A Dancer’s Life: Meet Sal Angelica, Part II
The John Hemmer Archive’s The History of An Era, documents single and multipart articles to bring lived experiences of the nightclub era to light. This is the second installment of a three-part series on performer Sal Angelica, who began his life and career in New York City before traveling abroad and eventually landing in Vegas. To read part I, please visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-i/
JHA: In 1965 you travel to Las Vegas where you joined Casino de Paris at the Dunes Hotel. This was your move from the east coast to Vegas.
SA: A good friend of mine, Candy Raye, was working in Las Vegas and kept trying to persuade me to come out here to find work. I was always employed in New York City and couldn’t see why I would go there without having a job or prospect of one.
Another friend, Jimmy Weiss, who I worked with in Fade Out – Fade In on Broadway in ‘64, had just signed a contract with Donn Arden for a show at the Desert Inn. He was also coaxing me to try Las Vegas. Once again, I thought, “Why?”. Then Jimmy called and said that Ronnie Lewis was in New York City looking for dancers for the Dunes Hotel’s Casino de Paris. I had worked with Ronnie at the Latin Quarter in New York back in ’59. Jimmy suggested I give him a call, so I did and mentioned that I was not 6 feet tall, just 5’10”. Ronnie said I was a good dancer (what every dancer wants to hear) and to come to the audition. I was offered the job with the condition that I make just a six-month commitment. Ronnie agreed. Two years later I went back to New York City to close-up my apartment that I had been subletting for $72.00 a month. 57 years later I’m still here [in Las Vegas] and love it.
Candy Raye and Jimmy Weiss changed my life for the better, forever, by convincing me to try out Las Vegas.
Photographic slideshow of the Casino de Paris production from the Sal Angelica Collection.
You’ve mentioned differences between working in New York versus Las Vegas. One of those differences being union support.
All of the unions in New York City were there to help and benefit the actor, as well as management, whether It was AEA, AGVA, SAG, SEG or AGMA. They had everything under control and if you had to do anything out of the ordinary you were paid extra for it. In Las Vegas – nothing. Later on, the stagehands and musicians were represented by unions. If an Equity (AEA) show came into town, they were covered by them.
For example, When the book show Mame, starring Juliet Prowse, came to Vegas, John Bowab, the producer, realized the show would be performed seven days a week and that was against AEA rules. To remedy this, it was decided to hire additional dancers from New York City.
My good friend, Candy Raye, was invited to see the opening night performance by the gal that put the show together and quickly said that it was not necessary [to go to New York for dancers] because there are many good dancers in Vegas with Broadway credits. That’s where I came in. Candy, who I affectionately call “Miss Mouth”, gave them my name and John called and offered me the job on her recommendation. That’s also how I got to do Juliet’s [Prowse] act for many years.
Casino de Paris was produced and directed by Frederic Apcar and opened around 1963. It was the first Casino de Paris production to get licensed outside of France and mounted in a newly constructed showroom at the Dunes. How did you come into it?
In 1965 I was flown to Milan, Italy to join the cast. The new show was rehearsed and set there. We all stayed at the same hotel and rehearsed in the ballroom. We were all on call in case Ronnie got frustrated or tired of working with a group that wasn’t coming through for him. The only thing we couldn’t work on was the octuramic stage. It was in Las Vegas. An eight-armed disc stage that moved all over the place. It was a terrific piece of artwork and wowed the audience.
This was the first time you reunited with Ron Lewis since the Latin Quarter. There were other performers on this from the Latin Quarter as well.
Francois Szony and Nancy Claire were the featured act in the show [also performed many times at the Latin Quarter]. There were several headliners, but none that anyone would call “stars”. Larry (Lawrence) Merritt was also front and center all the time. He didn’t stay. I think he thought that Ronnie should have featured him more and so he just moved on. That opened up the door to have Ronnie use me as his lead dancer in the following jazz production, which would have been Larry’s if he had stayed. My gain this time. Thanks.
1968 and ’69 kept you busy. An Ed Sullivan CBS special telecast live from Circus, Circus, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, Jerry Jackson’s Folies Bergère at The Tropicana Hotel and Barry Ashton’s Wonderful World of Burlesque at the Silver Slipper.
We rehearsed for one week and for one live performance on January 1st, 1969, for the CBS special. I partnered Gina Lollobrigida singing Walking Happy. Our billing was “Gina Lollobrigida and dancers.”
At the end of 1967 I joined Folies Bergère for a brief stay. Dave Johnson was the company manager, Ruth Christensen, the show captain, and the choreographer was Jerry Jackson.
They asked to see me after watching the Dunes’ Casino de Paris show. I had never met any of them before and I was asked if I would consider being Jerry’s lead adagio dancer in a new number that they were putting into the show. It was a French Quarter, New Orleans themed number. i partnered Virginia Justus and Billi Buche’ on a 5-foot table-top and she had never done adage work before. I also had to be filtered into the existing show.
There was a comedy routine that was very slapstick at the end of the number. I was captured and shot out of a canon. I was on a tether and flew out over the audience and back. All went well until the guy who was my counterweight had his night off and the person replacing him weighed less than I did. I hit the deck going out, which caused me to spin and hit it again when I returned. That was very scary and I complained. As I mentioned before, there were no unions here back then. I called Penny Singleton (from the television show, Blondie) who was the AGVA president in New York City at the Time. She came out and saw what I was complaining about but could do absolutely nothing about it. Then they fired me. My standby refused to go on as well. They chose someone else to do it. As for me, no big deal. I went straight into Barry Ashton’s show at the Silver Slipper and was never unemployed.
This is where I was lead dancer and partnered Mikki Sharait in Wonderful World of Burlesque at the Silver Slipper’s Gaiety Theatre. Mikki had never done adage work before, but she was a trooper and would do anything to be the star. Barry loved her and was a great help, even giving us a couple of lift pointers. He was a very nice man to work with & we all loved him.
During this time and into 1969, you went to Los Angeles where you danced in several variety shows of the day.
For The Smothers Brothers, I commuted each week. If we didn’t have a number in an episode, we didn’t have to be at rehearsals until Wednesdays. We’d tape on Fridays. The credits were always “live action”. If we did have a number that week, we had a 10a.m. rehearsal call on Mondays. I always stayed with friend and choreographer, Claude Thompson while I was in LA.
Even though the show had earned many, many, awards for new and creative stuff, CBS felt that the context of the show was too political, which it was. Very much so. They made fun and mockery out of lots of rules, and it was not appreciated by most.
The guests were terrific, and the choreography was brilliant. Ron Poindexter even received awards and lots of fun times were had by all of us. Tom and Dick were not overly friendly, but nice to us and easy to work with.
Our closing number for the last Smothers Brothers was a big to-do. The costumes were very basic, but elegant. Black jumpsuits with white ruffled shirts and red bolero jackets with black jet studded accessories. One of the girl dancers (Sam) asked if we could keep them. I think Tom and Dick were so angry [from getting] fired, they said, “Yes!”. I still have mine.
One thing that amazed me was when I received residuals for the show from being aired again. That was a shock and a nice surprise.
When we were cancelled, I went directly to The Carol Burnett Show on the Monday after our last shoot of the Smothers Brothers that Friday. There were only two more episodes to shoot for The Carol Burnett Show for that season.
Decades later, I attended a get together for the show’s 33rd year reunion on stage 33 at CBS. Stan Mazin (another regular on the show) called to let me know that there was just one ticket left. he asked if I wanted it. of course, I did. it was terrific seeing all those people after all that time.
The variety shows included a couple stints on The Dean Martin Show where you partnered Juliet Prowse and Ginger Rogers.
While doing Juliet Prowse’s act, I found out that she was going to be on The Dean Martin Show – her business manager Mark Mordoh never mentioned it, or ever got us (her dancers) any work. Jaime Rogers, who I knew, was the choreographer. I called him and he hired Michael Darrin (also in her act) and myself to help with partnering her. I’m sure that made Juliet feel more comfortable with two of her guys being there. Jaime asked us if we would stay for the next episode to partner Ginger Rogers. I stayed on, but Michael didn’t. I can say that Fred is not the only one that has partnered Ginger. I am lucky to have it taped for posterity on a DVD.
Around this time, you joined Connie Stevens’ act.
Claude Thompson asked me to do Connie Stevens’ act. Joe Layton directed, and Hugh Lambert choreographed. I had previously worked with Hugh on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. Connie and I were the token whites (she even made a joke of that). Jerry Grimes, Cheryl Weinberg, Frances Davis (aka “Elizabeth Taylor/her real name, later married Miles Davis) and I had the best times together. Connie who is also from Brooklyn, New York, was a dream to work with.
We played at the Flamingo Hotel here [in Vegas] and the Crystal Room at the Desert Inn, the John Asquagas’ Nugget in Reno; the Palmer House in Chicago; The Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. [The show] had several very funny opening comedic acts. When working at the Flamingo at night, I was also doing two afternoon shows of Geisha’rella, [a topless revue of Japanese women] at the Thunderbird hotel in black mask.
You followed this with another Claude Thompson production, Flesh. This was in August of 1969 and first staged at the Bonanza Hotel. This was followed by a run at Caesars Palace and then to King’s Castle Hotel in Lake Tahoe.
Flesh at the Bonanza Hotel was an XXX rated show. Claude had done some outrageous stuff with us. Line Renaud, who was from France and producing the show, loved all of it. During the photoshoot my only costume was an elastic g-string to cover myself and Claude stopped the shoot to have me take it off – saying that I can still see it, snickering all the time. He was ***bad*** but great. We were back-to-back with another production, Flush, at the Bonanza Hotel, which eventually became the MGM Grand. Now it’s Bally’s.
After the Bonanza, Flesh moved over to Caesars Palace, but when it closed there, I was asked to go with the show to Lake Tahoe at King’s Castle in Incline Village. It was to open the hotel and there were celebrities there (including Lana Turner), but they were going to cut my salary. Of course, that did not set well with me. I went to the company manager. who was once a performer/dancer and complained. He said that he would then only use one lead dancer (there were two of us). I knew this was wrong so I called Claude knowing his contract stated that the show would have to stay as originated. They hired two others, but one of the dancers had an accident (drugs) and couldn’t open the show. By the time they had called me, I couldn’t make it. I was literally watching the last flight to Reno take off from Las Vegas. Wanting to keep Claude’s work exact, I offered to teach the guys the routines gratis. When I got there, the choreography had changed the number to the point that it was all messed up. I spent the next day learning all of the new stuff.
By the way, meeting Lana Turner was a trip. We met on the beach and she was just another grandma looking person. We had a few drinks, not too much. I had to work that night. I had met her assistant too and we organized a meeting between shows. Lana never showed up so we planned on meeting after my second show. still no Lana, but as we were having a drink, and suddenly this fabulous image passes by. She had pulled herself together and was the gorgeous star that she always was. She wanted to go to the Cal-Neva hotel, so off we went. Let me tell you, I was in heaven – jitter bugging with the one and only- Lana Turner. Yeow mama!
In this period, you worked with Lorna Luft’s act as well.
Once again, Claude Thompson hired me. In the Lorna Luft act he paired me with Harvey Cohen. It was very Do-Whop/Afro-Cuban style. Later on, choreographer Walter Painter added some of his stuff. That was sacrilegious to alter or change any of Claude’s work, but it happens. We never could figure out why Walter was ever brought into the picture. Lorna was lazy and had a Brat Pack attitude, but of the three of them [Judy Garland’s children], Lorna had the best voice. Not the charisma as Liza [Minnelli] did, or the charm of Judy, but talented. Lorna could not only sing well, but dance and was very comedic, thanks to her mother.
Gene Palumbo was our music director and conductor. He also worked with Judy Garland.
In 1972 we opened for Danny Thomas at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Then we went on to the St. Regis hotel’s Maisonette [Russe] in New York City, The Palmer House in Chicago, The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in the Venetian Room and somewhere in Ft. Lauderdale.
While in Florida, we were invited to go out on a yacht that Lorna called Sid Luft (her father) to ask if it was okay for her to go. She always called to consult with him about anything. We met Lorna’s Aunt Jimmy too and had a great after-hours night of singing around Gene as he played the piano. Jimmy, Judy’s sister sounded just like Judy. It was eerie.
Liza, who showed up occasionally never talked to anyone and never joined us. With Lorna, however, we spent a lot of time listening to “Mama stories” that were hilariously funny. Most of the family were already in the public eye and considered [to display] strange behavior. It was about a 3-to-4 month engagement, and a terrific time.
By this time, your working relationship and friendship with Claude Thompson is well established. You worked with him yet again on The Lena Horne Special which aired in September of 1970. Lena Horne was very active on television during this period, featured in several specials.
I had done the Lena Horne special, as well as the Diahann Carroll special for Claude. The two ladies couldn’t have been more un-alike. Lena was very down to earth and everyone’s mother. Very real and sassy. She’d burp or pass gas without a wink. When we were preparing to shoot the number, they had cut to a close up because they had zoomed in on the wrong person, she and I were both sporting afros at the time. Lena moved very well, and we had the best time with her. Claude particularly thought of her as family.
We did a number called Sissy Strut. Normally I would be front and center for Claude, but in this case, I was an add-on. That’s why I am in the rear. I was in LA for something, and Claude said to be at rehearsals at 10am the next day. Of course, I wasn’t going to argue with him.
Harry Belafonte was her [Lena Horne’s] guest on the special, but he wasn’t’ into doing autographs.
Diahann Carroll was extremely rude. While doing her special in Los Angeles they had closed and watered down the streets for effect. She showed up over two hours late and never apologized. Everything had to be moved to a new location and wet down again. During the 1975 fashion show awards she was singing Send in The Clowns when she got up and walked off the set. Once again, she came back two hours later to finish the number. Never offering any excuses. She must have had an issue with the producers. We were all in white suits and had to stand (couldn’t sit and wrinkle the costumes) and wait around for her to get back, not knowing if she was going to return. Boo!
As you neared the end of 1970, you worked with Nick Navarro on a Jacqueline Douguet act, Bon Jour Pussycats.
Nick Navarro had choreographed Jacqueline Douguet’s act and asked Cary La Spina, Lito Paxinos, and I to do it along with “Douguet” (as we called her). If I do say so myself, we were dynamite. He was a terrific choreographer and set a great act for her. I think that they were married to each other at the time – what tempers were flying. She was very jealous, accusing him of always messing around on her. Not true, but she had broken a coffee table with a champagne bottle, and at one point he had punched her in the mouth to get even. When we did the number, she never uttered a note – or a word and the steps were all set to the dialogue. What a mess. She was a bit crazed, but we were a huge success in Omaha, Nebraska. We were going to be the hotel’s new local opening act in November of 1970.
We were a sensation with Nick, Lito Paxinos, Cary La Spina, and me backing up Douguet. The lead singer, Barry Monroe, needed a new song to close his act. we talked and suggested He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, which was a huge hit by the Bee Gees at the time.
Barry, being English, did not know of the connection of that song to Boys Town, which was where Father Flannagan began its history and was made into a very famous movie. Well, Barry became an overnight sensation and was awarded The Key to the City. He thanked me a hundred times – if not more.
We returned to Las Vegas and opened at the Sahara hotel for Frank Gorshin on New Year’s Eve, December 31st, 1970. The Flamingo Show Palace had never had a nude show before. It was family oriented, so Douguet was told to wear a bra. She did not like that so during the performance she popped it off. We were not hired after that – ahhh Show biz!
How did the Argentinian production, El Maipazo del an’o and then on Palito Ortega Special that aired on Argentinian television come about?
While working in the Casino de Paris at the Dunes Hotel we were getting our hair cut from Mario Inoue. Mario was from Argentina and still had contacts there. When they were looking for someone to choreograph Ronnie Lewis style, Mario recommended me. Long story short, I not only choreographed the show [El Maipazo del an’o] but was the lead dancer from North America with my name in lights on the marquee.
Nelida Lobato was the star and knew Palito Ortega. When he saw the show, he asked me to do his special. He let me know that he had two left feet. He was very awkward, so I had to come up with movements that were very easy to handle. But of course, I was elated, and got paid for it in American dollars. He sent his limo to pick me up and return me to the screaming lot of fans looking on. Heaven. He would also take us out to dinner after the show. He was a terrific guy.
When I was in Mexico working for Cary La Spina, he was performing on the TV show, Siempre en Domingo. Emma Pulido and I were watching the show and I asked her if it was live. She said, “Yes”.
I asked her to call the TV studio. They knew Emma because she ran a dance studio in Mexico City. She got through to Palito, and once again he invited us out to dinner after his show. We had a great time, but he went very heavy into politics.
Nelida and I didn’t start off well. She was unaware that I was doing the choreography that Ricardo Ferrante was getting the credit for. We worked together just fine on stage (as professionals do) but nothing after the show. One evening Pepe, her assistant, came to my dressing room and said that Nelida’s mother wanted to say “Hello.” I thought, What? Why would that interest me? Not wanting to add more fuel to the fire, I went to meet her. Surprise. It was Heidi, who was my dresser when I worked for Barry Ashton at the Silver Slipper.
Between Heidi and Palito as buffers we started talking to each other and all ended well. I’m happy to say that there aren’t many people that I’ve worked with who I didn’t get along with, but I have come across some, on one occasion or two. You can’t like everyone, but you can try.
You reunited with Jerome Robbins who was directed and choreographed the Fiddler on the Roof tour.
Yes, Fiddler on the Roof had opened the Union Plaza Hotel (now the Plaza Hotel) in downtown Las Vegas in September of 1971. Vito Durante, one of the dancers, had hurt himself. The company manager, Don Antonelli (who I had worked with when he was a tent manager for the music fairs summer stock companies in 1962 and ‘63) called out of nowhere and asked if I could cover him for a one-hour rehearsal. I went into the show, everyone was very cordial, and just slapped me on the back and moved me to where I needed to be. What a trip when Vito was able to come back to the show.
When Vito returned, one of the Papas wanted to leave so I took his place. I didn’t even have to change costumes or my beard. I loved the show within the show. There have to be five sons and five papas. I’m happy to say it gave me a lot of work and all because the company manager called me. Another kudo was that one of the papers headlines read, “Las Vegas Proves, The Show Must Go On.” It’s nice to know that people in the business remember that you can be counted on.
Fritzi Burr was our Golda and Bob Carroll was our Tevye. He autographed his photo to me with, “Great to work with a real pro.” I was knocked out. I hadn’t remembered that he had written that until I just saw it again in my scrapbook.
By the beginning of 1972 you started with The Best of Burlesque at Circus Circus hotel before you were back with Connie Stevens’ act, followed by a production of Pipe Dream at the International Hotel in Vegas, again with Claude.
In ’72 The Best of Burlesque was choreographed by Nick Navarro and featured Jennifer Fox, a transgender performer – which was very rare in those days. It also featured Eileen Barton, whose big-big hit on the charts was, If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.
That same year was Pipe Dream at the International Hotel, Claude Thompson asked me to come to LA so he could work out (on me) the routine that he was creating for George Chakiris’ solo in the show. The next thing I know I am in the show as well. As rehearsals progressed (slowly), management was not happy with Earl Barton, who was choreographing the show. They let him go. Earl’s claim to fame was that he was one of the dancers in the movie of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. They asked if I would replace him to finish the show, and I did. George kept asking me to do his solo for him. I told him, “They came to see you perform, not me.”
The four gal performers couldn’t have been any more unalike, which proved to be lots of fun when I had set a mock strip number for them. The cast consisted of all Las Vegans except for George and Kaye Stevens. We all had worked with each other before. It turned out great. All of us had a good time.
When the show closed, George and I followed each other to LA where I stayed with him on my way to San Diego. We have remained very close friends.
That’s where the Guys and Dolls production took place.
Yes, it was staged in San Diego. Once again Claude recommended me to the choreographer of Guys and Dolls, (who I had never met) Jimmy Hibbard. Nevertheless, he used me just off Claude’s suggestion.
This production starred John Saxon, with Eileen Brennan, Art Metrano and Maureen Reagan (yes Ronald’s daughter) as Adelaide. I joined the company after two weeks of them being in rehearsals and became the dance captain. It was during the summer and all the known stand-up comedians were available for the show. It was a nightmare. They all wanted to do their own act during the show.
I played the character, Harry the Horse, all the way from Brooklyn -how very appropriate. During the fight scene, John had clipped me in the mouth and split my lip. He was so upset over it, and every night through the rest of the run would let me know that he would hold his punches. He was very regretful over the incident. I said, “Hey things happen. That’s show biz.”
I was in another production of the Guys and Dolls that was staged in Las Vegas in which I choreographed. For A Bushel and a Peck number, I had the girls using a hoe as a prop in very suggestive ways – it was just about XXX rated.
And you assisted Claude in a Los Angeles production of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. How long of a run was this and how was your experience as Assistant Choreographer?
Before returning to Las Vegas in August of 1972, Claude asked me to be his assistant on [Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t] Cope. It was an all-black cast starring Paula Kelly. When Paula was at a book or singing rehearsal, I was filling in for her in the dance numbers. I had asked the producer if I could be the token white in the show. She said, “No”.
In every AEA [Actors Equity Association] production there has to be a black female and male performer, but for some reason, it didn’t apply to this all-black cast. She did say if they would ever use a white performer, it would be me. I guess that was supposed to make me feel good, or better. I had asked Claude if he wanted the dancers to be exactly alike, as in The Rockettes. He said, “No, I just teach them the steps and let their own personalities come through.” It worked beautifully. The show was a huge success.
Other than my name being in the program’s production staff list (and stories) as Assistant to the Choreographer (Claude Thompson), there is nothing but wonderful things to say about this event in my life.
The fans that the cast had signed were a giveaway. Management asked me to try to persuade Claude to sign the fan, but his answer was “This is the Cast’s reward, not mine.” Of course, I followed his emotions, but in my heart, I do wish that he had signed it. Claude loved everyone that he was in contact with, and they all adored him. He was the first one to give all the folks that worked with him their acknowledgment. He was an amazing person and is still very much missed.
Back then I should have started a diary of all the jobs I was working but didn’t write it all down. I’m just so happy that the dates didn’t conflict, or that I was free to jump in and cover someone, as well as doing whatever current job I had.
Hallelujah Hollywood was a Donn Arden production. At one point, in 1974, you were in Hallelujah Hollywood and Lido de Paris simultaneously. On HH you worked with Larry Fuller, Norman Maen, and Larry Maldonado.
Donn Arden sent me a letter asking if I would be interested in doing Hallelujah Hollywood at the new MGM Grand. Even with his asking me, I still had to audition.
Claude had set a terrific routine for me when doing Connie Stevens act. I used that for the audition, wearing just boots and a g-string. I came flying out of the wings. Everyone that was there auditioning loved it, and I got the job. Other performers were also asked to audition for Donn. Michael Darin had gone on to do Bobbie Gentry’s act. Steve Lardis (from Debbie Reynolds‘ act) left rehearsals because he didn’t like the way Donn treated the cast and Lillian D’Onhau, who was also asked, was told by Donn that he had nothing for her. Later on Fluff [Ffolliott] LeCoque called Lillian to do the show and she wound up covering all of the female singers and dancers. I just love Showbiz! I had promised Donn that I would stay for at least six months. Then I would go back to Juliet’s [Prowse] act, never realizing that we would be in rehearsals for over five and a half months.
What a horror story there. At one point, Donn had asked if I would go over to the Stardust hotel and cover the singer/dancers [for Lido de Paris] that wanted to go on vacation. I did and loved getting out of rehearsals and getting paid two salaries. We were on full salary at the MGM by then.
Again, during rehearsals, Mark Mordoh, Juliet’ manager called to see if I could cover for Michael Darrin, who had been hurt. I asked him to call Donn to see if he would let me out. He okayed it but said I would not be paid for the time away. That was fine with me.
At Lido de Paris, during my very fast rehearsals at the Stardust, there was a section where all the male dancers were downstage and had to turn and run upstage. They had neglected to tell me that there were dancers coming downstage at the same time – they split and parted to let me through. Whew.
The person that I was covering had to teach me their spot in the show. Not a good idea. Jimmy Weiss, who was the dance captain had to come to my rescue and teach me the tap routines. The guys were just faking the steps and when they taught it to me, it didn’t make sense. Help! I’m guessing that they never had tap lessons and/or were just used to step touch and present the ladies. Jimmy was a good friend from New York. We had worked on Broadway together. Small world.
The company was full of practical jokers, which of course, I didn’t appreciate. I guess they were there for so long that they needed something to amuse themselves with – like putting smelly cheese into someone’s hat while they were off. One of the dancers said, “I’m your opposite, just mirror me.” This sounds good, but it was an Asian number, and we were all in black mask. Not cute. I got through it without hurting anyone.
Working with Norman Maen and Larry Fuller [in Hallelujah Hollywood] was a dream. They were very professional and knew what they were doing and what they were asking you to do. Larry Maldonado was an evil, nasty person. [He was] nicknamed “the Black Widow”. The nude dancers refused to work with him because of the way he treated them and talked to them regarding the choreography. At one point Donn pitted both Larry’s to choreograph each group (there was stage right 8 dancers and stage left, also 8 dancers) Larry Fuller did an incredible job, no one liked what the “Spider” did, and it was never used.
When we finally opened [Halleluja Hollywood], I gave a two-month notice. Fluff said that Donn would not like that. My answer was, “Who cares?”
You left to rejoin Juliet Prowse’s act.
By the time I got back to Juliet’s act, both Nick Navarro and Michael Darrin had recovered. With two of them out hurt she couldn’t do the Ravel Bolero number. She needed four men to do the act, especially for the last lift. Doing her act, however, was my dream come true. I loved every minute of it.
What made the Juliet Prowse act a dream?
After seeing Juliet’s photo with her guys advertising her show at the Winter Garden Theatre, I vowed that I wanted to and would be one of them – someday. I was living just across the street from the theatre at the time and saw the name on the marquee. From a dancer’s point, she was the creme de la creme of terpsichore. Anyone that was in her act, was up there with her. She only used “the best people that she could find”, to quote her. Usually 6 men dancers, 2 lady dancers and 3 back-up singing ladies.
You did two television specials in 1973/74. One was for Ed Sullivan and included Liza Minelli and Gina Lollobrigida, the other Las Vegas Entertainers Awards.
This is after we closed with Mame. Heaven was shining on me. The 1974 Ed Sullivan Special was at Caesars Palace, and at the Circus Circus hotel. As usual, Liza was a true *itch – very stand-offish and rude to everyone. Typical of her. Gina on the other hand couldn’t have been nicer or sweeter to everyone. In one scene, we were all individually on a track in the ceiling following Gina around the tent. It was a bit scary, but she was a trooper. We all had a great time with her. Ron Lewis choreographed
the Las Vegas Entertainers Awards, except Juliet Prowse’s number which was Gotta Move. That was choreographed by Nick Navarro. Rita Moreno was the star that Rich Rizzo and I partnered. Jaimie Rogers set the number to Yankee Doodle Dandy. I recall Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line) being in there somewhere, also.
You performed in the 1975 Fashion Show Awards choreographed by Carl Jablonski.
Michael Darrin and I were both doing Juliet’s act in 1975, and I heard that Juliet was going to do the Fashion Show Awards. Bob Mackie was being honored. I worked with and knew Bob on The Carol Burnett Show and The Smothers Brothers Show in Los Angeles. I called and asked him about possibly doing the special, letting him know that Michael and I would finance our own transportation. He said that he would talk to Ray Agyhan (his partner), the producer. It was okay with him as long as Carl Jablonski agreed, which he did, although at this point, I hadn’t met Carl. I did know his assistant, Charlene Mehl, who was Walter Painter’s wife. We worked together on Broadway in Fade Out – Fade In and on The Carol Burnett Show. All was fine with them, and so we were in. They were both great to work with. Very professional and together.
Choreographer Wally Green rose to fame in the US through his work on Billy Wilder films. You worked with him in ‘76 on a TV special in South Africa. I believe this happened through Juliet Prowse.
Juliet was the only one who knew Wally Green. She had worked with him before.
Wally just used us, taking advantage of having good American dancers to work with. His regular dancers were not very happy about it.
Tell me about The Frank Rosenthal Show.
The Frank Rosenthal Show was taped at Paul Anka’s Jubilation Restaurant in Las Vegas around 1978. It was choreographed by Ron Ruge. It was a hair fashion show that was televised. The gal that cut all of us had been the winner. Cassandra Peterson (Halloween’s Elvira character) was one of the dancers in the cast.
Ron also sent some of us to Guatemala with the show in 1976. It was in the El Dorado Americana hotel (I’m guessing). Ron set the show and it went over well. I remember we did a comedic spoof take off on Alley Oop, but that’s about all that comes to mind about the show. The cast was another story. The two platinum blondes were my buddies. We went everywhere together. It was a very Suddenly Last Summer type of affair, which I loved. Being in a place where everyone was dark haired, brown eyed and olive skinned. Everyone wanted to meet them [the dancers with blonde hair] and these two ladies were knock-outs. But of course, they had to go through me first. We did lots of touring and bought lots of handwoven items, helping the local economy. I really loved the food and the people.
You worked with Cary La Spina a few times in the late 1970s.
Cary La Spina and I had done both Juliet Prowse’s act and Jacqueline Douguet’s act.
In February 1978 I went to Mexico City for him as a dancer and company manager for The Estrellita Show at Del Prado Hotel. Management was horrible to work with. They tried to have us do other shows without paying us. They always had someone translate for them. I always left the conversation with, “I’ll have to talk it over with the other guys.” I never let them know that I understood everything that they were saying and them telling the interpreter, “But don’t tell him (me) that.” Since I was aware, I chose to react accordingly, and we were paid for everything that they asked us to do, outside of the show. We even did some Mexico TV shows, such as Siempre en Domingo.
One of the dancers became very sick and we had to send him home. Emma Pulido, who ran the local dance studio had a student that was very good. I auditioned and hired him. Management wouldn’t pay him the same as us – because he was Mexican. I had to tell him it was his choice to work or not. He went home. That was a shame. It hurt his ego, but that’s how they keep their people down.
In November 1978 I did the show Wow ’78 for Cary at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel in Stateline, Nevada. The lead dancer wanted to leave, so I replaced him. Cary taught me the show, but I had to physically work on a net to learn the rest of the number. What a mess. The guy left the minute that I got there. The dance captain had to teach me the rest of the show quickly, they cut the net number that night, but after working on it the next day, it was put back in. I had sliced myself many times while trying not to fall as we did an adage on the net hanging over the audience. Whew! That was rough. Patrick Maes, the producer with Breck Wall said, “He owes me one.” One what? Nada. Not even $$$. Oh well. Once again, that’s Show Biz.
You closed out the ‘70s with Sweet Charity. Where was this staged and what are your memories of this production?
I choreographed The Boy Friend at the Las Vegas Community Theatre in 1977, and in 1978 I also choreographed Sweet Charity, and played Vitorio Vidal. The gal who was my Madcap Mazzie in The Boy Friend was now my Charity. She was perfect.
As it turned out Chita Rivera was at Caesars Palace at the time and a bunch of us who knew her (We did the 1964 World’s Fair Show, Wonderworld in NYC) went to see her show. While I was there, I asked her if she had the time, if she would come and talk to the gal that was doing my Nikki, the role Chita originated on Broadway. She came down and talked to the whole cast at the Reed Whipple auditorium. They loved it and I appreciated it. She was very gracious and kind (as always) and everyone loved meeting her.
When it came time for closing night bows, I could not attend because I had to be over at Caesars Palace. During Sweet Charity, Cary La Spina called and asked me if I could partner Tybee Brascia in Paul Anka’s act at Caesars Palace. Cary had other commitments and couldn’t do it. We did the number to Copacabana while Paul sang it off stage. Tybee gave me the best honor by saying that I was such a good strong dancer, and no one had partnered her that well since John Brascia. If you’ve seen him, he did a lot of movie work partnering the stars. I was very flattered.
Incidentally, the Reed Whipple auditorium was co-sponsored by the the government that produced a program called, Ceta. [Through the program] Actors and dancers were actually paid to take classes.
This is the second installment in this three-part article series was edited in collaboration with Sal Angelica and the John Hemmer Archive in 2022. It is based on Sal’s lived memories and memorabilia from his career spanning many decades. To read the first installment of this series, please visit: https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-i/ Stay tuned for the third and final article in the series, A Dancer’s Life: Meet Sal Angelica, Part III.