A Dancer’s Life: Meet Lawrence Merritt, Part II

At this time, you were in Philadelphia rehearsing the upcoming Broadway show Nowhere To Go But Up and during all this the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. You didn’t know what was going to happen, but you returned to New York City to open. The show must go on.

Lawrence Merritt: Well, the show flopped so in this case it didn’t go on for very long. We played nine performances, and that was it. I said to Ron Field, “I hate this. I thought the show was so good. The dancing, the choreography, the singing.” I said, “I just need to get out of this damn town, somehow or other.” That was in the fall of ’62. A couple months later Ron called and said, “Guess what? I’m going to Paris. I’m going to choreograph Casino de Paris.” I had no idea what that was. He went on, “and I need an assistant. You want to come? It’ll pay the equivalent of $300 in French francs every week.” Yup. I’m there, and off I went. The Casino de Paris is still running. It is as old and venerable as the Folies Bergère. Many people played there. Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Josephine Baker and the list goes on.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt (left) with Josephine Baker (center) and cast. television special, Paris, France, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

It was spring. I fell in love. I’m French. They put me in the show as the lead dancer. I decided to stay. I learned the language. I studied opera, and I danced there for a year. I learned how to do the Can-Can. When the Can-Can star took off for two weeks, I did the Can-Can. Jump splits over three girls. Ouch.

While there I did TV during the day. I was on a television show with Petula Clark and another with Josephine Baker that was choreographed by Geoffrey Holder. I did other nightclub acts also and played toilets in Barcelona with this ex-patriot American girl who was, again, very weird. My partner, at the time, he was a dancer too. Now lives in the West Village.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt, Casino de Paris production, Paris, France, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Paper scrapbook page: Paper program, Casino de Paris, the Dunes Hotel & Country Club. Lawrence Merritt, Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Then, I was asked to be one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge. Here’s little Larry Merritt from out in the apple orchard performing at Moulin Rouge now. The leads consisted of two men and two women. I was the American star. Then there was an English girl who had been a dancer, and she took her bra off, and became the nude dancer. The nudes made a little more money. As a nude, you still always wore a G string, feathers, and rhinestones. There was a Spanish woman who was the mistress of the choreographer. She sang and wore a bra. The other male lead was a German boy. We were the four stars of the Moulin Rouge. I did an underwater number in a plexiglass pool that came up on an elevator onto the stage. I was there in ’63, ’64, and ’65. I came back to New York and on to Vegas in ’66.

Frederic Apcar, who was the producer of the Casino de Paris show, bought the name to bring it to Vegas, staging it at the Dunes [Hotel]. He said, “We’ll do a special number, and I want you to come and be in the show.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll go back to America, and make some money”, but I had actually made quite a bit of money in Paris and remained in love with it. I still speak the language. I studied opera while I was there and just took it all in. I’ll never forget it. Nevertheless, I came back and I played Vegas for a year. At the end of that time, I said okay Frederic, my contract’s up. I’m going back to New York.

Paper scrapbook page: program interior, Lawrence Merritt with cast members performing water ballet, Moulin Rouge, Paris, France circa 1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

What brought you back to New York City?

I was contacted by Harold Minsky. Mr. Minsky said, “Guess what? I’m doing a review for the Minsky’s Follies. We’re going to rehearse here Vegas and then we’re going to go back East and play.” Delaware, Chicago and wherever. In 1967 I was back in New York, then Mineola [Theatre], and by the time we were in Chicago at the Edgewater. It was 1968.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt (center) with cast members of Minsky’s Follies, Edgewater Beach Hotel dinning room, Chicago, IL, circa late 1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

That same year, the Broadway show, Golden Rainbow had opened. Ron Field was its original choreographer and I stayed there for a while. I was also participating in industrials that took place over at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria. They were the Milliken Breakfast Shows. The yearly productions were staged at the Waldorf and produced by the textile company, Milliken, as a way to advertise their fabrics to the industry buyers.

I was doing some film and television as well. I partnered Anne Bancroft in her television special, Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man (1970), [Bancroft and Merritt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8U3q6Ix3YQ] and Lucille Ball in the movie adaptation of Mame (1974).

You stayed very busy during this period, doing just about everything.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt at rehearsal space, unknown location, circa 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Oh yeah. I did a revival of On the Town with Phyllis Newman. Again, that was choreographed by Ron Field. I went to audition for Zorba [Zorba the Greek], choreographed by Ron Field. Ron said, “You know why it’s Greek? Hal [Harold “Hal” Prince] just got back from Crete. He wants short dark types. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.” Yeah, it’s okay friend. We were good friends. I used to go to parties at his place.

I auditioned for A Mother’s Kisses, directed by Gene Saks, choreographed by Onna White. I danced. I sang. I was cast. This is in a week and a half, two weeks. I auditioned for Promises, Promises. I danced. I sang. I was cast.  I auditioned for Dear World when Donald Saddler was choreographing that. I danced. I sang. I was cast. So, in the period of two or three weeks, I was cast in three Broadway shows. I was like, “Oh God, now what do I do?” I picked Dear World.

We went out, colonial Boston. It was full of beautiful music, and it was a wonderful artistic success, but it did not last. We previewed for a month here in town and then we opened, and well it was like two or three months that we were respectable. Okay fine, Ron Field said, “Guess what? The hairdresser character, in Applause is leaving. Why don’t you come into the show and understudy the part of Duane?” I was like okay fine, sure. Ron felt good. He won a Tony for choreographing and directing that. Lauren Bacall headlined. By the time I came in, Anne Baxter inhabited the role of Margo Channing. I went in and the guy was getting ready to leave. I’m just starting rehearsals and I was up in the part. I took over. I played it for a week with Anne Baxter who was larger than life, even though she was about two feet tall. Then Arlene Dahl took over the role. I did it with her until the natural death of the show, which was not too long after, but I’m not sure what year. 1970 something.

By then I had choreographed the Lido show in Vegas and choreographed and directed it in Paris. Then the director of the Lido show in Paris called. He was also the artistic director of the Ice Capades. He said, “You have fabulous Broadway credits and good moves. Why don’t you come and assist me on Ice Capades?” See what happens when you watch Sonja Henie movies. I went and rehearsed in LA, which is where they did the costumes, they rehearsed and all that and that’s where the companies took their vacations. Off I went to New Haven where they rehearsed at some ice rink, and then we went to Atlantic City, right after Miss America contest in the same convention hall. I was with them for three years.

Paper scrapbook page: color photographic print, Ice Capades cast, Atlantic City, NJ, 1975. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Okay, we’re into the 1970s now. I know you did some television specials and touring acts with  notable performers and top-notch choreographers.

Paper scrapbook page: color image, magazine excerpt, Lucille Ball with Lawrence Merritt (bottom right), Los Angeles, CA, 1973-74. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Yes, somewhere in there, through Ron Field, I was also asked to do Ann-Margret’s big nightclub act. Ron Field choreographed it. I went out and did that and then came back to New York City to do something else. But anyway, that was Ron Field, Marvin Hamlisch, with music by Billy BarnesSteve Martin was in the act, whatever. I was featured. Later on before I moved to LA and right after Pippin, Roger Smith, Ann-Margret’s husband, called and said, “We’re doing a big TV special with Ann-Margret called When You’re Smiling (1973).” I’ve never seen it. I was busy doing a show at night on Friday and Saturday when they showed TV specials. So anyway, he asked, “Can you come on out? Nobody can do that walk that Ron choreographed in The Lady in Red number like you. You’re Melvin Purvis, the G man.” I went out and one of the dancers in the chorus was Teri Garr. So we did this number, it was three days. [Lawrence also performed in the Ann-Margret television special, Dames at Sea, 1971, with Ann Miller].

While I was there, I called Onna. She said, “Oh my God, I’m doing Mame [1974] and we need someone to partner Lucy who won’t make her look like she’s dancing with her grandson.” So, I then spent a month on the Universal Lot doing the first number. Then we went out to the Peckerwood Ranch plantation for that scene. It was February and March, which is their winter. Very rainy.

I still had an apartment in New York, but I kept getting called elsewhere. A friend of mine called. “I’m doing Juliet Prowse’s act. And one of the guys is leaving and I’ve recommended you. You want to come over and talk to Juliet and do a couple of moves with her? We’re rehearsing over here by the Farmer’s Market in LA.” Sure. Fine. I go over and they went, “We’d love to have you. It’ll be three weeks rehearsal here in LA, four weeks at the Desert Inn [Hotel] in Vegas, 700 bucks a week. You’ll get your lodging in Vegas at the hotel.” I went back to Mame and I said “Honey, I’m not really making a lot of money here. I’m only making like 100 bucks a week. They want me, 700 bucks a week. This is back in the seventies, not bad money. Plus hotel and your transportation from LA to Vegas, Vegas back.” So she “Oh honey sure, go ahead.” So I went for three days and stayed for almost three months. So that’s the way my career went.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Ann-Margret, Lawrence Merritt (left foreground and cast), Dames at Sea television special, Los Angeles, CA, circa 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In light of all the work outside of New York City, friends were starting to ask, “Why don’t you move to LA?” A lot of dancers had moved there because they could dance on TV shows, Flip Wilson, Sonny & Cher, Dean Martin, all those variety shows. As a dancer, you could have a real life. You could go home at five o’clock. You could have a husband and a house and a car and one or two days off a week when you weren’t rehearsing or shooting. I began to plan.

Somewhere in there, however, I was cast in Pippin. That was in 1974 when I went into PIP as a replacement with four other people. It was when Michael Rupert replaced John Rubinstein, who was the original Pippin. And I went into the show knowing that in the spring of ‘75, I was going to move to LA.

Paper scrapbook page: color magazine clippings, Rachel Welch with Lawrence Merritt, Rachel Welch World Tour, Paris, France, 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

So, I went to LA with the Ice Capades. While I was with the Ice Capades, I was asked to do Ginger Roger’s act when it was four boys. I said, Onna White… She was choreographing. “I can’t, I’m sorry. I’m busy. I’m rehearsing Raquel Welch‘s world tour.” Raquel’s act was three male dancers, singers, Joe Layton, directing and choreographing, assisted by Joe Tremaine – loony bird, great fun. It was Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, then other places in Miami Beach, Acapulco, Mexico City, Paris, Barcelona, Caracas, Sao Paulo, Rio at Carnival.

Let’s see… I was called again by Onna White saying, “We’ve gotten rid of all four boys. We’re going to make it down to one boy in Ginger Rogers act, okay? We’d like for you to come over, you’re back from Raquel. You’re free.” Yeah. I am. “Come meet her, do a few moves, You’ll meet people, one of the boys that was in the act will teach you what’s going to happen. We’re going to do one big pastiche to a medley, The Continental, Cheek to Check, Night and Day, The Carioca whatever.” okay fine. I go over and I meet Ginger. So we do it. They said, “We like you. You want it?” Okay sure. So, I’m partnering Ginger Rogers.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Ginger Rogers & Lawrence Merritt, circa 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

We definitely played some toilets here and there, junky places. And then, all of a sudden, there we are at The London Palladium. The opening act is Donald O’Connor with four girls. We are the headlining act. I’m in white tie and tails singing, “must you dance, every dance with the same fortunate man.” Out she comes with all of her pink chiffon with marabou around the neck and the cuffs. No wonder Fred Astaire was going “puft, puft”. He probably ate half that marabou as they danced. But here I am, Larry Merritt from the Apple Orchard on stage at The Palladium with Ginger Rogers. And who do I meet next? Larry Fuller.

 

End of Part II

The above interview with Lawrence Merritt was conducted in 2015 with the John Hemmer Archive. It was edited with Merritt in 2020 and 2021. Stay-tuned for the third installment in this article series, A Dancer’s Life: Meet Lawrence Merritt

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About the Author

Kirsten

Kirsten Larvick is a documentarian and archivist. She is influenced by interests in mid-century political and cultural history, non-fiction filmmaking and the preservation of personal heritage and cinema art legacies.