The world said goodbye to Raquel Welch on February 15, gone at 82 years old after a sudden, short illness, her family told the press.
Welch had only three lines in the film One Million Years BC (1966), but she received a great deal of attention for her performance, for which she is dressed in a fur-lined bikini. The poster featuring her likeness was on the walls of millions of teenage boys and frat rats around the world, and the image made a big impact in popular culture around the world. Feminist writer Camille Paglia described her image on the poster as “a lioness – fierce, passionate and dangerously physical.”
But film critics were not so kind. Throughout her career, Welch was publicly admired more for her physical attributes than for her acting. She even titled her memoir Beyond The Cleavage (2010).
Ironically, it was only after she proved that she had real comic acting chops that the critics took her seriously. Welch won a Golden Globe for her witty performance as a hapless 17th-century Frenchwoman in Richard Lester’s film version of The Three Musketeers (1973), and the world took notice. I saw her singing, dancing, and cracking wise in the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical Woman Of The Year in 1981, and she proved herself up to the task of carrying a big show with her talent, charisma, and cleavage.
Despite being identified as a sex symbol, Welch refused to appear nude on screen, saying: “Personally, I always hated feeling so exposed and vulnerable …”
Welch’s Portland connection has to do with a little spot in my North Portland neighborhood, Kenton, The World Famous Kenton Club, a dive bar with live music that opened in 1947 as a biker bar. The “world famous” part was added after it was featured in the film Kansas City Bomber (1972). The movie is set in the world of Roller Games, a popular league sport-entertainment of the era. It is sort of a highly theatrical version of traditional roller-derby. Memorabilia related to the film and Welch, who has top billing, are on display throughout the bar, even in the bathrooms.
If you go, it is difficult not to get a tingle imagining that you might be sitting where Welch’s drunken character threatens to start a catfight in Kansas City Bomber. The Kenton Club is a visual treat featuring the most intricate wood paneling in the city. It has low ceilings, Formica tables, linoleum, and vinyl-upholstered chairs, and the place smells of cigarettes, beer, and remorse. Also, the drinks are potent and cheap, and the multi-genred music is almost always free.
Kansas City Bomber was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and directed by Jerrold Freedman, who worked mostly in television before and after giving us this epic on wheels. The movie has the second film performance by Jodie Foster.
The screenplay focuses on K.C. Carr, who has just left her former team in Kansas City, Missouri, to start a new life as a single mother in Portland, which has a team called the Portland Loggers.
Welch practiced skating for months before shooting started. She trained with professionals and disguised herself as a journalist looking into a story so she could interview the skaters. A rink was constructed on the MGM lot, so that Welch could practice daily. They also built a mockup of a rink on Hayden Island for shooting. Welch broke her right wrist during a speed-skating session, forcing shooting to be delayed for eight weeks. I like to think that the sex symbol and the crew hung out The World Famous Kenton Club, along with the real-life National Skating Derby and Roller Games stars hired as extras.
Early in the Portland shoot Welch suffered injuries during a fight scene in The World Famous Kenton Club. Welch later claimed that she also bruised her knees, and had some hematomas on her head, suffering occasional headaches for the rest of her life.
At the time, Welch wrote:
“The film was fun. I like to be in physical pictures. And the Roller Games is a microcosm of this country, the kind of thing we create. The game is almost show business, it’s a carnival atmosphere, but I can understand its popularity. Most of the spectators are basic people and there’s something cathartic about watching people get dumped. The yelling creates a certain kind of intensity. The type of violence draws you in, makes you involved. The skaters are tough but I think all women are tough. The skaters aren’t any tougher than most of the women in the world, underneath. Skating is a bitchy, sweaty, funky life. I don’t want to do another film about it. I’ve done my number. But I enjoyed it.”
Welch later told an interviewer that it was the first of her films that she liked.
Kansas City Bomber was one of MGM’s most successful releases of 1972, behind only Shaft and Skyjacked.
When The World Famous Kenton Club was ranked 94th on Willamette Week‘s list of “Portland’s 100 Best Bars,” the management issued a statement saying, “Get here soon, or don’t. Neither Raquel Welch nor the day patrons give a shit.”