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

From gin joints to Broadway, dancer, actor, and singer Lawrence Merritt has performed throughout the world over the decades, partnering with some of the greatest stars in the history of entertainment arts. His reflections support his vast experience, all taken with a healthy dose of sharp wit and incredible recall. Here Lawrence breaks down a dancer’s life from the top.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white composite photographic print, Lawrence Merritt head shots & press imagery, New York, NY, circa late 1950s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Okay. Let’s start at the very beginning. Where did you grow up and who were your early artistic influences?

Do you have time? We’ll send out for Chinese food. Well, okay. I was born upstate. A little town and the hospital is now a rooming house in this little village, just south of Saratoga. Saratoga Springs, Saratoga spa, or whatever. The little town is called Ballston Spa because it had mineral waters. But, I grew up out in the country. At the other end of the apple orchard was my cousin and his mom, Deb. And that was my circle. My Dad would say, “Go play ball.” I finally realized that my father probably never knew how to play ball. He just thought it was the thing you say to your son.

Instead, my recourse was to go into my own little imaginary world, which was quite vivid. I began drawing in the first grade. Bambi and horses and deer for my father, little pictures and movie stars faces and things like that. And I still have some, they were pretty good for first grade. I continued to draw through most of my school years. I wasn’t a brilliant student. I think I was just sort of a shy nerd. When I was in the fourth grade, I took a year of tap dancing and I did a recital in Schenectady in a big theater with a little girl with curls in a pink satin dress. Me with my little satin pants and my little white bolero. Somebody called me a sissy and I went, “Okay, I won’t do that anymore.”

Photochrome postcard: Business District and park, Ballston Spa, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

In the 1940’s when I was just a little kid, I’d go to the Ballston Spa movie theater. I would sit and watch Sonja Henie and Carmen Miranda and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And I was like five years old. I would be there with my mother and I would just get lost in that world. I believe it’s those cinema experiences that made me eventually decided to become a dancer, the image of Fred Astaire was the one in my head, not somebody in silk tights, tippy toeing around. He was always a masculine image in my mind anyway.

Did you have any mentors in your community who encouraged you along the way?

In high school, I was still really into drawing. I drew the posters for the candy sale in the cafeteria, or the library book sale, or the prom. I was the one who did all the artwork for the yearbook. At one point my English teacher, Mrs. Tilton, who ran the Drama Club, she said, “The guy who’s playing the father in the junior play has to drop out. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll have to understand, but we’ll try you out.” I said, “Okay.” So, I played Dad in the Junior Play. Then an assistant gym teacher said, “You know, in Schenectady, they have Schenectady Light Opera and they need singers. You’re in the Glee Cub.” He encouraged me to audition. I went down and I said, “Hello, I’m a tenor.” And they went, “Get over there.” I did Sweethearts, I think. Nobody does that kind of thing anymore.

During my senior year, I was the young male lead in our senior play. I did Music in the Air with Schenectady Light Opera and that same gym teacher told me about a place in Maine. He said, ” It’s kind of like Summer Stock. They do a lot of shows, opera, and musical comedy.” Although, my plan was to work for a year after high school, and then go to New York and attend Parsons for fashion design, I did write the place in Kennebunkport, Maine. The theatre received my letter and I was invited for a visit.

My parents drove me down to Schenectady where I boarded a bus. I was picked up at the other end and was asked to come to this Victorian house on the hill next to their theatre. There they had me sing this la, la, la, la, la, la. The, “Why did you want to come here?” question, to which I replied, “Well, I was in high school plays, the Schenectady Light Opera, I took tap dancing, I’m in the Glee club and I’m going to be a fashion designer and blah, blah, blah.”

Photochrome postcard: Arundel Opera Theatre & Academy of Performing Arts and Related Arts, North St. Kennebunkport, ME, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

The next morning, on the way back to the bus they said, “You have a full scholarship, report here on so-and-so date. You will get a $100 for the summer. You’ll get your room and board, and you’ll do whatever you’re going to do.” So, I missed my graduation because I went to Kennebunkport to do Summer Stock and the first day everybody but the older leads, who were usually from New York City or the Robert Shaw Chorale, took a ballet class.

Magazine Ad: Goya & Matteo dance act, unknown publication, circa 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

I never pointed my toe. I had some tap. The ballet class choreographer said, “Okay, everybody go back to the theater, learn music, paint sets, whatever. Dancers we’re going to rehearse here on this wooden floor – Oh and Lawrence, you stay too.” The first show was Goethe’s Faust. It’s like, “Okay.” And so I’m doing ballet, peasant stuff, I thought it was going to be a peasant for the rest of my life. But I had, I guess, a talent for it because I danced in all 10 shows that summer.

This was a seminal experience that changed everything.

Absolutely. Iolanthe – not dancing but singing, Trial by Jury, Call Me Madam, Song of Norway. And every Sunday we would have someone coming to visit us. We had Erik Bruhn and Inge Sand who were part of a mini troop from the Royal Danish Ballet performing for us. The next weekend, we had Carola Goya and Matteo who were ethnic-dancers. They did Spanish and East Indian – famous. Next there would be some incredible pianist, and next, Jean-Léon Destiné and his African dancers and drummers.

I was being exposed to all this and then someone who danced, I think in the chorus, He said, “If you’re interested in this dancing thing, I have an apartment in New York city. I have a roommate, but we have some space, if you want to see if something pans out.” He’s still here in New York City. He ended up being a Spanish and East Indian dancer. He and his partner.

I went home and I said, “Mom, Dad, I want to go to New York, and I want to be on Broadway.” I had not a clue, but it was my innocence and naivety that saved me. If I’d known what it was like, I would have been so chicken. They said, “Well, okay. We’ll support you if that’s what you want.” Once I had their blessing, I picked apples there for a month and saved $100. I got a ride with a local dance teacher who was coming to a convention at the Plaza. And on my 18th birthday, I came to New York. Yeah, that was my big left turn from working for a year to becoming a fashion designer.

Did your parents ever express concern with you leaving for the ‘big city’ to pursue a life in the performing arts?

I had good parents. They did the best they could do with the instruction sheets that they got. They said, “We’ll support you in whatever, if that’ll make you happy.” And then years later, after my father had passed away, my mother said to me, “That was very hard, to let you go. Your father wanted you to stay home. And I said, ‘No, he’s going to want to go anyway. We really should have just let him go.’ So we did.” And I was off. I never looked back.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photograph, Lawrence Merritt & Agnes de Mille dancer performing in a Summer Stock production, Cohasset, MA, late 1950s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

What was your first job in New York City?

Within the first week I was in New York, I sat on a chair with towel on my shoulders in the middle of the living room. And I said to my roommate, ” I bought some peroxide and a comb. Here, I want to be a blonde.” So, we combed it through. It got a little red and I’m like, “Do it again.” So he did it like three times. Well, I did that and my eyebrows and I ended up looking like Lucille Ball. Head bright white, red hair. That same week I turned 18. Guess what? Selective Service, the draft.

I went out to do that. And that was really classic, a lot of men walking around in their t-shirts in their underpants. Somebody putting their hand under your testicles telling you to cough. Then, “Okay, take down your underpants, turn around and bend over.” I thought, “This is so classic. Isn’t this fun? No.” After you go through all that, there’s the one question at the end, “Do you, or have you ever, had homosexual tendencies?” I thought, “Well, why didn’t they just ask me this at the very start?” You’ve got to wonder, right? Then I thought, “I guess everybody knows I’m gay anyway.”  I saw my opportunity right there. “Yes.”, I said. I was then sent over to the resident psychiatrist, “Do you realize..,. blah, blah, blah.” I said, “Yeah, okay.”. That’s when we said a mutual “goodbye forever.” I still have my draft card someplace, which looks like the rats have been chewing at it but it still says, “red hair, green eyes”.

I eventually got a job as a typist in the loan department of First National City Bank of New York Incorporated. That’s what it was called then. Now it’s called Citi Corp. And it was on 42nd street between Vanderbilt and Madison, I think. And I worked in the loan department until it was time to go back to Summer Stock the next year.

Paper souvenir photo cover: China D’or nightclub, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

In the middle of the summer, however, there was a big upheaval. I still don’t know what it was all about, but we all went, “Yes, we’re leaving.” It felt traumatic at the time, but we all left. A choreographer named Roland Wingfield, approached me. He used to bleach his hair blonde and so did his partner, Carol. They worked with a guy named Michael O’Brien and another dancer, Paula. I don’t remember who the third girl was, but I joined this group. Roland wanted everyone who wasn’t naturally blonde, to bleach their out, so we became a baby blonde, Afro-Cuban dance crew of all things. Don’t ask. So, there I was stripping my hair again. Because it was naturally brown, I had what looked like black roots three days later. Anyway, we were this Afro-Cuban dance group playing at what I’d say were the better toilets in New York. One was a Chinese restaurant and club on Broadway, between like 48th and 49th, called the China D’or.

The China D’or was upstairs, tables all the way around, a dance floor and a little stage. I think on either side, if I remember correctly, was a door that went backstage. Our crew was made up of boys in white sailor pants rolled up to just below the knee, white shirts, tied, bare midriff, red bandana, and the ever necessary, straw hat with the frayed edges. The girls had white petticoats, white tops, and bandanas too. We were all barefoot. One night some friends came. We were all talking afterward and one of them said, “You know, I’m not sure about you. I really don’t think you’ll go very far because you’re not very good on stage.” I thought, “To hell with you.” I had this inner chip, because, really? I remember thinking, “Don’t ever tell me I can’t do it, because you’ll see, cupcake.”

Photochrome postcard: “Babes in Toyland” performance, Municipal Opera [Muny Opera], Forest Park, St. Louis, MO, 1960. Photograph by Hugo Harper. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

Was this the point where you stopped working “regular” jobs to pay the rent?

Paper scrapbook page: Lawrence Merritt with partner as adagio act, “The DuBARRYS” publicity photographs & paper Cooks Falls Lodge ad clipping, Cooks Falls, NY, circa late 1950s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I still worked at regular jobs – as a waiter and a bartender, but was always performing too. I worked with a Russian woman who worked at Radio City Music Hall. We became an adagio act. We played dives in Brooklyn, and in the middle of snowstorms, three people in the audience. We played the Borscht Belt for one whole summer. I took the gigs I had to in order to eat and anything where I could gain some stage experience, whatever the venue.

I tell people sometimes that I lived Dirty Dancing. People go, “What do you mean?” Well, we were put up and paid a salary at a place called Cooks Falls Lodge in Cooks Falls, New York. Cooks Falls is what they call “over the hump.” That means it’s too far north to be in the chic Monticello, Concord, Grossinger’s, Lake Kiamesha, whatever.

We had our meals there every night. They put us up. We taught Mambo, Cha-cha, and Merengue to Jewish men and women by the pool. Every Saturday, we did one of our numbers, our “Mambo Number Five”, or our Waltz, or our Tango. There was a resident guy who was a comedian MC.

What used to happen was there would be an agent in New York City, because it was drivable, an agent in New York City, who, in his clientele, had a girl singer, maybe a musician, or a dog act, and maybe some other act. They would drive up, and they would play Lake Kiamesha at 8:30, and then they would play Cooks Falls Lodge at 9:00, and some other place at 9:30, and then another place at 10:00. Then, they’d drive in the station wagon back to New York City. After we did our number, I would dance with five ladies, and my partner would dance with five men. We’d go, “Let’s hear it for Shirley. Let’s hear it for Mabel.” Whoever got the most applause won a split of champagne.

As a bartender, I was making decent money, and found it was okay, but I kept thinking, “This is stupid, you came to New York City to dance. You need to get your act together.” I talked to myself a lot like that. “You need to start studying. You need to lose a little weight, and you need to start auditioning.” I started with Matt Mattox, who taught me really any technique I have, and I started auditioning. I got, a job at St. Louis Muny Opera, 10 shows in 10 weeks. It’s the largest outdoor theater in America. I got my equity contract and joined the union. This was 1959. we did Carmen, Babes in Toyland. The first show was Patricia Morison in King and I. Jacques d’Amboise and Allegra Kent in Song of Norway. It was an amazing.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photograph, Lawrence Merritt (right, foreground) on set with castmates, St. Louis Muny Opera, St. Louis, MO, 1959. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I kept studying. I kept auditioning. I got my first Broadway show in 1962 in No Strings. I should mention, however, that by then, I had danced at the Latin Quarter nightclub. In 1960 I was in a Latin Quarter production for choreographer Ron Lewis, who was a very hard choreographer and also brilliant. The lead dancer was Ron Field. They were partners then. I worked for Ron Lewis several times, including assisting him on Liza Minnelli’s act at the Waldorf-Astoria.

What else do you recall about Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter?

Paper scrapbook detail: Color photograph, Larry Merritt & castmates in costume, backstage, Latin Quarter nightclub, VIVE La FEMME production, New York, NY, 1960. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

It’s a blur, really. I have a good memory though, and they were fantastic people. Ron Field was a great dancer. Ron Lewis was extraordinary choreographer. The girls in that show kicked ass. Ron Lewis choreographed the Can-Can. We did one number with Gloria LeRoy called My Mean Baby, which was a jazz number. We wore black pants, bright emerald green cummerbunds, white shirts, bow ties, and emerald green boleros, like waiter jackets – but, we did it in red light. A red spot. When you put a red spot on emerald green, it turns black. The cummerbund and the jackets, we looked like we were all in black. The pants were black. Then, when Gloria LeRoy came out, and she did a famous song that Dolores Gray did in a movie, I think, called It’s Always Fair Weather, called, Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks. [singing]. She blew up all these male dancers that came on, sending them down chutes and things. There were four boy dancers with her. It was myself, Ron Field, my best friend at the time and another guy. I can’t remember his name. He was Canadian. You know, you lose people along the way. They either don’t stay in the business, or you don’t know what happened. You wonder sometimes, because you meet so many people that you brush against, you know?

Anyway, I remember that New Year’s Eve at the Latin Quarter. We did the opening show at 8:00, or 9:00, for the dinner crowd. Then, we were going to do a special late-night show, so we got into our opening costumes and went upstairs to the roof, which was right near Tickets, but it was only three stories back then. You went in the front entrance on 48th Street, and on 47th Street was Castro Convertibles, like Jennifer Sofas. It was on the first floor, and up above was the back end of the Latin Quarter. Just before New Year’s, we went up to the roof. We all are costumed, and we all watched the millions of people, and of course the ball drop. Then, we went downstairs and did the midnight show.

What about backstage? I hear different descriptions depending on the time period a performer was there.

Paper scrapbook page: Silver gelatin black & white photograph, Lawrence Merritt in costume, backstage, Latin Quarter nightclub, VIVE La FEMME production, New York, NY, 1960. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The girls’ dressing room was upstairs. The boys were in the back in some hole. There was a little balcony. You could get out there and peek down at the audience. The spotlight was up in the back, upstairs. The girls were on one side, and you could go around to the walkway on the other side, and there were two slides held up to the ceiling, electrically, with a metal foot petal, like a brace. When this one number was finished, we went out and grabbed the stuff, and the curtain came down, the slides came down. You hear … [singing] We helped the girls come off the slides.

There was an ice-skating rink at the Latin Quarter that lived in the wings. You know how big the Latin Quarter stage was? Smaller than it looks in pictures, but it had this passerelle, this wide passerelle. In the club – the house, there were tables right here [points close], with the passerelle right here [motions again], and then the stage was right there [motions a short distance again]. So, you were looking up at the dancers. The passerelle had lights underneath it. It was heavy plexiglass, so it could go red, or pink, or blue.

Anyway, in the wings it was this huge thing on wheels. It was probably seven or eight feet, by seven or eight feet.  It came out of the wings on wheels for ice shows. This particular act was a muscle guy, named Tasha, and his wife is Ruth. She was absolutely spectacular, gorgeous-looking woman, with bright red hair. I’ve seen her in recent years. She lives up on 54th Street, walking her dog. Her husband passed some time ago. I think they ran the rink at Radio City Music Hall for a long time. Anyhow, the last night that Ron Field was there, we were in our gold lamé with white sparkles costumes. The girls were all in gold, with gold cups. Ron Field got up on the rink and skated around on his last night. I did the same thing, I think I left a couple weeks after him.

Paper program detail: Latin Quarter paper program, VIVE La FEMME production, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1960. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive, Image subject to copyright laws.

I tell you though, the girls in that show, I mean, one went on to be in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Another went on and was in How to Succeed in Business on Broadway. Amazing dancers, because Ron’s choreography was so strong.

Okay, let me make sure that I’m getting some of this in chronological order, here. ’60, you were at the Latin Quarter, correct?

Paper scrapbook page: Playbill cover, No Strings, 54th Street Theatre, New York, NY, 1962. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Yup, and ’61 was my first Broadway experience in No Strings [featuring Diahann Carroll], but just before that, I did La Parisienne with Matt Mattox at Dunes Hotel, in Vegas. Matt Mattox choreographed, Michel Legrand did the music. We rehearsed in Paris for a month, my first time, and he asked for me. The rest of the four boys were from LA. That was nice. I came back, and I did No Strings.

At the end of ’62, I don’t know why I left, but six months was my due date. I’d left and I went into Ron Field’s first Broadway show, which was Nowhere to Go But Up, which was directed by Sidney Lumet. His assistant was Michael Bennett. The person who wrote the book and the lyrics was James Lipton. [Starting at the Shubert Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Then onto the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City]. There were 8 boys and 16 girls, who were all dancer singers. There were no singers in the show. Dorothy Loudon, Tom Bosley, Martin Balsam. The young male lead was Bert Convy, who had done Cabaret, and then graduated to TV game show fame. The ingénue, out of town, or in New York City, before we went out of town, was Louise Lasser. She was replaced by Mary Ann Mobley and Mary was just sweet as sugar. I never did know that Mel Brooks came in to doctor the show. I guess that happened.

This all took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We thought we were all going to have to walk back to New York City, which we would find leveled and in rubble, and try to go through our things in our apartment. That was pretty scary.

End of Part I

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

Watch Lawrence Merritt’s oral history video here:

Meet the Entertainers: Lawrence Merritt from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.

Supper Club Recipes for the Holidays: Teak Lewis

It was 1973 and I had just turned 40. I was still dancing at a Casino in Freeport, in the Bahamas following an extended European musical tour. I began to think about what I was going to be doing at 50. I called a very good friend of mine who owned The Island Art Gallery and Gift Shop in Manteo, North Carolina and he offered me a job as his assistant at three times what I was making as a dancer, plus I would have a room on the property. I accepted the offer.

Black & white photographic print: cast members of the production “Terre de Femme” (World of Women), stage at the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1968. Teak Lewis, standing, far right. Courtesy Robert Rayow. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

During my stay there his cook retired  and when he could not find a replacement, I started cooking lunch and dinners for him and his partner. This eventually led to their talking about opening a restaurant on the property. They asked me to then run the restaurant. I replied that I knew nothing about the running of a restaurant, but the offer inspired me. I wrote to several schools and finally decided to return to New York for a two year course at New York City of Technology in Brooklyn, New York where I received my degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management.

I graduated on the Dean’s list and my first job was cooking for the Executive Kitchen of American Express. I started doing salads and desserts and worked my way up to sous chef.  

After four years, I quit and took a job at a fashion house called Sally Gee.  I was chief cook and bottle washer,  I did it all,  The only problem was that the reps from other houses were coming to eat my lunches. The bank told them they had to close the kitchen.

When American Express found out that I was available again, they called me in for a meeting,  They could not offer me my old job back since my replacement was doing a good job.  However, they were going to move their offices and were expand the dining rooms. They asked if I would consider being maître d’ for all of the rooms. They increased my salary and gave me an assistant. I stayed another four years.

My next job was for Restaurant Associates as Night Manager at Lincoln Center. In Avery Fisher Hall there were two restaurants at the time, Panevino and Café Vienna. In the summertime, there was also an outdoor café and I had to work all three at the same time.  

After five years of training many people who ended up getting better jobs, I asked for a transfer.  I ended up working at law offices that had their own dinning rooms and usually did the lunch service.  I retired six months short of my 65th birthday. It was a fabulous second career. ~ Teak Lewis 

For this pumpkin flan, you’ll need 1 metal fluted mold 8 to 9 inches for a real fancy display, or a 2 quart glass loaf pan.

Caramel sauce: 2/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water.

Flan: 6 large eggs, 2 cups pumpkin puree, or a 15oz can, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground Allspice, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 2 cups heavy cream.

Instruction: In a small saucepan combine the first sugar and water and bring the mixture to a boil.  Cook the syrup swirling the saucepan until it is a deep caramel color. Pour into the mold, tilting the mold to cover the bottom and come partially up the sides evenly and let harden. If using a glass mold, heat before pouring in the caramel.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a bowl beat the eggs with the sugar, beat in the pumpkin puree, salt, the remaining spices and heavy cream until well mixed.

Set the mold into a deep baking pan and add enough hot water to go up halfway up the side of your mold and bake the flan in the middle of the oven for one hour and fifteen minutes, or until a knife comes out clean when inserted into the center. Remove form the oven and let the flan cool, then chill it.

Run a thin knife around the edge of the pan.  Place a platter over the mold and invert the flan onto the platter. Serve the flan cut into slices with  flavored whipped cream. May I suggest cinnamon or rum.

Happy Holidays

~ Teak Lewis

To learn about Teak’s dance career, visit his bio on the John Hemmer Meet the Entertainers page here.

Watch Teak’s oral history interview here

Meet the Entertainers: Teak Lewis from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.

 

 

Remembering Francois Szony: A conversation with Ferenc Szony

Photographic print: Francois & Giselle Szony, 1940. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

A pioneer in the field, Francois Szony (1926-2020) brought adagio to new heights over the course of what would be an unusually long career.

Born to Hungarian parents in Budapest where his father operated a restaurant in a major train station, Francois and Giselle began performing together at an early age. At their mother’s insistence, the brother and sister duo studied folk dancing, gymnastics and ballet, but it was natural talent that organically developed into something altogether unique.

The Szonys (sometimes billed as Francois and Giselle Szony) was the result of this diligence and passion. The act brought them to the top venues of the era, across Europe and throughout the United States.

Following his recent passing, his son Ferenc Szony, shared some of Francois’ story with the John Hemmer Archive, as well as his own memories of a father who devoted his entire life to the art of dance.

JHA: Your father’s first partner was his younger sister, Giselle. Their rise to fame was just before and during World War II. Did your father ever talk about those circumstances and what touring during wartime was like?

Ferenc Szony: He said that when the war was looming he was concerned that he’d be dragged into the military, but that didn’t happen. He and Giselle continued to dance, even after Hungary was occupied, they performed for the Germans. At some point, they began to tour outside the country at various venues throughout Europe, including a well-known club in Berlin.

Paper magazine clipping: Unknown publication on Francois and Giselle Szony. Unknown date. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

Eventually settling in Paris, Francois and Giselle enjoyed a city that embraced the dancers’ lifestyle. They spent the daytime with other dancers and performed at night at infamous establishments such as The Lido de Paris, Moulin Rouge and Bal Tabarin.

What were the circumstances that brought Francois and Giselle to the United States?

Black & white photographic print: Francois & Giselle Szony publicity portrait, circa 1950s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

During World War II, German-American actress Marlene Dietrich was heavily involved in the war effort, performing in USO shows around the world. Francois and Giselle would sometimes get booked as an opening act for a solo artist. Dietrich took a liking to The Szonys and kind of took them under her wing, helping them immigrate to the United States following the war.

Francois and Giselle didn’t have a typical “Coming to America” experience. Because of Marlene Dietrich, they arrived in the United States and were immediately accepted into the nightclub circuit. This was an incredible opportunity.

They performed just about everywhere, including the Waldorf Astoria’s Empire Room and the Latin Quarter in New York City, the Palmer House Hotel Empire Room in Chicago, The Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco and some of the first Las Vegas hot-spots, Hotel Last Frontier, Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, and El Rancho Vegas.

Photochrome postcard: Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA, dated 1935. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

My father and Giselle had an unbelievably full life in the 1950s.

Tell me about your mother and when you arrived on the scene.

Color photographic print: Francois Szony & son, Ferenc Szony, Paris Concord, Paris, France, circa early 1960s. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

My mother’s name was Joan [Szony] and she was born in the states. She was a dancer as a young woman.

Her first marriage was to Joaquin Garay. Garay was a Mexican-American singer and the impresario of The Copacabana in San Francisco, a popular nightclub and celebrity hub during the 1940s and ‘50s. They had a daughter together, but the marriage didn’t last.

Joan met Francois when he was performing at the Venetian Room at The Fairmont. They married and I came along in 1955.

My mother had pretty much retired from dance even before she met Francois, so she was a full-time wife and mother. The two of us traveled with my father and Giselle during the first part of my existance, including during this European tour where Francois and I are pictured together here.

 

Was Nancy Claire your father’s next partner? How did that transition between partners take place, and how was this collaboration different than that of Francois and Giselle?

Black & white photographic print: Francois Szony & Nancy Claire publicity still. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

Toward the end of the 1950s, Francois and Giselle returned to Europe and toured for about 6 years. My mother and I were traveling with them.

It was at the London Palladium that Giselle began to express fatigue over the many strenuous performances and decided she wanted out. Giselle was strongly recognized as part of The Szonys. Together they opened for Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and other stars, so finding the right partner to fill her shoes was no small feat.

Francois had gotten to know Nancy Claire back in San Francisco and contacted her when Giselle was considering leaving the act. Acrobatics were a large part of The Szonys’ signature style so it was important to find a dancer who was capable of that type of work.

Giselle was very special as a performer in part due to her acrobatic skills. She was a gymnast and a dancer. Luckily, Nancy Claire was able to adapt to those acrobatics, but she brought more of a focus on ballet. Nancy had a gift for displaying a beauty and grace in her performances and was able to combine that with the athletic qualities Giselle had developed with Francois. The Szony and Claire partnership was born, and they worked together for around 12 to 15 years.

Black & white photographic print: Francois and son, Ferenc Szony, Paris, France, circa early 1960s. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Francois and Nancy finished out the European tour, returning to the states in the mid-1960s. Throughout the rest of the 1960s they bounced back and forth primarily between New York City and Las Vegas.

Was this the time when they would perform at the Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter?

Digital photograph of black & white print: Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter exterior & marquee, New York, NY, circa 1950s/60s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

Francois and Giselle had performed there together previously, but yes, Szony and Claire performed at the Latin Quarter a lot during the 1960s. The Latin Quarter was obviously the premiere place to be.

The thing Francois loved about the Latin Quarter was that it was in New York City. When you did what he did, you could do it 24/7 in Manhattan, at a world class level. You could go to Luigi’s and rehearse during the day and get back to the venue to perform at night.

The entertainment scene was so elaborate in New York that Francois could completely immerse himself in dance. Francois returned to the Latin Quarter many times and was part of its community. The Szonys were a favorite regular act at its Manhattan hub and its Miami Beach, Florida location too.

Digital photograph of black & white print: Latin Quarter performers and friends, including Francois Szony, celebrate Lou Walters’ daughter Jacqui Walters’ birthday, the Latin Quarter, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

What are some of your own memories of the Latin Quarter and other venues your father performed at?

Paper program excerpt: Francois & Giselle Szony (right) featured in Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter souvenir program, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

The Latin Quarter had a couple of acts that stuck in my mind. One was a part of the actual production and involved a large movie screen projecting a film of a reckless driver. Some ladies, probably Latin Quarter dancers or showgirls, came out on stage and drove around in front of the screen in this comical car that would gyrate and jiggle around. As a kid I thought it was pretty hysterical.

Magazine excerpt: Francios Szony & Nancy Claire at Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub in New York, NY, published Dance Magazine, 1963. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

A couple of novelty acts that are etched in my memory include, Mr. Electric [Marvyn Roy], a magician who performed stunts with light bulbs. Mr. Electric was seemingly able to illuminate light bulbs at will without being connected to a power source. Mr. Electric also pulled a long string of lit bulbs from his mouth. Another memory is of the Amin Brothers [sometimes billed as Brothers Amin], who were a two-man acrobatic act. They were unbelievable the way the one would lay on his back and use his legs and feet to toss the other twirling into the air.

Being the son of a performer, I had several suits even as a youngster. I would dress accordingly when going to these places whether I sat in the audience, viewed the show from the wings or from a light booth. I even recall going to a resort in The Catskills where Francois wouldn’t do the performance unless they had two shows. The place didn’t budget a crew for more performances, so I stepped in and operated the lights, having spent enough time in lighting booths that I was able to figure out what to do.

A lot of my memories around my father’s performances are from New York City and Las Vegas. However, by the time I was in 3rd or 4th grade, my mother thought we should settle down, first in New York and then making a permanent home in Vegas. Francois was still traveling to other cities to perform sometimes, such as Miami and Los Angles.

In Los Angeles he was no longer dancing at the Ambassador Hotel, but he and Nancy were performing on television variety programs. Recently, I found out they made a total of 11 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, which is pretty remarkable.

They also danced on the Hollywood Palace, which was another popular television variety program of the day. I especially enjoyed myself when Szony and Claire were scheduled to perform on Hollywood Palace because the studio would arrange outings for me with a staff member, such as a trip to Disneyland.

For a time my father befriended Russ Sanders, a movie stuntman. Whenever we would go to LA, my father and I would make a trip to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica to hang out with Saunders and watch performers do teeterboard acrobatics.

Francois obviously left his mark on the dance world. He’s referred to a pioneer not just of adagio, but of other dance forms. Can you elaborate on this?

Black & white photographic print: Francois Szony & Nancy Claire, publicity still, circa 1960s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

The key things about Francois and his partners’ style was they weren’t a traditional pas de deux adagio act. They were too muscular to be pas de deux. Luigi once said that what they brought were acrobatics that included a little bit of danger. With pas de deux, you don’t come off stage bruised or splintered. Those slides across the floor, low catches of your partner, became distinctly attributed to Francois and his dance partners. This type of movement and athleticism goes beyond adagio.

Your father enjoyed an unusually long career as a dancer. Are their aspects of Francois’ talent and drive that you attribute this to?

My father’s life was devoted to dance. He was always consumed with whoever his dance partner was at the time. He was either on stage performing or getting ready for it. He was a true artist. His whole identity was as a dancer. In a lot of ways he was like a pro athlete that didn’t get off the field. He preferred to continue dancing rather than open a dance school or take on a more supportive type role. He performed on cruise lines later in life and continued as long as he could. He even had two hip replacements, but still went to the ballroom.

You are the founder of Truckee Gaming, a group of casino resorts in Nevada. Do you feel as though your father influenced the direction you took in life in some ways?

I attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas and was recruited by Hilton Hotels just out of college. I was with the Flamingo Hotel for 17 years until I stepped out on my own in 1997. I’ve always liked the entertainment aspect of the gaming resorts, but I’m a businessman. Francois didn’t always understand that, but he had a strong connection to my son Franz Szony. Franz is a painter, photographer and multimedia artist. Francois felt as though Franz was following in his footsteps, so his legacy continues through his grandson.

What comes to mind if you think about the greatest lesson or inspired wisdom your father bestowed to you?

Love what you do. When it was time to notify family and loved ones that my dad had passed away, I didn’t say, “I lost my father.” I said “Today we lost a dancer.” Because “we” didn’t lose him. The world lost Francois Szony.

Digital photograph of black & white print: Nancy Claire & Francois Szony take a bow on the stage of Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter, New York, NY, circa 1960s. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.

~ This conversation between the John Hemmer Archive and Ferenc Szony was edited from a phone conversation that took place on September 5th, 2020. Ferenc Szony remains in the casino business and is a life long Nevadan. Special thanks to dancer/entertainer, Sal Angelica for making introductions.

 

Diary of a Showgirl: Meet Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos, Part I

Black & white negative: Betty Jo Alvies with mother, Joann Alvies, circa late 1940s. Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

As the oldest of 10 children, most memories of my youth involve taking care of my siblings. I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to my mother who was a homemaker, and stepfather, a factory worker and part-time restaurant employee. With a large family, my parents struggled to make ends meet.

It was under these circumstances that I chose to drop out of high school at the age of 15 or 16 years of age and took a nanny position for 2 young boys. I did that for around a year before becoming a babysitter, taking up residence at a nearby rooming house, which was close to home.

Eventually, I transitioned to a job in a grocery store stocking shelves, writing prices on canned goods, weighing produce, and occasionally working in the butcher department. At the same time, I was working at a restaurant on weekends.

Because of my economic situation, surviving was at the top of my priority list. There wasn’t a lot of room for dreaming back then. Growing up I had no real interest or encouragement to pursue the performing arts. As a kid I listened to the radio a lot. My only memory of seeing dancers or showgirls was on the Jackie Gleason Show on the television. I remember his June Taylor Dancers. Up to that point, I knew little of the world of entertainment. That would all change soon enough.

Color photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies as “Miss Hindustan” at the Artists and Models Ball, Indianapolis, IN, 1959. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

While working at the grocery, a woman customer approached me and asked if I would like to be in an Artists and Models Ball fundraiser. I agreed and participated by wearing a costume titled “Miss Hindustan”. My guess is the name was invented to represent India’s style of dress. At the time, someone told me I was noticed because of my smile. I placed 3rd. It was my first taste of the stage.

I was 19 by then and a friend of mine, Joella, and I used to go to musical events now and again on the weekends around Indianapolis. One of these evenings we went to a Catholic Church Center. It was here that I saw Little Anthony and the Imperials and Harvey and the Moonglows. Over the course of these outings, we met a lot of showbusiness people.

One day in 1960, the MC of a club, Mr. Baron Harris, called and said a producer was talent scouting for a revue. The producer’s name was Mr. Arthur Braggs. Mr. Braggs was auditioning showgirls and dancers for Arthur Braggs’ Idlewild Revue. The renowned show enjoyed long runs at Braggs’ Paradise Club in Idlewild, Michigan, as well as extensive tours across the U.S.

Arthur Braggs (1912-1982) was a leader in promoting and showcasing the top talent of the day, focusing on African American entertainers. Mr. Braggs informed me that the latest revue was to be based in Idlewild, Michigan for the summer season. He said to bring heels. I recall both Joella and I taking a taxi over to the club. We met with the producer and auditioned. Later we both got the call – we were in. It was my first venture into show business.

Photochrome postcard: Showgirls (left to right), Joella, Rikki, Betty Jo & Carlean, Idlewild Revue, Paradise Club, Idlewild, MI, 1960. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The Idlewild Revue was an amazing experience. I stayed for a year. We began at Detroit nightclub, the Latin Quarter [no connection to Lou Walters’ nightclubs in New York City and Miami Beach], then onto Idlewild Michigan where we performed at the Paradise Club, then the Black Orchid in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; the Orchid Room in Kansas City, Kansas; the Casino Theatre in Toronto, Canada; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland; and the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C, as well as The Apollo in New York City, and Basin Street South in Boston, Massachusetts.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Signed Larry Steele portrait with inscription to Betty Jo Alvies, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When the tour concluded, I returned to Indianapolis and assumed my exciting and whirlwind life in the performing arts had come to an end. I was in fact, however, just getting started. Idlewild Revue choreographer, Lon Fontaine rang. He was working with Larry Steele and rehearsing for the producer/impresario’s revue beginning in Chicago, Illinois. Off I went to the windy city and stayed on with the show when it returned to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the summer season.

Larry Steele (b. 1913-1980) was a producer, songwriter and composer, bandleader, and impresario who developed all-star African American revues. Steele’s Smart Affairs staged productions that toured across the U.S., as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Widely recognized as a visionary, Steele brought overdue recognition to variety entertainers and focused on the beauty and talent of women of color that didn’t exist before in the broader world of the industry.

Color photograph: Thunderbird Hotel marquee, Las Vegas, Nevada, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Touring with Smart Affairs was remarkable. Mr. Steele was very respectful of his employees and also rather protective. It was his policy to keep his show people separated from the club patrons, so we didn’t mix much with the audience. It didn’t matter though because Larry Steele and company were like family. We performed at the Latin Casino at its Cherry Hill, New Jersey location, and made our way up to Montreal, Canada and also over to Las Vegas, Nevada where we performed at the Thunderbird Hotel in the lounge. I remember that a production of South Pacific was in the big room while we were there. We were also at the Regal Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, Charades Nightclub in Detroit, Michigan, a Syrian Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and many other venues.

The Smart Affairs shows were made up of 3 production numbers which consisted of 4 to 6 showgirls, 4 boy dancers and sometimes up to 8 girl dancers. There was always a featured headliner and a comic. The headliners would stay with the show for a certain period and then move on and another headliner would come in for a number of shows or weeks.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Larry Steele’s “Smart Affairs” cast, including Betty Jo Alvies, performing on stage with guest headliner, Sammy Davis, Jr., Club Harlem, Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

It was with Smart Affairs that brought about a friendship with Sam Cooke (b. 1931-1964). He was an accomplished singer and songwriter who had become known as The King of Soul. This was based on his distinctive voice. He had many hit singles and is considered a pioneer of soul music.

Black & white photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies & Sam Cooke, Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

We spent time together during his second summer with Larry Steele in Atlantic City. He and I would go on adventures between shows and it was Sam who gave me my beloved Yorkshire terrier, Cookie. Sam was a very charming man. After he left the show, it wasn’t more than a few months later that I learned of his untimely death. Needless to say, this was an unexpected shock. I am grateful to have known him though and remember him fondly. Cookie traveled with me everywhere and was a wonderful reminder of a special friendship.

I was with Larry Steele from 1961-65. A well-known jazz dancer, Norma Miller (b. 1932-2019) came through as a headliner with Smart Affairs for a number of shows. She approached me one day and said, “You belong on Broadway”. She was a celebrated entertainer, so I never forgot her words (decades later I got my chance to thank Norma in person). I had been with Smart Affairs for 5 years when Norma suggested I look beyond Larry Steele. Despite having some awareness of my beauty and talents as a showgirl, I never thought of breaking the ranks and stepping out. With Larry Steele I was able to perform all over the U.S. and settled in for wonderful summer seasons at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Still, I couldn’t shake what she said to me. And so, I was off to my next adventure – New York City.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Stage performance, “French Dressing” production with headliner, Jayne Mansfield, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In the fall of 1965, I arrived in Manhattan and auditioned for the Latin Quarter nightclub’s production of French Dressing. Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter was still under Walters’ leadership. The Manhattan location was on 48thand Broadway, which was the hub of entertainment in the city. My audition wasn’t an immediate success. I was turned away repeatedly, but Mr. Walters eventually brought me on and gave me new opportunities.

Black & white print: Les Olympiads performer trio publicity photograph, circa 1960s. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

As a lead showgirl, I did numbers with the four boy dancers. They carried me out and around the stage above their heads. I introduced guest performers such as the Whirling Dervishes, Les Olympiads [also billed as Trio Olympiads] and Mademoiselle Jeannine Pivoteau, a French aerialist [also billed as Mlle. Pivoteau, the Goddess of Flight]. I learned how to make those announcements in French. I grew as a performer during that production because Mr. Walters gave me the permission and courage to challenge myself.

That production ran about 8 months. The guest headliners who came through included Mickey Rooney, Nelson Eddy, Roberta Sherwood, Jayne Mansfield and Bobby Van.

At the Latin Quarter, I quickly formed friendships with my castmates and fellow showgirls, Bernadette Brookes, Betty Bruce, Eva Carter, and Irene Dorson. We were inseparable for a while. Whether it be in our dressing rooms at the club or after the shows came down. Late at night when we were finished with the show, we’d head out to places like Howard Johnsons, Jack Dempsey’s, Danny’s Hideaway or P.J. Clarkes. On one occasion we went to the Hilton to see Jerry Lewis.

Color photographs: Betty Jo Alvies in costume backstage during production of “French Dressing” at the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY. January, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos, Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Sammy Davis, Jr. came to see the Latin Quarter show when I was performing. He and I worked together for 5 consecutive summer seasons with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Having worked that much together, we’d become friends.

Once in between shows the 5 of us showgirls visited Sammy, who was appearing on Broadway in Golden Boy at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th. When we arrived backstage to visit him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage were there. I had never met Mr. King before, but the girls said I introduced him as though we had already known one another. They were all impressed.

Color photograph: Showgirls, Eva Carter (left) & Betty Jo Alvies strike during the run of the Latin Quarter production of French Dressing, New York, NY, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When I was performing at the Latin Quarter, the union American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) directed us to picket for better wages and working environment. AGVA wanted us to demand higher rates for additional shows and do something about the number of bathrooms and dressing room space.

To be honest, we weren’t really aware of the politics going on and just went with AGVA’s requests. We were young and didn’t really understand what we were being asked to do. Nevertheless, I continued to perform at the Latin Quarter after the strike was settled and until the show closed before moving on to other gigs. I’ll always be grateful to Lou Walters for the way he helped me stretch creatively and take more of a starring role that I hadn’t previously experienced at that level.

June 27th, 1966, the Latin Quarter show ended its run. It was one of the best experiences. Mr. Walters was very kind and wrote several letters expressing his interest in my return, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Other opportunities knocked.

Paper clipping: Ad for Betty George’s revue, the Blue Orchid supper club, Toronto, Ontario, 1967. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Very soon after the Quarter, I was contacted again by Lon Fontaine. It was through him that I was contracted to perform with Marvin Gaye at the Copacabana in New York City. This production included Marvin as the headlining singer and 4 dancers, of which I was one. We did three production numbers around and with him.

I spent most of my life on the road in various shows between 1960 and 1975. Following the Copa run I reconnected with Smart Affairs and joined Larry Steele and his show in Puerto Rico, where we spent 8 weeks at the El San Juan Hotel.

Betty George (b. 1926-2007) was a singer that came out of the big band era. She performed with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. She also had a long run with Milton Berle and later in life she hosted radio programs.  I joined the Betty George Revue after Puerto Rico and enjoyed traveling with her production to Toronto, and New York City. A couple of showgirls I’d worked with before on other shows helped bring me on. I was delighted because Ms. George was professional and very nice to work with. Her show featured 4 of us showgirls who performed with Ms. George. We were at the Blue Orchid in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for a time. I believe our shows in New York were at a place called The Living Room, which was a popular joint in midtown east of town back in the day.

The Broadway musical, Golden Rainbow premiered in 1968. The premise of the story revolved around a Las Vegas widower, Steve Lawrence who is raising his son by himself until his brother and sister-in-law show up to help. It also starred Steve Lawrence’s real-life wife, Eydie Gorme and actress, Marilyn Cooper. It was staged at the Shubert Theatre on west 44thstreet. My friend and fellow Latin Quarter showgirl, Bernadette Brookes was cast in the production before me. She called and said they needed another showgirl and helped arrange for my audition. I was with that show for 4 months before I decided it was time to move on.

By 1968, I was married to my first husband who was a dancer with the Harkness Ballet. The company was touring and encouraged their performers’ spouses to travel with them. Harkness was so supportive that they covered my travel and accommodations with my husband. So, I left Golden Rainbow early to tour with him in Europe for 8 months.

Color photograph: Betty Jo Alvies, Italy, 1968. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When I returned to the states, I began an on-again, off-again stint with Minsky’s Follies and alternated those gigs with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs. I was fortunate to continue a good relationship with Mr. Steele. He often requested my return to his show and whenever I was able, I gladly accepted. We even did a USO show in Needles, California, which was a thrill.

Color photographs: USO show performance (left); Betty Jo Alvies (right) boarding tour bus; Larry Steele’s USO show, Needles, CA, 1964. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Minsky’s Follies was a long running show that originated with Harold Minsky in New York City at the Gaiety Theatre. The Minsky family produced burlesque entertainment from the early 20thcentury during the genre’s hey-day. The Follies was a continuation of that early era but was crafted to be more “family friendly” than your traditional burlesque stage act. This tamer interpretation allowed the show to travel more widely and attract a broader audience.

Paper telegram: Western Union telegram to Betty Jo Alvies, from Harold Minsky, November 7th, 1967. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

My first Minsky’s experience was in 1967 when I took a 3-week engagement. I believe my fellow Latin Quarter showgirl and friend, Darlene Larson, might have helped connect me with Mr. Minsky. I didn’t audition, but rather Mr. Minsky arranged that I see one of their nearby shows. After that I was hired.

Color photograph: Betty Jo Alvies in costume backstage, Minsky’s Follies tour, circa 1967-75. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

During the first week we commuted from New York City in a hot back seat of a car to an even hotter open sided tent in the countryside. Lambertville, New Jersey was nice and peaceful, however, and it felt good to get away from the concrete jungle.

I traveled a lot with Minsky’s, touring throughout the East Coast, the Midwest, the South and also out West. This was periodic work that I jumped in and out of through 1975.

Some of the venues that stick out in my mind are The Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Marine Room in Chicago, Illinois; the Dupont Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware; the Lookout House Supper Club, Covington, Kentucky, and the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

In 1973, I stayed with Minsky’s for a year straight. We performed at the Playboy Plaza Hotel and the Fontaineblaeu Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

Colorized photochrome postcard: Edgewater Beach Hotel, Marine Room, Chicago, IL, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

During my run with Minsky’s, one of my favorite headliners who came through was comedic actress and singer, Martha Raye (1916-1994). She was another nice woman to work with. She’d been heavily involved in performing with USO shows. Families would come backstage to tell Ms. Raye about their sons, brothers and loved ones who were missing in action or prisoners of war.

Color photograph: (left to right) Betty Jo Alvies, Martha Raye and fellow castmate, during Minsky’s Follies tour, circa 1970s. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

At one point all of us in the cast got these silver POW and MIA bracelets that featured a POW or MIA name on each. The idea was to continue wearing them until the men were found. It was a way to make sure those soldiers weren’t forgotten. Although wearing those bracelets all the time meant that they’d break or fall off over time, I do vaguely recall that at one point we were asked to stop wearing them. I guess it was considered an inappropriate political statement and of course this was the era of the Vietnam War, which was rather controversial. I just can’t remember where that decision came from. Still, Ms. Raye really cared about our troops and made us all more aware of the sacrifices our service people made. I still own and treasure my bracelet, even though they broke apart from wear.

Silvergelatin photograph: Jackie Wilson performing in Arthur Braggs’ Idlewild Revue, Paradise Club, Idlewild, MI, circa 1960. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Ms. Raye liked spending time with the cast too. Sometimes after the show came down, we’d all gather at a local restaurant. She often came along and at one particular restaurant, the owner closed the doors, allowing the people who were still eating to stay. Ms. Raye went over to their piano and began playing. She entertained the cast and the whole restaurant. It was a lot of fun and she was lovely.

Throughout my performing career, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many amazing entertainers. Some of them I’ve already mentioned here. Others include Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Aretha Franklin, Roy Hamilton, Jackie Wilson – so many others. I’ve also had the good fortune of meeting the likes of Jerry Lewis, Bill Dana, Vincent Edwards and Harry Belafonte, as well as forming friendships with unforgettable figures such as boxer and political activist Cassius Clay, comedian Lenny Bruce and musician and actor, Adam Wade.

In fact, decades later Adam Wade would produce a stage production whose central character’s story was inspired by my own. I consulted on that show, which was titled, On Kentucky Avenue, and it has run on and off since 2011. I was able to be present at most of the performances. It was satisfying to see some of my life reflected in its story. It not only celebrates that period in show business, but also gives a glimpse inside the life of a stage performer.

Color photograph: Adam Wade with Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos (center) with cast & friends of “On Kentucky Avenue”, Aaron Davis Hall, New York, NY, circa 2011. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Sometimes people ask whether I experienced racism or segregation during my career. I don’t recall any specific segregation, although venues often catered to certain communities where a particular race was predominant. When I was with revues that were more focused on African American entertainers, the audience was often dependent upon the venue and its location. For instance, in Idlewild, Michigan, we performed mainly to black audiences. That area was a popular resort town for African American vacationers. At Club Harlem in Atlantic City, it was more about the lead performer’s following. Patronage hinged on the city and the club. As far as bias goes, I’d say for the most part that I was very protected by the producers and shows I was part of. I feel lucky to have had mostly good experiences, as I know not everyone has had the same fortune.

Paper letter: To Betty Jo Alvies, from Lou Walters, impresario of the Latin Quarter, May 4th, 1967. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

A lot was going on in America in the 1960s and ‘70s while I was working and enjoying life as a showgirl and entertainer. Civil rights issues were even more fervently pursued than they are now. Protests against the war and other political resistance was everywhere too.

Because I was so busy performing, however, I missed a lot of the political activism that was going on in the outside world. Being on the road and living a life completely immersed in the business, I was a bit insulated. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the news or wasn’t part of conversations, but because of my work, the continuous travel, and intense hours it required, I was never grounded in one place long enough to get involved.

There were times when a performer friend would ask me to be part of a fundraiser show for a charitable cause or for a political figure. Those were sometimes hard to join in on because of my full schedule. Though, I did what I could, when I could. I always kind of wished that I had gotten involved in some of efforts going on during that period, but these days I stay active through volunteer work.

I look back on my career adventures with warm nostalgia and delight in sharing my history with those who have interest. Today, I am happy to talk my experiences with my local community, as well as with journalists and other platforms documenting this era in show business. I have a nice life with my wonderful husband, and we have two beautiful sons.

End of Part I

This article was written by Betty Jo Spypropulos in collaboration with the John Hemmer Archive in the fall and winter 2020.

To learn more about Betty Jo’s friendship with Lenny Bruce, visit http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers/lennybruce/

For more about Betty Jo and Sam Cooke, see https://atlanticcityweekly.com/archive/salute-to-mr-soul-sam-cooke/article_4d6d12e5-e460-55dc-b49b-80f637e52062.html

Watch  Betty Jo’s oral history interview from a recent Latin Quarter reunion.

Meet the Entertainers: Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.

 

December 10, 2020

Honoring Bernadette Brookes (1935-2020)

With big eyes, full lips, and long legs, the statuesque and talented Bernadette Brookes enjoyed her fair share of notice over the decades. It was her infectious sense of humor and child-like wonder, however, that endeared her to those who knew the actress, showgirl and songstress. An introvert who loved inspiring a smile, Brookes once described herself as a clown trapped in a showgirl costume.

Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: Bernadette Brookes in costume, backstage at the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada where she studied dance, Brookes made her way to New York City as a young woman eager to make her way in the arts. By the mid-1960s, Brookes found herself at an audition for the latest Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub’s production, French Dressing. There she met a fellow performer who would become a life-long friend. Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos says she and Brookes immediately connected, eventually becoming roommates for a time in an apartment not far from the supper club.

Color photograph: Betty Jo Alvies in costume backstage with show cat, the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, January, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

“She was playful”, says Betty Jo. “When we were living together in 1965 and ’66, Bernadette’s cat had kittens. She decided it would be a good idea to incorporate them into the show at the Latin Quarter. So, we tucked a cat into our costumes and went out on stage with the cats peering out through the fur. The audience loved it. I’m not sure how we got by with it since cats weren’t exactly part of what was choreographed, but we just did it and no one told us to stop. That sort of thing wouldn’t happen today, of course, but we were young and adventurous and the cats didn’t seem to mind as memory serves.”

Decades later, Bernadette recalled, “I like being a little mischievous. At the Latin Quarter, sometimes I’d go around and tie my castmates’ shoestrings together just for fun. I don’t know if they ever realized it was me doing it. I was a clown trapped in a showgirl costume. I should have joined the circus, but I guess that was not to be.”

“Bernadette was ahead of her time too”, remembers Betty Jo. “She was always researching and taking different supplements. Those type of vitamins are commonly known for aiding in one’s good health now. Bernadette was that way though. She was a seeker who was always working on self improvement.

She took classes, painted and trained in voice. She encouraged me to pursue similar interests, but I wasn’t as disciplined in those ways. I admired that about her. With a passion for the arts, she painted quite a bit when we lived together. The artist name she adopted was ‘Alta’. She signed all her paintings that way. I never knew the inspiration behind ‘Alta’, but it has stuck in my mind to this day. Bernadette was a very creative spirit.”

Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: Bernadette Brookes, black & white headshots, New York, NY, circa 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

She was also active in her performing arts community as chronicled by the press. The New York Daily News published on September 8th, 1967 that a “Latin Quarter eyeful” visited City Hall to call for an end of the identification cards required of cabaret workers. Bernadette was the eyeful and she was joined by 20-some other performers who turned out in support of abolishing the law, claiming it was a carryover from the Prohibition Era. Representatives of AGFA and Actors Equity turned out to offer statements. The article further reported that “Next came Latin Quarter impresario Lou Walters, who said, ‘In all my experience I’ve never run across anyone who should be finger printed in order to get a job, whether it was a chorus girl or a star.’ Walters then introduced the last – and most formful – witness of the day, miniskirted, strawberry blonde, Bernadette Brookes, one of his showgirls. ‘The girls wanted me to come down and speak for them… because a number of them have children and they have to find babysitters and go to the added expense and inconvenience of coming downtown to get their police cards.’, she said.”

Silvergelatin photograph: Showgirl Eva Carter (left) & Bernadette Brookes on stage & in costume, publicity shoot for “French Dressing” production, the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa 1965-66. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton Alberta Canada) printed on April 23rd, 1966 “Ambitious Showgirls Say It’s Hard Work But Fun”. The profile on Brookes by Rod Currie stated, “Perhaps one of the most erroneous images to come of Hollywood is that of the glamorous showgirl, the toast of the town, wined and dined by handsome escorts and pursued by wealthy stage-door johnnies. But for Toronto—born Bernadette Brookes, a statuesque brunette who graces the stage of the famed Latin Quarter, it’s all hard-work-but-fun.”

Fellow showgirl, Eva Carter recently recalled, “I spent a lot of time with Bernadette (Bernie) and Betty Jo in the [Latin Quarter] dressing room. We sat next to each other. There was always laughter and fun. We got along beautifully. The three of us would often go out between shows. If one of us had a date, the others were always welcome. It was safer that way and guaranteed laughs. We would go to Mama Leones for dinner, or after the second show to Jilly’s, on West 49 street, where we could sometimes see Frank Sinatra seated at the back of the lounge. He was a friend of Jilly’s. I believe I worked with Bernadette in about two shows, 1965-‘68. If I remember correctly, the shows were about a year long. Then when a new show was being prepared, we continued to work at night and rehearse during the day.”

Bernadette Brookes took to the stage at the Latin Quarter in productions The Venus Touch, Maid in Paris, and French Dressing. While performing at the nightclub she worked with notable talent such as director Donn Arden, choreographer Bob Herget, and costume designer Bill Campbell, among others. Some of the novelty and dance acts who made guest appearances during these productions were Aldo Richiardi Jr., “South America’s Greatest Illusionist”, the acrobatic team, Wazzan Troupe, The Barry Sisters, the Ballet Zigani, and headliners such as Nelson Eddy and Gale Sherwood.

Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: Publicity photograph, Bernadette Brookes (left), Steve Lawrence (center) and Thelma Sherr (right) for “Golden Rainbow”, New York, NY, 1968. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Following the Latin Quarter, the original 1968 Broadway cast of Golden Rainbow with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme came calling. “My journal from back in the day reminded me that it was because of Bernadette that I got the gig on Golden Rainbow”, recalls Betty Jo. “She had suggested me as a replacement showgirl in the production. She called one afternoon and told me to come in the following day to meet with Steve Lawrence and the board. The rest is history.”

Bernadette enjoyed a career that included dance, modeling, and acting on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, film, television, industrial and commercial work, and performed on tour with Minsky’s Follies.

As an actor, she performed in More Stately Mansions at the Irish Rebel Theatre, Irish Arts Center, New York, New York. She joined the 1965 cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as Panacea, staged at the Westport County Playhouse, Westport, New Hampshire. Her castmates were Dick Shawn, Danny Dayton and José Ferrer.

In 1966, she performed as Gloria Coogle, alongside John Forsythe and Corbett Monica in Who Was that Lady I Saw You With with the Kenley Players in Warren, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. Additionally she played The Young Wife in Inglewood Playhouse’s production of La Ronde and Estelle in No Exit, Los Angeles, California. Other regional productions included stagings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Maggie); Bus Stop (Cherie); The Owl and the Pussycat (Doris); and I Am a Camera (Sally).

Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: newspaper clipping, press photograph and ad for a production of “Who Was that Lady I Saw You With”, presented by the Kenley Players, Ohio, 1966. Photograph (left to right): Joyce O’Neal, Corbett Monico, John Forsythe & Bernadette Brookes. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Throughout these years Bernadette had the pleasure of working with such directors such as Harvey Hart, Norman CampbellNorman Jewison, Howard Zieff, as well as choreography legends Ron Fields, Ron Lewis, and Jaime Rogers. As a constant student of acting, she studied under Paul E. Richards, Peggy Feury, Doe Lang, and Ginger Howard Friedman.

Photographic print: Bernadette Brookes publicity photograph, circa 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Television credits encompassed popular series of the day, Dan August; Medical Center and Adam 12. Bernadette appeared in many industrials over the years for various corporations. Her favorite was a production co-starring Paul Lynde for American Express.

She explored other aspects of creativity by way of voice work with a various of vocal coaches and even learned film editing at City College in Los Angeles, California.

Later in life, having a strong interest in health and wellness practices, Bernadette attended Hunter College and worked at the Swedish Institute for Acupuncture in New York City. Without compromising her stage work, she continued to perform in Ziegfeld Society productions and enjoyed singing.

As an active member of the Latin Quarter Showgirls, Inc. charity, Bernadette lent her talents to several of their performances, which helped raise funds for children in need. She continued to attend the Latin Quarter performer reunions that developed after the charity dissolved in the early 2000s. She most recently attended the Latin Quarter Social Club New York City gathering in 2019.

Digital photograph: (left to right) Showgirls, Bernadette Brookes, Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos & dancer Francine M. Storey, Latin Quarter reunion, New York, NY, circa 2000s. Courtesy Eva Carter. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

As a dear friend to many, the loss of Bernadette Brookes is profound. Her contributions to performing arts and her passion as an artist are only documented here in broad strokes. Having lived a full life beyond her stage work, she was an avid reader on all things related to the arts, politics and natural health practices. Bernadette enjoyed discussing fine art, as much as reminiscing about her life, and genuinely liked learning about others. A wonderfully flirtatious tease, she charmed everyone around her. Bernadette retained her humor and sense of curiosity throughout her life and will remain a vivid figure in her community’s minds and hearts. Although originally hailing from Toronto and lived in Los Angeles for a time, Bernadette was a tried and true lifetime New Yorker.

Digital photograph: (left to right) God daughter, Kelly & friend, Shirley, with Bernadette Brookes, 2016. Courtesy Leatha Sturges. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Special thanks to Eva Carter, Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos and Leatha Sturges for sharing their memories and reflections of their friend, Bernadette Brookes.

 

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.

Paper illustrated postcard: Casino Royal Chinese American Restaurant advertising postcard, Washington D.C., circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

 

Gelatin-silver photographic print: The MayFair nightclub, Boston, MA, photo circa 1940s/’50s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

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.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen with Minyak, Miami Beach, FL, 1959. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

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.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen with fellow performer, circa late 1950s. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

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.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen and cast, including the Del Rio Sisters, with headliner Kathryn Grayson, backstage at the Latin Quarter, Palm Island, Miami Beach, FL, 1959. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

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.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Jimmy Durante and dancers on tour during a run in the Blue Room at The Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans, LA and Latin Quarter, Palm Island, Miami Beach, FL, 1959. Adelle Gordon Cohen in foreground, back to camera with fellow dancers Ellie Stratton, Judy Kern, Danny Dayle, Phyllis Lewis, Kathy Sannis. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

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.

Photochrome postcard: The Blue Room in The Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans, LA, circa early 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

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.

Photochrome postcard: The Copa Room in the Sands hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1954. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

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.

Chromogenic photograph: Adelle Gordon Cohen & fellow dancer, Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1963. Headliners included Peggy Lee, Barbara Streisand, Liberace. Courtesy Adelle Gordon Cohen. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

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.

Newspaper clipping fragment: The Latin Quarter Showgirls, Inc. charity ad. Variety, November 27th, 1985. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

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.

Meet the Entertainers: Adelle Gordon Cohen from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.

 

Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant

During the 1950’s and ’60s, Jack Silverman owned and operated Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant on Broadway and 52nd Street (sometimes promoted as on Broadway and 53rd Street) in New York City.

A native of Romania, Silverman (1886-1974) immigrated to New York as a boy. His first foray into professional work was in banking and then quilt manufacturing before embarking on a 40‐year career in the restaurant cabaret business. The restaurateur was a member, of The Friars. [Source: New York Times, 1974 obituary]

Silverman began his nightclub career with Jack Silverman’s Old Romanian restaurant at 169 Allen Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The place first featured an accordion player but later expanded its entertainment and added the Chrystal Lounge. Advertisements boasted, “Nationally known for its Sizzling MUSHK steaks and International Floor Show.”

Paper illustrated postcard: Advertisement postcard for Jack Silverman’s Old Romanian & its Crystal Lounge at 169 Allen Street, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

When Silverman moved up to mid-town, he eventually changed the name to Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant. The International put on large productions with headliners, showgirls, novelty acts and comedians. It featured big names of the day such as Ted Lewis, Joey AdamsSid Gould, Sophie Tucker, The Ritz Brothers and Myron Cohen. This venture advertised itself as, “Broadway’s largest and most beautiful nightclub.” 

Paper program: The Bea Kalmus Show broadcast from Jack Silverman’s International Theatre-Restaurant via NYC’s WMGM, circa mid-1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archives. Image subject to copyright laws.

Bea Kalmus, a popular nightclub singer, actress and radio personality, was also known as Miss Show Business. Kalmus hosted her The Bea Kalmus Show from the club’s Celebrity Lounge for WMGM from midnight until 2:30A.M. Some credit Kalmus as one of the first women radio hosts in New York City. She competed with male contemporaries in the business such as Joe Franklin. Her format featured guest performer interviews, such as conversations with Ted Lewis and other headliners who were also performing at the nightclub, as well as drop-in guests promoting a new album, such as the Four Voices, and film and television actors.

Kalmus took her show to other venues too, in and outside of Manhattan, but was most known as a disc jockey for her time at Silverman’s. Other radio hosts enjoyed broadcasts from the lounge there as well.

To listen to a Bea Kalmus interview with composer Otis Blackwell from the Celebrity Lounge, visit Old Time Radio Downloads here.

Many touring productions came through Silverman’s. For example Frederic Apcar’s Vive Les Girls was brought in to Silverman’s, which originated at the Dunes Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. Vive Les Girls was staged and choreographed by Ron Lewis and the costumes were designed by José Luis Viñas. The club’s main competitors were Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter and the Copacabana. Many showgirls and dancers from these other venues, also joined productions at Silverman’s.

If you have stories related to Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant, the John Hemmer Archive would like to hear them. Please contact us through the Credits page of this website.

 

Paper souvenir photo cover: Jack Silverman’s International Cabaret Restaurant advertisement & souvenir photograph frame cover, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

 

Paper souvenir photo cover back: Jack Silverman’s International Cabaret Restaurant advertisement & souvenir photograph frame cover back, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

On the Road with the Winged Victory Singers

John Hemmer: “The biggest struggle in my career was trying to stay alive and find work. I had a great entry into professional singing work as a replacement singer for the 4-part harmony group, the Four Voices. But, after the Four Voices broke up in the early 1960s, that was really hard, because, first of all, if I auditioned, I had a problem, because I had been singing in four-part harmonies for quite some time. After that I would just start singing a harmony to the song, rather than sing the melody. So, it was kind of hard to make that adjustment. I had to go to a voice coach, and just keep going over the audition song so I would be singing the melody, and not jumping off into a harmony someplace.

Chromogenic photograph: Winged Victory Singers at Carl Hoppl’s supper club, Baldwin, Long Island, New York, New Year’s Eve, 1965. Left to right: Kevin, Chip, Joe, Joe Baris, Rick, David, Art & John Hemmer (kneeling). Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In the same way, when I joined Winged Victory Singers [also billed as the Winged Victory Chorus], I struggled because then I had to go back to singing in a four-part harmony thing. And because being– the voice that I had in these groups was the second tenor, and they very rarely have the lead melody. It was always in a harmony. When I got out on my own to try to sing by myself, I was singing these songs, and it was the harmony part, rather than the melody. In fact, to this day, when I hear something, if I play a record, I can automatically sing the harmony to anybody that’s on the recording. I’m really good at that. I have to praise myself in that way. Even when I joined the group, they said, ‘It was amazing that you can pick up– you can make up a harmony without even seeing it on paper.’ I can still do it once in a while.

 

Yeah, I auditioned for Winged Victory. I was between show-biz gigs, so I got a job managing the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway and one of my ushers used to sing with Wing Victory and we got to know each other and he knew I was a singer, and this was after the Four Voices broke up. He told me about the group and everything and he says they don’t work all the time, but they work enough. I said, ‘Alright, let me go and I’ll audition’ and I got that job right away.

Chromogenic photograph: John Hemmer with fellow Winged Victory singers pack a station wagon while on tour, circa 1965. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

So, I went out with them, but that was a tough job. I was traveling with 9 to 10 guys at a time. That ain’t much fun and traveling in station wagons, five in each station wagon with all the costumes and everything else. We maybe did 40-50 shows per year. We did lots of American songbook stuff, mixed with selections from popular musicals of the day and some patriotic tunes. We would adapt our shows depending on the venue and expected audience. Joe Baris, the musical director, founded Winged Victory while serving over seas in the U.S. military. I believe he’d been at it with Winged Victory since the early 1950s.

 

Even though road life was hard at times, all of us in the group got on fine and there were a couple of clubs that were really fun to perform at. We’d leave New York to go to Florida and Baris would pick up four or five dates on the way down in different spots, different hotels. We’d be maybe on the road for sometimes two or three weeks; mostly just one-nighters in those two station wagons.

Paper telegram: Western Union telegram delivery to John Hemmer at Palumbo’s, Philadelphia, PA 1963. Newspaper clipping ad for Palumbo’s. Handwritten note by John Hemmer. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Philadelphia was hub for popular music venues. Frank Palumbo was the proprietor of both Palumbo’s and the Click Club, where the likes of many headliners, such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and Jimmy Durante took to the stage during U.S. or eastern seaboard tours. Jimmy Durante came through when we were there once.

Sometimes Palumbo’s would work in special events. There was a Miss Philadelphia contest held there once during our booking. It was for contestants where one would go on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, if I remember correctly. The club was always packed with people. One of the most popular clubs in the area.

We’d play there for longer stints. Lots of people talk about the mob and Palumbo’s. All I know is that Frank Palumbo and all the folks there were very good to us. They fed us like kings and were very cordial.

Sometimes we’d book the summer in Wildwood, New Jersey at Cozy Morley’s Club Avalon. Wildwood was a haven for summer vacationers. Many Philadelphians and New Yorkers rented or owned places and spent the warmer months down there. It was great fun to spend time in Wildwood for a long stretch.

Chromogenic photograph: John Hemmer, members of the Winged Victory Singers & friends in Wildwood/Cape May NJ, circa early 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

A couple of seasons the group rented a big house on the water in nearby Cape May. Performing at Cozy’s place for longer periods allowed us to form local friendships so we’d host cookouts and go out on little boats during the day and then head to Avalon and do our set(s) at night. Cozy Morley, the club owner, was a sweetheart. He was also a comedian and still performing at that time. He enjoyed a long career and was a Wildwood staple.”

Bill Hemmer [John Hemmer’s brother]: “I think in his show-business career the thing I remember most was when he was the lead in HMS Pinafore, which was a high-school production, and then one summer, years later when brother John worked professionally, I went to New York and he was appearing with a group, the Winged Victory Chorus, and he was in Wildwood. That was exciting.

I had never seen a nightclub performance of his because when he was traveling all over the United States with the Four Voices, I was either in school at the time or I was in the military; I was in the army for three years. So, I missed all that. I heard about it, but I didn’t see his appearances in Philadelphia or Chicago or Detroit or Reno or California. All those nightclubs around the U.S. that he sang at with the Four Voices. But I remember that show in Wildwood, New Jersey with Winged Victory very well. By that time I was finished with school and out of the Army.

Chromogenic photograph: John Hemmer approaching the mic at Cozy Morley’s Club Avalon, Wildwood, NJ, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I was living in Florida and going to New York on a vacation with a friend. We decided to go up together and I said, ‘My brother has an apartment and I believe that I would be permitted to use it. He is staying in Wildwood for the summer ‘cause he’s working at a supper club.’ The friend I was traveling with had his cousin and her girlfriend going on the Queen Mary to England, so it was like one big party time while in Manhattan. After my friend and all of them left I went down to Wildwood and spent four or five days out there.

Listen, I was just a kid, all the limelight, the glamor. For me it was rather thrilling. It was just all the lights and getting ready to go onstage and all the excitement of it. It was kind of fun to be exposed to show business like that. And people loved him. They just loved brother John.”

Newspaper clipping: Sciolla’s supper club ad for Winged Victory Chorus engagement, Philadelphia, PA, circa early 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

John Hemmer: “Other than those longer gigs in Philly, or especially Wildwood, we were mainly doing one-nighters, which can take their toll after awhile. Joe Lorden, who later became a stage director, was another member of Winged Victory, and was my roommate at the time. We finally quit. Joe Lorden and I had a couple of neat spots in the [Winged Victory] show. We danced in the show and we had solos, so we didn’t want to leave but it just got to be too much.

We were in Vermont and Joe Baris, Winged Victory’s Musical Director, had booked the following night in Chicago at a hotel and he wanted us to drive from Vermont to Chicago and do the show that night. I looked at Joe, my roommate, and I said, ‘This ain’t gonna work. I’m not going to drive all that time with no sleep and everything.’ We told Baris.

That was the last Joe Baris saw of us, that was the last show we did with him, couldn’t take the traveling anymore. He was a nice enough guy and all but we were done. And it wasn’t too long after that that I landed the gig at the Latin Quarter as a production singer, so I guess everything happens for a reason and some of the friendships I made through singing with Winged Victory and great memories have stayed with me all these years.”

~ “On the Road with Winged Victory Singers” was edited down from two 2015 interviews between John Hemmer (1934-2017) and KirstenStudio, LLC and Bill Hemmer and KirstenStudio, LLC. To learn more about John Hemmer, visit the John Hemmer Archive pages.

Back of Winged Victory album: From Las Vegas to Miami… Grossingers to Chicago’s Palmer House… the Latin Quarter to Carnegie Hall in New York City… the Winged Victory Singers are creating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the world of show business. Critics rave about their exciting, heartwarming performances and the sensational sound of harmoniously blended voices in stirring arrangements of music you love.

It all began in Europe when Joe Baris was stationed there with the Armed Forces. Inspired by the love of fine music and a nostalgia for American traditions, Joe blended the finest male voices in a repertoire of best loved American songs. Back in the United States the Winged Victory Singers toured the country leaving spellbound audiences from coast to coast.

A graduate of Ithaca College and resident of Beacon, New York, Joe Baris is an experienced showman. With an appreciation and understanding of his audience and tasteful respect for th music, Joe can turn a good song into an entertaining experience.

Gelatin-silver photograph: Publicity print of the Winged Victory Singers [also billed as the Winged Victory Chorus], circa early 1960s. John Hemmer second in from right. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.