All it took was a yard and a half of tropical printed silk and a few volcanic curves, and Dorothy Lamour did for the sarong in the ’30s and ’40s what Brigitte Bar dot would later do for the bikini. With a hibiscus in her dark hair and a sultry smile, the former Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton (“Lamour” is a variant of Lambour, her stepfather’s name) first appeared in a sarong in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess with Ray Mil-land. Then came her legendary collaboration with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the famous “road pictures”—Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1946), Road to Rio (1948), Road to Bali (1953) and Road to Hong Kong (1962). The daughter of a Louisiana waiter and a waitress, the 1931 Miss New Orleans began her 50-year career in show business as a vocalist with bandleader Herbie Kay, who was briefly her husband. Later she married William Ross Howard III, an advertising man, and they raised two sons—John, now 36, and Richard, 32, both businessmen. Over the years Lamour made 50 films and also performed on TV, stage and in nightclubs. Now 67 and widowed for four years, Dorothy is opening a new cabaret act at Club Ibis in Manhattan, highlighted by film clips and her famous movie melodies like The Moon of Manakoora. Before heading East from her North Hollywood home, Lamour reminisced with Suzanne Adelson of PEOPLE.
People associate you most closely with Hope and Crosby. How do you feel about that?
I think we made the greatest team in the world, but I got along very well without them. I was a star before those road pictures, and I’m still working. If I had to depend on Bob today for my livelihood—to have three meals a day—I’d starve to death.
Did Bob and Bing laugh it up on the set?
Mostly they would ad lib, playing with the lines I’d worked so hard to memorize. The night before our first film together, Road to Singapore, I naively studied my script like crazy. When it came time, the ad libs started flying every which way. I kept waiting for a cue that never came. In exasperation I said, “Please, guys, when can I get my line in?” They stopped dead and laughed for 10 minutes.
How did you fight back?
One time, during a scene in Singapore, I was washing their clothes in a tub with these long-lasting suds that wouldn’t melt under hot lights. Bob and Bing began throwing suds at me. Finally I grabbed a huge can, chased them across the sound stage and dumped the suds over their heads.
Did you socialize off the set?
No, I always went right home to get ready for the next day’s shooting. Still, we had a warm relationship. They called me “Mommie” because I was always taking in stray cats on the set. Bob used to be like an older brother to me, but these past few years we’ve sort of drifted apart.
Let’s just say the old charisma isn’t there anymore. Bob’s gone one way, and I’ve gone another.
How was your relationship with Bing?
He was a very remote person offscreen. You just had to take Bing the way he was that day. If he felt like clowning around and being funny with you, fine. If he didn’t, you just took it in stride.
What was he like as a father?
I don’t know his new wife, Kathryn, and their three children too well. But the four sons from his first marriage used to visit the set, and he was delightful to them.
Did you go to Bing’s funeral?
I asked if I could attend, but was told Mrs. Crosby wouldn’t allow many of his old friends to be present. That hurt my feelings. She said Bing wouldn’t have wanted a lot of people there. I knew he never liked funerals. I’ve sworn off most of them myself.
Did you have any risky encounters during your film career?
When I was filming Typhoon, a chimpanzee missed a branch and landed, all 50 pounds of him, on my back. I had to go to the hospital to have my ribs bandaged.
What was your most difficult film?
The Hurricane. I was tied to a tree with airplane engines blowing on me to simulate great winds. They mixed a concoction of dried leaves and yellow sulfur, which photographed like dust, and flung it in front of the propellers. Each night I was bleeding from head to foot with nicks caused by the leaves. The sulfur didn’t do much for my eyes and throat, either.
How did you make out financially in films?
I was hired by Paramount for $200 a week in 1935 and wound up making $450,000 a picture. I have all the money I need.
What do you think of the movies being made today?
They’re not my cup of tea. I’ve turned down many parts because I think I would disappoint my fans if I appeared onscreen doing a role, for example, of a madam running a house of prostitution. I don’t want to embarrass my fans or my children.
Do you have any favorites in the current crop of actors and actresses?
Robert Wagner. We did a TV movie a few years ago, and he was very kind and helpful. And Kate Jackson is great—a very natural actress. I also admire the Love Boat crew. I was on one show with them in 1980.
How do you feel about explicit sex onscreen?
I think a woman in films, or anywhere, should leave something to the imagination. Sex belongs in the bedroom with the person you love—not on camera.
Did you have any serious romances with Hollywood leading men?
Yes, with Robert Preston. Then my Army lieutenant, William Ross Howard, came along and that was it.
Would you consider marrying again?
I never say never.
How do you feel about growing old?
I’m proud of it. Keeping active is the important thing. If I retire, they might as well start digging my grave.
As a young woman in Hollywood, did you think of yourself as a sex symbol?
No, I was very modest. I’d throw a robe over my sarong on the set.
When you were first asked to wear a sarong, how did you feel?
I had to bite my lip to keep from crying. I’d been embarrassed to wear a bathing suit in the Miss New Orleans contest, and now Paramount Pictures wanted millions of people to see me in a little strip of cloth.
How did you hold it up?
Did you ever lose your sarong?
Yes, filming Aloma of the South Seas. I was swinging on a vine over a 40-foot chasm between two mountains. Top press had been invited to watch. I was swinging back and forth when I realized my sarong was slowly slipping to my waist. I wasn’t about to let go of the rope. Finally I was pulled in by a hook and some person was kind enough to give me a robe.
Any other sarong stories?
I used to get letters from South Sea Islanders asking why I wore it over my bosom instead of under, as they did there. And then some press agent dreamed up the idea of burning my costume to signify the end of my “sarong pictures.” But it wouldn’t catch fire. The studio had had them all fire-proofed. Anyway, the next day Paramount ordered up another sarong picture.