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Sexpot star of ‘Faster, Pussycat!’ Tura Santana returns for art show

Tura Satana was a little girl growing up on the West Side of Chicago.

Strike that.

“I wore a 36 D bra when I was 13,” Satana said from her home in Reno, Nev. “I am now a 40 HH.”

Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi (Satana) is best known for stepping up and striking a bunch of men in Russ Meyer’s 1965 cult hit “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” The film will be shown Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. Chicago burlesque dancer Michelle L’Amour performs beforehand.

“Faster, Pussycat!” is being shown in conjunction with “Tura! Tura! Tura!,” a group art show opening Thursday at the Tattoo Factory Gallery, 4443 N. Broadway. The show is organized by Chicago artist Mitch O’Connell. Satana, 70, will return to Chicago for the first time in 33 years to attend the screening and show.

Filmmaker John Waters called “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” the greatest film of all time. It’s about three buxom bisexual strippers (including Satana’s Varla) who like to dance the Watusi, run over dumb men with Porsches and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon from cans.

Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Meyer’s films “were unique in that women were always the strong characters, and men were the mindless sex objects.” In 1969 Meyer hired Ebert to write the screenplay for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” In a 1995 interview, Meyer told me that British director Ridley Scott’s hit “Thelma and Louise” (which Meyer called “Thelma or something”) was the most reflective film of his work.

Satana was born in Japan in 1938. After moving to California her family was placed in the World War II Japanese internment camp in Manzanar, then relocated to Chicago. Her Chinese-Japanese father, Guntaro Kamahora Yamaguchi, became a chef on the Pullman railroad. The family lived in Jane Addams housing projects on Taylor and South Ada streets. By the age of 7 Satana was peddling newspapers in front of Minsky’s (Rialto) Theatre at State and Van Buren. Many of her customers were burlesque dancers from the theater.

“They were all absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘If I could only be half as pretty when I grow up.’ ”

The tough West Sider mastered karate by the age of 10, and in 1954 Satana became a 21 dice girl on Ainslie Avenue.

But she came of age as “Galatea, the Statue that Came to Life” at the Club Rendezvous dance club in wide open Calumet City. “You could only go up from Calumet City,” who grew to a height of 5 foot 7. “It was sleazy. Our clientele was factory workers and people who were a little on the strange side.”

The audience couldn’t have been more strange than the performers.

Satana remembers one stripper called Evelyn “Treasure Chest” West. “She kept telling me how much her breasts were insured for,” Satana said. “I really didn’t care. She and I had a tussle because I killed her snake. She worked with a snake and I don’t care for snakes. But she kept letting it get into my dressing room. I threw it against a wall.”

Satana left Calumet City for the greener pastures of New Orleans. She was known as Devilon Satana and appeared on Bourbon Street with Stunning Smith the Purple Lady. “Everything Stunning Smith wore was purple or lavender,” Satana said. “Even her hair. She was very nice. She was the one who first told me, ‘Remember that stage belongs to you. And always use all of it.’ And that’s what I did.”

But 3-D photographer Harold Lloyd gave Satana the confidence that she lacked from her awkward days in Chicago. Satana was modeling swimsuits when the former silent-film star caught her eye.

“I thought I was an ugly kid,” she said. “I was told I was different from everybody. [She graduated at the top of her class from the since-razed Riis Elementary near Ada and Taylor streets.] But Harold talked me into doing nude modeling. I never did nude modeling. He said I should get into motion pictures because the camera really loves me: ‘I cannot take a bad picture of you. You have so much animation and charisma in front of a camera.’

“I said, ‘You ought to see me in front of an audience.’ ”

Satana’s agent hooked her up with Meyer. He had her read for “Faster, Pussycat!” Meyer, who died in 2004, insisted she play the role of Varla with raw strength. Satana explained, “Most males didn’t care for female domination in the mid-1960s. But when it came out on video in the ’70s and ’80s, women and gay men flocked to it.”

When “Faster, Pussycat!” premiered, Satana was dancing at the Condor Club in San Francisco. She attended the screening with Meyer and actress Haji, another of the hellbent trio.

“We were sitting in front of two guys and they couldn’t see us because it was dark,” Satana said. “One guy told his friend how the fight scenes were phony and how he could whip our ass. Well, Russ is holding me down in my seat. Haji keeps poking Russ. After the movie they brought us on stage and I’m chompin’ at the bit. Finally I looked at the guy in the audience and said, ‘Still think you can whip my ass? I’ll meet you outside.’ That guy crawled out of the theater.”

With a life like this, Satana is working on an autobiography covering her years in burlesque, film and television. Satana appeared on the TV series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “Hawaiian Eye.”

She doesn’t shy away from talking about her longtime love Elvis Presley. She met the King while dancing in Biloxi, Miss.

“He proposed to me, but I turned him down,” she said. “I told him if anyone knew about us being engaged it would cost him his career. I tried to give him his ring back and he told me to keep it. He said, ‘You will always have part of me with you.’ And I still have it. It’s a solitaire diamond, about three carats.”

Satana has been married three times. The first came at age 13 in an arranged deal in Jerry Lee Lewis’ home turf of Hernando, Miss. That marriage was short-lived. In 1979 she wed a retired L.A. police officer and they relocated to Reno. The marriage lasted until his death in 2000. She has two children, he had four children. The former exotic dancer has 12 grandchildren.

Satana has seen many of the 40 pieces of Tura artwork that will be part of her homecoming. “It is astounding,” she said. “I’m so honored.” Art prices range from $25 to $800.

“Tura has a dynamic, iconic face,” curator O’Connell said. “Especially in that ‘Faster, Pussycat!’ outfit with those arched eyebrows, the beauty mark and the attitude — she should have been like a James Dean or [Marilyn] Monroe in popularity. Which makes it more fun because it’s not such a well-trodden path.”

Tattoo Gallery owner Paul Collurafici is donating the space and will not be making a commission. Money from the event will benefit Apna Ghar, a domestic violence center serving primarily Asian women, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer charity. Fund-raising items include show posters, new Satana action figures ($150 each, autographed) and items donated by Satana, including bras. And 20 percent of art sales will go to charity.

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