Toni Elling is a black American burlesque performer and said to be the inspiration for Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll. Elling was born Rosita Sims in 1928, and was one of the premier ecdysiast of her day. Her stage name Toni Elling is an anagram of her friend and mentor’s name Duke Ellington.
According to Elling, she had a friend named Rita Revere that was a dancer who encouraged Elling to give burlesque a try. In the beginning, Elling was insulted by the suggestion, but at the time she was working a dead in job and needed another source of income to support her family.
Elling had applied at least seven times unsuccessfully for a position with the telephone company. She was finally hired but found herself in a dead end job being constantly discriminated against and being passed over for promotions because she was a black woman. Elling had dreams of buying a four flat apartment building so she, her parents, her brother and sister would each have their own unit to occupy. She knew working at the telephone company would not enable her to purchase the 4-flat property for her family.
Elling got her shot at burlesque by being the opening act for Jackie Wilson at an upscale Detroit venue. She claims she was shy and had only seen two other dancers perform and she remembered what they did and just got on stage and “worked” it. Elling not only performed in her native Detroit, but was booked in other cities such as: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Portland and Hollywood. She rubbed elbows and considered Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis, Jr. her friends.
In 1967, Toni Elling went international and went to the Exotic World competition for the first time. The event was being held in Japan that year, and according to Elling, she wasn’t just a black female, but Elling claims that was the only time she truly felt and was treated like a queen. She was originally booked for a 10 week engagement that ended up becoming a six month stay in Japan.
Elling was married once, but once she realized her husband was abusive, she quickly became “unmarried.” She never had any children. Even though she dealt with fragrant discrimination, disrespect and unsavory propositions, she always kept it classy and kept her head up. Elling stopped performing and making appearances around the mid 1970’s.
Recently, she has been brought out of retirement and can still be seen at various burlesque annual reunion shows in the US and Canada. Toni Elling resides in Detroit.
For a recent interview with Toni Elling: