A Friend and Mentor, Claude Thompson

There is no way that I could talk about my dancing career without being totally grateful to Choreographer/Dancer, Claude Thompson.

I met Claude fairly early in my professional career. I had been in a production of Finian’s Rainbow in 1958 at Kiamesha Lake, a popular resort area in the Catskills. A year later at 19 years of age, I performed at Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter in New York City. Around the same time, I was a dancer in the Jewel Box Revue (various nightclub locations), along with a few other shows before joining a West Side Story (1961) tour.

Color gelatin photographs. Dancer Sal Angelica in costume backstage, multiple venues, stage production, JEWEL BOX REVUE (1959) tour. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Images subject to copyright laws.

In 1963 I found myself in Puerto Rico doing a Christmas show at the Americana Hotel. Can you imagine a holiday show in 100°weather, wearing sweaters? Claude was performing at another hotel, possibly the El Dorado or Del Prado. One of his dancers, Jaime Rogers and I had toured Europe with West Side Story. Jaimie was my intro’ to the group, which included Arlene Woods, Shari Green, Stan Mazin, Sterling Clark and Claude.

From the moment we met, there was a certain connection. We just hit it off right away and that friendship lasted for many years and many, many jobs.

When we returned to Manhattan following the Puerto Rico run, I was taking classes at June Taylor’s Dance Studio when Claude asked me to come to his class too. I explained that since I was not working at the time, money was a bit scarce. He offered me a “scholarship” and of course I accepted.

Soon after, he asked Shari Green and I to be the “token whites” in his upcoming all black cast concert for the world-renowned Tally Beatty at Jacob’s Pillow. This was the beginning of a very long working career and cherished friendship.

Claude’s choreography and personalized style he brought to his work I found easy to emulate and felt very comfortable doing his “stuff”. I always felt his work was as sensible and as comfortable as it was artistic – at least it was for me. He had a way of making me feel as though I could do anything – that nothing was too difficult and that made me up for any challenge.

The support he showed to performers extended well beyond his generosity toward me and my career. While working on the Sammy Davis, Jr. act, Claude was setting the numbers for the family singing group, The Sylvers. Claude asked Sammy if he could talk to the group, so Sammy invited all of us to his room at the Sands. Claude was brilliant in the way that he directed them – gracious, respectful and honest, congratulating them and validating their talent as a family and a singing act. It was a terrific meeting and it ended up furthering their careers.

During our work together on the Lorna Luft (1972/73) production at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, as we finished rehearsals, I realized there hadn’t been any discussion of wardrobe. I mentioned this to Claude who asked me to take care of it.

At the time, fellow lead dancer, Harvey Cohen and I were working a lot in Los Angeles and were often costumed by Joe Cotroneo (known as “Tailor to the Stars” and of Cotroneo Costumes). Coincidently, Harvey and I were practically the exact same size, sans sleeve length. Joe had all our measurements and whipped up the combination of costumes I asked for and so we had a wardrobe for the Lorna Luft act.

As far as our friendship, it just happened naturally. Claude and I would laugh and gas and scratch about everything. We had a special camaraderie and enjoyed a similar sense of humor.

Silver gelatin black & white publicity photograph for FLESH (1969). Left to right, Sailors Sal Angelica, Tulsa & Don Stomsvik. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

During a newspaper photo shoot for Flesh (1969), I had to remove what little there was of my costume in order to get the perfect photograph. A provocative production staged at the Bonanza Casino in Las Vegas that Claude was choreographing, Flesh, was one of the first fully nude shows to premiere in Vegas. The second look of the set included four ladies and me. My back was to the audience but the elastic strap that concealed my front was visible through the photographer’s lens, so I took that off amidst the snickering and giggling of Claude. We had a good laugh over it. And the end result was that someone swiped that photo and it was never seen again!

 

 

Newspaper fragment from FLESH (1969) production review, Claude Thompson. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Claude always helped out anyone of his friends. While I was working on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69) on CBS I’d stay with Claude, since I didn’t have my own place in Los Angeles. To pay him back for his hospitality, I’d cook and clear up his apartment for him, although I soon found out he could never find anything I put away.

Turbot fish filet was inexpensive at the time. I recall getting it at The Mayfair market for .57cents per pound. I knew Claude loved his mimosas too. I’d pick up a bottle of Andre’s champagne (about .99 cents at the time) whenever I could. After rehearsals, we’d invite all the other dancers over for dinner. 5lbs of fish can go a long way. Claude was a very social and hospitable person, but he never cooked – with one exception. He cooked me dinner once and it was a treat.

If anything upset him, he concealed it well, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t hurting at times. The Diahann Carroll television special comes to mind. We went over to her house in advance, sat on the floor and reviewed everything. She was quite cordial then, but on the day of the shoot, something went wrong. She arrived two hours late, causing everything to get rescheduled and increasing the production cost exponentially. I know Claude was upset, but he never let on. He was always professional.

Photocopy of Photograph. Claude Thompson (center/glasses) with dancers. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Later in life, when Claude was in the hospital, I paid him a visit. It was sad to see him flat on his back and inactive. I was used to seeing a very healthy, vibrant and funny friend. It’s emotional thinking about it, but at the same time I am grateful for his friendship. I own him a lot and all my love.

Productions I was fortunate enough to work with Claude on include:

Talley Beatty concert (1963), Jacob’s Pillow, New York City, NY. Choreographer/Lead Dancer, Claude Thompson/Dancer, Sal Angelica

Photocopy of performance photograph, Caesars Palace stage production, ROME SWINGS (1966). Courtesy of Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Rome Swings (1966) Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, NV. Featured dancer, Claude Thompson/Assist Choreographer, Sal Angelica (set duet between dancers Claude and Paula Kelly)

Performance photograph, Bonanza Casino stage production of FLESH (1969). Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Flesh (1969) Bonanza Casino, Las Vegas, NV. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/Lead Dancer, Sal Angelica

 

The Diahann Carroll television special (1971) Los Angeles, CA. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/ Assist. Choreographer, Sal Angelica

 

Lena Horne television special (1970) Los Angeles, CA. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/Assist. Choreographer/Dancer in the ‘Cissy Strut’ number, Sal Angelica

 

Pipe Dream (1972) International Hotel, Las Vegas, NV. Choreographer, Earl Barton. Special Choreographer for George Chakiris, Claude Thompson/Dancer, Sal Angelica

 

Guys and Dolls (1972) Off Broadway Theatre, San Diego, CA for Choreographer, Jim Hibbard. Dancer, Sal Angelica (Thanks to Claude, who recommended me to Jim Hibbard)

 

Silver gelatin black & white performance photograph. Singer, Lorna Luft with dancers Sal Angelica (left) and Pat O’Hara (right). Lorna Luft act (1972/73). Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image may be subject to copyright laws.

Lorna Luft (1972/73) Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, NV (opening act for Danny Thomas); John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel, Reno, NV; Palmer House, Chicago, IL; Plaza Hotel, New York, NY. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/Lead Dancer, Sal Angelica

 

Connie Stevens (1972/73) Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas, NV; Desert Inn, Las Vegas, NV. Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas, NV; Harrah’s Club, Reno, NV. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/ Dancer, Sal Angelica

 

Ed Sullivan television special (1974) Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, NV, Choreographer, Jaime Rogers, Dancer, Sal Angelica (Thanks to Claude, who mentioned Jaime was choreographing the tv special. He told me to give him a call. I did and the next morning I was in rehearsals)

 

Silver black & white gelatin photograph. Connie Stevens with dancers Jonathan Wynn (left), Sal Angelica (right). Connie Stevens’ act (1972/3). Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972) Huntington Hartford Theatre, Los Angeles. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/ Assist. Choreographer, Sal Angelica

 

Sammy Davis, Jr. (1972) Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, NV. Choreographer, Claude Thompson/Assist. Choreographer, Sal Angelica

 

~A Friend and Mentor, Claude Thompson is written by dancer, Sal Angelica. To Learn more about Sal Angelica and his performance career, visit Meet the Entertainers: Sal Angelica. See Sal’s performer oral history video here.

 

Program page, Claude Thompson, A Celebration of Life, Straight from the Heart (c. 2007) stage production. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Claude Thompson (1934-2007) enjoyed a 57year career that included performing, choreography, directing, designing and teaching. Born in Brooklyn, he graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts in New York and continued his education in the U.S., Europe, Mexico and Japan. His first job was hoofing and singing in small nightclubs at the age of thirteen. He then made it to the Broadway chorus of My Darlin’ Aidaat age fifteen, while simultaneously attending high school and continuing his nightclub work. From that show, in which his dance partner was Diana Sands, he went on to appear in Jamaica with Lena Horne, House of Flowers with Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll, Shinbone Alley with Earth Kitt, Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bravo Giovanni. Claude Thompson choreographed a tour of Kiss Me, Kate and played the role of Paul in the show. After working for a year with the great Mexican comedian, Cantinflas, he partnered with Nora Kaye for the Cannes Film Festival Gala and toured Europe as a dead dancer. He later opened Caesar’s Palace with Paula Kelly. Mr. Thompson also had his own dance company. After this, he followed Hermes Pan as choreographer of the film version of Finian’s Rainbow (1968), which earned him critical raves. According to Thompson, the highlight of his performing career occurred when he danced the role of Porgy entirely on his knees in the ballet version of Porgy and Bess for The Gershwin Years, an NBC television special. Other choreography credits for stage television specials include Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horn, Diahann Carroll, and Robert Goulet. Nightclub acts include Diahann Carroll, Connie Stevens, George Chakiris, George Hamilton, Sammy Davis, Jr., among others. His company of dancers, known as The Claude Thompson Dancers, toured Vietnam with Sammy Davis, Jr. for the Government’s Drug Abuse Awareness Program and later appeared with Mr. Davis at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Mr. Thompson broke barriers on the NBC television special Petula, starring Petula Clark and Harry Belfonte. The staging of their duet broke the color-line in network variety television when the two stars touched. To view additional images of Claude Thompson, visit the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University here.

 

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About the Author

Sal Angelica

Sal Angelica is an American dancer and choreographer who has performed throughout the world over his career. Today he continues to advocate for performing arts history awareness and education through public speaking and the sharing of his memorabilia.