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.

 

Remembering Manhattan nightclubs

Over the years the New York City area has had its fill of nightclubs and supper clubs.

Paper fragment circa 1950s from publication “Cabaret Yearbook, Volume 2” article, “Night Club Guide to New York”. Image courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright.

Brooklyn had Ben Maksik’s Town and Country. By the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey was Bill Miller’s Riviera. There was the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. The Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel and the Maisonette at the St. Regis. Even the Waldorf Astoria had a showroom, then there was the Stork Club, and Versailles, just to name a few.

What they all had in common was that they featured a main attraction. If you were a lucky patron there might be an opening act for the STAR.

The Hawaiian Room was located in the basement of the Lexington Hotel and first featured a male Hawaiian singer with the house orchestra. Later the venue boasted two Hawaiian ladies doing the hula. The food they served was Polynesian, but the cooks were Swiss.

Over time the show grew until The Hawaiian Room offered a line of girls. In the late ‘50s the attraction started to wear off and finally in 1966, the supper club closed. The cost of renovation to the fire prevention system proved too costly.

Photochrome postcard, circa 1950s. The Hawaiian Room at the Hotel Lexington at Lexington Avenue & 48th Street, New York, NY. Image courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image is subject to copyright.

In the basement of a building on 61stand 5thAvenue was Jules Podell’s Copacabana. It was a tropical Brazilian themed room and they were know for their line of beautiful female dancers. They might do a number or two and interact with the main attraction. They eventually went to Las Vegas.

Paper fragment circa 1950s from publication “Cabaret Yearbook Volume Two” article, “Night Club Guide to New York”. Imagery courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright.

Only the Latin Quarter featured a full fledged show with its girl and boy dancers, showgirls, and a production singer, which was independent of a star attraction.

At the Latin Quarter we had variety acts, seals, dogs, monkeys, magicians, comics, roller skaters, bicyclists, ventriloquists – you name it, the Latin Quarter had it.

During my time there in the late 1960s, we opened the show with the first of three major production numbers in which the girls had to change part of their costumes three times. Then the variety acts came on, followed by another big ice number with the girls in floor length velvet capes that made them look like they were ice skating.

Photochrome postcard, circa 1940s. Exterior of Lou Walters World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub at 48th & Broadway, New York, NY. Image courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright.

Out of the capes that stood up like tee pees, a waltz with the boys and a Russian song by the production singer proceeded. Then the girls returned to their capes to finish the number. At last the headliner came on for his or her turn. The closer, a jazzy gogo number in silver lame and all of a sudden 75 to 90 minutes had gone by.

There was a show at 8pm and the second at midnight. It was the same type of show you would have seen at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and indeed that was Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter’s inspiration.

~ “Remembering Manhattan Nightclubs” is written by dancer, Teak Lewis. To learn more about Teak, visit Teak Lewis at the Latin Quarter and Meet the Entertainers: Teak Lewis.

Imagery courtesy of John Hemmer Archive and subject to copyright.

Honoring Juanita Boyle (1939-2019)

Juanita Boyle, far left foreground on stage at the Latin Quarter, NYC, circa 1960s (Courtesy F.M. Storey. Image subject to copyright)

Beloved Latin Quarter dancer, Juanita Boyle, passed away peacefully in her sleep on April 24th, 2019 at The Upper East Side Rehabilitation Center in Manhattan, following a short illness.

Juanita attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She went on to perform at Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter, the legendary Copacabana and Jack Silverman’s International Theatre and Restaurant.

Her long and successful dance career included national companies of Sweet Charity and Carnival! and summer stock appearances in the Guber, Ford and Gross productions of Carnival! and The King and Ias well as a stint with Minsky’s Follies at the famed Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago.

Juanita Boyle, circa 1980s/’90s (Courtesy F.M. Storey. Image subject to copyright)

After retiring from dance, Juanita focused her talents and beauty on the business world as Director of both the John Robert Powers and Barbizon modeling schools. Later she became an award-winning Sales Representative for the New York Daily News in their advertising department.

Between all these activities, she continued to share her skill and passion for dance. Juanita taught Creative Pre-School Ballet and Jazz at the Montclair Academy of Dance owned by fellow Copacabana Showgirl, Judy Alexander.

Montclair Academy of Dance. Juanita second in from left, circa 1980s. (Courtesy F.M. Storey. Image subject to copyright)

Juanita lived happily throughout retirement, attending dance and theatre performances and visiting with loved ones. She is survived by many grieving family and friends.

On January 4th, 2019, Juanita participated in a John Hemmer & the Showgirls documentary post-screening panel at SAGE in New York City with fellow Latin Quarter performers. Watch the recording below.

Janie Thomas Freed at the Latin Quarter

Janie Thomas, Age 4.

How I got to Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter starts way back when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My Aunt took me to Radio City Music Hall to see the Christmas Show. I was mesmerized by the production. In the Christmas Show were of course the wonderful Rockettes. At the end of the show I declared, “That’s what I want to be”.

By the end of the next week, I was enrolled in a terrific dance school. I was very lucky in that my parents supported my dreams, despite the fact that neither of them came from an arts background. My mother worked at a variety of places during my youth, including a cafeteria worker at my school, among other jobs. My father enjoyed a long-time career with the Department of Unemployment until his retirement. Before that he worked for the Navy during World War II, loading and unloading ship cargo. I was an only child with unusual career aspirations, but they were there for me, encouraging me all the way.

Janie Thomas recital portrait, Age 9.

And so I committed completely to learning dance and because of that, I performed in numerous recitals and continued to hone my craft throughout grade school and into my teenage years. And although my parents had challenges during their married life, made sure I was happy and could support myself before they eventually went their separate ways. And since I started my performing arts path early, it wasn’t long before I was finding independence and bringing in my own income.

I always reasoned that even if I was unable to become a working dancer, I could teach dance, which I quickly learned I enjoyed doing. By the time I was about 13 or 14, I was providing dance lessons to the “babies” – 3, 4, and 5 year old kids. This helped to pay for my own lessons.

The summer I turned 16, Radio City was looking for season replacements for The Rockettes who would be taking vacations. Off I went to become a Rockette.

Russell Markett was in charge of the auditions. My dancing was fine. All was going well until I was measured. I was told dancers were required to be at least 5’5” and I was only 5’3”. Well, I felt that my life was over. Sure, you can take more dance classes, but how do you make yourself grow 2 inches? Now, as fate would have it, as I was leaving the stage door, several of the girls were going to another audition. This one was at the Latin Quarter at the 48th Street location, managed by Lou Walters. Mr. Walters, father of the journalist, Barbara Walters was the impresario of the world-famous Latin Quarter nightclubs.

Janie Thomas (Age 13) & parents

The other dancers invited me along, I went and got the job as a dancer at the Latin Quarter and the rest is history. We started rehearsals within a few days. I made lot of friends. It was an exciting time. About a week before opening, however, I was informed that to work in the nightclubs that served alcohol in those years, performers were required to obtain a police license and had to be 18years of age in New York to acquire one. In Florida it was 21years of age. Do you think that stopped me? No. I went for my license, said I was 21. No one questioned me. The rest is history.

Until this time, we were rehearsing in rehearsal studios. Now the show is about to open and rehearsals moved to the nightclub itself. On the evening the show was to open, I was sitting on the some stairs to the side of the stage, when this very handsome man approached me and started a conversation. That man, Bob Freed has been my husband for the past almost 59 years. Bob was the maitre d’ at the nightclub. He remained there until the club closed in the late 1960s. So for many reasons, my time at the Latin Quarter is a beloved and cherished memory. It changed the course of my life and out of it grew a wonderful family, full of kids, grandkids and even great grandkids.

Latin Quarter dancers Sandy Keyes & Janie Thomas, Miami Beach Sun, 1958 (subject to copyright)

In addition to the Latin Quarter, I also worked the Town and Country club in Brooklyn, the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. I never worked at the Boston Latin Quarter location, that was before my time, but I did dance in productions at the Latin Quarter in Palm Island, Miami, Florida.

I worked for Clairol when they launched their promotion, If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde.

These days I am a permanent resident in Florida. I’m very involved with The Broadway Ziegfeld Entertainers. In 2006, I entered Ms. Senior New Jersey and was honored with First Runner Up.

The Latin Quarter days bring back fond memories and I’m proud to write they also brought great lifelong friendships with my fellow dancers and performers that I continue to hold dear. Dance has remained a significant part of my life to this day.

Watch Janie Thomas Freed and other Latin Quarter dancers, showgirls and employees recall the mid-century nightclub era at a 2018 event.

“John Hemmer & the Showgirls” panel, Delray Beach Public Library, Delray Beach, Florida from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.

 

Teak Lewis performing at the Latin Quarter

Teak Lewis at the Latin Quarter

1580 Broadway was the home of Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter and it was located between 47thand 48thstreets. It was and is a landmark three story wedge building that marks the northern boundary of Times Square. I say a wedge building because 48thstreet is longer than 47thstreet. The southern end of the building was famed for the signs where Broadway and Seventh Avenue crossed. The most famous sign was the neon Pepsi-Cola sign.

From 1936 to 1940 it had been the home of the Cotton Club after it moved from Harlem.

Lou Walters, the father of journalist Barbara Walters, opened the Latin Quarter in 1942. During his time at the club featured big name acts the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Andrew Sisters, Frankie Laine, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page, Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Diahann Carroll, and Milton Berle along with a line of chorus girls that concluded the show with a racy can-can dance.

Lou Walters left the business in the late 1950s. Earl Wilson, the columnist, described the new management in 1964 as “more expensive than the Copacabana, but then, the shows are bigger, ‘nakeder’ and longer.”

Teak Lewis as a patron at the Latin Quarter in New York City

I remember as a teenager my brother and I being taken there by my parents to celebrate either my Mother’s birthday or a Mother’s Day.

The entrance was all glass doors on 48th street with a huge canopy of light that spelled out “Latin Quarter”. Patrons climbed a flight of stairs toward two coat check rooms, while looking at the photos of the current attractions. Another flight took nightclub goers to the main level and presented additional photos of the coming performances.

It was a short walk to the Maitre d’s podium. He looked very impressive. As a teenager, I was even more impressed when I saw my step father shake his hand as if they were old friends. What I didn’t realize then was that he was being slipped a tip. The Maitre d’ snapped his finger high in the air and a waiter appeared out of nowhere to show us to our table.

I was a professional dancer by then and at a special audition for choreographer, Michael Kidd. I was hired to be in the chorus of Holly Golightly,a new show starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlin being produced by David Merrick.  We played out of town in Philadelphia for four weeks and an additional four weeks in Boston. We then came into New York City as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Musical, only to close after three days of previews. Of course this was a great disappointment. My dream was to work on Broadway.

When I finally got hired as a dancer at the Latin Quarter, it was October of 1967 and I stayed with the same show until late August of 1968, ten months. It was then owned by E.M. Lowe. The production I was in was a revue that had played The Garden of Stars at Expo 1967 in Montreal, Canada. All of our costumes were made for us in Paris and were gorgeous. We performed at the Expo for three months. We had two weeks off before going into rehearsal to do the same show, but at the “Comedie Canadien”, a theater in downtown Montreal. We did that for another three months before going on a tour of the province of Quebec.

Teak Lewis (foreground) performs at the Latin Quarter in New York City, 1967

The week before we were to close, George Reich, who was the choreographer on this production as well, asked if I was interested in dancing at the Latin Quarter. E.M. Lowe was bringing the production to the New York City location on Broadway. Needless to say, I said “yes”.

We did three major production numbers and had a company that consisted of:

  • 8 female dancers plus two lead female dancers
  • 6 partially nude showgirls
  • 1 male production singer
  • 3 male dancers, plus a lead male dancer

I can recall being there with guest headliners such as Allan Jones, Red Buttons, The Everly Brothers, Rodney Dangerfield, Brenda Lee, Louis Armstrong and his AllStars, the Doodletown Pipers, and Georgie Kaye, among others.

Latin Quarter program for “Women’s World”, 1967

By the time we got to spring, our lead male dancer was getting tired of all the work. We did two shows a night and were off one day a week. By late spring I had become the alternate lead male dancer. But suddenly, I got the opportunity to join a new show going to the El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico and I left the Latin Quarter at the end of August.

Early in 1969, the musicians were going to strike so they got a raise. Then the waiters threatened to strike, and they got a raise, but during a strike by the chorus girls, the nightclub was padlocked for non-payment of rent and closed. At the time, I was fortunately already in a touring company of Fiddler on the Roof.

When I was asked to dance at the Latin Quarter, I saw it as a second chance to fulfill my dream of Broadway, and ten months was a healthy run.  Dreams do come true!

Learn more about Teak Lewis here.

(Blog post imagery courtesy, Teak Lewis)

Watch Teak’s oral history interview:

Meet the Entertainers: Teak Lewis from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.