The Baton that Flew Up to Heaven: Jo An Burdick Gottlieb.

“Jumped so high
he touched the sky,
didn’t come back till the Fourth of July!

Rufus Thomas, “Walking the Dog.”

Six feet tall, blond and gorgeous, majorette JoAn Burdick Gottlieb could twirl a baton, they say, and then fling it higher than ALMOST anybody could see! And then of course catch it again without missing a beat. “Mama Jo” passed away yesterday at the age of 88.

JoAn graduated from Anaheim High School in 1951 – imagine being a teenager in the 40’s! Born in 1934, she fell in love with baton twirling at the age of five, when she saw the glamorous majorettes at the 1939 Anaheim Halloween Parade, passing by the old Chung King Cafe. From that moment on her dream was to be “the best darn baton twirler ever.” And sure enough here she is, leading the AHS High School Band in 1951. Eisenhower was president, the Cold War was beginning, “I Love Lucy” premiered. Could this have been Lincoln Avenue?

Speaking of Lincoln Avenue, JoAn joined a dozen of us troublemakers five years ago to speak (successfully) against the proposed Lincoln Widening which would have decimated beloved local businesses like Vissers, severely diminished the AHS front lawn, and obliterated the pavement in front of St Boniface where everyone takes wedding photos. She must have been 84 then, and we succeeded!

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. According to the Anaheim Colonists blog,

…Jo An never imagined that from her humble beginnings, practicing with a bamboo pole in the alley behind her home at 500 N. Vine Street, that she would one day lead the nation’s top parades as a majorette, appear on stage and screen with entertainers like Frank Sinatra and own her own baton, dance and music studio. As she said: “It’s been one fabulous ride.”

Because money wasn’t available for lessons, Jo An learned to dance by standing at the sidelines of friends’ classes and imitating the moves of movie stars she watched during double features she attended with her older sister, Wanda Lee… Any extra money earned by her family went into patenting her father Harry’s inventions, one of which was the Burdick Scotch Watchman Automatic TimeValve, a water-saving device installed at Stanford University, El Rancho Golf Course and publicized in Popular Mechanic.

Finally, thanks to a visit from a cousin from Wyoming, Jo An received her first real baton when she was 8 years old. Her older cousin saw how creative she had been without any formal lessons and sent her a hand-me-down baton that had a steel ball instead of the usual soft rubber. Jo An remembers conking herself in the head several times with the 32-inch baton, but she kept persevering…” A lot more of this here.

And where does a good Anaheim girl go for college? Why, Fullerton Junior College, of course, where Jo led the band as head drum major and twirler, and THEN Pasadena City College, which led to her becoming the Official Rose Parade Majorette! Decades later Jo reminisced about this photo to the left:

“This was taken for publicity when I was leading / twirling my baton for the Tommy Walker Toppers Band in several ROSE PARADES. Tommy was on staff at Disneyland in the Entertainment division. His father Vissey Walker was the first band director at Disneyland, and Vissey and Tommy had appeared in several movies back in the 1940’s.

“Tommy also was the Twirling Drum Major for the U.S.C. Band and when S.C. played football games at the Rose bowl – he wore his drum major uniform, but for the field goals he donned his cleaned sports shoes to also be the person to kick the field goals for the team. Tommy also had me appear with U.S.C. band at the Rose bowl on several occasions.

“The Tommy Walker band was known as the ‘Rose Parade Topper Band’ and was the only sponsored band to appear for several years in the parade. in 1953 I tried out and was chosen to be the official Tournament of Roses Twirler leading the Pasadena City Band. A couple years later Tommy Walker walked into my Anaheim dance-baton- music studio and asked me to perform with his Topper Band in future Rose Parades. I thought, ‘What an honor’ and accepted … Great memories.”

Knott’s, Hollywood, and VEGAS, baby!

You may have gathered that Jo wasn’t born into money. To help her family make ends meet, she joined her beloved and talented big sister Wanda Lee busing tables at Knott’s Berry Farm, starting at the age of 13. But it wasn’t long before Jo landed the job of can-can dancer at the Calico Saloon, at Knott’s Ghost Town. A professional can-can dancer while still in high school? Sounds that way…

At the Calico Saloon, circa 1952.

Well, where can you go from Knott’s Ghost Town, but Las Vegas? In 1953, at age 19, Jo was chosen out of 2000 auditioners to become a Vegas showgirl! Catching a train to Vegas in March ’54, she was soon dancing AND singing with Frank Sinatra at the Sands Hotel Copa Room, in “The New Ziegfield Follies.” Boy, did she hang out with a lot of stars during that time! Many of her memories of those years are included in the Colonists blog.

“I was 6 feet tall in stocking feet, and Irene King, 5’10”. We were the tallest in the show, especially with the addition of 3-inch high heels, and we made Frank look even smaller.” How all of this led to Jo An being kissed by both Abbot and Costello (picture at right) is not clear, and I’m not sure I want to know, but here we have the photographic evidence! “Jo’s on first!”

From Vegas and Sinatra, where could such a talented young lady go but Hollywood’s Moulin Rouge, the largest nightclub in America and considered an “entertainment palace.” The 50’s blog says that “shows were performed on a massive stage with a 60-foot-wide double revolving turntable and staircase, swings that could be lowered from the ceiling and the first walk-around that allowed the showgirls to walk into the audience and then back onto the stage.”

Around this time she was chosen to appear in the first coast-to-coast televised color broadcast of the Emmy awards, where she and her “twin, wearing extravagant 3-foot-tall pink wigs and gowns with huge hoop skirts and HUNDREDS OF HAND-SEWN MIRRORS, flanked JIMMY DURANTE®. Well, THIS we will have to see.

The world was this woman’s oyster apparently. She was a Carolyn Leonetti model and did some movie work at Universal International, and she was offered a contract to appear at New York’s famed Latin Quarter Nightclub. But two things were calling Jo An – a love of TEACHING, and her old home, the beautiful (future) “City of Kindness,” Anaheim, California. She made a national tour with a dance teacher convention going thru Houston, Chicago, Boston, and New York, but she turned down the Latin Quarter gig, to return home to us.

Back Home to Anaheim!

Since the 60’s, Anaheim folks remember “Mama Jo” most fondly as a teacher. She opened the Jo-An Burdick Dance, Baton, Music and Modeling Studio at Lemon and Broadway. (Now the “202” Alano Club!) Her little sister Linda taught baton twirling, ballroom, ballet and tap; Jo An’s mom was the receptionist and costume designer. Apparently, Jo was around 26 when she gave up her dazzling career to teach in Anaheim.

In 1960 she married Bernie Gottlieb, an orchestra leader and player of the clarinet and sax. “Bernie Bernard”‘s 30-piece orchestra performed at Disneyland in the 60s and 70s, backing (among others) the Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield (AHS grad), Englebert Humperdinck, Peggy Lee, Phyllis Diller, the Osmonds and the Jackson Five!

Jo remembered holding Michael Jackson on her lap during the Jacksons’ Disneyland appearance. We have no picture of that, but we are certain Mama Jo held Michael more carefully than this:

Not content to rest on her laurels, Jo An got a bachelor’s degree in physical education at CSU Fullerton in 1979, got her California teaching credential and began teaching PE at Fullerton High, introducing yoga and jazz dance to the curriculum. Have I mentioned that she also got a real estate license, and a pilot’s license? Or that she volunteered with the Anaheim Family Justice Center, the Anaheim Historical Society, and the AHS Alumni Association? Well, she did all that. But she never forgot the event that first inspired her to pick up that shiny baton…

The World-Famous Halloween Parade!

With stage actor David Wayne.

THIS is a fun article from 2016 – did you know our Halloween Parade dates back to 1924, when Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson were the first grand marshals, it used to be televised across the country, led by movie stars and sports heroes – 8-year-old Jodie Foster even graced us with her presence – some years 100,000 visitors would show up! In 1953, months after choosing our town for Disneyland, Walt himself got excited about our Parade, submitting six floats.

And as our heroine Jo An told Orange Coast.com in 2016, “I remember how impressed Walt was that we had the biggest Halloween parade in America. We were nothing but walnut trees and packing houses here. And people came from all over! Thousands! People were hanging off the roofs. It was THE DEAL. Walt looked at our parade, and he could already see his vision for Disneyland.”

(Who is that demonic figure driving those two witches? Ah – it’s celebrity realtor Paul Kott!)

As in so many other contexts, Disney sucked the lifeblood out of local culture and left it withered and moribund – in the 70s as Walt shifted his attention and resources to his own “Main Street Parade,” Anaheim’s own main street deteriorated along with its Halloween parade. Sounding like an anti-Disney rebel:

“The old guard died, and they tore down the town. Center Street downtown where we held the parade became Lincoln. They took the heart out of Anaheim, the heart out of the parade,” says Burdick Gottlieb, who could be called old guard herself—her parents drove over dirt roads in 1922 to get to Anaheim from Wyoming.

But this 2016 article was written to celebrate a renaissance, a renewal of Anaheim’s Halloween Parade:

Anaheim’s Halloween procession has not become a ‘Disney parade,’ I was happy to hear. [The organizers] are committed to maintaining the look of the parade from the last century—including recreating the original homemade floats. They told me that the revitalization of the downtown has created an incredible bond among the neighbors. From this new ‘old’ community, the committee was able to draw hundreds of volunteers also interested in bringing back the parade.”

And in 2019, guess who was the Grand Marshal of our 95th Halloween Parade, at the age of 85? If you didn’t guess Jo An Burdick Gottlieb, then you must not be paying attention.

Burdick with snake & friends, Halloween Parade 2019.

Apparently that’s when Jo An made good friends with a good friend of mine, Rosa Dominguez, a member of my Anaheim Democrats Club, who has also been real involved in the Halloween Parade. Rosa told me this morning, “She was the nicest lady I ever met. Even though we never agreed on, you know, politics. We just wouldn’t talk about those things.” Roger that!

Good friends: 5-foot Democrat Rosa and 6-foot Republican Jo An.

Mark Daniels tells me that Jo An was there at the Central Library’s Open Mic when I performed some of my “Songs of the OC Homeless” – I did not know that, I should have met her! But that’s the kind of thing a lot more Anaheim people should go to, and support your local poets and musicians – first Thursday of every month, downstairs at Central 5pm (right before the Democrats meeting!)

Good night, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! And I’ll see the rest of you at the next Halloween Parade.

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.