dancing got her gigs in nightclubs and in the stage shows that often accompanied movies in Manhattan and other big cities. She worked in Vegas, too.

"I never was in the chorus," she says. "I had a feature spot. They'd put me in between acts."

She got to know Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan (he bought her a cup of coffee), and Elvis Presley, but Dean Martin was her favorite. They worked at the 500 Club together two or three times, and he was good to her.

"He'd make sure I got to the car, and he'd never let anybody say anything to me," Belle says. "He was like a bodyguard."

"He never tried to make me," she adds, laughing. "Maybe that's not a compliment."

She stayed single until marrying Gene Belle, a retired engineer from Massachusetts, in 1991. He died in 2010, and "I'm still crying over him," she says.

During the birthday celebration Saturday at the Oaks clubhouse, hosted by her friend Peggy Milano, Belle made her entrance in a fur coat.

She sat at the head table in a "Birthday Girl" tiara, embracing well-wishers, telling tales, beaming.

"Oh, honey," Belle said, as she lit up the place one more time.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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