Before she was Candy Barr she was Juanita Dale Slusher, the daughter of a South Texas bricklayer and harmonica player. When Juanita was nine, her mother died and her father married a woman who cared little for the offspring of his first marriage. At thirteen Juanita ran away from home and ended up in Dallas, working as a maid at the Trolley Courts Motel on Harry Hines Boulevard. At the age of fourteen she married a young Dallas safecracker named Billy Debbs. They became kind of like a teenage Bonnie and Clyde. She would walk into a local business in a cute dress, pretending to apply for a job as a way to find out where the safe was, and at night she would drive the getaway car after Billy committed the burglary. When Billy went off to prison, she was alone again (he was shot to death soon after his release). She started spending her evenings dancing at nightclubs, where men would woo her, saying they would pay her to “get closer.”
Her life began to get better in the early fifties, when she got a job as a cigarette girl at Barney Weinstein’s Theater Lounge in downtown Dallas. Weinstein’s brother Abe, who ran the Colony Club, took one look at her and told her he was going to make her a star. She and Abe came up with the name Candy Barr (she loved eating candy bars during her breaks at work), dyed her brown hair blond, and soon was performing to packed houses. Everyone from Southern Methodist University fraternity boys to top members of Dallas crime boss Benny Binion’s organization to the city’s business and political leaders came out to see her. Her popularity only increased when word spread that she was the girl in the notorious, ‘Smart Aleck.’
One longtime Dallasite swears that he once saw then-governor Price Daniel at a front table, enjoying Candy’s show. Unlike the club’s other burlesque dancers, who wore heavy makeup and went by naughty French names, Candy wore little makeup, and by today’s standards her show wasn’t particularly suggestive. “I wasn’t out there trying to get a rise in a man’s Levi’s,” she says. “I didn’t care about what the men thought. I just enjoyed the dancing.” But she didn’t hesitate to take advantage of her patrons’ generosity. After what she had been through as a teenager, she was ready for a little payback. At private stag parties, Dallas’ wealthier gentlemen reportedly paid up to $500 each to get a much closer view of her talents. (How close depends on whose story you believe.)
In January 1956 she was arrested for shooting her estranged second husband, Dallas man-about-town Troy Phillips, after he drunkenly barged through the front door of their apartment, looking for her. She wasn’t remotely apologetic. She said she was aiming for his groin and missed, wounding him in the stomach. As newspaper photographers surrounded her at the police station, the irrepressible Candy, who never missed a chance to get off a good line, said, “Make it sexy, boys.” When she told a grand jury stories about her husband’s abusive behavior, the charges against her were dropped—a rare victory in those days for a woman who had taken the law into her own hands. Yet not everyone was thrilled that she went free. In the sexually repressed fifties, there were as many people who wanted to get rid of her as there were who wanted to ogle her. Among her enemies were the old-money Dallas women’s clubs, composed of the wives of many of the prominent men who had been willing to pay up to $500 to get their hands on Candy Barr. The women reportedly began to pressure district attorney Henry Wade and police captain Pat Gannaway, the director of the Dallas Police Department’s special service bureau, to shut down Candy’s act.
The hard-line Gannaway—who, according to a glowing story in the Dallas Morning News, “specialized in dispatching drug peddlers, the sex merchants and the gamblers off to prison”—was more than happy to oblige. His officers tapped her phone and kept her apartment under constant surveillance. In October 1957 they raided her apartment (Candy’s attorneys said the search warrant was blank) and found a small bottle of marijuana hidden in her bra. It just so happened that two hours before the raid, a stripper friend of Candy’s, allegedly in cahoots with the police, had come to the apartment and asked Candy to hide the marijuana for a couple of days while her mother was visiting. The police said there was enough marijuana in that bottle to roll 125 joints. In truth there was less than an ounce, which would be a misdemeanor today.
The DA’s office offered her a two-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Candy, then 23 years old, wouldn’t budge. Despite the fact that juries in conservative Dallas were sentencing people to life for marijuana possession, she wanted her day in court. “All my life there had been people trying to make me look like trash,” she tells me. “They weren’t going to do it to me anymore.” But the trial turned into a circus. The judge himself pulled out a camera to take pictures of what the newspapers called “the shapely defendant.” He then gutted Candy’s defense that she had been framed by the police when he refused to allow any testimony regarding the identity of the police informant. “She may be cute,” growled prosecutor Bill Alexander in his closing argument, “but under the evidence, she’s soiled and dirty.” The jury of one woman and eleven men, a few of whom were probably feeling pressure from their wives, sentenced her to fifteen years in prison. It has been reported that Governor Daniel called the district attorney’s office to question the severity of the sentence, lending credence to the story that the governor had caught her show.
Candy remained free while her lawyers appealed the case. But instead of lying low and acting like a good girl, she went off to dance at the best strip clubs in Los Angeles and at Las Vegas’ El Rancho nightclub, earning up to $2,000 a week. She was reportedly a bridesmaid in one of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s weddings. She acquired a new suitor, Mickey Cohen, then the most infamous mobster in the western United States. Though the relationship didn’t last long, it made her notorious, even in wide-open Las Vegas. Under pressure from law enforcement and a county commissioner, El Rancho fired her, claiming she had a “detrimental effect” on the community’s morals. She was replaced by bland nightclub singer Nelson Eddy, whose big hit was “Shortnin’ Bread.”
When Candy’s case reached the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, one judge wrote about her conviction, “If that is equal justice under the law, I want no part of it.” But two other judges upheld the jury’s ruling. Captain Gannaway and the forces for decency in Dallas had won. In 1960, surrounded by newsmen and photographers, Candy entered the Goree Prison Farm for Women, outside Huntsville. (As she walked up the stairs into the prison, wearing a black coat with a fur collar and black gloves, she told the assembled crowd, “I always wanted a brick house of my own, and it looks like I am going to have one.”) Reporters chronicled almost everything she did at Goree, from working as a seamstress in the prison garment factory and singing in the prison choir to playing in an all- female band at the prison rodeo and writing a book of poetry, which she later self-published, titled A Gentle Mind … Confused.
She was paroled after serving three years and 91 days, under the stipulation that she live within 36 miles of Edna and never again work as a stripper or at any establishment that served alcohol. Yet she could not manage to stay out of the headlines. Two months before the Kennedy assassination, she was visited by one of her nightclub friends, Jack Ruby, who owned Dallas’ Carousel Club. After Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, federal agents descended on Candy to find out what she knew. (To this day, she insists that she knows nothing about Ruby’s involvement in any conspiracy.) In 1969, a year after receiving a pardon from Governor John Connally, she was arrested again for marijuana possession, this time in the Central Texas town of Brownwood, where she had moved to be near a close female friend. But to the dismay of the Brownwood district attorney, who had apparently wanted to rid his town of what he perceived as an undesirable influence, a judge threw out the case, ruling that the police had improperly entered her house at two-thirty in the morning to look for marijuana.
In 1975, in her early forties and short on money, Candy accepted $5,000 to pose nude for Oui magazine—at the time it was shocking for a men’s magazine to do a nude layout of a woman who was past thirty. The next year she allowed Cartwright to visit her for his Texas Monthly story. She made brief appearances here and there, and there was talk that Farrah Fawcett wanted to make a movie about her life, but nothing came of it, and by the early eighties she was practically forgotten. After a flood ruined her Brownwood house, she quietly moved back to South Texas to live out the rest of her life. On occasion men would do a double take when they saw her somewhere, but she never stopped to chat. “I’ve been married and divorced four times,” she snaps when I ask if she ever wants to fall in love again. “After what I’ve been through, I’m not exactly someone who believes that a man can make a woman happy.”
RIP Juanita Dale Slusher (July 6, 1935 – December 30, 2006)