A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark, Part II
I took the train with Betty [fellow dancer from Aladdin. See Part I of this article series] to London. We arrived at the Prince of Whales Theatre where the auditions were to be held. Walking into a mob of female dancers, we thought we had a fat chance of getting the job. All morning groups of girls had to walk and stand on stage, and audition for Lou Walters. A few were asked to stay, and the rest dismissed. It was our turn, we were asked to stay and come back tomorrow with music to dance.
Lou Walters was a nightclub producer and impresario who staged shows at nightclubs in Boston (c. 1937-55), New York City (1942-1968), and Palm Island (1939-1959). He also produced touring shows that traveled across the United States. Mr. Walters would regularly travel to Paris and London to look for talent to bring back to his clubs in the U.S.
The call for dancers to audition was to go to Miami for three months, and it sounded very good, 30 pounds a week, round-trip transportation, hotel accommodations. I thought “Three months. Why not?” The tryouts lasted three days. Hundreds of girls were there. I mean, you can imagine – we’ve just come through a war, and now we have a chance to go to Miami, it sounded pretty good.
The next day I had to tap dance and was asked to come back the following day. Betty didn’t make it. I was so upset and thought we would travel together. She encouraged me to return the next day.
I noticed a girl waiting in the seats and said, “Oh! You are still here too.” It was Thelma Baker Sherr.
I didn’t see her again until we were on the ship. We had to dance for a choreographer all together and someone took our information. Then we were told we would receive a contract. So, I was chosen, but to go there was going to be almost another year. In the meantime, the John Tiller group asked me if I would go back to London and be in another show. I contacted Mum and Dad and they were so excited about Miami, they put an article in the Blackpool paper.
A few weeks later I received the contract for America which was months away. Aladdin ended and Tiller offered me a contract for the Adelphi to be a John Tiller girl. London Laughs was the production. I was thrilled to be going back to London and to join the famous John Tiller Girls. John Tiller created precision dancing in 1890. Decades later, New York’s Rockettes were heavily influenced by the John Tiller Girls. The first day of rehearsals I climbed the stairs into the rehearsal hall and there was my Tiller friend from Blackpool. “Irene!” I yelled. “Mollie”, she replied.
The first rehearsal began. I was not used to a kick line and wrenched my ankle. Irene helped me down the stairs and met me next morning helping me up again. I knew I had found a true friend. My digs were in Brixton a bus ride away. There were other theatre people living there, a comedian and a girl from ballet school in Blackpool who was a dancer at the Leicester Square theatre.
The show was with the famous Vera Lynn. Our opening number was a Covent Garden scene. The Tiller kick line was called Black and White. It was grueling performance with all different kicks. One night I was in pain with stomach cramps. When we exited someone gave me a shot of brandy so I could finish the show. The finale was a tribute to George M. Cohan, Give My Regards to Broadway. There was one lift up to the dressing rooms and reserved for the stars, not us girls who sometimes after our kick routine used to crawl up the stairs. I complained, and was in trouble until Vera Lynn heard and said, “Of course the girls can use the lift.” She was a true lady.
Irene and I sat next to each other in the dressing room, and one day she said she had met a chap at a party. His name was David English. On rain free days I would save some bus fare and walk part way to the theatre through my favorite park, St. James. With a great view of The Palace and the lake had different kinds of water birds and gardens full of flowers. In my digs we couldn’t use the bathtub, we had to wash in a sink which was difficult because we wore leg makeup. I used to ask the female stage management to let me use the theatre tub. She allowed me to arrive early some days and take a soak. I was fond of my landlady and her husband, Ethel and Charlie Penn a good cockney couple. When I lived in the States, I kept in touch with them for years and visited with Marshall [my husband] when we were in London.
Irene and David decided on a summer wedding in South Hampton. Irene asked me to be her Maid of Honor. Most of the Tiller girls and I took an early train down to the wedding, English style, Minister, photos a toast and refreshments. Then back on the train with the bride for the evening performance. David used to joke he went on a honeymoon by himself.
Soon after their wedding David bought a flat in Kent and they would invite me for a weekend. We had great times walking down the country lanes and spending evenings talking about world events. David was busy ghost writing and working for The Daily Mail.
Fayne and Evans was a famous radio and theatre comedy act. Vera Lynn had a morning show with the two comedians. It was fun to attend and watch behind the scenes of a wireless broadcast show.
David English asked Irene and me if we would like to be newspaper models for The Daily Doctor series of The Daily Mail with pay. Off we went every morning to model for the sketch artist often wearing each other’s ration book clothes trying to make them look different in each newspaper. Also, we modeled for Blighty Magazine. We were glad of the extra pay because we only earned eight pounds a week for two shows a night, six days a week.
It was fall and London was hit with a killer fog. It crept into the theatre during a performance, and we couldn’t continue. I hopped onto my bus which only traveled a few miles and stopped. Policemen stood on the streets directing people to hold onto walls or railings. I finally found my digs and Mrs. Penn screamed when she opened the door. I was black with soot. London shut down for three days until the killer fog lifted. Hundreds died and the following year when I was in America another deadly fog hit London and thousands died. Burning coal in home fireplaces was banned.
My happy time at the Adelphi was coming to a close and I had to visit The American Embassy in Grosvenor Square for a Visa to the States. My last night on stage was one I’ll never forget especially the finale, Give My Regards to Broadway. The stagehands and Tiller girls had collected some money and gave it to me after the finale for my adventure.
I took the train home for a few days with my family and Mum had a small party for my upcoming 21stbirthday. The Crook family came and a few of my Blackpool dance friends. I received a 5 pounds note from Mum and Dad, which to them was a paycheck. They had bought me a large cabin trunk for the ship. They must have watched an old Hollywood movie. Nobody traveled that way anymore. I kissed everyone goodbye and said I’ll see you in three months which was the length of my contract.
I stayed at my landlady’s overnight and boarded the boat train to South Hampton for the ship named The Liberté which the French had captured from the Germans at the end of the war. There were many of us going to the Latin Quarter, fourteen English girls, eight French Can-can dancers and their manager, the French Chailvel Trio acrobatic act, a male drag performer and a Turkish belly dancer Nejla Ates (I had never seen a belly dancer before performing at the Latin Quarter and she was amazing).
We were told we had to board a tender boat to reach the ship which was out at sea. I sat next to one of the girls and lit a cigarette when someone called us for a photo shot. She didn’t want to go so I asked her to hold my fag. The girl was Sally Mills. She was a dancer in a show at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square. We approached the ship which was enormous from the small boat. I asked Sally how we would get on board.
She said, “They throw down a rope ladder.” I asked, “How do I get my luggage up?” She replied, “You put it under one arm and climb with the other.” The side of The Liberté’ opened. We walked onto the ship. November 14, 1952.
I was given the top bunk in a tiny cabin with two English girls and my luggage took up too much space. We were told to go to the Life Guard Station when the bell rang. My roommates said it wasn’t’ necessary, so I didn’t go. We all met for the evening meal and were shocked to know we were in Steerage Third class. We saw the poor immigrants seated on long tables in the bowel of the ship. One of the girls said she would speak to the purser about getting us moved to Cabin Class. I made friends with Sally [Mills, dancer], Moya [McCormack, dancer] and Thelma [Baker Sherr, dancer] and we stayed together during the voyage.
We were told we could move into Cabin Class if all the performers would put on a show for the passengers. Everyone agreed and we moved. Being green I went to the Purser’s office to send a telegram to Mum and Dad and my friend David Evans. I told them I wasn’t’ sea sick. When I was told how much it cost me, I did feel sick. It was almost the five pounds I was allowed to bring. Too late. I couldn’t’ reverse the telegrams.
On the third sailing day the storm hit with force. There was no more talk of putting on a show. Sailors came into our cabin and tied up the drawers in the chest and ropes were installed on the staircases to hold onto. The curtains in the cabin stood out as the ship rolled. To sleep, I had to tuck my feet under the rail of the bunk to stop falling out. In the dining room the waiters walked like Charlie Chaplin and tables had metal tops to put dishes in. The gift shop on one deck collapsed and one afternoon we went to a writing room with musicians playing. Some chairs fell down, the ship lurched, and a violinist fell across the room trying to hold onto his violin.
We tried to watch a movie about the sinking of a ship, The Kon Tiki. I bolted from the room holding my mouth and just made the cabin before vomiting. No one was permitted outside so we took a look from one of the windows to witness enormous holes in the ocean and a water sky. It was terrifying so we returned to our cabins. The storm was a hurricane and written in the English newspapers that two ships were caught in the storm. Poor Mum read about it in the newspaper. The storm lasted until the day before arriving in New York and we were too seasick to go on deck to see The Statue of Liberty.
Sally and I were the only ones left on the dock and everyone else had been met. I had to wait for my suitcase to come up from the hold of the ship, but I had my cabin trunk. Stupid me. I told Sally I would love a cup of tea. She asked me if I had any money. I said, “No.” Sally’s reply, “Well, I guess you can’t have a cup of tea, can you?”
Finally, someone from the Latin Quarter arrived and took us to a crummy hotel on 42nd street. We were impressed with Yellow cabs after the classy cabs in London and checked into the hotel. Sally had some money because she was smart. I had given all my money to Mum. She bought a loaf of bread and some butter, and that was our first meal in fabulous America. For the next few days Sally paid my food and I kept an account how much I owed. We ate many meals in The Automat for pennies.
My right leg started to be painful. Sally said it looked infected and she lent me money to see a doctor. My Small Pox vaccination had become infected and I had to visit a doctor’s office for almost a week.
Rehearsals started on stage at the Latin Quarter in Times Square. The choreographer was a tiny Russian woman, Miss [Natalie] Kamerover. She would say, “Do me such a step.” We would show her something and she would use it.
In December, we boarded a train for Miami, sleeping in our seats. On arrival we were mesmerized looking through the window at people dressed in bright colorful clothes. We were not in London anymore. We were taken to Palm Island and the Latin Quarter. Our digs were in a large dormitory in a building across from the night club along with scorpions and tarantula spiders. We were shocked to see racist signs in Miami – “Black” beach or “White Only.”
I was in a room with two American girls along with Sally, Thelma (formerly a Television Toppers dancer of early British TV), Moya (Who became one of our Dance Captains at the Latin Quarter), and Billy True. We unpacked our clothes to hang on a rack. The American girls hung beautiful cocktail dresses, and looked at our ration book clothes and said, “Is that all you brought?”
We were told never to go down the palm tree lined road from the club and heard Al Capone had lived there in a large mansion. It was probably now used by the Miami mafia because they were everywhere. One of the American girls would disappear some nights and we found out that was where she spent some evenings.
Rehearsals started in the club with a stage that lighted through the floor and a ceiling that opened at night to see the stars. The De Castro Sisters were also in the show along with acts from the ship.
Opening night, I was a nervous wreck never having performed so close to an audience. It bothered me to see people eating while we were performing, but I had to get used to it. We were told to mingle with the customers in between shows. We were furious and would sit in The Mademoiselle Room listening to strolling violinists and order scrambled eggs. The only thing we could afford. If we needed any food we had to pay for it in the club. We were told to join the AGVA union, even though some of us were Equity members.
One day I complained about having to mingle [with the patrons]. The next day, Lou Walters, [the impresario of the Latin Quarter locations] came into the dressing room glaring in my direction. He threatened to send me back to England without a passage. We continued to eat our eggs and ignored the customers who were mafia types.
Moya had a terrible experience. She had refused to go out with one guy and had an ice bucket poured over head in the lounge. We quickly took her to our room, and I spoke to our manager. He said he didn’t see a thing even though he was standing nearby.
I was asked to dine one night and was tired of eggs, so I said yes. The dinner was delicious, and I went back to the dressing room and one of the showgirls told me I had dined with the White Russian and Charlie, The Blade, fresh out of Sing Sing Prison. Scrambled eggs tasted delicious after that mafia experience.
Gloria Swanson came in the dressing room one night following her successful movie, Sunset Boulevard. She took a photo with all the girls.
Our next destination was Las Vegas for six weeks. Mr. Walters flew the American girls, and we were put into cars with the French act. We drove across country. I was with Moya in The Chailvel’s car, dragging a boat behind us. Walters gave us $3.00 a day to travel. Sally was in a car with a French singer who only had a driving license for a few weeks and she started driving over a Mississippi bridge the wrong way.
What a trip. The cars would only stop when they needed gas and we had to use outhouses. Some of the cheap motels were near railroad crossings and the building would shake like a Lucille Ball television episode. Traveling through mountains round bends one could see grave markers down the side of the mountains, and we had to look to see if the boat was still behind us.
We arrived in Vegas days later, walked into the Desert Inn and told the manager who we were. He took one look at dirty tired dancers and shook his head. We found a motel room opposite the Sands Hotel. Moya, Sally, Thelma, and I took up housekeeping. The Desert Inn was famous in those days with a beautiful stage and of course a gambling casino. We would watch gamblers lose their money between shows. Everyone dressed well in those days, so we had to buy a cocktail dress.
We liked Vegas better than the mafia Miami except for the sand storms and Moya making us sweep the sand out of our rooms. Vegas was full of stars. We would see Frank Sinatra every day and when at the Sands swimming pool we sat near Van Johnson. The desert was beautiful and stretched out to the mountains. Sometimes with friends we would drive up the mountains, get snowballs and drive back hoping they wouldn’t’ melt.
The day before we left for St. Louis, I started to vomit in the dressing room. Management sent me to the hospital, and it was Cowboy Week in Vegas, and all the doctors were dressed in cowboy outfits. One doctor said I had appendicitis and should have an operation, when he left the room, I jumped out of bed to join the girls.
Our next venue in St. Louis was at The Chase Hotel. This time Walters put us on a plane which looked like an ex-military machine. One of the girls gave Sally and me a sleeping pill to survive the trip and we woke up hours later to discover we hadn’t left the ground.
Again, we roomed together, and I was given a Murphy Bed. One rehearsal night the girls found me asleep in the Murphy Bed inside the wall. We were invited to go horseback riding one day. My horse bolted through the woods, and I had to lie flat so not to have my head chopped off.
The hotel was crazy. We had to walk through the kitchen to reach the stage. Waiters were carrying trays yelling, “Hot stuff.”
Sally and Thelma decided to return to London after St. Louis. My contract was renewed for New York [the Latin Quarter Times Square location] with Moya and we decided to stay. I went on the ship to say goodbye to my friends, felt seasick and was sad to see them go, but I did want to try Broadway. Moya and I checked into a small hotel near the statue of Grant. Our one room had a cupboard with a hot plate, and one window which looked onto a brick wall. We had to sit on the windowsill and lean out to see the sky. It was a nightmare during the hot months. The Latin Quarter was large, and our dressing room was up a winding spiral staircase with one toilet. Our costumes were beautiful, and we were sent for fittings to the costume factory.
We had two shows a night and three on Saturday. The audience was always in evening dress with waiters and captains also in formal wear. Sophie Tucker was the star. One of her quotes was, “I have been poor, and I have been rich. Rich is better.” Her dressing room was near the stage. She never said hello to any of us.
The Can-can was the main dance and it was fun especially as we could yell during the dance. I began to enjoy the work having the freedom to express one’s self on stage after the regiment of English theatre.
I volunteered to be the swing girl for an extra $15.00 a week, which means you learn everyone’s place on stage and work seven days a week.
I met June Day from Canada. June sat near me in the dressing room. She was a well-trained dancer who became a lifelong treasured friend. She had danced at The Riviera in New Jersey before joining the Quarter, and she lived in the same hotel.
One Saturday after three shows, Walters booked us for a benefit at The Waldorf Astoria. We were to dance the Can-can. Halfway through, my shoe flew off and landed in someone’s dinner and I had to continue with one shoe on and one off.
David English used to send me money to buy Irene dresses because England was still rationed. I could buy her beautiful dresses for $15.00 on Broadway.
We had many stars in the shows. Jane Morgan was a favorite and I was chosen to be featured during her act. Walters asked me to do a fill in one day to dance alongside a pianist while scenery was changed. No rehearsal, no choreography. He made me go on stage.
One evening Elizabeth Taylor was seated center ringside. I was eye-to-eye staring into her violet eyes. Corky, our captain, dancer Jane Freed and I were chosen for a photo in Lou Walters’ office, and we were featured in Cosmopolitan Magazine.
In one number with the showgirls and male dancers I was dressed in a green gown trimmed in fur. At some point the boys had to unzip the gowns and we were revealed in a semi nude outfit. The zipper stuck one night. I froze and didn’t know what to do. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!”, one of the boys yelled. I’m sure the audience heard him and looked at me parading around in a broken gown with a red face.
Barbara Walters spent many evenings backstage. We befriended her sister, Jackie [Walters], who had a learning disability. She would spend time in our dressing room, and we would teach her songs and rhymes. Barbara Walters and Roy Cohn the lawyer during the McCarthy Hearings were on friendly terms backstage. We would wonder who would be next after careers of famous performers were damaged. Orson Wells, Lena Horne, Lee Grant, Charlie Chaplin and many more.
I used to mail The Daily Worker newspaper to my friend David English who was a well-known English reporter because he needed to know what was happening in America. I wondered if I would be next on The McCarthy hot seat.
Moya left to marry in Miami, and I moved into dancer Chris Carter’s apartment because she wanted to go back to Vegas and onto Hollywood. She had two cats and roaches. You can imagine how miserable I was. She did well and we saw her dance in the movie Can-Can with Shirley MacLaine. I moved into a brownstone house somewhere in the 70s. I had a one room walkup.
Sally wrote to ask if she could get her job back with the Latin Quarter because she had married Hugo and they were immigrating to the States. Lou Walters gave her a job then told many of us we were to go to Vegas again at the Desert Inn. I had arranged to room with June Day before Sally arrived, so Sally roomed with another girl. After six weeks we returned to New York, and I moved in with Sally and Hugo to save us money.
Mae West arrived in the show. One of her quotes was, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” We would come down our spiral staircase and were greeted by the boys in her act flexing their muscles trying to impress us. We had many stars such as Pearl Bailey, Johnnie Ray, The Andrew Sisters, Buddy Hackett, and Joey Bishop from Sinatra’s Rat Pack. One night we were thrilled to hear The Shah of Iran was in the club with his Queen Soraya. We could see him on the balcony in his glittering uniform. We thought they were the most handsome couple we had ever seen. Another time, management caught a man who had been living in the attic of the club because chicken bones would fall from the ceiling into the club in the morning.
The whole show was booked to appear on The Colgate Comedy Hour. For most of us it was our first time in front of television cameras. We were excited to experience this new medium. Jane Morgan had to put fabric into her gowns because they were too low-cut. Now we see TV anchors with plunging necklines. We were in a few dances from the Quarter, and I was with dancer Terry Dee, and singer Johnnie Ray in his Walking My Baby Back Home.
There were three of us chosen to be on the CBS Morning Show with host Will Rogers, Jr. I remember he was a funny little man and used to quote his father, “Everyone talks about the weather, and nobody does anything about it.”
Television paid well and the broadcast also aired in California, so we had a double salary. My parents, sister Pat and Binty our dog emigrated in 1954 and settled in Connecticut. I was thrilled to be reunited with my family and with the money from television I was able to buy my parents their bedroom furniture.
I married and stayed at the Latin Quarter until 1957. Then left to start a family and raise my two beautiful daughters. I followed with my career in dance arts teaching The Royal Academy of Dance and The Imperial Society, in New Jersey for 30 years. Sally Mills joined the school as the tap and acrobatic teacher. I’m now a life-time member of RAD. My two daughters, Lesley and Dana trained with RAD and ISTD exams and danced in many local shows. One student of mine went on to open her own studio in Evanston, Illinois. Beatrix “Béa” Rashid’s Dance Center Evanston is one of the largest schools in the Chicago area. I also choreographed local musicals in my area, such as Gypsy. John Travolta was one of my boy dancers in that production. He would come early to rehearsals and ask, “How do I get into showbiz.” I told him to go to New York City and take every class he could get, and he did. The next thing I knew he was in a Broadway show with The Andrew Sisters. Another student Monica Reiner, went on to perform in A Chorus Line. So, when you visit a theatre or a performance remember, there are stories behind the makeup.
I owe my career to my mum, The Royal Academy of Dance, Miss Annette Schultz [Blackpool dance director, See Part I] and my dance teachers.
End of Part II
Part I in this article series: https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-mollie-fennell-numark-part-i/
This article was edited in collaboration with Mollie Fennell Numark and the John Hemmer Archive in 2021. It based on Mollie’s 2017 memoir, Looking Through My Window and from a 2018 live presentation at the Shelter Island Public Library in Shelter Island, New York. Part II is the last installment in this article series, A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark.