Adelle Gordon Cohen: A Dancer’s Story
My name is Adelle Gordon Cohen. I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts to Rachel and Louis Gutman. My mother was a homemaker, and my father a master safe cracker and locksmith who worked for Independent Lock Company.
I started dance classes at the age of five studying Denishawn, a form of modern dance. And then went on to study ballet and jazz. We lived in an area called Whalom Park. An equity summer theater was just two blocks away. I started working there for producer Guy Palmerton when I was just a teenager. He brought in Broadway equity musicals as well as plays featuring big stars like John Garfield, Tallulah Bankhead, Vincent Price and on and on.
Chita Riviera came in. She must have been 19 years old. She was one of the dancers in a show called Call Me Madam. And the producer put me in the show, and so I got to see Chita and how she worked. At the time her name was Conchita Del Riviera.
During this time at the theatre, I made friends with young people who had come in from New York City with these equity shows. So, it was kind of natural transition for me to leave small town Fitchburg– Whalom Park and move to New York and study dancing. Also my dance teacher at the time would take a couple of us to New York for summer classes while still in high school. I had actually been in enough shows there to earn my equity card.
I went to New York City after high school graduation at age 17. My father was a New Yorker. He came from Brooklyn. I had relatives in the city. It was an easy transition. I got a mail girl job at Shell Oil in Rockefeller Center and took dance classes at night. The Bible for auditions was a weekly newspaper called Show Business. Through that I got a job dancing with a group called The Colby Claire Dancers. Colby dancers was a group of eight girls. We danced at conventions and the 500 Club in Atlantic City for several months, and then I left Shell Oil.
Then I joined the Bob Conrad Dancers, which was a more steady. I auditioned and got that job through the Show Business trade paper as well. We worked night clubs all through the East– Three Rivers Inn in Syracuse, The Mayfair in Boston, Casino Royal in Washington D.C., Chanticleer in Baltimore, Maryland as well as Café Society in New York City and many others. That was a completely packaged show with singers, showgirls and girl and boy dancers.
In the beginning of 1956, the audition ad in Show Business read, “40 dancers wanted to tour the country room and board paid.” I passed the first audition for choreographers Dick and Edith Barstow. When I passed the second audition that afternoon I asked, “What’s the name of the show?” The reply was, “Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. We have to leave for winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida in a month. And by the way, you have to ride an elephant.” But what they didn’t tell us is that we also had to learn trapeze. We were told that on our first day of rehearsal in Sarasota, Florida.
Learning trapeze was very difficult. You need upper body strength. And dancers aren’t trained that way. We also suffered from rope burns on our hands and back of our knees and ankles. I’m sure our instructor Barbette, who was once a famous aerialist, had many a sleepless nights over us. We had web sitters. Mine was Gonzales, a young man who would stand underneath our trapeze to be ready to break the fall just in case.
The elephant assigned to me was called Minyak. He was the largest one in the herd and also the lead elephant in the parades. He was very special, and I was very thrilled.
That season we were being ticketed by the worker’s union as we were non-union. Many of the performers, including myself, were show business union members due to previous jobs. We were afraid of being blacklisted, especially performers who came from other countries and had been in TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show.
I was one of the chorus dancers. And when our lead dancer had left after opening night at Madison Square Garden in New York City because she was afraid of being blacklisted, they made me lead dancer. And although I had learned and performed the trapeze number, I no longer had to do it.
Being in the circus is like being in a family 24 hours a day. We lived, ate and performed together. We played under the big top and one-night stands– sometimes two-night stands. We toured all over the country and very often we wouldn’t know where we were because it would be a big field. And we lived in trains. I had an upper berth, and we were all assigned to our train.
We all ate in this tent. They would set up the tent for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we also had a costume tent where we would get changed into our costumes for the show. We each had a trunk with our names on it. And we had water buckets. We were given two water buckets a day. In that water bucket we would rinse our clothes and our personal clothes and even shower ourselves in the water bucket.
It was very rough, but it was fine. We learned how to do it. Being very young you don’t complain too much. And of course, you make friends with people from every country in the world who were circus performers. And basically, that was it.
The last day that the show performed was in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania. We didn’t know the show was closing. We were given our paychecks that evening with an airline ticket to go back to either New York or Boston. And we had to wait for the tent to come down. I had never seen the big top come down late at night.
And that was the very first time. And the reason I had never seen it come down is because we had three different trains. And the performer’s train would always leave before the worker’s train. And of course, the big top tent– the canvas would be on the worker’s train. But that very last night, we saw the big top come down for the very last time, and it was quite an experience. And from that point on the circus became union.
The trade unions as well as the very bad weather (heavy rains and even a tornado) shortened our season. It became historically known as the last year of the big top.
I had been in many summer theater Broadway musicals, but the Ziegfeld Follies was at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in 1957. It was a huge, lavish production. I went on the road with it for several months playing widget theaters. Very shortly after it closed my roommate Judy Kern and I were walking down Broadway on our way to dance class. We bumped into an agent, Miles Engels in front of the Brill Building. His very words were, “Hi gals, where have you been? I haven’t seen you around.” Our answer – “We just got off the road with the Ziegfeld Follies, and we’re on our way to class.” Engels replied, “Why don’t you go over to the Latin Quarter? They’re auditioning dancers. Tell them Miles sent you.”
When Judy and I arrived at the Latin Quarter [Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub], the auditions were over. People were leaving except the producer and choreographers who were sitting at a table talking. Judy and I walked up to them and said, “Miles sent us.” They said, “We’re very sorry but the auditions are over, and we’re not going to teach you the routine.” I told them we were just off the road from the Ziegfeld Follies and would dance one of the numbers from the show.
And so we did with no music, and we were hired on the spot. That led to a two-year job first in beautiful Palm Island, Miami Beach Latin Quarter location for the winter season and then back to the Latin Quarter in New York City. And again, to Miami Beach and then again back to New York the following year. It was a dream job– beautiful productions, costumes, great choreographers working with huge stars and great musicians.
Both in New York and Miami we worked with very big stars like Milton Berle and Betty Grable, Kathryn Grayson, Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, The Ritz Brothers. I’m trying to think was who else. And I’m sure there are half a dozen more very, very big stars that we worked with.
Miami Beach in 1958 was in its hey-day. The Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau hotels were new. The Latin Quarter on Palm Island was a luxurious looking nightclub. The people who attended the dinner and show would be all dressed up in gowns and furs. We as performers also had to be dressed appropriately between shows– no jeans or sneakers, etcetera. Even our living quarters were luxurious. Judy and I and a couple of other performers rented rooms in a mansion on the ocean. We called it the castle.
On our second season we closed with Jimmy Durante. He asked five of us to go on tour with him. He was treated like royalty. We played Palm Beach Hotel, and we were given suites. And when we wanted to go for pizza a limo would pick us up and take us out. We played the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. And from there the show went to the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
My roommate Judy and I decided to go back East afterwards. She got a job in Bye-Bye Birdie (1960). And I was accepted at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. College life was not for me.
After a couple of semesters, I came back to New York, got a wonderful job with Hilton Hotels International at the Waldorf Astoria, but was coaxed by a former roommate to go out to LA.
That’s what I did. I lived at the Hollywood Studio Club for Girls which was filled with starlets. And before I knew it, I was auditioning again. I was hired by a Los Angeles choreographer named Earle Barton with a one-year contract in 1961 at the Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas. It was fabulous. Like the Latin Quarter, the best of everything with major stars appearing constantly. We worked with people like Red Skelton, Sinatra and Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka. Just a zillion performers and they were big rooms. They were big show rooms with big orchestras — very similar to the Latin Quarter.
After one year I went to the Copa Room in the Sands Hotel and Casino (1962) and the third year (1963) to the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas for Dick Humphries.
When that contract was up I auditioned for Ronnie Lewis for a Las Vegas show called Viva Le Girls which was booked at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, the Caribbean Islands and then New York City.
I thought it was a great chance to get back East to see my family. While Vive Le Girls was at the Fontainebleau, my parents came to down to see me. My father took ill with acute leukemia and died while on vacation there. Of course, I left the show immediately and went home to stay with my mother in Massachusetts.
After almost a year I was asked to come to New York City to rejoin Viva Le Girls which was then performing at a Broadway nightclub. I did but I felt the show had lost its zip and perhaps I had too. I’d been there, done that. So I left the show.
Through people I knew in the business I called Goddard Lieberson, President of Columbia Records. I told him I needed a job. And he put me to work at the brand new CBS building called Black Rock on 6th Avenue. It was a great job, and I dealt with people in the music industry and the public. I met my husband in the building where I lived on East 55th Street. His name was Leonard Cohen, and he was Vice President of EJ Corvette a large discount chain.
We were married in 1966, and our son David was born in 1968. When we moved to Mahwah, New Jersey four years later I became very active choreographing middle school and high school shows. We also had a terrific community theater group called Small Town Players that would put on Broadway musicals like Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady which I would choreograph and dance.
Decades later, when I got the phone call from Janie Freed that the Latin Quarter was going to have its first reunion at the Glen Island Casino I was thrilled. By the mid-1980s, I had not been in touch with many of our performers except my roommates. And here we were getting together from all over the country to reunite, perform and to raise money for charity. And at the time it was for missing and abused children organizations.
We have continued our reunions yearly with as much gusto as the first. Barbara Walters (daughter of Latin Quarter impresario, Lou Walters) also giving us a boost. My life in Mahwah is a quiet one. I go to California once a year to see my son, who’s a script writer, and his family. And to reconnect with friends I worked with in LA and Vegas.
I also belong to a circus organization called Circus Fans of America. We have a chapter near Mahwah where we meet a couple of times a year. I consider myself the luckiest person on Earth. An incredible career, great friends and a lovely family. And what wonderful memories we surface doing this interview.
~ “Adelle Gordon Cohen: A Dancer’s Story” is edited from a phone interview transcript, originally recorded between Adelle Gordon Cohen and KirstenStudio, LLC. To learn more about Adelle, visit Meet the Entertainers: Adelle Gordon Cohen.
Watch Adelle’s oral history video here.