The Outrageous Rocky Twins
The Rocky Twins were deliciously handsome, outrageous and lived life to the full but never maximized their obvious talent and so never really attained star status. They were a pair of Norwegian brothers who made a name for themselves in the Jazz Age as dancers in the Paris music hall in the late 1920s at the tender age of eighteen. Their act took Paris by storm because in one of their numbers, they dressed up in drag and imitated the famous Dolly Sisters who had just retired. Their unique performance enabled them to star in stage shows all over Europe and America and at the same time their good looks became highly sought after by connoiseurs of the body beautiful of either sex.
The first ever illustrated biography about the Rocky Twins is now published – click here for more information
Leif and Paal Roschberg, were born 27 February 1909 in Oslo to Adolf Roscher Roschberg (a colonal in the army) and Gudrun Holst and they had an elder brother called Gunner. When they were eleven they wrote a book of fairy tales but their interest in dance eclipsed their writing talents and they studied ballet and dance in Oslo under Per Aabel and Love Krohn and allegedly had further tuition in London and Paris. They made their theatrical debut as The Rocky Twins in the Casino de Paris show Les Ailes de Paris in early 1928 and became great friends with Helene Nice later to become known as the Bugatti Queen. It was here that they gave their first impersonation of the famous Dolly Sisters in drag. They made an immediate impression and were adored by Parisian theatregoers. Next, they starred with Gina Palerme in La Volupte de Paris at the Concert Mayol in the summer of 1928. It was here that they gave their legendary impersonation of the famous Dolly Sisters who had just retired from the stage. They were described as ‘two tall disturbingly attractive youths…alike as two peas in a pod. On stage and off it was impossible to tell them apart.’
In the midst of their success at the Concert Mayol they were filmed by Marcel L’Herbier in L’Argent (released in January 1929), a modernisation of an Emile Zola novel. With a budget of 5 million Francs this was the biggest French film of the season and firmly established the Rocky Twins as major Parisian stars. In the meantime they had left Paris for Vienna and appeared in the Emil Schwarz revue Sie Werden Lachen at the Stadt Theatre from October 1928 to February 1929.
On their return to Paris in the spring of 1929, Mistinguett, ‘The Queen of Parisian Music Hall,’ took them under her wing and escorted them on a trip to London. Here it is likely that they appeared in various cabaret shows including the famous Kit Kat Club (April 1929) and in September 1929 starred in Andre Charlot’s cabaret revue at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane and scored a big success in a number called ‘Guess Which is Which.’ Billy Milton, an English entertainer who met them at this time observed ‘they were unbelievably handsome and so alike you couldn’t tell which was which. As one hostess remarked, you could never be sure which one you were talking to or had gone to bed with.’ The more sober atmosphere of London may have precluded any appearance in drag as the Dolly Sisters but according to Mistinguett they were arrested for public indecency (the mind boggles) and Miss rescued them from prison, ticking off the judge in the process and they all returned happily to Paris.
In November 1929 they starred with Mistinguett in Paris Miss at the Casino de Paris. Apart from acting as her partners in several numbers they also did their hide and seek game where a gallant young man goes behind a tree and immediately a gorgeous woman appears. Mistinguett said that ‘they were so ravishing that each night after the show they would allow themselves to be kidnapped by beauty enthusiasts of both sexes’ and it was known that one of Rockies was in the midst of an affair with the Bolivian tin millionaire Arturo Lopez.
With their success in Paris Miss, they tried to break into America and were engaged in lengthy negotiations with the Shubert Organisation. Variety thought that they were ‘just a pair of hoofers but they do look gorgeous and with showmanly handling probably will click in New York.’ The European scout for the Shuberts said, ‘they make a very good appearance and are very smart socially and were rather popular in London. But I believe I remember that their ideas of salary were rather exaggerated.’ It is not known what exactly happened but it is unlikely that at this time the Shubert’s exercised any option on their services. Instead they continued to appear in Paris Miss right through 1930, starred in a cabaret show at Les Champs Elysees (April 1930) and followed Mistinguett on a European tour in the spring and summer of 1931. They then appeared with Mona Lee in an act that toured Scandinavia but during a performance in Stockholm in August 1931 one of the twins’ slipped, injured himself and was hospitalised. Finally in the autumn they made their first trip to America. At first it was muted that they would appear in one of the celebrated and hugely successful Franco and Marco stage units that toured the USA, but it is not clear exactly what they did or where they were based. Perhaps initially they appeared in cabaret in New York before making their way to Los Angeles.
By the spring of 1932 they had became the celebrated drag act at the popular Ship Cafe at Venice Beach, Los Angeles. They were re-united with Julianne Johnstone, who, after a career in film had danced in Europe and became friends with the Rocky Twins in Vienna. In contrast to their rather risqué appearances at the Ship Café, Julianne secured exhibition dancing contracts as a trio in society functions that included a gala dinner and dance event in the Garden Room of the Biltmore in March 1932.
Edmund Goulding, the MGM director spotted them and added them to the cast of the Marian Davies movie Blondie of the Follies that was in production during the summer and released in 1933. Then in September 1932 scandal erupted. Goulding was one of the rare English directors to make a long term career in Hollywood and was riding high with the success of Grand Hotel. He was open about his homosexuality, although like most gay men in screenland he was married to the cockney Marjorie Moss of the famed ballroon dancing team Moss and Fontana. He was well known for staging wild parties. During one such evening in September 1932 something happened with two girls injured in a manner that recalled the ugly circumstances of the Fatty Arbuckle affair. The story was ‘so filthy’ that no-one wanted to talk about it. Within 12 hours of the event, and to avoid a scandel, Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, sent the Gouldings to Europe for an extended holiday as the ‘fuss’ was conveniently hushed up with the district Attorney.
With Julianne Johnstone they opened of the Club New Yorker in September 1932. The star attraction was the immensely talented and openly homosexual New Yorker Jean Malin (who died in a freak car accident in August 1933 aged 24). The other grand cabaret opening was at La Boheme with the female impersonator Karyl Norman.
During their stay in Hollywood, besides socialising with the Goulding’s and parties at Hearst Castle – the home of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies – the Rocky Twins joined the entourage that accompanied Lorenz Larry Hart (of the famed songwriting team Rogers and Hart) around town, to private parties and the late night clubs. They were seen with Larry’s other companion’s Tallulah Bankhead and William Haines pursuing the bizarre in Hollywood.
With Julianne Johnston again, the Rocky Twins sailed into the Los Angeles Christmas show at the Shrine auditorium in December 1932 and appeared in Frank Fay’s revue Tattle Tales, through January 1933. In the Spring of 1933, Jean Malin returned to Club New Yorker after a stint at the Ship Café and launched a new edition of ‘New Yorker Nites’ with Julianne Johnston and the Rocky Twins. In April they were arrested and spent a night in jail because they didn’t have a driver’s license, no proof that the French car they were driving was theirs and were unable to satisfy the officers about the women’s clothes in the car. At the time they were described as ‘absolute madmen’ and completely wild since they loved to play un-funny jokes, phoning people all hours of the night just to annoy them. As in Paris they were also ‘pursued by international swingers of the day and admired as male courtesans.’
In May 1933 they appeared in Leonard Sillman’s Low and Behold, a satirical musical revue in three acts staged at the Pasadena Community Playhouse where they performed their famous Dolly Sisters routine. It is not known if they appeared in the New York production that opened as The New Faces in March 1934 at the Fulton Theatre. However, there is a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead and Paal Rocky at the opening night which might suggest their involvement. They had arrived back in New York in the fall of 1933 and were rehearsing to appear in the famous Ziegfeld Follies that tried out in Boston during November 1933, but the Council of Actors Equity Association ruled that as ‘aliens’ they had to wait 6 months before entering another production.
Whatever the situation with the AEA, by the summer of 1934 they had an act with Nitza Vernille at the Palace Theatre in New York that gained praise and then appeared in a string of supper shows in cabaret including the Continental Grill at the Hotel St Moritz (Oct 1934), Sunday Nights at Nine at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel Concert hall (Jan 1935) and Le Boeuf sur le Toit (Feb 1935). They then signed with the festival impersario Robert Henderson to appear in his ‘contintental’ revue Up to the Stars that opened in Milwaukee in May 1935 and may have toured. The Rocky Twins appeared in their famous ‘Dorian Gray’ ballet taken from the Oscar Wilde novel staged for them by Max Reinhardt.
Presumably they continued in cabaret or vaudeville until they appeared in the Henry Carson musical revue Contintental Varieties at the Theatre Masque, New York at the end of 1935, but the show was flat and it was commented that the Rockies were ‘nice dancers but fail to impress.’ They also appeared in Leonard Sillman’s revised Low and Behold staged in the Martin Beck Theatre, New York in December 1935 for a very short run. Shortly after their last appearance in New York in the floor show at the Versailles Restaurant in March 1936, the Rocky twins returned to Europe and toured cabaret nightspots including the Chat Noir nightclub in their hometown of Oslo.
By 1937 the pair appear to have split. Leif spent two years in Taormina in Sicily before marrying a Maria Vogt in Vienna in 1939 (later divorced). Paal began a film career with Tobis Praktikum in Berlin and appeared in Es Leuchten Die Sterne (Hans H. Zerlett, released 17/3/38) and may have done further film work in Berlin then Paris before moving back to America where it is rumoured he worked at RKO in 1940. Leif also by then had abandoned Europe and was in living in New York. Paal married Lilian Turner in 1941 in San Francisco (later divorced) but then returned to Norway for the rest of the war where he spent three-years in the Norwegian air force, one-year in the American air force, six months with the occupational troops in Frankfurt and was awarded several medals.
Leif stayed in America and married Jenny Voigt in 1944 in Canada (later divorced) and took up painting and had two exhibitions in New York in 1952. Paal remained in Norway and became a film and book writer. A relative thought that Paal having got engaged was saying farewell to his gay lover and was murdered in New York in the 50s – and in fact he did die in New York on 21st March 1955. Lief died on 10th May 1967 in Kristiania, Norway.
The first ever illustrated biography about the Rocky Twins is due 3rd September 2018 – click here for more information
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent