It is with deep sadness that while finalizing this article and working with Lawrence to document his story and memorabilia, we lost a great dancer. A wonderful friend and storyteller with a quick sense of timing and incredible experiences, Lawrence entertained as many while off stage as he did on. The John Hemmer Archive, and other organizations, such as Dancers Over 40, will ensure his legacy continues. Please keep reading for Part III of this article series on a gifted performer who will be greatly missed.
If you missed earlier installments, please visit these link to read the full story in chronological order:
LM: Okay. Larry Fuller – Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, that’s our [Harold] Prince. I said, “What the hell are you doing? You’re in London?” He said, “Well I worked in New York with this chap and now I have his flat and his sports car. And I’m here doing research on a new show I’m going to be doing with Harold Prince. Based on the life story of Eva Peron. Beginning of a journey, okay. And you’re closing tomorrow, and I’ve been invited this weekend to go up to a place called Walton Hall.” Walton Hall at the time was owned and run by Danny La Rue.
Danny La Rue was the most famous female impersonator in England. He had his own club at one point, Noel Coward, Marlon Dietrich, among others used to go there. Okay, so we get in a sports car Larry has, we join up with a friend of mine that I met, who was one of the writers on Dames at Sea with Ann-Margret – television special. Don’t ask. So, we’re going up the highway – the super-highway, we make a right turn where all of a sudden we’re in fields, with the stones and forests and sheep. We took a corner and there’s this place Walton Hall. It was like Downtown Abbey, a little smaller. With its own chapel, a stone bridge, cattails, swans, okay. I said, “This is like we’re in some technicolor musical.” So, here’s Larry Merritt staying for the weekend. First night, we go to Stratford. Thank you, Harold Prince. Center seats in the mezzanine for the very famous Peter Brook production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I didn’t know. I wasn’t that into acting then, as an actor. We see that at the interval, very lah-di-dah. We have drinks with the theatre manager in his office. Back to Walton Hall. The next night we go to Coventry, to see Danny La Rue’s show.
It’s fabulous. He’s amazing. He’s got a chorus and his boyfriend played the piano. Amazing. For the last number he says, “Ladies and gentlemen…lights up, please.” Larry Fuller and I are dressed to the teeth. I buy a velvety new jacket on bow tie, whatever. We’re like five rows back from the stage on the right. He goes, “Ladies and gentlemen, a very well-known famous American dancer is here who just closed at the Palladium with Ginger Rogers. Please stand up.” So, up I go.
Danny goes on, “And we have a famous American choreographer, Larry Fuller. Please stand up.” Okay. “And ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you’ll know the next person. Liberace.” And there’s Liberace up in the balcony. He was staying at the Walton Hall too. We had no idea. We get into the cars, all of us go back… Danny and his boyfriend who played the piano says, ” We’re hungry.” It’s after a show. It’s late. So, they called one of the chefs, and a waitress and there weren’t any issues. They wouldn’t have anything huge, but there were like twelve of us including Liberace, and Larry, and me, and Danny, and a few other people we went to the dining room and had food. It was wonderful.
And then I had been to LA and Evita opens. I had seen the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion production. Patti [LuPone] was out that night, but I saw it. And a few months later Larry Fuller calls, he says, “Hi, I want you to be the lead dancer at Evita. We’re doing the first national company. We’re going to rehearse out in LA and we’re going to open the Shubert Theater in Century City. Do you want to do it?” I was like, yeah. He said, “Well, come on so-and-so day. You don’t have to audition dear. You’ll be lead dancer, just come dressed up cute. You’ll meet the musical director.” I asked, “Who’s that?” He replied, “Rene Wiegert“ who had done Dear World or Pivot, one of those.
And so, I show up and the boys had auditioned that morning and they’d gone to lunch, and they’re sweaty and nasty and I’m standing there. A voice said, “Lawrence could you stand up? Boys line up according to height next to Lawrence.” So, I was 43 and I was the lead dancer in Evita. And I just studied the role of Magaldi. And that would be my last Off-Broadway show, whatever. I got hurt on stage, however. Anyway, opening night was at Chasen’s. You went through the restaurant to this special room and there’s Harold Prince dancing with Lauren Bacall. In the restaurant was Michael York, Rita Hayworth, Charles Bronson and Jean Simmons. It was incredible.
You were injured in Evita. What happened?
Evita. Yes, the understudy girl, we did the Tango, and I did a big overhead lift, and my regular partner was out, and the understudy girl had done it several times. So, I went to lift her over my head, and she took a wrong preparation, and she was coming down as I was struggling and it tore my back out and it was like, “Okay bye.” I’ll just take my workman’s comp settlement. Luckily at that point, I had already started catering, another successful reincarnation, or whatever. Because for the life of a dancer, being the lead dancer at 43-
That’s a long run
Yep. That was a long career. That’s 22 years.
What was that transition like for you? Your whole life and most of your relations were the world of dance. I imagine it as such a unique and immersive lifestyle that a dancer can’t just turn off like a switch.
I never thought of the future. Dancers do “now”. They don’t do “tomorrow”. [Some performers] go well, “Let’s put some money away for a house and we’re going to be in the play for the next ten years, or can I do the opera for twenty and that’ll pay for our retirement”. We didn’t think that way. And I’m sure people would get tired of hearing, “Well it was the golden age in musicals, and it was because you didn’t have Disney, you didn’t have to make sure you made your millions back with 40 producers.” People took chances on ideas though.
I’m stating the obvious here, but live entertainment has changed dramatically between then and now. It will never be what it was.
No, it never will. I mean, I go to see shows and I would see dancing. By then I was out of that loop, so I didn’t know all those names, but I would see things. It’s like my God they’re just extraordinary the things that they do now. The tricks, but everybody has a trick. I was limber. I could do the Can-can. Somebody else could spin. Somebody else could sing a higher note or whatever. And so, you look at those few and oh my God, your technique’s just amazing, but you are boring as hell.
Back then, we got jobs and we worked all the time because we were performers. I worked all the time because people like Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse knew my work and I didn’t have to audition for them. Eventually they called me and asked if I would be free to do a special or… and that felt wonderful. And I never took it for granted. Ever.
I knew that I was 6’1″. I had a pretty good face, the nose was straight, my eyes weren’t crossed, I was tall enough to make the leading lady look good and they paid me a lot of money for that. But the nature of the game is that there’s always somebody behind you biting at your ass, who kicks higher, has a better leg, who sings better, who’s cuter, so what do you do? When somebody asks you if you’re free, you say, “Yes.” And you keep putting one foot ahead of the other. That’s all. Try to keep learning, stay on top of your game, and I have had this blessed career that I could never ever have imagined. Places I’ve been, to people I’ve met, the things I did.
Things kept falling into place for you. You built a reputation based on your work and in the process, built relationships.
Exactly. That’s how it worked. A friend of mine was the Peter Gennaro of the Ed Sullivan Show. Fine. There were four men and four women who were contracted usually. Whenever they needed a fifth boy, I was one of the first boys they called. I did a lot of embarrassing numbers on the Ed Sullivan Show, but it was over at nine o’clock live. You’ll get your check next week, you have tonight and all day tomorrow off and then Tuesday we’ll see if we need you. Bobbie Gentry, Peggy Lee, Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki, and Roy Rogers. Dionne Warwick, Carol Lawrence. They were all there.
I have stories, you know. I’m doing my memoir. I adored Ann Bancroft. Same with Ann-Margret. We [Ann-Margret] did the act and then we did it at The Concord and we did it one day at Montreal Expo and flew back and in the middle of that, we were doing Dames at Sea. During the productions we left the Dames at Sea rehearsals because she was booked at The Concord. There were three of us, or two of us, or four of us, or whatever, that were going to just do backup. Roger [Roger Smith, Ann-Margret’s husband] and Allan Carr and Ann-Margaret, and the chauffeur got into a limo on Broadway and took off to the West Side Highway.
My partner and I were in another car. So we’re driving up the West Side Highway, there at the divider is the limousine with the hood up and there’s Roger, Allan and the limo driver standing on the Island. We stopped, and it’s like, “Okay, well, come on.”
Ann-Margaret and Roger Smith sat in the back of this Chevy Impala. Roger had white pants and white patent leather Guccis and this chartreuse lace Tom Jones shirt. The big open sleeves and the huge collar looking like a tablecloth at a Puerto Rican wedding. And Ann-Margaret’s in shorts, sunglasses, with her hair stringy because she didn’t have hair pieces then. We get to The Concord and it’s like a concentration camp in reverse. There’s a chain link fence all the way around the property and a guard house with the black and white thing. The toilets I’ve played.
What’s the title of your memoir?
Paris on the G-string.
And I have pictures of my entire career. From the time I was 17 at Kennebunkport [theatre community in Maine] to the last play I did.
When you transitioned out of dancing, you got into –
Catering with my partner at the time. “God, you guys you always cook well when we come to your house. You should cater.” I was like, “Okay, we’re catering.” First party we did was for 125 people, I had worked in a flower shop, so, “Okay. We’ll do flowers.” We waited until the day before, shopped and started cooking. And we did twelve appetizers in this big house with waterlilies in the hot tub pool. And it’s like, “That’s pretty stupid. We’ll never do that again.” But we used to rent chairs and tables and, “Oh, you’re the bride, you want pink tablecloths with pink flowers, and you’re going to have ten tables for ten people, and we’ll rent that. And I’ll do a $40 arrangement on each table in pinks and lavenders and whatever. And then I’ll do like a $250, $300 floral piece for the buffet.” We ended up getting quite big. We made the LA Times, Sunday magazine, front cover layout. We did the food styling and got the credit. We did all the food on the front cover picture and all the stuff on the inside.
The car accident happened two years later. I ended up with a spinal cord injury, which is why I walk with a cane now. Spinal cord injury, ended up in the spinal cord injury ward and this young girl said, “There’s this place down here in Anaheim, near Disneyland where they treat spinal cord injuries.” I was like, “Okay.” The ambulance took me down there and it ended up being the best spinal cord injury facility in the state of California. Many therapists in the East, also know the place for spinal cord injury, head injury and children’s arthritis.
Do you want to say anything else about the accident? You were out West.
Yes, the injury happened when out West. Drunk, stoned, hit a parked car, passenger seat, car folded, I folded. But I was too drunk and stoned to know what was going on. I ended up in the hospital for two months, instead of three. Four months with full body brace. And then I had a shorter one, and then I had the rubber collar. I got rid of it a couple of months later and started with the crutches and leg braces. Those are really a pain in the butt. I was doing therapy at the hospital.
Anyway, we were catering a cookout at a ranch a week after I came home from the hospital. I had the body brace for four months because they took a piece out of my hip and fused four vertebrae in my neck. My injury’s like Christopher Reeve’s, but his was a complete spinal cord injury and mine was incomplete.
After your recovery, which only a dancer’s determination could get through, you also began acting.
I had done a couple of local musicals, whatever. I didn’t really start acting immediately. I mean, you act when you dance but… it’s still different.
At that time, I was thinking about getting out of LA, freeways are like parking lots, drive-by shootings, smog. I had stopped smoking by then. My partner and I decided to find a place. We were both working as chefs. I had gone to cooking school for two years. We went near Burlington [Vermont] where I knew we could both get jobs and he’s like, “You’re drinking an awful lot.” It’s like, “Screw you I’ll stop drinking.” January 10th, 1990.
I stopped drinking. I have my coin over there. I still go to AA meetings. I’ve been sober for 25 years. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I was still working as a chef, relationship ended, Upstate New York, moved down near Poughkeepsie, then I started acting. It’s like, “maybe I’ll retire from cooking and maybe I’ll help somebody make costumes for a tap dance show for something.” I got a part in a play at Skidmore College. This Jacobean Drama was like, “What the hell is that? Oh, like Shakespeare, somebody’s doing Gypsy down there.” Sprayed my hair, applied mascara. “We’ll give you the part of Herbie” No – I did Herbie, but I’m not Herbie, I’m King or John Barrymore or… “. And, it was like, “This is wild. I like this.” And then somebody in AA said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you ended up back in New York City.” Down the line, around the year 2000 I moved into this place where I live now. I thought, “Can I go back to New York City and see if I can get arrested with the big guys as an actor?”
I’m always positive. I don’t know how I got that. I never had any great sort of burning ambition for this. Like I said, I kept saying yes when, “Could you be in LA for this TV special for three days?” I’d say, “Sure. I’m free. I can be there.”
More recently, I’ve work with a theatre called TBTB, which used to stand for Theatre By The Blind. Years ago, they opened it up to other disabilities, of which I have one, and retitled it Theater Breaking Through Barriers. We did a couple of weeks of five short of one act plays. The play I was in was written by David Henry Hwang, Neil LaBute was a writer, John Guare, Bruce Graham. Tonya Pinkins was in the play, who was then in I think Rasheeda Speaking with Dianne Wiest. And it was very successful.
I’d been working with this company doing readings and this and that, and whatever for years now. I was sort of part of their repertory company. There are able-bodied people and disabled people, people with prosthetics, people like me who have a spinal cord injury, or walk with a cane now, people in wheelchairs with MS. All kinds of things.
And because of this reading of this Agatha Christie play, which is called The Unexpected Guest, we did a full production. I got paid a couple of pennies, at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. I played Inspector Thomas, so I whipped out yet again, my English accent, since I’m a big Anglophile and then I’ll go on vacation or something like that.
I’m on the board of Dancers Over 40. I keep as active as I can. I stay involved.
What can I say, despite some unexpected obstacles, life has been a cabaret.
End of Part III
The above interview with Lawrence Merritt was conducted in 2015 with the John Hemmer Archive. It was edited with Merritt in 2022 and 2023. Part III of A Dancer’s Life: Meet Lawrence Merritt is the final installment. This article series is dedicated in loving memory of Lawrence Maranville Merritt (1939-2023).
Watch Latin Quarter performers Jean Preece, Juanita Boyle, Teak Lewis, Francine M. Storey, Lawrence Merritt & Darlene Larson reflections, John Hemmer & the Showgirls documentary screening & panel event, Edie Windsor SAGE Center, New York, NY, 2019.