Adelle Gordon Cohen: A Dancer’s Story

My name is Adelle Gordon Cohen. I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts to Rachel and Louis Gutman. My mother was a homemaker, and my father a master safe cracker and locksmith who worked for Independent Lock Company.

I started dance classes at the age of five studying Denishawn, a form of modern dance. And then went on to study ballet and jazz. We lived in an area called Whalom Park.  An equity summer theater was just two blocks away. I started working there for producer Guy Palmerton when I was just a teenager. He brought in Broadway equity musicals as well as plays featuring big stars like John Garfield, Tallulah Bankhead, Vincent Price and on and on.

Chita Riviera came in. She must have been 19 years old. She was one of the dancers in a show called Call Me Madam. And the producer put me in the show, and so I got to see Chita and how she worked. At the time her name was Conchita Del Riviera.

During this time at the theatre, I made friends with young people who had come in from New York City with these equity shows. So, it was kind of natural transition for me to leave small town Fitchburg– Whalom Park and move to New York and study dancing. Also my dance teacher at the time would take a couple of us to New York for summer classes while still in high school.  I had actually been in enough shows there to earn my equity card.

Paper illustrated postcard: Casino Royal Chinese American Restaurant advertising postcard, Washington D.C., circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

 

Gelatin-silver photographic print: The MayFair nightclub, Boston, MA, photo circa 1940s/’50s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

I went to New York City after high school graduation at age 17. My father was a New Yorker. He came from Brooklyn. I had relatives in the city. It was an easy transition. I got a mail girl job at Shell Oil in Rockefeller Center and took dance classes at night. The Bible for auditions was a weekly newspaper called Show Business. Through that I got a job dancing with a group called The Colby Claire Dancers. Colby dancers was a group of eight girls. We danced at conventions and the 500 Club in Atlantic City for several months, and then I left Shell Oil.

Then I joined the Bob Conrad Dancers, which was a more steady. I auditioned and got that job through the Show Business trade paper as well. We worked night clubs all through the East– Three Rivers Inn in Syracuse, The Mayfair in Boston, Casino Royal in Washington D.C., Chanticleer in Baltimore, Maryland as well as Café Society in New York City and many others.  That was a completely packaged show with singers, showgirls and girl and boy dancers.

In the beginning of 1956, the audition ad in Show Business read, “40 dancers wanted to tour the country room and board paid.” I passed the first audition for choreographers Dick and Edith Barstow. When I passed the second audition that afternoon I asked, “What’s the name of the show?” The reply was, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. We have to leave for winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida in a month. And by the way, you have to ride an elephant.” But what they didn’t tell us is that we also had to learn trapeze. We were told that on our first day of rehearsal in Sarasota, Florida.

Learning trapeze was very difficult. You need upper body strength. And dancers aren’t trained that way. We also suffered from rope burns on our hands and back of our knees and ankles. I’m sure our instructor Barbette, who was once a famous aerialist, had many a sleepless nights over us. We had web sitters. Mine was Gonzales, a young man who would stand underneath our trapeze to be ready to break the fall just in case.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen with Minyak, Miami Beach, FL, 1959. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The elephant assigned to me was called Minyak. He was the largest one in the herd and also the lead elephant in the parades. He was very special, and I was very thrilled.

That season we were being ticketed by the worker’s union as we were non-union. Many of the performers, including myself, were show business union members due to previous jobs.  We were afraid of being blacklisted, especially performers who came from other countries and had been in TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show.

I was one of the chorus dancers. And when our lead dancer had left after opening night at Madison Square Garden in New York City because she was afraid of being blacklisted, they made me lead dancer. And although I had learned and performed the trapeze number, I no longer had to do it.

Being in the circus is like being in a family 24 hours a day. We lived, ate and performed together. We played under the big top and one-night stands– sometimes two-night stands. We toured all over the country and very often we wouldn’t know where we were because it would be a big field. And we lived in trains. I had an upper berth, and we were all assigned to our train.

We all ate in this tent. They would set up the tent for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we also had a costume tent where we would get changed into our costumes for the show. We each had a trunk with our names on it. And we had water buckets. We were given two water buckets a day. In that water bucket we would rinse our clothes and our personal clothes and even shower ourselves in the water bucket.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen with fellow performer, circa late 1950s. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

It was very rough, but it was fine. We learned how to do it. Being very young you don’t complain too much. And of course, you make friends with people from every country in the world who were circus performers. And basically, that was it.

The last day that the show performed was in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania. We didn’t know the show was closing. We were given our paychecks that evening with an airline ticket to go back to either New York or Boston. And we had to wait for the tent to come down. I had never seen the big top come down late at night.

And that was the very first time. And the reason I had never seen it come down is because we had three different trains. And the performer’s train would always leave before the worker’s train. And of course, the big top tent– the canvas would be on the worker’s train. But that very last night, we saw the big top come down for the very last time, and it was quite an experience. And from that point on the circus became union.

The trade unions as well as the very bad weather (heavy rains and even a tornado) shortened our season. It became historically known as the last year of the big top.

I had been in many summer theater Broadway musicals, but the Ziegfeld Follies was at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in 1957. It was a huge, lavish production. I went on the road with it for several months playing widget theaters. Very shortly after it closed my roommate Judy Kern and I were walking down Broadway on our way to dance class. We bumped into an agent, Miles Engels  in front of the Brill Building. His very words were, “Hi gals, where have you been? I haven’t seen you around.” Our answer –  “We just got off the road with the Ziegfeld Follies, and we’re on our way to class.” Engels replied, “Why don’t you go over to the Latin Quarter? They’re auditioning dancers. Tell them Miles sent you.”

When Judy and I arrived at the Latin Quarter [Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub], the auditions were over. People were leaving except the producer and choreographers who were sitting at a table talking. Judy and I walked up to them and said, “Miles sent us.” They said, “We’re very sorry but the auditions are over, and we’re not going to teach you the routine.” I told them we were just off  the road from the Ziegfeld Follies and would dance one of the numbers from the show.

And so we did with no music, and we were hired on the spot. That led to a two-year job first in beautiful Palm Island, Miami Beach Latin Quarter location for the winter season and then back to the Latin Quarter in New York City. And again, to Miami Beach and then again back to New York the following year. It was a dream job– beautiful productions, costumes, great choreographers working with huge stars and great musicians.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen and cast, including the Del Rio Sisters, with headliner Kathryn Grayson, backstage at the Latin Quarter, Palm Island, Miami Beach, FL, 1959. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Both in New York and Miami we worked with very big stars like Milton Berle and Betty Grable, Kathryn Grayson, Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, The Ritz Brothers. I’m trying to think was who else. And I’m sure there are half a dozen more very, very big stars that we worked with.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Jimmy Durante and dancers on tour during a run in the Blue Room at The Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans, LA and Latin Quarter, Palm Island, Miami Beach, FL, 1959. Adelle Gordon Cohen in foreground, back to camera with fellow dancers Ellie Stratton, Judy Kern, Danny Dayle, Phyllis Lewis, Kathy Sannis. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Miami Beach in 1958 was in its hey-day. The Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau hotels were new. The Latin Quarter on Palm Island was a luxurious looking nightclub. The people who attended the dinner and show would be all dressed up in gowns and furs. We as performers also had to be dressed appropriately between shows– no jeans or sneakers, etcetera. Even our living quarters were luxurious. Judy and I and a couple of other performers rented rooms in a mansion on the ocean. We called it the castle.

On our second season we closed with Jimmy Durante. He asked five of us to go on tour with him. He was treated like royalty. We played Palm Beach Hotel, and we were given suites. And when we wanted to go for pizza a limo would pick us up and take us out. We played the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. And from there the show went to the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.

Photochrome postcard: The Blue Room in The Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans, LA, circa early 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

My roommate Judy and I decided to go back East afterwards. She got a job in Bye-Bye Birdie (1960). And I was accepted at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. College life was not for me.

After a couple of semesters, I came back to New York, got a wonderful job with Hilton Hotels International at the Waldorf Astoria, but was coaxed by a former roommate to go out to LA.

That’s what I did. I lived at the Hollywood Studio Club for Girls which was filled with starlets. And before I knew it, I was auditioning again. I was hired by a Los Angeles choreographer named Earle Barton with a one-year contract in 1961 at the Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas. It was fabulous. Like the Latin Quarter, the best of everything with major stars appearing constantly. We worked with people like Red Skelton, Sinatra and Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka. Just a zillion performers and they were big rooms. They were big show rooms with big orchestras — very similar to the Latin Quarter.

After one year I went to the Copa Room in the Sands Hotel and Casino (1962) and the third year (1963) to the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas for Dick Humphries.

Photochrome postcard: The Copa Room in the Sands hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1954. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

When that contract was up I auditioned for Ronnie Lewis for a Las Vegas show called Viva Le Girls which was booked at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, the Caribbean Islands and then New York City.

Chromogenic photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen & fellow dancer, Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1963. Headliners included Peggy Lee, Barbara Streisand, Liberace. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I thought it was a great chance to get back East to see my family. While Vive Le Girls was at the Fontainebleau, my parents came to down to see me. My father took ill with acute leukemia and died while on vacation there. Of course, I left the show immediately and went home to stay with my mother in Massachusetts.

After almost a year I was asked to come to New York City to rejoin Viva Le Girls which was then performing at a Broadway nightclub. I did but I felt the show had lost its zip and perhaps I had too. I’d  been there, done that. So I left the show.

Through people I knew in the business I called Goddard Lieberson, President of Columbia Records. I told him I needed a job. And he put me to work at the brand new CBS building called Black Rock on 6th Avenue. It was a great job, and I dealt with people in the music industry and the public. I met my husband in the building where I lived on East 55th Street. His name was Leonard Cohen, and he was Vice President of EJ Corvette a large discount chain.

We were married in 1966, and our son David was born in 1968. When we moved to Mahwah, New Jersey four years later I became very active choreographing middle school and high school shows. We also had a terrific community theater group called Small Town Players that would put on Broadway musicals like Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady which I would choreograph and dance.

Decades later, when I got the phone call from Janie Freed that the Latin Quarter was going to have its first reunion at the Glen Island Casino I was thrilled. By the mid-1980s, I had not been in touch with many of our performers except my roommates. And here we were getting together from all over the country to reunite, perform and to raise money for charity. And at the time it was for missing and abused children organizations.

Newspaper clipping fragment: The Latin Quarter Showgirls, Inc. charity ad. Variety, November 27th, 1985. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

We have continued our reunions yearly with as much gusto as the first. Barbara Walters (daughter of Latin Quarter impresario, Lou Walters) also giving us a boost. My life in Mahwah is a quiet one. I go to California once a year to see my son, who’s a script writer, and his family. And to reconnect with friends I worked with in LA and Vegas.

I also belong to a circus organization called Circus Fans of America. We have a chapter near Mahwah where we meet a couple of times a year. I consider myself the luckiest person on Earth. An incredible career, great friends and a lovely family. And what wonderful memories we surface doing this interview.

~ “Adelle Gordon Cohen: A Dancer’s Story” is edited from a phone interview transcript, originally recorded between Adelle Gordon Cohen and KirstenStudio, LLC. To learn more about Adelle, visit Meet the Entertainers: Adelle Gordon Cohen.

Watch Adelle’s oral history video here.

Meet the Entertainers: Adelle Gordon Cohen from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.

 

Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant

During the 1950’s and ’60s, Jack Silverman owned and operated Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant on Broadway and 52nd Street (sometimes promoted as on Broadway and 53rd Street) in New York City.

A native of Rumania, Silverman (1886-1974) immigrated to New York as a boy. His first foray into professional work was in banking and then quilt manufacturing before embarking on a 40‐year career in the restaurant cabaret business. The restaurateur was a member, of The Friars. [Source: New York Times, 1974 obituary]

Silverman began his nightclub career with Jack Silverman’s Old Romanian restaurant at 169 Allen Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The place first featured an accordion player but later expanded its entertainment and added the Chrystal Lounge. Advertisements boasted, “Nationally known for its Sizzling MUSHK steaks and International Floor Show.”

Paper illustrated postcard: Advertisement postcard for Jack Silverman’s Old Romanian & its Crystal Lounge at 169 Allen Street, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

When Silverman moved up to mid-town, he eventually changed the name to Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant. The International put on large productions with headliners, showgirls, novelty acts and comedians. It featured big names of the day such as Ted Lewis, Joey AdamsSid Gould, Sophie Tucker, The Ritz Brothers and Myron Cohen. This venture advertised itself as, “Broadway’s largest and most beautiful nightclub.” 

Paper program: The Bea Kalmus Show broadcast from Jack Silverman’s International Theatre-Restaurant via NYC’s WMGM, circa mid-1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archives. Image subject to copyright laws.

Bea Kalmus, a popular nightclub singer, actress and radio personality, was also known as Miss Show Business. Kalmus hosted her The Bea Kalmus Show from the club’s Celebrity Lounge for WMGM from midnight until 2:30A.M. Some credit Kalmus as one of the first women radio hosts in New York City. She competed with male contemporaries in the business such as Joe Franklin. Her format featured guest performer interviews, such as conversations with Ted Lewis and other headliners who were also performing at the nightclub, as well as drop-in guests promoting a new album, such as the Four Voices, and film and television actors.

Kalmus took her show to other venues too, in and outside of Manhattan, but was most known as a disc jockey for her time at Silverman’s. Other radio hosts enjoyed broadcasts from the lounge there as well.

To listen to a Bea Kalmus interview with composer Otis Blackwell from the Celebrity Lounge, visit Old Time Radio Downloads here.

Many touring productions came through Silverman’s. For example Frederic Apcar’s Vive Les Girls was brought in to Silverman’s, which originated at the Dunes Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. Vive Les Girls was staged and choreographed by Ron Lewis and the costumes were designed by José Luis Viñas. The club’s main competitors were Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter and the Copacabana. Many showgirls and dancers from these other venues, also joined productions at Silverman’s.

If you have stories related to Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant, the John Hemmer Archive would like to hear them. Please contact us through the Credits page of this website.

 

Paper souvenir photo cover: Jack Silverman’s International Cabaret Restaurant advertisement & souvenir photograph frame cover, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

 

Paper souvenir photo cover back: Jack Silverman’s International Cabaret Restaurant advertisement & souvenir photograph frame cover back, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

On the Road with the Winged Victory Singers

John Hemmer: “The biggest struggle in my career was trying to stay alive and find work. I had a great entry into professional singing work as a replacement singer for the 4-part harmony group, the Four Voices. But, after the Four Voices broke up in the early 1960s, that was really hard, because, first of all, if I auditioned, I had a problem, because I had been singing in four-part harmonies for quite some time. After that I would just start singing a harmony to the song, rather than sing the melody. So, it was kind of hard to make that adjustment. I had to go to a voice coach, and just keep going over the audition song so I would be singing the melody, and not jumping off into a harmony someplace.

Chromogenic photograph: Winged Victory Singers at Carl Hoppl’s supper club, Baldwin, Long Island, New York, New Year’s Eve, 1965. Left to right: Kevin, Chip, Joe, Joe Baris, Rick, David, Art & John Hemmer (kneeling). Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In the same way, when I joined Winged Victory Singers [also billed as the Winged Victory Chorus], I struggled because then I had to go back to singing in a four-part harmony thing. And because being– the voice that I had in these groups was the second tenor, and they very rarely have the lead melody. It was always in a harmony. When I got out on my own to try to sing by myself, I was singing these songs, and it was the harmony part, rather than the melody. In fact, to this day, when I hear something, if I play a record, I can automatically sing the harmony to anybody that’s on the recording. I’m really good at that. I have to praise myself in that way. Even when I joined the group, they said, ‘It was amazing that you can pick up– you can make up a harmony without even seeing it on paper.’ I can still do it once in a while.

 

Yeah, I auditioned for Winged Victory. I was between show-biz gigs, so I got a job managing the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway and one of my ushers used to sing with Wing Victory and we got to know each other and he knew I was a singer, and this was after the Four Voices broke up. He told me about the group and everything and he says they don’t work all the time, but they work enough. I said, ‘Alright, let me go and I’ll audition’ and I got that job right away.

Chromogenic photograph: John Hemmer with fellow Winged Victory singers pack a station wagon while on tour, circa 1965. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

So, I went out with them, but that was a tough job. I was traveling with 9 to 10 guys at a time. That ain’t much fun and traveling in station wagons, five in each station wagon with all the costumes and everything else. We maybe did 40-50 shows per year. We did lots of American songbook stuff, mixed with selections from popular musicals of the day and some patriotic tunes. We would adapt our shows depending on the venue and expected audience. Joe Baris, the musical director, founded Winged Victory while serving over seas in the U.S. military. I believe he’d been at it with Winged Victory since the early 1950s.

 

Even though road life was hard at times, all of us in the group got on fine and there were a couple of clubs that were really fun to perform at. We’d leave New York to go to Florida and Baris would pick up four or five dates on the way down in different spots, different hotels. We’d be maybe on the road for sometimes two or three weeks; mostly just one-nighters in those two station wagons.

Paper telegram: Western Union telegram delivery to John Hemmer at Palumbo’s, Philadelphia, PA 1963. Newspaper clipping ad for Palumbo’s. Handwritten note by John Hemmer. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Philadelphia was hub for popular music venues. Frank Palumbo was the proprietor of both Palumbo’s and the Click Club, where the likes of many headliners, such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and Jimmy Durante took to the stage during U.S. or eastern seaboard tours. Jimmy Durante came through when we were there once.

Sometimes Palumbo’s would work in special events. There was a Miss Philadelphia contest held there once during our booking. It was for contestants where one would go on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, if I remember correctly. The club was always packed with people. One of the most popular clubs in the area.

We’d play there for longer stints. Lots of people talk about the mob and Palumbo’s. All I know is that Frank Palumbo and all the folks there were very good to us. They fed us like kings and were very cordial.

Sometimes we’d book the summer in Wildwood, New Jersey at Cozy Morley’s Club Avalon. Wildwood was a haven for summer vacationers. Many Philadelphians and New Yorkers rented or owned places and spent the warmer months down there. It was great fun to spend time in Wildwood for a long stretch.

Chromogenic photograph: John Hemmer, members of the Winged Victory Singers & friends in Wildwood/Cape May NJ, circa early 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

A couple of seasons the group rented a big house on the water in nearby Cape May. Performing at Cozy’s place for longer periods allowed us to form local friendships so we’d host cookouts and go out on little boats during the day and then head to Avalon and do our set(s) at night. Cozy Morley, the club owner, was a sweetheart. He was also a comedian and still performing at that time. He enjoyed a long career and was a Wildwood staple.”

Bill Hemmer [John Hemmer’s brother]: “I think in his show-business career the thing I remember most was when he was the lead in HMS Pinafore, which was a high-school production, and then one summer, years later when brother John worked professionally, I went to New York and he was appearing with a group, the Winged Victory Chorus, and he was in Wildwood. That was exciting.

I had never seen a nightclub performance of his because when he was traveling all over the United States with the Four Voices, I was either in school at the time or I was in the military; I was in the army for three years. So, I missed all that. I heard about it, but I didn’t see his appearances in Philadelphia or Chicago or Detroit or Reno or California. All those nightclubs around the U.S. that he sang at with the Four Voices. But I remember that show in Wildwood, New Jersey with Winged Victory very well. By that time I was finished with school and out of the Army.

Chromogenic photograph: John Hemmer approaching the mic at Cozy Morley’s Club Avalon, Wildwood, NJ, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I was living in Florida and going to New York on a vacation with a friend. We decided to go up together and I said, ‘My brother has an apartment and I believe that I would be permitted to use it. He is staying in Wildwood for the summer ‘cause he’s working at a supper club.’ The friend I was traveling with had his cousin and her girlfriend going on the Queen Mary to England, so it was like one big party time while in Manhattan. After my friend and all of them left I went down to Wildwood and spent four or five days out there.

Listen, I was just a kid, all the limelight, the glamor. For me it was rather thrilling. It was just all the lights and getting ready to go onstage and all the excitement of it. It was kind of fun to be exposed to show business like that. And people loved him. They just loved brother John.”

Newspaper clipping: Sciolla’s supper club ad for Winged Victory Chorus engagement, Philadelphia, PA, circa early 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

John Hemmer: “Other than those longer gigs in Philly, or especially Wildwood, we were mainly doing one-nighters, which can take their toll after awhile. Joe Lorden, who later became a stage director, was another member of Winged Victory, and was my roommate at the time. We finally quit. Joe Lorden and I had a couple of neat spots in the [Winged Victory] show. We danced in the show and we had solos, so we didn’t want to leave but it just got to be too much.

We were in Vermont and Joe Baris, Winged Victory’s Musical Director, had booked the following night in Chicago at a hotel and he wanted us to drive from Vermont to Chicago and do the show that night. I looked at Joe, my roommate, and I said, ‘This ain’t gonna work. I’m not going to drive all that time with no sleep and everything.’ We told Baris.

That was the last Joe Baris saw of us, that was the last show we did with him, couldn’t take the traveling anymore. He was a nice enough guy and all but we were done. And it wasn’t too long after that that I landed the gig at the Latin Quarter as a production singer, so I guess everything happens for a reason and some of the friendships I made through singing with Winged Victory and great memories have stayed with me all these years.”

~ “On the Road with Winged Victory Singers” was edited down from two 2015 interviews between John Hemmer (1934-2017) and KirstenStudio, LLC and Bill Hemmer and KirstenStudio, LLC. To learn more about John Hemmer, visit the John Hemmer Archive pages.

Back of Winged Victory album: From Las Vegas to Miami… Grossingers to Chicago’s Palmer House… the Latin Quarter to Carnegie Hall in New York City… the Winged Victory Singers are creating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the world of show business. Critics rave about their exciting, heartwarming performances and the sensational sound of harmoniously blended voices in stirring arrangements of music you love.

It all began in Europe when Joe Baris was stationed there with the Armed Forces. Inspired by the love of fine music and a nostalgia for American traditions, Joe blended the finest male voices in a repertoire of best loved American songs. Back in the United States the Winged Victory Singers toured the country leaving spellbound audiences from coast to coast.

A graduate of Ithaca College and resident of Beacon, New York, Joe Baris is an experienced showman. With an appreciation and understanding of his audience and tasteful respect for th music, Joe can turn a good song into an entertaining experience.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Publicity print of the Winged Victory Singers [also billed as the Winged Victory Chorus], circa early 1960s. John Hemmer second in from right. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Lucille Ball Sings Wildcat

In 1961 singer John Hemmer was enjoying success as a new member and replacement singer in The Four Voices, a Columbia Records signed all-male harmony quartet first formed in the 1950s. The group won popularity through appearances on the Arthur Godfrey Show, later touring across the United States, and also appearing on other broadcast variety shows of the period.

Between out-of-town performances, John Hemmer and Four Voices founder and friend, Frank Fosta, along with pal, fellow Columbia Records singer, Johnnie Ray, spent their off-time in New York City, where each lived.

At the same time, Lucille Ball was in New York performing in the musical production of Wildcat (1960), which would mark the film and television star’s Broadway debut. The show, with book by N. Richard Nash, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, music by Cy Coleman and produced by Ball and Nash, was originally staged in Philadelphia where is opened to positive reviews in October of 1960. The show moved to the Alvin Theatre for it’s New York City opening in December of 1960. The Broadway premiere was not met with as much enthusiasm as in Philadelphia. The show would close in the spring of 1961 due to a variety of complications, including a ski accident Ball suffered leaving her in a leg cast.

Here Hemmer recalls an evening in Manhattan he’d never forget. He would often recall how the show business community was small back in the day and that everybody knew everybody. “If you were in the business”, he’d say, “sooner or later you’d cross paths”.

*Please let us know about any suggested edits or fact corrections to this article. We care about accuracy. Contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.

Honoring Lloyd Kolmer (1930-2019)

Silver gelatin photograph: Lloyd Kolmer, c. early 1960s. Courtesy The Kolmer family and Margo Mayor. Image subject to copyright laws.

Lloyd Kolmer, who carved a name for himself as a pioneer of celebrity endorsed advertising, climbed the entertainment industry ladder at an early age during the 1950s and ‘60s.

A native New Yorker, Kolmer was the son of William and Birdie Kolmer and attended Kohut School for Boys in Harrison, New York. Upon graduating high school, he served in the U.S. Navy in the China Sea at the onset of the Korean War.

Following two years in the military, he attended Syracuse University and worked at Kolmer-Marcus, an upscale haberdashery on Broadway in the Garment District that his father co-founded. Regardless of the security that a career in the family menswear business may have promised, Kolmer dreamt of a life in show business and so he set out on his own.

He started to realize his vision in the mailroom at William Morris Agency in New York City at the age of 23. It was in the mailroom that Kolmer took on secretarial tasks to all the agency’s executives. From there he was promoted to a position working for George Woods. It was under Woods’ mentorship that Kolmer became close to one of the infamous agent’s biggest clients.

Silver gelatin photograph: Sailors Lloyd Kolmer (right) and friend, c. 1949/50. Courtesy The Kolmer Family & Margo Mayor. Image subject to copyright laws.

As secretary and Jr. Agent to Woods, Kolmer formed a kinship with Frank Sinatra often acting as Sinatra’s secretary by way of Woods. This was during the nightclub era when Sinatra was a returning favorite at The Copacabana club among many other venues across the US and overseas. Kolmer would always remember the crooner fondly, siting Sinatra’s generosity and humor, remaining a life-long friend and fan to the entertainer.

At William Morris he continued to hone his skills and soon enough moved up to agent status in the Television Department where he booked talent on network shows, as well as programming on local affiliates. Kolmer stated in a manuscript he drafted in recent years, “In this period there were approximately 35 live and taped TV shows at the three networks plus syndicated programs. 7 to 10 Variety shows; 4 to 6 Panel shows and many dramatic programs. My job was to book WMA clients on these shows.  It was great work for me for approximately 7 years.  Then I started to get bored..”

Eventually Kolmer opened the agency’s Commercial Department, signing well-known actors and celebrities to commercial products. He had a way with the pitch that made him a stand-out. Actors and their agents listened and trusted his sense of what would work.

Magazine advertisement for William Morris Agency: Lloyd Kolmer (far left) appears in ad with coworkers, c. 1960s. Courtesy The Kolmer Family & Margo Mayor. Image subject to copyright laws.

Deals Kolmer brokered include, Catherine Deneuve for Chanel, Marcel Marceau for Xerox, Milton Berle for Goodrich tires, Victor Borge for AT&T, Edward G. Robinson for Wilkinson blades and even Dr. Joyce Brothers’ mother for Mueller macaroni.

In a 1979 Commericals Monthly article, he recalled his breakthrough. “I made the very first overscale deal that was ever made in commercials.” He stated. “It was Barbara Britton for Revlon in 1957.”

Celebrity endorsement was a new concept at the time. The common attitude toward product advertising by actors was that it would sink one’s career. Actors considered themselves artists, not pitchmen or sales women, and pawning goods would under value them at the box office.

Agency policy for any incoming offers was to submit them to the artist’s contact first, but due to the outlook toward commercial work, more often than not offers were never transmitted to the actors or they were explained by their representation with a negative slant.

Kolmer paved the way in making this type of work acceptable and actually sought after by actors, removing the stigma the business often associated with a singular actor selling a product, outside of television show sponsorship, such as “Colgate Comedy Hour” or the like. “In the 1960s most actors were reluctant to do them.” Kolmer stated in a 1975 interview with the New York Times.

Catherine Deneuve in Chanel ad, c. late 1960s. Source, Google image search. Image subject to copyright laws.

Catherine Deneuve’s agent was unreceptive to the idea of his client appearing in a commercial and thought it would hurt Deneuve’s career, but Kolmer was dogged. Convincing the agent to join him on the streets of New York, the men randomly stopped pedestrians in midtown, asking if they knew who Catherine Deneuve was. No one recognized the actress by name. Kolmer made his point. “Commercials bring actors into millions of households.” he said. Kolmer also contacted the actress directly. They met at her hotel where he explained how Chanel was a perfect match for her and its product would enhance her image. Deneuve’s foray into the promotion of couture was secured. Deneuve and Chanel enjoyed a long and successful relationship. It was this kind of creative hard labor he became known for within the field.

William Morris Agency, considered to be the first great talent agency in show business, represented much of Hollywood during its over 100 years of history. To become an agent under its banner was no small feat, but Kolmer had his eye on an even bigger prize.

In his manuscript he describes his experience with the agency, “My superiors were very pleased with my abilities in the TV area and gave me the go-ahead to form this new department, combined with becoming head of the entire Commercial Department. It was very successful but again after several years, I became bored. The reason was that I could not deal with all the bureaucracy… I decided at that time to leave William Morris Agency (May 1971) and form my own company. My departure was very amicable and I was wished well by all at the agency.”

Newspaper clipping: Lloyd Kolmer Enterprises & celebrity endorsements, including Marcel Marceau for Xerox, c. 1970s. Courtesy The Kolmer Family & Margo Mayor. Image subject to copyright laws.

After 18 years at William Morris Agency, Lloyd Kolmer Enterprises, LLC was formed. With his one-man business, Kolmer didn’t represent any one actor, athlete or any entertainer, but instead became an intermediary between the agent and the adman and he preferred it that way. He knew how to roll up his sleeves and make deals happen, but in this new role he made his own rules, which created a path for the future of advertising.

Boasting a Rolodex of over 7,000 names and contact information for actors and their representation, Kolmer had immediate access to just about anyone. When the famous mime, Marcel Marceau’s agent quoted a price too high for Xerox’s ad agency’s budget, Kolmer came to the rescue. Stating in a 1977 Wall Street Journal interview, “I located Marceau at the Park Lane Hotel in New York City and went right over there…. I told Marceau, ‘I’m not talking about soap suds or toilet tissue. This is an incredibly prestigious corporation called Xerox. It’s a 90-second commercial that will be seen by 60 million people.’” This coup resulted in a Clio award, Madison Avenue’s highest accolade.

Kolmer wore many hats in this arena. He often acted as a casting director when Mad Men searched for a certain face. Kolmer would flip through his Rolodexes of actors, comedians, cartoonists, astronauts, spots figures, political analysts and others. He could see opportunities and tie-ins where others couldn’t and wasn’t afraid to confront a challenge. These characteristics proved a formula for success.

Rolodex brand paper file cards & rotating device: Lloyd Kolmer’s Rolodexes, c. early 1960s – 1990s. Files cards open to Esther Williams & Marlon Brando. Courtesy The Kolmer Family & Margo Mayor. Image subject to copyright laws.

Marjorie Wallace, the former Miss Indiana and Miss USA lost the Miss World title in 1973 after refusing to accept the beauty pageant’s requirement that contestants be accompanied on dates by arranged chaperones, claiming it an archaic policy.

Marjorie Wallace in Wella advertisement, c. early 1980s. Source, Google image search. Image subject to copyright laws.

The immediate aftermath of this stance brought criticism against Wallace, but Kolmer recognized the possibilities. He contacted Wallace who in turn became the face for Ultra Brite toothpaste, Wella Professionals hair corporation among other products.

Kolmer leveraged the storm, telling the press that Wallace’s position shames those who thought she should be forced to be chaperoned. Wallace eventually became one of the first hosts of the popular TV magazine show, Entertainment Tonight.

Kolmer was the first to forecast the use of computer databases as encyclopedic references for entertainers and the industry, helping to marry celebrities with products through a tech-based platform. Computer on Media Personalities and Celebrity Talent (COMPACT) was a ground-breaking use of technology, which Kolmer spearheaded in 1979. The system developed an interface with user generated content capabilities, pre-IMDb, allowing actors and other show business professionals to enter their own credits and awards to their “profiles”. Ad agencies and other related businesses could access COMPACT through a subscription fee.

Color photographic print: Lloyd Kolmer & Margo Mayor celebrating Margo’s birthday at Estiatorio Milos on 55th Street, New York City, c. 2016/17. Courtesy Margo Mayor. Image subject to copyright laws.

Many will never know Kolmer’s impact, even those within the field, as so much of what he developed is taken for granted as common place in the business today. Dancer and model, Margo Mayor, Kolmer’s girlfriend for the past 20 years, said that despite his incredible success, he was often dismissive about all his accomplishments and the personal relationships he maintained with so many show business greats.

Mayor stated, “Lloyd didn’t say a lot about what he did or who he knew. He was very modest and always wanted to know more about what other people were doing. He was smart and funny, and incredibly gracious.”

Lloyd Kolmer was an avid sports fan and loved listening to his favorite performer and friend, Frank Sinatra. He was a life-long New Yorker.

*Please let us know about any suggested edits or fact corrections. We care about accuracy. Contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.

The Latin Quarter Social Club, 2019

Unidentified paper publication fragment: Comedian poses as waiter gag at the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, New York, c.1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

Live entertainment enjoyed a great high in the United States from vaudeville of the late 1800’s to the rise of the Cafe Society following the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s. The mid-20th Century represents the beginning-of-the-end of this particular social tradition.

Although photojournalism soared in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, documentation from performers of the genre remain scarce, yet whispers of what was permeate certain communities today.

Those who were there haven’t forgotten and although living the life of an entertainer had its challenges, it was in many cases the best of times for artists who performed during this era.

In New York City, work was plentiful for those who harbored both talent and extreme determination. Auditions were still competitive, and some took non-industry jobs between showbiz gigs to make ends meet. Nevertheless, work was out there, and an abundance of Broadway and off-Broadway theatres enjoyed both short and long runs. Nightclubs were filled with New Yorkers and tourists alike year around. Live performance was on a high for a long stretch and New York City was a nucleus for the art form.

Entertainment hubs such as The Copa and the Latin Quarter were considered destination hot-spots where a visitor to the city might get an opportunity to hob-knob with a celebrity over dinner and a show.

Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant and other establishments, including the Latin Quarter, not only hosted elaborate musical productions, they ran radio shows from their locations, broadcast television specials and game shows and drew attention from newspapers across the United States and abroad with listings of the latests stars to appear on stage and in the audience on any given night. Some clubs produced traveling revues under their moniker.

Digital Photograph: Showgirl, Darlene Larson (left) in conversation with dancer, Francine M. Storey, Latin Quarter reunion, New York, New York. October, 2019. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

On a Sunday afternoon this past October, a cohort gathered to celebrate this special aspect of the performing arts. During the nightclub era, thousands of dancers, showgirls, singers, comedians and novelty acts entertained America from the stages of many-a unknown “gin joints”, to world renowned supper clubs, to The Great White Way.

Approximately 25 performers assembled at the Olive Garden, Times Square this fall to recognize the one-time location of Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter. From 1942 until New Year’s Eve, 1969, the Latin Quarter, located on 48th and Broadway in New York City, boasted full-scale productions complete with a cast of male and female dancers, showgirls, production singers, guest novelty acts, comedians and headliners, wowing an audience packed into over 400 seats (other Latin Quarter locations included Boston and Miami).

Silver gelatin photograph: Patrons Rita and Peter Antonucci enjoy a show at the Latin Quarter, New York, New York, 1958. Courtesy Carl Antonucci. Image subject to copyright laws.

During the Latin Quarter days, the space was filled with patrons at dining tables squeezed into every available corner. Wait staff milled about, balancing large food trays and pushing dessert carts. Camera and cigarette girls made their way through the crowds offering a commemorative picture or a post dinner cigar. A popular souvenir for your time was a photograph proving your Manhattan experience included a night-on-the-town.

The Latin Quarter and its competitors promoted their respective brands through slogans like, “As much a part of New York as Broadway… Latin Quarter,” and consumer trinkets. Patrons could leave the club with customized matchbook covers, souvenir programs, cocktail stir sticks, drumsticks, postcards and more – all of which featured the club’s name.

Promotion was key and Lou Walters, Jules Podell and other impresarios were famous in their own right, but the real attraction were the productions featuring beautiful dancers and showgirls and some of the biggest entertainment names in the business.

Photographic negative: A showgirl graces the stage at Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, New York, c.1940s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

At the height of the club’s popularity, the Latin Quarter supported its own costume house where some of the best costumers of the day, such as Freddy Wittop and Erte, were engaged for various productions. Top Broadway choreographers such as Michael Kidd were brought in to create ambitious dance sequences.

Each production was built around a theme. The Venus Touch was conceived around Roman mythology, other themes featured unlikely fusions, as in the case of French Dressing that showcased both French inspired costume and American West attire. It’s a time that is often reflected upon romantically. That type of live spectacle no longer exists nor does it bring out crowds in cocktail attire.

Digital Photograph: Performers gather for snapshots at Latin Quarter reunion, New York, New York, September, 2016. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

Decades following the club’s closure, former performers of the Latin Quarter and their larger community of entertainment industry veterans have met to honor this period in their lives. A time that has yet to be surpassed in its historical iconography.

The earliest congregation took place in the mid-1980s when former Latin Quarter dancers, Chickie James Kulp and Janie Thomas Freed placed an ad in a paper, inviting others to reunite. Singer John Hemmer responded to the call and a movement began.

For 15 years the group staged charitable productions benefiting a variety of causes focused on the support of children while keeping the spirit of the era alive through performances inspired by the celebrated clubs. They partnered with similar groups formed in Florida and Los Angeles, offering shows in the New York State area as well as on the west coast. Their reboot has since ceased, but through continued reunions the Latin Quarter Social Club transpired with Freed, her husband Bob, and Hemmer at the helm.

Digital Photograph: Jackie Miller Abrams and husband Rey, Latin Quarter reunion, New York, New York, October 2019. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

In 2019 they carry on the effort to keep their community together, despite setbacks of loss (James Kulp passed in 2015, Hemmer in 2017 among others along the way). On a recent afternoon men and women milled about the Olive Garden restaurant recollecting the original layout of the club as it was when they were there (The original building was torn down in 1986).

Some worked together on the same production at the Latin Quarter back in the day, while others met for the first time at a reunion past. Most had worked at least one show there, while others knew one another from their stints at The Copa or as a June Taylor Dancer or any number of Vegas productions. One woman was once part of an adagio act that performed on stage and television.

It was a joyous occasion for these entertainers, some of whom are still working in the field, transitioned to other careers, and still others enjoy retirement. To this day, newcomers find their way to the luncheon to seek out a former colleague or to reminisce with those who they know through common connections, “I worked with Donn Arden in Vegas, but not in New York”, “I was in a production there a year later”, “Oh, I know her, we worked ‘Minsky’s’ in Chicago”, and so on. A lot of the attendees are life long New Yorkers, but some drive from surrounding cities and states, or fly in from Florida or Las Vegas.

Digital Photograph: Latin Quarter performers share memorabilia, New York, New York, October, 2019. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

Books and photographs were shared between dancers and showgirls. One performer has written a screenplay about her life, others have written articles and shared their stories through public speaking. A few have gone on to other careers so completely outside the industry, they don’t have another opportunity to talk about their time on stage with others who understand what it was like back then. “I’ve always been a gypsy,” a dancer declared. “Once the lifestyle is in your blood it never leaves.”

A costumer attended to solve mysteries around some costume designs. In an effort to identify a Latin Quarter production they originated from, he brought photographs of illustrations from the show in question. A showgirl helped him identify what staging the illustrations were created for. He was thrilled.

A social club newsletter maintained by Hemmer and fellow performer and friend Teri Paris kept a list of over 100 members for decades. Today the newsletter carries on through the John Hemmer Archive efforts and reaches around 70 or so.

Digital Photograph: Dancer Janie Thomas Freed (left), Singer, John Hemmer (center) and dancer Adelle Gordon Cohen, Latin Quarter reunion, New York, New York, September 2016. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

Naturally the numbers have gone down over the years as people pass, move or limit their travel due to health and/or budget, but the beat goes on. “I’ll keep coming as long as these reunions take place” a radiant New York showgirl exclaimed.

To learn more about the nightclub era and performer experiences, visit our Meet the Performers page.

If you performed during this era or have a connection through family or friends and would like to be on the Latin Quarter Social Club newsletter list or this site’s email list, contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.

 

*Please let us know about any suggested edits or fact corrections. We care about accuracy. Contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.

Honoring Rip Taylor (1931-2019)

Charles Elmer Taylor Jr. was born in 1931 in Washington D.C. and was raised by his mother. As a young man he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. It was during his time abroad in the service that Taylor embarked on his career in comedy.

Silver gelatin photograph: Rip Taylor and showgirl beauty, Rusty Rowe at Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City, c. mid-1960s. (Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws)

During his military stint, Taylor experimented with pantomiming to recordings of famous vocalists. Following his two years in the Army, he took the act to Atlantic City and other entertainment capitals.

Eventually he dropped the lip-sync idea and brought standup performances to many clubs in the northeastern United States and performed everywhere from burlesque shows at tiny watering holes to nightclubs that boasted headliners of the day, to the summer resort circuit in the Catskill Mountains. He took to the spotlight, branding his unique stage presence. He began to get noticed and gradually developed a following.

At Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter in Times Square, Taylor appeared a number of times as the featured comedian. Friend and singer John Hemmer remembers the comedian’s generosity during a run at the Manhattan club during the late 1960s. Hemmer often recalled Taylor as being as warm and sweet as he was hysterical.

The two performers crossed paths earlier in their respective careers and remained life-long friends. Taylor was a regular face at John’s New York apartment in Hell’s Kitchen for decades.

Color gelatin photograph: Rip Taylor (left) receiveing birthday cake from friend, John Hemmer (right), New York City, c. 1965 (Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws)

Initially gaining national attention as “the crying comedian,” Taylor’s nightclub gigs led to guest appearances on television shows including appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show and The Ed Sullivan Show as this character.

An excerpt from Taylor on The Jackie Gleason Show where the comedian interrupts Gleason’s monologue, reveals his self-deprecating approach to humor. With every punch line, Taylor dabs his face with an oversized handkerchief and continues exaggerated sobs on Gleason’s shoulder as the host dryly rolls his eyes.

Rip Taylor to Jackie Gleason: I’ve tried everything in showbiz. I’ve been a failure til now. Thank gosh for you.

Rip Taylor toward audience: I had my own trained flea circus. You know what I mean? One day I’m rehearsing my fleas and a dog walked by and stole the whole show!

Later dropping the “crying comedian” moniker, Taylor fittingly began his paper confetti and props focused acts that had lasting effects and would propel Taylor to regularity on talk, variety and game shows of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

Taylor appeared in narrative television shows. A regular on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters as Sheldon the Sea Genie, and as a neighbor and performer on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, he enjoyed many guest appearances and returning character roles on television throughout this period. Having secured a name for himself through his distinctive sense of comedy Taylor voiced a number of successful animated series characters on such favorites as The Addams Family and The Jetsons.

Paper postcard advertisement: c. 1980s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, LLC. Image subject to copyright laws.

Continuing with live performance, Taylor did acts in Las Vegas for many years where he worked with other performers such as long-time friend Debbie Reynolds. Later he penned his own one-man show reflecting on his life, surviving bullying and other challenges in It Ain’t All Confetti (2010).

Broadway credits include Sugar Babies (1979-82) where he replaced Mickey Rooney as well as national tours of several musical productions, character work in a number of fiction films and at one point hosted his own competition show.

*Please let us know about any suggested edits or fact corrections. We care about accuracy. Contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.

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.