ANCHORAGE - Velma Adkerson, who performed risque and acrobatic nightclub routines as "Miss Wiggles," was laid to rest this month. Her show business career began in the waning days of vaudeville and burlesque and continued into the 21st century. She packed in the crowds at prominent Lower 48 show houses that also featured stars like Nat King Cole - and in long-gone, pre-pipeline Alaska bars that would be considered dives nowadays.
But at her service at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church this month, no one mentioned her nightclub years. Instead, person after person went to the microphone to talk about how she had changed their lives for the better.
"Someone who was like a mother to me."
"The most generous woman I ever met."
"If we all had a little piece of her personality, we'd have a lovely world."
It's not what one might have anticipated from the Anchorage newspaper ads that ran in the 1960s and '70s. Week after week, an evergreen picture of her announced appearances at hot spots like the Idle Hour, Le Pussycat and the Brief Encounter. It showed her in a racy two-piece costume with fringes and tassels, shapely legs thrusting in the air as she stood on her head on a chair, with a glowing smile.
Miss Wiggles died at Providence Hospital in Anchorage two days after her 90th birthday. In the grand tradition of entertainers, she could be evasive about her age and place of birth. She sometimes embellished her biography. For example, she told one reporter that she was born in South Africa and that her father had been killed by an elephant.
The obituary prepared by her family says she was born in Atlanta on Oct. 12, 1922. Her father, Arthur Thomas, was a preacher, the Rev. Alonso Patterson told the congregation on Monday - a surprise to some.
She showed a passion for dance and movement from an early age and began performing professionally in New Orleans while a teenager. Originally billed as "Snakehips," Miss Wiggles traveled the nightclub circuit as a contortionist, bending her body into pretzel-like shapes that astonished viewers.
She liked to design her own getups, eye-catching in their own right, revealing much but concealing just enough to escape the attention of the authorities.
"I never danced nude," she said in a 1986 interview with the Anchorage Daily News. Dancing and striptease were considered two separate disciplines.
Owners of all-white clubs during the era of segregation used her as a so-called "break-in" act, a comic yet appreciable exotic diversion that their audiences would accept in the otherwise all-white lineup - subtly opening the door to other black performers.
She had a long run at the popular Eastwood Club in San Antonio, Texas, and recounted that she was dancing at Jack Ruby's club in Dallas, a gangster den, when President John Kennedy was shot.
Events that followed may have had something to do with her decision to check out Alaska.
Her husband, bail bondsman Fred Adkerson, told the assembly of more than 100 people that the first time he saw her at the Club Oasis on the Old Seward Highway, shortly before the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, "was the luckiest day of my life."
The two seemed to live in a perpetual honeymoon, traveling and taking cruises. In February they received an award from Princess Cruises as "The Most Travelled Passengers," with more than 1,200 days at sea.
It was on a cruise, at age 80, that she gave one of her last public performances to entertain fellow passengers.
Her strength and flexibility endured for years, even as multiple operations stemming from a battle with polio took their toll. In 1992, a reporter described her dancing to an Eric Clapton song, "balancing upside-down on a chair seat and twisting a torso limber as well-cooked spaghetti." In 2002, another reporter watched her "sit on her living room carpet, spread her legs in a near split and touch her muscled stomach to the floor in front of her."
But the mourners who spoke on Monday remembered her exclusively as a beloved friend with an enormous heart.
She was always taking in "strays," her husband told the Daily News in 1986 - unwed mothers, battered women, abused children.
She once recalled how charities had her when she was hospitalized with polio and couldn't work. "(Now) I help whenever I can," she said.
For years, helping meant long hours at her sewing machine, making clothes for friends or their children, creating fashions for a series of runway shows, the proceeds of which went to local charities. The shows genuinely celebrated diversity, with models ranging in age from 15 to 70 and wearing sizes up to 20.
"People aren't the same size, honey," she told a reporter.
Her respect for people in all shapes, sizes and stations of life was perhaps a natural outgrowth of her respect for herself.
Patterson remembered a conversation in which he gingerly touched on whether she thought her former career might set tongues wagging.
"People don't know me for who I am," was her calm response.
"Miss Wiggles never considered herself second class," said one mourner.
"Miss Wiggles was dedicated to making the world a better place; at that she was very successful," said another.
Patterson observed that every speaker had used her stage name, the name by which she was universally known.
"You're all saying, 'Miss Wiggles,' but you're talking about Velma," he said.
"Miss Wiggles was a performer. Velma was a real person who showed her real humanity by making a difference in people's lives."
(c)2012 Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska)
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