A Dancer’s Life: Meet Sal Angelica, Part II

The John Hemmer Archive’s The History of An Era, documents single and multipart articles to bring lived experiences of the nightclub era to light. This is the second installment of a three-part series on performer Sal Angelica, who began his life and career in New York City before traveling abroad and eventually landing in Vegas. To read part I, please visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-sal-angelica-part-i/

Paper program: Casino de Paris production, program cover, Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1965. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

JHA: In 1965 you travel to Las Vegas where you joined Casino de Paris at the Dunes Hotel. This was your move from the east coast to Vegas.

SA: A good friend of mine, Candy Raye, was working in Las Vegas and kept trying to persuade me to come out here to find work. I was always employed in New York City and couldn’t see why I would go there without having a job or prospect of one.

Another friend, Jimmy Weiss, who I worked with in Fade Out – Fade In on Broadway in ‘64, had just signed a contract with Donn Arden for a show at the Desert Inn. He was also coaxing me to try Las Vegas. Once again, I thought, “Why?”. Then Jimmy called and said that Ronnie Lewis was in New York City looking for dancers for the Dunes Hotel’s Casino de Paris. I had worked with Ronnie at the Latin Quarter in New York back in ’59. Jimmy suggested I give him a call, so I did and mentioned that I was not 6 feet tall, just 5’10”. Ronnie said I was a good dancer (what every dancer wants to hear) and to come to the audition. I was offered the job with the condition that I make just a six-month commitment. Ronnie agreed. Two years later I went back to New York City to close-up my apartment that I had been subletting for $72.00 a month. 57 years later I’m still here [in Las Vegas] and love it.

Candy Raye and Jimmy Weiss changed my life for the better, forever, by convincing me to try out Las Vegas.

Photographic slideshow of the Casino de Paris production from the Sal Angelica Collection.

You’ve mentioned differences between working in New York versus Las Vegas. One of those differences being union support.

Paper poster: Juliet Browse as Mame, Las Vegas, NV, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

All of the unions in New York City were there to help and benefit the actor, as well as management, whether It was AEA, AGVA, SAG, SEG or AGMA.  They had everything under control and if you had to do anything out of the ordinary you were paid extra for it. In Las Vegas – nothing. Later on, the stagehands and musicians were represented by unions. If an Equity (AEA) show came into town, they were covered by them.

For example, When the book show Mame, starring Juliet Prowse, came to Vegas, John Bowab, the producer, realized the show would be performed seven days a week and that was against AEA rules. To remedy this, it was decided to hire additional dancers from New York City.

My good friend, Candy Raye, was invited to see the opening night performance by the gal that put the show together and quickly said that it was not necessary [to go to New York for dancers] because there are many good dancers in Vegas with Broadway credits. That’s where I came in. Candy, who I affectionately call “Miss Mouth”, gave them my name and John called and offered me the job on her recommendation. That’s also how I got to do Juliet’s [Prowse] act for many years.

Casino de Paris was produced and directed by Frederic Apcar and opened around 1963. It was the first Casino de Paris production to get licensed outside of France and mounted in a newly constructed showroom at the Dunes. How did you come into it?

In 1965 I was flown to Milan, Italy to join the cast. The new show was rehearsed and set there. We all stayed at the same hotel and rehearsed in the ballroom. We were all on call in case Ronnie got frustrated or tired of working with a group that wasn’t coming through for him. The only thing we couldn’t work on was the octuramic stage. It was in Las Vegas. An eight-armed disc stage that moved all over the place. It was a terrific piece of artwork and wowed the audience.

Photographic print: Production still, dancer Sal Angelica foreground, third in from left, Casino de Paris production, Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1965. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

This was the first time you reunited with Ron Lewis since the Latin Quarter. There were other performers on this from the Latin Quarter as well.

Francois Szony and Nancy Claire were the featured act in the show [also performed many times at the Latin Quarter]. There were several headliners, but none that anyone would call “stars”. Larry (Lawrence) Merritt was also front and center all the time. He didn’t stay. I think he thought that Ronnie should have featured him more and so he just moved on. That opened up the door to have Ronnie use me as his lead dancer in the following jazz production, which would have been Larry’s if he had stayed. My gain this time. Thanks.

Photographic print: Publicity image, dancer Sal Angelica & Virginia Justice pose for the Folies Bergère production at the Tropicana Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1967. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

1968 and ’69 kept you busy. An Ed Sullivan CBS special telecast live from Circus, Circus, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, Jerry Jackson’s Folies Bergère at The Tropicana Hotel and Barry Ashton’s Wonderful World of Burlesque at the Silver Slipper.

We rehearsed for one week and for one live performance on January 1st, 1969, for the CBS special. I partnered Gina Lollobrigida singing Walking Happy. Our billing was “Gina Lollobrigida and dancers.”

At the end of 1967 I joined Folies Bergère for a brief stay. Dave Johnson was the company manager, Ruth Christensen, the show captain, and the choreographer was Jerry Jackson.

They asked to see me after watching the Dunes’ Casino de Paris show. I had never met any of them before and I was asked if I would consider being Jerry’s lead adagio dancer in a new number that they were putting into the show. It was a French Quarter, New Orleans themed number. i partnered Virginia Justus and Billi Buche’ on a 5-foot table-top and she had never done adage work before. I also had to be filtered into the existing show.

There was a comedy routine that was very slapstick at the end of the number. I was captured and shot out of a canon. I was on a tether and flew out over the audience and back. All went well until the guy who was my counterweight had his night off and the person replacing him weighed less than I did. I hit the deck going out, which caused me to spin and hit it again when I returned. That was very scary and I complained. As I mentioned before, there were no unions here back then. I called Penny Singleton (from the television show, Blondie) who was the AGVA president in New York City at the Time. She came out and saw what I was complaining about but could do absolutely nothing about it. Then they fired me. My standby refused to go on as well. They chose someone else to do it. As for me, no big deal. I went straight into Barry Ashton’s show at the Silver Slipper and was never unemployed.

Photographic prints: Publicity images, dancers Sal Angelica & Nikki Sharait, Wonderful World of Burlesque production, Silver Slipper, Las Vegas, NV, 1967/68. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

This is where I was lead dancer and partnered Mikki Sharait in Wonderful World of Burlesque at the Silver Slipper’s Gaiety Theatre. Mikki had never done adage work before, but she was a trooper and would do anything to be the star. Barry loved her and was a great help, even giving us a couple of lift pointers. He was a very nice man to work with & we all loved him.

Photographic print: Wonderful World of Burlesque producer, Barry Ashton with dancers Mako Ohta, Sal Angelica, Candy Raye, Silver Slipper Casino restaurant, Las Vegas, NV, 1968. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

During this time and into 1969, you went to Los Angeles where you danced in several variety shows of the day.

For The Smothers Brothers, I commuted each week. If we didn’t have a number in an episode, we didn’t have to be at rehearsals until Wednesdays. We’d tape on Fridays. The credits were always “live action”. If we did have a number that week, we had a 10a.m. rehearsal call on Mondays. I always stayed with friend and choreographer, Claude Thompson while I was in LA.

Even though the show had earned many, many, awards for new and creative stuff, CBS felt that the context of the show was too political, which it was. Very much so. They made fun and mockery out of lots of rules, and it was not appreciated by most.

The guests were terrific, and the choreography was brilliant. Ron Poindexter even received awards and lots of fun times were had by all of us. Tom and Dick were not overly friendly, but nice to us and easy to work with.

Our closing number for the last Smothers Brothers was a big to-do. The costumes were very basic, but elegant. Black jumpsuits with white ruffled shirts and red bolero jackets with black jet studded accessories. One of the girl dancers (Sam) asked if we could keep them. I think Tom and Dick were so angry [from getting] fired, they said, “Yes!”. I still have mine.

One thing that amazed me was when I received residuals for the show from being aired again. That was a shock and a nice surprise.

Photographic prints: Carol Burnett signed headshot, Hollywood, CA, circa late 1960s/early 1970s. Carol Burnett & Sal Angelica, The Carol Burnett Show reunion, Hollywood, CA, circa 1990s. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Images subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When we were cancelled, I went directly to The Carol Burnett Show on the Monday after our last shoot of the Smothers Brothers that Friday. There were only two more episodes to shoot for The Carol Burnett Show for that season.

Decades later, I attended a get together for the show’s 33rd year reunion on stage 33 at CBS. Stan Mazin (another regular on the show) called to let me know that there was just one ticket left. he asked if I wanted it. of course, I did. it was terrific seeing all those people after all that time.

The variety shows included a couple stints on The Dean Martin Show where you partnered Juliet Prowse and Ginger Rogers.

While doing Juliet Prowse’s act, I found out that she was going to be on The Dean Martin Show – her business manager Mark Mordoh never mentioned it, or ever got us (her dancers) any work. Jaime Rogers, who I knew, was the choreographer. I called him and he hired Michael Darrin (also in her act) and myself to help with partnering her. I’m sure that made Juliet feel more comfortable with two of her guys being there. Jaime asked us if we would stay for the next episode to partner Ginger Rogers. I stayed on, but Michael didn’t.  I can say that Fred is not the only one that has partnered Ginger. I am lucky to have it taped for posterity on a DVD.

Photographic prints: Scrapbook page, backstage photographs, Jonathan Wynn, Connie Stevens, Sal Angelica, Connie Stevens’ act, touring/various venues, circa early 1970s. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Images subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Around this time, you joined Connie Stevens’ act.

Claude Thompson asked me to do Connie Stevens act. Joe Layton directed, and Hugh Lambert choreographed. I had previously worked with Hugh on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. Connie and I were the token whites (she even made a joke of that). Jerry Grimes, Cheryl Weinberg, Frances Davis (aka “Elizabeth Taylor/her real name, later married Miles Davis) and I had the best times together. Connie who is also from Brooklyn, New York, was a dream to work with.

We played at the Flamingo Hotel here [in Vegas] and the Crystal Room at the Desert Inn, the John Asquagas’ Nugget in Reno; the Palmer House in Chicago; The Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. [The show] had several very funny opening comedic acts. When working at the Flamingo at night, I was also doing two afternoon shows of Geisha’rella, [a topless revue of Japanese women] at the Thunderbird hotel in black mask.

Photographic prints: (Left) Dancer Sal Angelica, Connie Stevens, performer. (Right) Connie Stevens & cast, backstage, Connie Stevens’ act, tour, 1960. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Images subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

You followed this with another Claude Thompson production, Flesh. This was in August of 1969 and first staged at the Bonanza Hotel. This was followed by a run at Caesars Palace and then to King’s Castle Hotel in Lake Tahoe.

Paper ad: Newspaper advertisement, Flesh and Flush productions, Bonanza Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1968. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Flesh at the Bonanza Hotel was an XXX rated show. Claude had done some outrageous stuff with us. Line Renaud, who was from France and producing the show, loved all of it. During the photoshoot my only costume was an elastic g-string to cover myself and Claude stopped the shoot to have me take it off – saying that I can still see it, snickering all the time. He was ***bad*** but great. We were back-to-back with another production, Flush, at the Bonanza Hotel, which eventually became the MGM Grand. Now it’s Bally’s.

Newspaper clippings: Photographic images, (top, left to right) dancers Sal Angelica, Tulsa Cullins, Don Stoms Vic, (bottom) Don Stops Vic, Tulsa Cullins, Sal Angelica, Flesh production, Bonanza Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, 1968. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Images subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

After the Bonanza, Flesh moved over to Caesars Palace, but when it closed there, I was asked to go with the show to Lake Tahoe at King’s Castle in Incline Village. It was to open the hotel and there were celebrities there (including Lana Turner), but they were going to cut my salary. Of course, that did not set well with me. I went to the company manager. who was once a performer/dancer and complained. He said that he would then only use one lead dancer (there were two of us). I knew this was wrong so I called Claude knowing his contract stated that the show would have to stay as originated. They hired two others, but one of the dancers had an accident (drugs) and couldn’t open the show. By the time they had called me, I couldn’t make it. I was literally watching the last flight to Reno take off from Las Vegas. Wanting to keep Claude’s work exact, I offered to teach the guys the routines gratis. When I got there, the choreography had changed the number to the point that it was all messed up. I spent the next day learning all of the new stuff.

By the way, meeting Lana Turner was a trip. We met on the beach and she was just another grandma looking person. We had a few drinks, not too much. I had to work that night. I had met her assistant too and we organized a meeting between shows. Lana never showed up so we planned on meeting after my second show. still no Lana, but as we were having a drink, and suddenly this fabulous image passes by. She had pulled herself together and was the gorgeous star that she always was. She wanted to go to the Cal-Neva hotel, so off we went. Let me tell you, I was in heaven – jitter bugging with the one and only- Lana Turner. Yeow mama!

In this period, you worked with Lorna Luft’s act as well.

Once again, Claude Thompson hired me. In the Lorna Luft act he paired me with Harvey Cohen. It was very Do-Whop/Afro-Cuban style. Later on, choreographer Walter Painter added some of his stuff. That was sacrilegious to alter or change any of Claude’s work, but it happens. We never could figure out why Walter was ever brought into the picture. Lorna was lazy and had a Brat Pack attitude, but of the three of them [Judy Garland’s children], Lorna had the bet voice. Not the charisma as Liza [Minnelli] did, or the charm of Judy, but talented. Lorna could not only sing well, but dance and was very comedic, thanks to her mother.

Gene Palumbo was our music director and conductor. He also worked with Judy Garland.

Photographic print: Production still, dancers Sal Angelica, Lorna Luft, performer, Lorna Luft act, tour, 1972. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In 1972 we opened for Danny Thomas at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Then we went on to the St. Regis hotel’s Maisonette [Russe] in New York City, The Palmer House in Chicago, The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in the Venetian Room and somewhere in Ft. Lauderdale.

While in Florida, we were invited to go out on a yacht that Lorna called Sid Luft (her father) to ask if it was okay for her to go. She always called to consult with him about anything. We met Lorna’s Aunt Jimmy too and had a great after-hours night of singing around the piano. Gene played and Lorna sounded just like Judy. It was eerie.

Liza, who showed up occasionally never talked to anyone and never joined us. With Lorna, however, we spent a lot of time listening to “mama stories” that were hilariously funny. Most of the family were already in the public eye and considered [to display] strange behavior. It was about a 3-to-4 month engagement, and a terrific time.

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A Dancer’s Life: Meet Sal Angelica, Part I

Having enjoyed an illustrious and long career in musical theatre, dancer Sal Angelica’s list of credits are lessons in performing arts history.  His story began at a time and place of artistic fervor in America, and in particular in New York City.

Sal, you’re currently living in Las Vegas where you have worked many shows, but you began life on the east coast.

Photographic print: Sal Angelica portrait, 1942, New York, New York. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I was born March 22nd, 1940, at Kings County hospital in Brooklyn, New York. My family first lived on the lower east side of Manhattan. I grew up at 42 Eldridge Street. We were in the heart of a very Jewish area, which was also just walking distance from Chinatown at Canal Street and Little Italy’s Mott and Mulberry Streets (lots of Italian feasts!). I recall hearing Connie Francis singing on a tenement building fire escape. There were also lots of Polish people living in the area – a real melting pot.

My mother, Jennie, was a single working parent. She and my Aunt Sadie both worked in the Garment District making belts for dresses.  Grandpa owned and ran a tailor shop on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn where my mother and aunt learned how to use a sewing machine.  My Aunt Sadie could sew anything from chiffon to burlap and even made hats. My mother, aunt, and cousin, Jenny (same first name as my mother’s), always had the latest styles for themselves through my grandfather’s shop. The three were knock outs.  They’d get dressed up on weekends to go out dancing. Watching them getting ready was the closest I had ever been to the dance world!  At least up until that time.

At twelve years of age, I wanted a gold cross. Knowing the only way that I could get one was to work and make enough money to pay for it myself. I swept and mopped five flights of stairs for $2.00.

Photographic print: Sal Angelica with mother and God Father, Paul Fabian, Confirmation Day, Brooklyn, New York, 1948. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When I was sixteen, my mother’s girlfriend Helen, and her family had moved to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.  Helen was mom’s friend since the Eldridge Street days. She and her husband were super intendants and needed supers for the adjoining twin building.  We took the job which included free rent, as long as I was willing to do all the work needed such as collect the garbage, whitewash the basement, sweep and wash the halls, change out the screens and more. I did all of it.

As far as dance classes, my mom was all in favor of it if all my chores were done.   She never paid for any classes or instructions. I took two jobs to be able to afford it. This schedule required a lot of juggling because I was still going back to Manhattan every day to finish out my school year. Erasmus Hall High was a very prestigious school, and I didn’t want to start at a new one in the middle of the year.

One morning as I was heading to the subway, I ran into a woman named Judy Filingeri, who lived in my building.  She was very- pregnant and asked me if I would make sure she got to the train on time since we took the same one. That was the beginning of a very nice relationship. While doing my daily chores, Judy and her husband would invite me to dinner as a “thank you”.  Her husband, Sal, was a butcher, so I was in heaven.  Judy also corrected my very bad English, which I am extremely grateful for to this day. We would always joke about who was “Big Sal” – Judy’s husband, or me.  He was older, but I was taller!

 

Who were your early influences that steered you toward a career as a performer?

Most dancers say they were inspired by Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, but for me it was Gene Nelson and Gower Champion.  I loved the way they partnered and danced with the ladies, making themselves and their partners look so good. Don’t get me wrong, Gene and Fred were terrific – FYI, Fred is not the only one who partnered Ginger Rogers {See Ginger Rogers on The Dean Martin Show). My real early influences, however, are watching my mother, Aunt Sadie and cousin get gussied up on the weekends to go out. Their excitement and glamour intrigued me about the nightlife world.

Photographic print: Sal Angelica, his Aunt Sadie, Cousin Jenny, and her daughter Jenny.  Ben Maksik’s Town & Country Club, Brooklyn, New York, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When I was sixteen years old though, it was 1956 and I began to emulate what I was seeing in the movies. On the way home from seeing a musical, I would jump over puddles, not ever realizing that I was doing jetes. I didn’t know the word yet, or even “pirouette”, but I was soon to learn.

Photographic print: First dance partner, Rosemary with Sal Angelica, the Little Theatre School, Brooklyn, New York, 1957. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

You studied at the Little Theater School with Allan Byrnes. What prompted that?

I was always dancing the Jitterbug and the Lindy with the girl next door, Geraldine Chalupa on Eldridge Street. On 21st Street in Brooklyn it was with Sheila Katz.  Sheila had two girlfriends and the four of us would walk home from Erasmus Hall High School together, which was just two short blocks from our house when we were on East 21st. One day one of the gals asked if we could stop at the Little Theater School.  It was directly across the street from our Erasmus. She wanted to see what it was all about.  There we met Allan Byrns who sold us all on taking classes. I was the only one that continued there, however. To this day we are still very close friends. I am happy to say that Allan Byrnes’ claim to fame is that he taught me as a performer. He’s very proud of what I’ve accomplished and that it started with his teachings. I studied for two years with Allan. Then when he left to do a show, I realized that the gal that replaced him was teaching what she had learned earlier in the day from Manhattan choreographers.  I didn’t particularly care for her and wanted to learn firsthand, so I went to the June Taylor School. There I learned from terrific dancers and choreographers one-on-one.

Photographic print: Sal Angelica and companion, Naomi, New York, NY, 1957. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

What was your first taste of performing before an audience? Was this at Kiamesha Lake in the Catskills, or was there something before that?

I had met Rosemary Gabrielle in Allan’s class and he partnered us up. I was hooked. I loved it.  On June 18th, 1958, I did a show at Temple Beth Emeth in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  Dancing with her was my debut. On December 14th, 1958, we did the Tango and a modern jazz number for the Bensonhurst Jewish Community Center audience in Bay Parkway, Brooklyn. There were other local performances but Kiamesha Lake was my first paid job.

If you’re curious as to how I remember all this stuff, it’s because I have scrapbooks of everything that I’ve ever been involved in. 50+ would be a rough guess. From all the opening night congratulations telegrams (thanks to family and friends) to productions stills, programs, and my own personal photographs of life on and off stage.

Paper program: Center page detail, Sky High production, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter Nightclub, New York, New York, 1959. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

Moving chronologically, we’re now in 1959. You’ve been cast in Donn Arden’s production of Sky High at the Latin Quarter in New York City. Will you describe how that came about? Do you remember what your audition was like?

Copy of photographic print: Dancers Rudy Menchacka and Sal Angelica backstage in costume, Sky High production, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter, New York, NY, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Auditioning for Donn Arden‘s Sky High at the Latin Quarter nightclub was an experience I will never forget. I had auditioned but was not chosen. He was looking for only one male dancer to add to who he had already cast, Don (Stefan) Zema and Tony Mack, Rudy Menchacka. Donn also asked if I had any hair on my chest.  I was very proud to point out the three hairs that I did have.  Little did I know he was looking for hairless. Hawaii had just become part of the U.S.A. and the show was a tribute to it the new state. One number included shirtless male dancers.

I not only remember my audition but the first callback as well. I had heard that one should always wear the same outfit when going to a callback, so that they would remember you.  While getting ready to go to the Latin Quarter callback, I was ironing my short-sleeved shirt and scorched the arm – not to panic, I just cut off both sleeves – (I may have started a trend), but I was still wearing the same burgundy shirt. I thought that was pretty fast thinking for a beginner.

Donn ended up asking me to come to watch rehearsals just in case he decided to add another dancer.  I watched the rehearsals from the overhead catwalk. I not only learned all the routines, but I had a bird’s eye view of the guest magician, Channing Pollock. This gave me the unique vantage of seeing all his tricks! And, as strange as things turn out, Don Zema hurt his knee and was out, and just like that, I was in. It sounds like an old MGM musical story, “Star Injured, Understudy Goes On!”

There are a few dancers I worked with at the Latin Quarter, I would go on to work with again and again. In fact, Latin Quarter dancers Don Zema and Lynne Londergan now live in Las Vegas.  We still see each other often.

 

What were Donn Arden and Ron Lewis like to work with at this stage in their careers?

Copy of photographic print: Sal Angelica backstage in costume, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub’s Sky High production, New York, NY, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Back in 1959 Donn Arden was fine to work with.  We had daytime rehearsals and his assistant Bonnie [Bonnie Hunt] was the person we dealt with, and of course Ronnie Lewis. Since we had no dinner breaks, there were no aftermaths of Donn’s two martini ranting and ravings he was later known for. He was ok to work with on Sky High.  He must have gotten more ornery as the years went by working with different people and situations because my experience with him in Vegas was something else.

Ronnie [Ron Lewis] did all of the choreography and was brilliant as usual and his gimmick at the time was having us use split bamboo reeds in setting the number. It was very Hawaiian, slapping our bodies and the floor in rhythms, while wearing only Hawaiian pareo’s. During rehearsals everything was fine, but when we took off our shirts for the performance, the split bamboo would cut razor slices into our bodies.  He didn’t change the choreography, we had to just learn not to hit ourselves as hard.

Ronnie was never a dancer in our show, even though he’s listed as one in the program.  When Don [Don Zema] got hurt Ronnie filled in for him for a few performances.

The opening number was Sky High, and we were supposed to be aviators.  The second was a gypsy number. It was a very Russian type number performed to Ochi Chornya. The finale was the tribute to Hawaii with no specific music.

 

There were headliners and special guests for every Latin Quarter production. The Sky High program lists the acrobatic troupe, the Gimma Brothers, the illusionist Channing Pollock, and well known comedian Shecky Greene.  

I don’t think that Shecky Greene ever said hello to any of us, maybe the girls, but he was a good comic. Channing Pollock was very warm and open.  His wife was his assistant in the act. She was a beautiful blonde that wore a dark brown bubble wig during the performance so as not to take away from him.  The Gimma Brothers were really brothers and worked a lot in Vegas.

 

Copy of newspaper clipping: Review of Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter nightclub’s Sky High production by Lee Mortimer, New York Mirror, New York, NY, October 11th, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

What were the audiences like at the Latin Quarter?  Reviews hint that Sky High, was a hit. The Latin Quarter was still a big draw and productions were continuing to be more lavish.

The Latin Quarter audiences were very receptive, especially the males seeing girls on stage for the first time wearing pasties – a real- eye opener!  In Donn’s productions there was always water involved – either waterfalls, boats sinking, or floods with dams breaking. At the Latin Quarter there was a rain trough around the front of the stage. Sometimes female patrons sitting at tables around the stage would put their fur stoles and coats across the trough.  Most times the performers would tell them about it and at other times, just to be ornery, they would laugh as the furs got wet.

Copy of photographic print: Dancer Sal Angelica backstage in costume, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub’s Sky High production, New York, NY, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

You were pretty green to the business in ‘59. Was this your first nightclub gig? What was the working environment like?

Most of the cast was from the previous show and they all knew each other.  Being a newcomer, I was left out a lot. For example, when Tony, Lynne and Barbara would come back from their lunch beak they would (as a trio) be wearing the matching t-shirts that they had just purchased, leaving Rudy and I out.  We didn’t let it bother us though, or our performance. We took it as them just being buddies.

 

If you were to describe the Latin Quarter shows, how would you paint a picture?

They was lavish, semi-nude shows with lots of music, costumes, good acts and a very interesting fast paced upbeat scenario. It was often compared to The Copacabana but, it was actually much better. There were beautiful showgirls and girl dancers, as well as handsome, talented male dancers.   Yeah!!!

 

You have attended the Latin Quarter reunions. Who did you work with on Sky High that you kept in touch with over the years?

Tony Franco and Don Dellair were the lead singers at the Latin Quarter [for Sky High production].  All these years I have stayed with Tony when visiting New York City.  He had a two-bedroom condo on 57th Street and Broadway and insisted that I stay with him. Of course, I was happy and honored about that, so I cooked for him every night, which he enjoyed.  Don never came to any of the reunions, but Marti Hespen did.  I believe you’ve met her.  As well as Margo Mayor (Margo and I did the 1964 New York World’s Fair).  I see Lynne Londergan and Stefan (Don) Zema a lot, since we all live in Las Vegas. Then there was Ronnie Lewis and Donn Arden. They came out here too, and we ended up working together again 15 years after Sky High.

Photographic prints: (Left) Sal Angelica in costume on rooftop of the Mark Hellinger Theatre; (Right) Three dancers including Sal Angelica (foreground) in spontaneous dance from Fade Out- Fade In, exterior Mark Hellinger Theatre, during production, New York, NY, 1964. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image may be subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

New York City was a cultural mecca during the 1940’s, ‘50s and ‘60s. How was the performing arts scene in New York City when you were there?

During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, New York City had a lot of musicals going on, West Side Story was one of the biggest and most enjoyed hit shows.  Most of the dancers stuck together – except if you were both auditioning for the same job.  You could be walking down the street (you’ve got to remember, I lived on 50th Street and Broadway, right in the heart of the showbiz area) and run into another male dancer. They would never tell you that they were going to a particular audition.  You might get the job and not them.  Of course, when they saw you at the audition, nothing was ever said.  I had a roommate that I met while doing 110 in The Shade.  He would always get angry when I was chosen rather than him.  I explained to him that we were totally different types, if they were looking for the “all American type” they would choose him, being a blonde with blue eyes and pink skin. If they were looking for a Latin, Greek or Italian type, I would be chosen, because of my dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin.  He eventually did get the fact that it was not his dancing or singing that got in the way.

When I had auditioned for Fade Out – Fade In as a replacement there were three of us left, the other two were carbon copies of the guy being replaced and one of the guys and I even congratulated him.  He had done such a good job, but I got the part instead (totally different look).  I asked the dance captain who gave the audition, “Why me?”  He said that one of the guys was always a troublemaker and he would never hire him again (lesson learned). He said as far as the other one went, I was just the better dancer. That always stuck with me.  When teaching or working with anyone, I advise to “Just do your job and don’t make problems. Your reputation (good or bad) will always follow you.”

Photographic print: Sal Angelica with dance partner on rooftop of Mark Hellinger Theatre, Fade Out-Fade In Broadway production, New York, NY, 1964. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Other than some natural competitiveness, what was the community of performers like in the early 1960s in New York City?  I’ve heard that in some ways there was a greater sense of support among dancers, actors, singers, etc.

Not all of the showbiz community got along.  There were some (mostly singers) that were vicious.  I was in a show where the dancers shared a dressing room with the singers.  Our costumes were what was dividing us, so we could hear everything that went on (one could write a book). Being the newbie, and not really knowing anyone, I just kept my head down and my mouth closed for fear of being verbally attacked. I couldn’t believe the acid mouths I shared a dressing room with.  I had the opportunity to work again with one of the same singers when I did Mame with Juliet Prowse.  Once again, I stayed clear of him.

We were all striving very hard to find our niche and get jobs to pay the rent. I think that auditioning and getting the show was the feather in our cap and proof that we deserved it.  Someone I know put it very well. He said, “Dancers are not judged by how much money we have or what kind of car we drive, but with what shows we’ve done and the people that we have worked with.” Amen. I’m proud to say that there are some people that I very much enjoyed working with and we are still friends and keep in touch.

Living on 50th Street and Broadway was right in the center of all that was showbiz.  Not only the theatres, but all of the rehearsal studios and auditioning centers were all within walking distance.  Some auditions were at the theatre themselves and others at the studios. Lots of us got jobs from choreographers just seeing us in a class.  That’s why we always did our best and worked our hardest, gaining knowledge as we went along.

All the best (i.e Claude Thompson) choreographers taught at the June Taylor dance studios. After an audition (whoever was chosen or not) we would all meet at my apartment.  We’d pick up some beer and a pizza – or maybe some sandwiches from Chock Full o’ Nuts, which was on the corner, and party.  On the other corner was the Winter Garden Theatre and the drugstore where everyone bought their Max Factor, or Mehron makeup. (Trivia – Milton Berle would stand on the corner for hours joking to anyone who would listen).  The store was very busy after midnight when the show-folk would stop to buy make-up and hang out.

Black and white photographic prints: Sal Angelica at Kiamesha Lake with dance partners. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

Tell me about the productions at Kiamesha Lake.

Paper program cover: The Boy Friend at Monticello Playhouse, Kiamesha Lake, New York, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws.

I saw the call in either Show Business or Variety. I auditioned at Variety Arts Studio on on West 46th Street, June 27th, 1959. I got the job, which was at Monticello Playhouse in Kiamesha Lake. We did The Boyfriend (7/20/1959) and Finian’s Rainbow (7/28/1959). I learned about showbiz at Kiamesha Lake.  Afterwards, I went back to working my 9-to-5 job as a credit account checker in an office for Burlington Mills.

While at the lake I met the cast of The Jewel Box Revue (JBR). Later on, I would audition for Andre Tayir of the JBR and ended up joining the cast in Chicago in April of 1960. I got there by getting on an airplane. It was my first time flying.

What a terrific experience that was. I was met at the airport by a friend of a friend who drove me to the hotel. My friend was a customer I met while serving at a Pam-Pams restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. They knew this person from Chicago and asked them if they’d be willing to show me around the city when I got there. My tour guide was a radio announcer – he looked nothing like what he sounded – what a shame! Nevertheless, he was a very nice person and very helpful with showing me around the city of Chicago. I then met more of the cast. Ronnie Morales (aka Nicholas Dante of A Chorus Line) and I started an adage act together. He was no light weight either, but we had our own act and spot in the show.

I had a lot of fun and took lots of photos with my little Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera. I stayed with the JBR for a year and signed a new contract around the same time I auditioned and got the job for Jerome Robbins West Side Story European Company tour. I approached the JBR producers, Danny Brown and Doc Benner and explained the situation.  They agreed to let me out of my contract, as long as I found a replacement they approved of and taught the replacement my spot in the show. I did, and we all lived happily ever after.  And I flew off with West Side Story to Israel, Paris, Italy, Germany, and Holland!

Paper ephemera: Souvenir patron photograph cover, Ben Maksik’s Town & Country nightclub, Brooklyn, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

Before we get into West Side Story, can you expand on the Jewel Box Revue? When you were with them, what venues did you perform at? How were the shows structured and who were some stand out performers?

04-11-1960   Robert’s Show Club (bar), Chicago, IL.

06-01-1960   Savoy Theatre, Asbury Park, N.J.

09-09-1960   Tivoli Theatre, Chicago, IL.

09-30-1960   Royal Theatre, Baltimore, MD.

10-13- 1960  Howard Theatre, Washington, D.C.

10-21-1960   Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York City

11-11-1960   Ben Maksik’s Town & Country Club, Brooklyn, N.Y.

01-06-1960  Ben Maksik’s Town & Country Club, Brooklyn, N.Y.

My one-year salary at the JBR was $106.50 (it never changed). It was also my first AGVA contract.  The show was performed as a revue, so there weren’t any sets or scenery – just one act after another.  Everyone had their own “gimmick” – singing or dancing, with Lynne Carter as the star act doing comedy and Pearl Bailey impersonation skit material – and sang a bit too. Tai [James Tai ] did his bamboo rhythm stomping routine. Tai was very traditional with his ancestry and choreography, and we all participated in his act. Ronnie Morales (Nicholas Dante) and I danced to Belle of the Ball. We did lots of lifts – my poor back. And everyone was always involved with bettering themselves. No one ever lip synced. They used their own voices and were terrific  – very talented.

Paper program cover: Jewel Box Revue, Savoy Theatre, Asbury Park, NJ, 1959. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Bobby Lake was a trip. Not only was he a terrific dancer, but beautiful in drag, very Jane Russell. But when he left his dressing room with the make-up off, backstage he looked like a truck driver. Magic.  Chunga [Chunga Ochoa] was a very mystical sort of performer, always trying something new.

The show was advertised as 25 Men and a Girl. Stormé [Stormé DeLarverie], the emcee/singer was the only female in the show.  Everyone had their own spot.  Jan Britton did his ballet act in point shoes – on toe.  There were six male/male dancers in the show. One of the men has since had the operations and is now a woman. We still communicate, along with a another JBR alumni, after 61 years.

Stormé DeLarverie was a light skinned black lesbian singer who did her act and at the end revealed that she was the only girl in the show.  She had a girlfriend that was always with her. I can remember, Storme was very quiet and just came and went doing her job. Nothing more.

(to see more Jewel Box Revue imagery from Sal Angelica’s scrapbook, visit: https://www.queermusicheritage.com/fem-cl82f2.html_)

 

Paper program pages: Excerpt performance photos, Jewel Box Revue, Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In 1960 you joined the European tour of West Side Story. You worked with Jerome Robbins, Alan Johnson, and other notables.

Photograph: German show poster, West Side Story, International Tour, 1961. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I also auditioned for the movie of West Side Story in 1960, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and his assistant Howard Jeffrey (the inspiration behind the character Harold in Boys in the Band). Jerome (I never knew him well enough to call him Jerry) Robbins assisted after hours with auditioning lots of other dancers.  I was not kept, however, but as I was leaving (already out in the street), Howard ran after me and said that Jerry wanted to see me again.  Jerry put his hand around the back of my neck and said, “A Shark. Definitely a Shark.”  At the call back there were hundreds of dancers there from the original production, and every touring and summer stock company cast member.  I figured that they must need at least 20+ dancers so I had a shot.

Long story short, I did not get the movie.  Acing the Shark choreography was a breeze, however, I guess that I was not strong enough to pass the Jet movements.  Later on, I worked with a lot of the dancers that were in the movie who were also in the touring cast I ended up with, such as Yvonne Othon, Marilyn Cooper, Jay Norman, Jaime Rogers, Jerry Norman, Nick Navarro, Andre’ Tayir, and more.

One day the phone rings, and it was Howard asking me if I I would like to audition for the International Touring Company. “I will be there with bells on” was my answer.  Again, lots of male dancers showed up at the rehearsal studio, but this time I got the job – handpicked by “JR”, who only showed up on the first day of rehearsal.  Later it was Howard [Howard Jeffrey] and Alan Johnson that taught the choreography for the rehearsals, and Alan that had “cleaned us up” when we were in Israel, Paris, Italy, Germany, and Holland.  What a terrific trip and on their dime no less.

JR had instilled the attitude that he always shared with the cast – The Sharks and the Jets are enemies.  In our cast – The Jets lived that during our everyday lives. It was sad.

Photographic prints: Dance hall scene, West Side Story, International Tour, (left photo) Sal Angelica 3rd in from left clapping hands, (right photo) Sal Angelica in black, foreground, 1961. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Images subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Being West Side Story cast members, we were invited everywhere.  We were stars in tee-shirts and blue jeans.  We (the Sharks) always had a great time. When we left an area and moved on to the next city, we always left a lot of broken hearts.  The people we met were wonderful.

Newspaper Clipping: Italian publication highlights Italian American performers of the West Side Story European Tour ,(Left to Right) Caesar Tamborino, unknown, Michael Bennett (back), Marlene Dell, Sal Angelica, Milan, Italy, 1961. Courtesy Sal Angelica. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Somewhere in here you worked as a go-go dancer at the infamous Peppermint Lounge.

Being a go-go dancer was a trip – lots of “stage door Johnnies”’ and interesting offers.

I met someone who worked at the William Morris Agency. His name was Ed Limato, and he owned and drove a car in New York City.  That was unheard of back then.  We stayed friends for many years after I came to Las Vegas and he moved to Los Angeles. He was still with the William Morris Agency.  He had a terrific, unfurnished house and a butler.

I had met a dancer, Sally Avena, who also wound up in Las Vegas as part of a lounge act. Fun memories.

(more…)

A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark, Part II

Paper program page: The Latin Quarter nightclub, featuring impresario Lou Walters supervising auditions in Paris and London, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

I took the train with Betty [fellow dancer from Aladdin. See Part I of this article series] to London.  We arrived at the Prince of Whales Theatre where the auditions were to be held. Walking into a mob of female dancers, we thought we had a fat chance of getting the job. All morning groups of girls had to walk and stand on stage, and audition for Lou Walters. A few were asked to stay, and the rest dismissed. It was our turn, we were asked to stay and come back tomorrow with music to dance.

Lou Walters was a nightclub producer and impresario who staged shows at nightclubs in Boston (c. 1937-55), New York City (1942-1968), and Palm Island (1939-1959). He also produced touring shows that traveled across the United States. Mr. Walters would regularly travel to Paris and London to look for talent to bring back to his clubs in the U.S.

The call for dancers to audition was to go to Miami for three months, and it sounded very good, 30 pounds a week, round-trip transportation, hotel accommodations. I thought “Three months. Why not?” The tryouts lasted three days. Hundreds of girls were there. I mean, you can imagine – we’ve just come through a war, and now we have a chance to go to Miami, it sounded pretty good.

The next day I had to tap dance and was asked to come back the following day. Betty didn’t make it. I was so upset and thought we would travel together. She encouraged me to return the next day.

I noticed a girl waiting in the seats and said, “Oh! You are still here too.” It was Thelma Baker Sherr.

I didn’t see her again until we were on the ship. We had to dance for a choreographer all together and someone took our information. Then we were told we would receive a contract. So, I was chosen, but to go there was going to be almost another year. In the meantime, the John Tiller group asked me if I would go back to London and be in another show.  I contacted Mum and Dad and they were so excited about Miami, they put an article in the Blackpool paper.

Paper program page: London Laughs production featuring Jimmy Edwards, Vera Lynn and the Tiller Girls, the Adelphi Theatre, London, England, 1952. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

A few weeks later I received the contract for America which was months away. Aladdin ended and Tiller offered me a contract for the Adelphi to be a John Tiller girl. London Laughs was the production. I was thrilled to be going back to London and to join the famous John Tiller Girls. John Tiller created precision dancing in 1890. Decades later, New York’s Rockettes were heavily influenced by the John Tiller Girls. The first day of rehearsals I climbed the stairs into the rehearsal hall and there was my Tiller friend from Blackpool. “Irene!” I yelled. “Mollie”, she replied.

The first rehearsal began. I was not used to a kick line and wrenched my ankle. Irene helped me down the stairs and met me next morning helping me up again. I knew I had found a true friend. My digs were in Brixton a bus ride away. There were other theatre people living there, a comedian and a girl from ballet school in Blackpool who was a dancer at the Leicester Square theatre.

The show was with the famous Vera Lynn. Our opening number was a Covent Garden scene. The Tiller kick line was called Black and White. It was grueling performance with all different kicks. One night I was in pain with stomach cramps. When we exited someone gave me a shot of brandy so I could finish the show.  The finale was a tribute to George M. Cohan, Give My Regards to Broadway. There was one lift up to the dressing rooms and reserved for the stars, not us girls who sometimes after our kick routine used to crawl up the stairs.  I complained, and was in trouble until Vera Lynn heard and said, “Of course the girls can use the lift.” She was a true lady.

Irene and I sat next to each other in the dressing room, and one day she said she had met a chap at a party. His name was David English. On rain free days I would save some bus fare and walk part way to the theatre through my favorite park, St. James. With a great view of The Palace and the lake had different kinds of water birds and gardens full of flowers. In my digs we couldn’t use the bathtub, we had to wash in a sink which was difficult because we wore leg makeup. I used to ask the female stage management to let me use the theatre tub. She allowed me to arrive early some days and take a soak. I was fond of my landlady and her husband, Ethel and Charlie Penn a good cockney couple. When I lived in the States, I kept in touch with them for years and visited with Marshall [my husband] when we were in London.

Irene and David decided on a summer wedding in South Hampton. Irene asked me to be her Maid of Honor. Most of the Tiller girls and I took an early train down to the wedding, English style, Minister, photos a toast and refreshments. Then back on the train with the bride for the evening performance. David used to joke he went on a honeymoon by himself.

Promotional postcard: Comedy duo Tony Rayne and David Evans. Image source: Google search. Image subject to copyright laws.

Soon after their wedding David bought a flat in Kent and they would invite me for a weekend. We had great times walking down the country lanes and spending evenings talking about world events. David was busy ghost writing and working for The Daily Mail.

Fayne and Evans was a famous radio and theatre comedy act. Vera Lynn had a morning show with the two comedians. It was fun to attend and watch behind the scenes of a wireless broadcast show.

David English asked Irene and me if we would like to be newspaper models for The Daily Doctor series of The Daily Mail with pay. Off we went every morning to model for the sketch artist often wearing each other’s ration book clothes trying to make them look different in each newspaper. Also, we modeled for Blighty Magazine. We were glad of the extra pay because we only earned eight pounds a week for two shows a night, six days a week.

It was fall and London was hit with a killer fog. It crept into the theatre during a performance, and we couldn’t continue. I hopped onto my bus which only traveled a few miles and stopped. Policemen stood on the streets directing people to hold onto walls or railings. I finally found my digs and Mrs. Penn screamed when she opened the door. I was black with soot. London shut down for three days until the killer fog lifted. Hundreds died and the following year when I was in America another deadly fog hit London and thousands died. Burning coal in home fireplaces was banned.

Paper program detail: Opening number for London Laughs production, Adelphi Theatre, London, England, 1952. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

My happy time at the Adelphi was coming to a close and I had to visit The American Embassy in Grosvenor Square for a Visa to the States. My last night on stage was one I’ll never forget especially the finale, Give My Regards to Broadway.  The stagehands and Tiller girls had collected some money and gave it to me after the finale for my adventure.

I took the train home for a few days with my family and Mum had a small party for my upcoming 21stbirthday. The Crook family came and a few of my Blackpool dance friends. I received a 5 pounds note from Mum and Dad, which to them was a paycheck. They had bought me a large cabin trunk for the ship. They must have watched an old Hollywood movie. Nobody traveled that way anymore. I kissed everyone goodbye and said I’ll see you in three months which was the length of my contract.

Photochrome postcard: The SS Liberté ship arriving in New York City harbor, New York, NY, 1952. Source, Google image search.

I stayed at my landlady’s overnight and boarded the boat train to South Hampton for the ship named The Liberté which the French had captured from the Germans at the end of the war. There were many of us going to the Latin Quarter, fourteen English girls, eight French Can-can dancers and their manager, the French Chailvel Trio acrobatic act, a male drag performer and a Turkish belly dancer Nejla Ates (I had never seen a belly dancer before performing at the Latin Quarter and she was amazing).

We were told we had to board a tender boat to reach the ship which was out at sea. I sat next to one of the girls and lit a cigarette when someone called us for a photo shot. She didn’t want to go so I asked her to hold my fag. The girl was Sally Mills. She was a dancer in a show at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square.  We approached the ship which was enormous from the small boat. I asked Sally how we would get on board.

She said, “They throw down a rope ladder.” I asked, “How do I get my luggage up?” She replied, “You put it under one arm and climb with the other.” The side of The Liberté’ opened. We walked onto the ship. November 14, 1952.

I was given the top bunk in a tiny cabin with two English girls and my luggage took up too much space. We were told to go to the Life Guard Station when the bell rang. My roommates said it wasn’t’ necessary, so I didn’t go. We all met for the evening meal and were shocked to know we were in Steerage Third class. We saw the poor immigrants seated on long tables in the bowel of the ship. One of the girls said she would speak to the purser about getting us moved to Cabin Class.  I made friends with Sally [Mills, dancer], Moya [McCormack, dancer] and Thelma [Baker Sherr, dancer] and we stayed together during the voyage.

We were told we could move into Cabin Class if all the performers would put on a show for the passengers. Everyone agreed and we moved. Being green I went to the Purser’s office to send a telegram to Mum and Dad and my friend David Evans. I told them I wasn’t’ sea sick. When I was told how much it cost me, I did feel sick. It was almost the five pounds I was allowed to bring. Too late. I couldn’t’ reverse the telegrams.

On the third sailing day the storm hit with force. There was no more talk of putting on a show. Sailors came into our cabin and tied up the drawers in the chest and ropes were installed on the staircases to hold onto. The curtains in the cabin stood out as the ship rolled. To sleep, I had to tuck my feet under the rail of the bunk to stop falling out. In the dining room the waiters walked like Charlie Chaplin and tables had metal tops to put dishes in. The gift shop on one deck collapsed and one afternoon we went to a writing room with musicians playing. Some chairs fell down, the ship lurched, and a violinist fell across the room trying to hold onto his violin.

We tried to watch a movie about the sinking of a ship, The Kon Tiki. I bolted from the room holding my mouth and just made the cabin before vomiting. No one was permitted outside so we took a look from one of the windows to witness enormous holes in the ocean and a water sky. It was terrifying so we returned to our cabins. The storm was a hurricane and written in the English newspapers that two ships were caught in the storm. Poor Mum read about it in the newspaper. The storm lasted until the day before arriving in New York and we were too seasick to go on deck to see The Statue of Liberty.

Sally and I were the only ones left on the dock and everyone else had been met. I had to wait for my suitcase to come up from the hold of the ship, but I had my cabin trunk. Stupid me. I told Sally I would love a cup of tea. She asked me if I had any money. I said, “No.” Sally’s reply, “Well, I guess you can’t have a cup of tea, can you?”

Finally, someone from the Latin Quarter arrived and took us to a crummy hotel on 42nd street. We were impressed with Yellow cabs after the classy cabs in London and checked into the hotel. Sally had some money because she was smart. I had given all my money to Mum. She bought a loaf of bread and some butter, and that was our first meal in fabulous America. For the next few days Sally paid my food and I kept an account how much I owed. We ate many meals in The Automat for pennies.

My right leg started to be painful. Sally said it looked infected and she lent me money to see a doctor. My Small Pox vaccination had become infected and I had to visit a doctor’s office for almost a week.

Rehearsals started on stage at the Latin Quarter in Times Square. The choreographer was a tiny Russian woman, Miss [Natalie] Kamerover. She would say, “Do me such a step.” We would show her something and she would use it.

Photographic print: Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub exterior, Palm Island, Miami, FL, circa 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In December, we boarded a train for Miami, sleeping in our seats. On arrival we were mesmerized looking through the window at people dressed in bright colorful clothes. We were not in London anymore. We were taken to Palm Island and the Latin Quarter. Our digs were in a large dormitory in a building across from the night club along with scorpions and tarantula spiders. We were shocked to see racist signs in Miami – “Black” beach or “White Only.”

Photographic print: Stage production with singer Ralph Young (center), dancer Mollie Fennell and other performers, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, Palm Island, Miami, FL, 1953. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Newspaper clipping: Thelma Baker Sheer highlighted in unknown publication, circa late 1950s, early ’60s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.

I was in a room with two American girls along with Sally, Thelma (formerly a Television Toppers dancer of early British TV), Moya (Who became one of our Dance Captains at the Latin Quarter), and Billy True. We unpacked our clothes to hang on a rack. The American girls hung beautiful cocktail dresses, and looked at our ration book clothes and said, “Is that all you brought?”

We were told never to go down the palm tree lined road from the club and heard Al Capone had lived there in a large mansion. It was probably now used by the Miami mafia because they were everywhere. One of the American girls would disappear some nights and we found out that was where she spent some evenings.

Rehearsals started in the club with a stage that lighted through the floor and a ceiling that opened at night to see the stars. The De Castro Sisters were also in the show along with acts from the ship.

Opening night, I was a nervous wreck never having performed so close to an audience. It bothered me to see people eating while we were performing, but I had to get used to it. We were told to mingle with the customers in between shows. We were furious and would sit in The Mademoiselle Room listening to strolling violinists and order scrambled eggs. The only thing we could afford. If we needed any food we had to pay for it in the club. We were told to join the AGVA union, even though some of us were Equity members.

Photographic print: Dancer Mollie Fennell and adagio dancer Francois Szony, in costume backstage, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, Palm Island, Miami, FL, 1953. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

One day I complained about having to mingle [with the patrons]. The next day, Lou Walters, [the impresario of the Latin Quarter locations] came into the dressing room glaring in my direction. He threatened to send me back to England without a passage. We continued to eat our eggs and ignored the customers who were mafia types.

Moya had a terrible experience. She had refused to go out with one guy and had an ice bucket poured over head in the lounge. We quickly took her to our room, and I spoke to our manager. He said he didn’t see a thing even though he was standing nearby.

I was asked to dine one night and was tired of eggs, so I said yes. The dinner was delicious, and I went back to the dressing room and one of the showgirls told me I had dined with the White Russian and Charlie, The Blade, fresh out of Sing Sing Prison. Scrambled eggs tasted delicious after that mafia experience.

Gloria Swanson came in the dressing room one night following her successful movie, Sunset Boulevard. She took a photo with all the girls.

Photographic print: Actor Gloria Swanson backstage with dancer Mollie Fennell and other Latin Quarter cast, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter, Palm Island, Miami, FL, 1953. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Our next destination was Las Vegas for six weeks. Mr. Walters flew the American girls, and we were put into cars with the French act. We drove across country. I was with Moya in The Chailvel’s car, dragging a boat behind us. Walters gave us $3.00 a day to travel. Sally was in a car with a French singer who only had a driving license for a few weeks and she started driving over a Mississippi bridge the wrong way.

What a trip. The cars would only stop when they needed gas and we had to use outhouses. Some of the cheap motels were near railroad crossings and the building would shake like a Lucille Ball television episode. Traveling through mountains round bends one could see grave markers down the side of the mountains, and we had to look to see if the boat was still behind us.

Paper program: Latin Quarter Revue, Parisian Mardi Gras production, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, Desert Inn, Las Vegas, NV, 1953. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

We arrived in Vegas days later, walked into the Desert Inn and told the manager who we were. He took one look at dirty tired dancers and shook his head. We found a motel room opposite the Sands Hotel. Moya, Sally, Thelma, and I took up housekeeping. The Desert Inn was famous in those days with a beautiful stage and of course a gambling casino. We would watch gamblers lose their money between shows. Everyone dressed well in those days, so we had to buy a cocktail dress.

Paper program insert: Latin Quarter Revue, Parisian Mardi Gras production, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, toured Las Vegas, NV and St. Louis, MO, 1953. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate

We liked Vegas better than the mafia Miami except for the sand storms and Moya making us sweep the sand out of our rooms. Vegas was full of stars. We would see Frank Sinatra every day and when at the Sands swimming pool we sat near Van Johnson. The desert was beautiful and stretched out to the mountains. Sometimes with friends we would drive up the mountains, get snowballs and drive back hoping they wouldn’t’ melt.

The day before we left for St. Louis, I started to vomit in the dressing room. Management sent me to the hospital, and it was Cowboy Week in Vegas, and all the doctors were dressed in cowboy outfits. One doctor said I had appendicitis and should have an operation, when he left the room, I jumped out of bed to join the girls.

Our next venue in St. Louis was at The Chase Hotel. This time Walters put us on a plane which looked like an ex-military machine. One of the girls gave Sally and me a sleeping pill to survive the trip and we woke up hours later to discover we hadn’t left the ground.

Again, we roomed together, and I was given a Murphy Bed. One rehearsal night the girls found me asleep in the Murphy Bed inside the wall. We were invited to go horseback riding one day. My horse bolted through the woods, and I had to lie flat so not to have my head chopped off.

The hotel was crazy. We had to walk through the kitchen to reach the stage. Waiters were carrying trays yelling, “Hot stuff.”

Photographic print: Dancer Mollie Fennell in costume backstage, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Sally and Thelma decided to return to London after St. Louis. My contract was renewed for New York [the Latin Quarter Times Square location] with Moya and we decided to stay. I went on the ship to say goodbye to my friends, felt seasick and was sad to see them go, but I did want to try Broadway. Moya and I checked into a small hotel near the statue of Grant. Our one room had a cupboard with a hot plate, and one window which looked onto a brick wall. We had to sit on the windowsill and lean out to see the sky. It was a nightmare during the hot months. The Latin Quarter was large, and our dressing room was up a winding spiral staircase with one toilet. Our costumes were beautiful, and we were sent for fittings to the costume factory.

We had two shows a night and three on Saturday. The audience was always in evening dress with waiters and captains also in formal wear. Sophie Tucker was the star. One of her quotes was, “I have been poor, and I have been rich. Rich is better.” Her dressing room was near the stage. She never said hello to any of us.

The Can-can was the main dance and it was fun especially as we could yell during the dance. I began to enjoy the work having the freedom to express one’s self on stage after the regiment of English theatre.

I volunteered to be the swing girl for an extra $15.00 a week, which means you learn everyone’s place on stage and work seven days a week.

Photographic print: Latin Quarter dancers Mollie Fennell (left) and June Day, Las Vegas, NV, 1953. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I met June Day from Canada. June sat near me in the dressing room. She was a well-trained dancer who became a lifelong treasured friend.  She had danced at The Riviera in New Jersey before joining the Quarter, and she lived in the same hotel.

One Saturday after three shows, Walters booked us for a benefit at The Waldorf Astoria. We were to dance the Can-can. Halfway through, my shoe flew off and landed in someone’s dinner and I had to continue with one shoe on and one off.

David English used to send me money to buy Irene dresses because England was still rationed. I could buy her beautiful dresses for $15.00 on Broadway.

We had many stars in the shows. Jane Morgan was a favorite and I was chosen to be featured during her act. Walters asked me to do a fill in one day to dance alongside a pianist while scenery was changed. No rehearsal, no choreography. He made me go on stage.

Photographic print: (Left to right) Dancer Terry Dee, Singer/Entertainer Jane Morgan, dancer Mollie Fennell, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Photograph by Pat Rich. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

One evening Elizabeth Taylor was seated center ringside. I was eye-to-eye staring into her violet eyes. Corky, our captain, dancer Jane Freed and I were chosen for a photo in Lou Walters’ office, and we were featured in Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Magazine Article Photograph: Lou Walters with Latin Quarter dancers Corky Baysinger, Janie Thomas and Mollie Fennell, Lou Walters office, New York, New York, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In one number with the showgirls and male dancers I was dressed in a green gown trimmed in fur. At some point the boys had to unzip the gowns and we were revealed in a semi nude outfit. The zipper stuck one night. I froze and didn’t know what to do. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!”, one of the boys yelled. I’m sure the audience heard him and looked at me parading around in a broken gown with a red face.

Magazine Article Photograph: Latin Quarter dancers take to the stage, Mollie Fennell (far left, green gown), Lou Walters office, New York, New York, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Barbara Walters spent many evenings backstage. We befriended her sister, Jackie [Walters], who had a learning disability. She would spend time in our dressing room, and we would teach her songs and rhymes. Barbara Walters and Roy Cohn the lawyer during the McCarthy Hearings were on friendly terms backstage. We would wonder who would be next after careers of famous performers were damaged. Orson Wells, Lena Horne, Lee Grant, Charlie Chaplin and many more.

Paper program page: Dancers Mollie Fennell (3rd in from left, foreground/Tulip costume) Sally Mills (4th in from left/black costume), and cast on stage, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I used to mail The Daily Worker newspaper to my friend David English who was a well-known English reporter because he needed to know what was happening in America. I wondered if I would be next on The McCarthy hot seat.

Moya left to marry in Miami, and I moved into dancer Chris Carter’s apartment because she wanted to go back to Vegas and onto Hollywood. She had two cats and roaches. You can imagine how miserable I was. She did well and we saw her dance in the movie Can-Can with Shirley MacLaine. I moved into a brownstone house somewhere in the 70s. I had a one room walkup.

Photographic print: (Left to right) Dancers Dale Strong, Mollie Fennell and Chis Carter, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Photograph by Pat Rich. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Sally wrote to ask if she could get her job back with the Latin Quarter because she had married Hugo and they were immigrating to the States. Lou Walters gave her a job then told many of us we were to go to Vegas again at the Desert Inn. I had arranged to room with June Day before Sally arrived, so Sally roomed with another girl. After six weeks we returned to New York, and I moved in with Sally and Hugo to save us money.

Paper program detail: Made in France production, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Copy of photographic print: Dancer Mollie Fennell on stage, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Mae West arrived in the show. One of her quotes was, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” We would come down our spiral staircase and were greeted by the boys in her act flexing their muscles trying to impress us. We had many stars such as Pearl Bailey, Johnnie Ray, The Andrew Sisters, Buddy Hackett, and Joey Bishop from Sinatra’s Rat Pack. One night we were thrilled to hear The Shah of Iran was in the club with his Queen Soraya. We could see him on the balcony in his glittering uniform. We thought they were the most handsome couple we had ever seen. Another time, management caught a man who had been living in the attic of the club because chicken bones would fall from the ceiling into the club in the morning.

The whole show was booked to appear on The Colgate Comedy Hour. For most of us it was our first time in front of television cameras. We were excited to experience this new medium. Jane Morgan had to put fabric into her gowns because they were too low-cut. Now we see TV anchors with plunging necklines. We were in a few dances from the Quarter, and I was with dancer Terry Dee, and singer Johnnie Ray in his Walking My Baby Back Home.

There were three of us chosen to be on the CBS Morning Show with host Will Rogers, Jr. I remember he was a funny little man and used to quote his father, “Everyone talks about the weather, and nobody does anything about it.”

Television paid well and the broadcast also aired in California, so we had a double salary. My parents, sister Pat and Binty our dog emigrated in 1954 and settled in Connecticut. I was thrilled to be reunited with my family and with the money from television I was able to buy my parents their bedroom furniture.

Photographic print: On stage, Mollie Fennell (center) and cast, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Photograph by Pat Rich. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I married and stayed at the Latin Quarter until 1957. Then left to start a family and raise my two beautiful daughters. I followed with my career in dance arts teaching The Royal Academy of Dance and The Imperial Society, in New Jersey for 30 years. Sally Mills joined the school as the tap and acrobatic teacher.  I’m now a life-time member of RAD. My two daughters, Lesley and Dana trained with RAD and ISTD exams and danced in many local shows. One student of mine went on to open her own studio in Evanston, Illinois. Beatrix “Béa” Rashid’s Dance Center Evanston is one of the largest schools in the Chicago area.  I also choreographed local musicals in my area, such as GypsyJohn Travolta was one of my boy dancers in that production.  He would come early to rehearsals and ask, “How do I get into showbiz.” I told him to go to New York City and take every class he could get, and he did. The next thing I knew he was in a Broadway show with The Andrew Sisters. Another student Monica Reiner,  went on to perform in A Chorus Line. So, when you visit a theatre or a performance remember, there are stories behind the makeup.

I owe my career to my mum, The Royal Academy of Dance, Miss Annette Schultz [Blackpool dance director, See Part I] and my dance teachers.

End of Part II

Part I in this article series: https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-mollie-fennell-numark-part-i/

This article was edited in collaboration with Mollie Fennell Numark and the John Hemmer Archive in 2021. It based on Mollie’s 2017 memoir, Looking Through My Window and from a 2018 live presentation at the Shelter Island Public Library in Shelter Island, New York. Part II is the last installment in this article series, A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark.

A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark, Part I

Born in England at the onset of The Great Depression, Mollie Fennell Numark embarked upon a dancer’s life under unlikely circumstances. Shaped by experiences from a world faced with vast uncertainty, her disciplined career brought her from the great stages of England to the most renowned American nightclubs of the mid-20th century. Mollie remembers her emersion into theatre and the artform’s perseverance to entertain despite wartime dangers, and coming to the United States with the hopes and dreams that a country in peacetime promised.

 

Mollie Fennell Numark: During the year of 1939 my sister and I were very young and were hearing adults talking about a war. We lived in England. Europe and America had been living through an economic depression since the Stock Market crash in New York on October 1929. The 1930s dawned with the bleak reality of the Great Depression. Neville Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1937-1940. His name is associated with the policy “Appeasement” toward Germany. In the years before the World War II, he tried to detach Italy from Germany with an Anglo-Italian agreement of April 16th, 1938. The Munich agreement from September 30th, conceded Hitler all of his demands and left Czechoslovakia defenseless. Chamberlain returned a hero after his visits with Hitler, quoting, “Peace in our time”. During this period, we would hear Mum and Dad say “the war is on”, “the war is off”. We were thinking it was some sort of game they were all playing.

Black & white print: Fennell family portrait, left to right, George, Mollie, Pat and Sibyl, Blackpool, England, circa early 1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

When Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia on March 15th, 1939, the appeasement was over. The Germans attacked Poland on the 1st of September. Our fateful day arrived on September 3rd, 1939, when Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Photochrome postcard: Blackpool Tower, Blackpool England, circa 1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws.

As soon as Dad heard the news, he asked Mum for any available money we had in the house. I had to empty my savings box. He took the collection and bought canned food at the store across the street. I’m sure it wasn’t very much, but we appreciated his quick thinking in anticipation of further hard times ahead.

It seemed that overnight the local factories turned into making munitions. Workers in certain jobs were put into these factories including Dad. He went to the one in the next street where we used to buy lollipops when it was a sweet factory.

Every house was instructed to tape up all windows as a precaution against broken glass. Curtains and drapes had to be made of black material and hung in every window. The whole country went into a blackout for the next 6 years. Street lights were kept off. Every night wardens would patrol the streets and yell, “Put that light out!” if they saw a chink of light anywhere.

My hometown was Blackpool, in Lancashire county in North West England. It’s famous Blackpool Tower was built in 1854 and remains to this day. Inside the Tower is a classic Ballroom and a Circus with all Victorian architecture, as well as an Aquarium, Aviary and Menagerie. The Zoo and Aviary were regarded as one of the finest collections in the country for some time, and included lions, tigers, and monkeys.  The music heard from the Tower ballroom came from a Wurlitzer, and it’s been playing for many, many years. An amazing instrument. It sounds like an orchestra. The Tower became a significant part of my youth and influenced the course my life took.

Black & white print: Mollie Fennell, Blackpool, England, circa late 1930s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

As a child, I was sick for two years, which made me a physical wreck. At about five or six years old, my long illness of ear troubles began. It started with an ear ache, and antibiotics didn’t exist. I developed a mastoid and needed an operation behind the ear.  The bone had to be removed. It was a very dangerous procedure because of it being close to the brain. The whole period is a blur of pain. During those couple of years, I was in and out of the Victoria, and Infectious Disease Hospital. The operations were a nightmare, fighting the ether mask as it was put over my face and going under with a terrible noise pounding in my ear. I wasn’t even able to attend school. I was also a little knock-kneed and pigeon-toed as a kid. If we were off for a walk, my mother would walk behind me, yelling, “Mollie, turn your feet out,” and I’d walk smack into a lamppost. In response to this problem, my mother enrolled me into the Theatre Arts School in Blackpool, which taught the Royal Academy of Dance and ISTD theatre [Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing].

Not long after starting at the school, a ballet teacher told me that I should start walking on the outsides of my feet to strengthen them. My sister said I looked like a penguin gone wrong. While learning to dance at the Theatre Arts School, World War II was in full force in the United Kingdom. One of the many horrific aspects of the war included the Blitz, which was a strategic aerial bombing campaign designed by the Germans to attack and destroy industrial cities in England during 1940 and 1941. Even after 1941, I remember carrying gas masks in a box to our dance lessons.

The Tower Ballroom, a Victorian style venue, is where I started my dance career. Today, it’s the international venue for ballroom dancing competitions throughout the whole of Europe. And the music, you see the white instruments in the middle on the stage, that’s the Wurlitzer, where you heard that music. And there are two little doors on side of the stage, we would come out from those doors onto the dance floor.

Photochrome postcard: The Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, England, postcard dated 2003. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws.

After years of taking ballet and tap exams [at the Theater Arts School], I was asked by the director, Annette Schultz, if I would like to be in the Tower Children’s Ballet. You had to be twelve years old, and the show consisted of a hundred children from twelve to maybe fourteen. That was the tradition there for many decades which began in the early 1900s. We rehearsed in the Zoo area of the Tower. Miss Schultz used to scream at everybody, usually me. If you couldn’t get a step immediately, she’d always yell at somebody. She’d be screaming and the lions would be roaring trying to drown her out. That was what our rehearsals were like. It was pretty traumatic.

Paper program page: The Blackpool Tower Circus program, advertisement for The Blackpool Tower entertainment, Blackpool England, mid-1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In 1942 I was twelve years old, and it was my first show for the Children’s Ballet in the Tower. The traditional Christmas show was Jingle Bells, and it involved lots of dancing toys. My week’s pay was seven shillings and sixpence in an envelope. It was given to Mum and out of that amount I was given bus fare and on matinee days, money for a meal between shows. The only meal we could afford with rationing was beans on toast, mushrooms on toast, chips on toast, or peas and chips with a cup of tea. Dancers were always hungry.

Salute to Happiness was my first summer show. One scene was a beautiful white ballet to Chopin’s Minute Waltz. There was a little girl in the company who could play classical music, and there was a beautiful white piano on the ballroom floor. We were all dressed in gorgeous white tutus. We’re halfway through the performance and my frilly knickers, attached to my tutu came undone and started to slide down my legs. Well, try to do classical ballet with your knickers sliding down, it’s a little difficult, so I practically had my knees together trying to keep them up. And finally, they fell to the floor at the end of the music, so I stepped outside, picked them up and went off the stage, ran up the stairs and Miss Schultz grabbed me – and I thought I was a dead dancer.

These productions were staged as war raged on and we all faced daily reminders of its lurking danger. Sirens would go off nearly every night. That dreaded wailing sound gives me shivers even today when it’s used by the fire departments. When the nearby towns were being bombed, we would sleep under the staircase. We could always recognize the German planes flying overhead by their chugging sound if they were being chased after a raid. A street close our my house was bombed, as well as the local railway. People died. We played in the rubble later.

It was a challenge to be out at night with the continued blackouts. It was almost like having your eyes closed. Our town took in 2000 evacuees. All along our beach front in my hometown, steel poles were driven into the sand every few yards and put there to prevent ships from landing on our beaches. Gone were the donkey rides on the sands, the Punch-and-Judy show, the ice cream, and shrimp vendors. All street and direction signs were taken down throughout Britain in case we were invaded so the enemy wouldn’t know their way around. Neither did we.

Concrete barriers were built along the promenade. Air raid shelters were built in many streets and in the school yards. We were assigned to one in the next street, Selbourne Road where our neighbors the Crook family lived. During World War I, the Germans had used gas and the allies were afraid it might be used again, so everyone in each family had gas masks. The children’s masks were in the shape of Mickey Mouse in little square boxes with string attached to wear around the neck when leaving a building. During school hours we would have practice drills to try breathing in them. Dad found this very useful when pickling onions.

Paper ration book cover: Example of ration booklets distributed by the British Ministry of Food during World War II. Source Google image search. Image subject to copyright laws.

By 1944 the blackouts continued, and we were still on ration books. Ration books were small booklets given to everyone during and after wartime for shopkeepers to log individual purchases. This was done in order to ration certain foods and clothing that were scarce during the war years. Food items such as dairy products, meats and other goods were limited. Each person or family was only allowed so many of these products during a set period of time.

We were grateful that the air raids had ended. Unfortunately, the buzz bombs, also knowns as Vengeance Weapon Attacks were striking England. The German born engineer, Wernher von Braun, was the orchestrator of those V-2 rockets – buzz bombs (He would later develop rocket and space technology for the United States after surrendering to the Americans).

Churchill’s famous speeches from the underground War Rooms in Whitehall gave the people courage. STAY CALM AND CARRY ON. And so we did

The following winter the show was Christmas Cracker. The local paper review wrote, “A Christmas Cracker burst in The Tower Ballroom on Saturday afternoon and showered a hundred children into a forty minute cascade of song and dance.”  The finale was the arrival of Father Christmas in a sleigh drawn by reindeer dancers. Myself and a group of other girls dressed in blue skating costumes danced a ballet on roller skates. We were chosen because we could skate, having spent years roller skating up and down pavements in our home neighborhoods. After falling on our butts and knees many times we mastered the art. Once we heard the applause, we forgot the pain.

Spring 1945 finally arrived. The war was over in Europe and Britain. May 8th, 1945 was VE Day [Victory in Europe Day]. Germany was defeated. Dad took us out for dinner on the promenade. We were still on rations, and we probably ate beans on toast. No more blackout. Britain turned on the lights and Blackpool could have the famous Illuminations along the promenade and our munition workers left.

The last show I ever did at the Blackpool Tower signified the end of the war. The Tower summer show was called Over the Rainbow. Beneath the bells of peace, we danced our way through thunder, lightning, wind, and rain and into sunshine and a rainbow. We ended with The Sunny Side of the Street. The theme of the show was heartwarming and appropriate to celebrate the end of the war in Europe. September 2nd, 1945 the war in the Pacific was over and it was time for the world to recover from the horrors.

Colorized photographic print: Mollie Fennell in costume, the Children’s Ballet, Over the Rainbow production, Blackpool Tower, Blackpool, England, 1943. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The costume pictured on the left here was for Over the Rainbow. I was a French girl dressed in red, white and blue and danced with other girls to Mademoiselle from Armentières. And the finale of that production was a salute to the Royal Navy.

The Pageant of Thanksgiving and Remembrance was in The Opera House with military dignitaries and armed forces in attendance. I was thrilled to be asked to represent Russia as one of the allies. My costume was magnificent, black and red with the Russian emblem on the front of the gown. A huge memorial was center stage and other girls from my ballet school were also dressed as the allies. There were regiments of British forces, choirs and prominent politicians. And that was my last show there. It was a tribute to the war and all the people who died as a result. It was a sad remembrance, but also beautiful.

Miss Schultz asked Mum if she would allow me to audition for the summer show at The Opera House. I couldn’t believe I could be in a number one show. Dad sat me down for a serious talk. He asked if I wanted to continue my education or leave school for show business. I didn’t have to think of the option. “Dad, I promise to work hard and keep studying dance if you will let me try for the show.” He wished me good luck.

I finished the Children’s Ballet at fourteen. The Opera House Theatre in Blackpool was part of another entertainment complex that included Winter Gardens. It’s a famous opera house, and Tom Arnold’s 1946 revue Starry Way, was my first show there. George Formby was the famous British comedian from stage and movies and was known for his ukulele and comedy songs. Joseph Locke the Irish tenor, opera star May Devitt and Mexican movie star Movita were also on the bill. Movita had survived a bombing of a row of houses when visiting a friend and awoke one morning to find an article in a newspaper saying she had survived.

The opening number was Stairway of Gold, which involved a staircase that slowly came down from the back of the stage. All of us girls were dressed in gold sequined military costumes with high plumed hats. For weeks we practiced with silver maces, which we learned to spin walking down a gigantic staircase slowly lowered from a flat wall onto the stage. We came down row after row, after row with those batons. Three other girls and I were chosen to be in the front of the wall at the beginning of the number. Then the three of us would exit and run backstage to climb the back steps and make our entrance with a line of girls and descend the staircase. One night, we just walked off the stage and it came down with a smack. It was so frightening. The poor man that was operating it, all his ribs were broken, and he had to go to the hospital. The stagehands pulled it back up again, and we ran around, and came down the staircase, smiling like nothing ever happened.

One number I can still remember was named Hot Chocolate. We had to jump out of a cup of hot chocolate and slide down a slide trying not to land on our bums. Joan Davies was the choreographer. An American dance act, The Hightowers were amazing. Robert Hightower, an ex-Broadway dancer had been a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down by the Japanese. He had stomach wounds, four broken ribs, a cracked skull and multiple injuries to his neck and arms. Doctors in America didn’t think he would live. With a silver plate in his head and a steel belt to protect his muscles, he was now dancing with his sister Marilyn to applauding audiences. Robert Hightower was what show people call, “a real trouper”.

One performance during the Venice scene, Joseph Locke was singing to the opera singer who was on a scenery balcony. We were dressing the scene when the balcony started to sway forward, he didn’t miss a note. Our mouths were ready to scream when some bright stagehand managed to pull the balcony back.

Blackpool had a hospital fundraiser every summer. All the shows were in the parade with parts of scenery on trucks and all the cast in costume. We would hold out containers and people would toss coins for the hospitals. I was thrilled to be in the event remembering how the hospitals had saved my life.

Miss Schultz told Mum I needed to be a full-time dance student. Mum said she couldn’t afford to pay the tuition. Miss Schultz offered to cover half the tuition if I would help with the younger classes. Before my Saturday classes I would help the dance teachers with the little ones.

I wanted to go with some of our dancers to other cities in a pantomime for the Christmas season. Dad said I couldn’t go until I passed The Elementary Ballet Exam, which is a membership exam for The Royal Academy of Dance. I took classes daily to be strong enough to take the exam. To my disappointment when it was time, Miss Schultz said I wasn’t ready. I was devastated. I think she was afraid I’d leave her. I didn’t take the exam until I was in the USA in 1972.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Mollie Fennell and cast, Red Riding Hood pantomime production, The Opera House Theatre, Blackpool, England, circa mid-1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The next show at The Opera House was a pantomime. The pantomime shows were always around Christmas, and they were always a fairy tale adapted into a production. This one was Red Riding Hood. The stars were Joseph Locke, Sandy Powell and Beryl Reid. The choreographer asked for volunteers to do flying ballet. The British company called Kirby’s Flying Ballet was the same system used in Peter Pan. Us dancers were promised an extra ten shillings if we learned to fly. I put my hand up immediately. For this, you’d wear a harness with the wires behind you, and you have the Kirby men backstage pulling them. We’d fly across the stage as mystical figures over the ballet below. In rehearsals you would get dropped a few times but, you have to carry on.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Mollie Fennell (center back) and other dancers, Blackpool Tower Circus, Blackpool England, circa 1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright. Please do not appropriate.

The following summer Miss Schultz booked us in the Tower Circus as the Circusettes.  The circus that first opened in 1884, was a hippodrome style stage ring. The one-ring circus within the Tower is an amazing thing. During any production’s finale, the ring lowers and is filled with water, and a water spectacular unfolds. There was a distinct finish for every show. We rehearsed a roller skating ballet, which was more difficult than the one we did in the Children’s Ballet. Our costumes were blue satin with white roller boots. Every show started with a parade, and I was thrilled to lead some of the ponies into the ring. Of course, doing ballet in roller skates, it’s a little different experience. We fell down a lot, but as always, when you heard the applause, you’d forget the pain. It was lots of fun.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Mollie Fennell (left) and fellow dancer in costume, Every Time You Laugh, Winter Gardens, Blackpool England, circa mid-1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

My first show away from home was in Manchester at the Palace Theatre. It was a pantomime. The tradition of the pantomime is that the male role is played by a female and the comedy Dame a man’s role. We did an adaptation of Babes in the Woods based on the story of Robin Hood, and again I was flying. I remember our digs. The landlady didn’t know how to cook.

The next summer show was in 1947. I was booked at the Winter Gardens performing in Every Time You Laugh, starring Dave Morris, Nat Jackley and Joseph Locke. Produced by Robert Nesbitt. This time we had to learn to play castanets for The Lady of Spain number, which opened the second half of the show. It was fantastic and we were dressed in black lace Spanish gowns. One night, the singers were singing, and everything was happening as usual. The theatre had a fire curtain that came down at intermissions. One night after intermission, the fire curtain stuck and wouldn’t raise. The orchestra leader started and we were all standing backstage talking to each other and forgetting what we’re supposed to do. Suddenly up went the fire curtain, and we’re all still standing around talking to each other. The orchestra leader did not stop and start from the beginning again, so we had no idea where we were at in the music. The castanets are going and everybody’s singing in the wrong place. We all started to laugh.

Between rehearsals and performances, we would go to a café, The Palm Court for food. All the dancers from The Opera House, Winter Gardens and the London Tiller Girls would meet. The London girls wouldn’t have anything to do with us Northern girls. They were snobs except one Tiller Girl who would sit with me and chat. Her parents were Scots so that made a difference. Her name was Irene Manning, and she was a beautiful brunette, and we were friends forever.

Summertime I returned to the circus. In the water finale before the ring would lower and flood with water and fountains, I had to climb a ladder onto a huge whale and hold the reins as if it was swimming in water. Some of the girls appeared in large scallop shells while other girls swam in a water ballet. One performance I was walking by the polar bear cages and a bear grabbed my arm. A trainer managed to get the bear to let go of my arm. No harm done, I felt sorry for the bear in a cage.

In 1948 I was in a pantomime in Liverpool. It was Cinderella. I was to share digs with a girl named Monica, whose parents later in life sponsored my family to move to America. In the aftermath of the war, Liverpool streets were still piled with rubble from the Blitz. It was so bad in Liverpool, it was practically destroyed. We’d climb over the rubble with our ration books to get some food and take it to our landlady. Our digs had a broken window, and this is the dead of winter, stuffed in with a piece of cardboard and covered by moldy blinds. It was awful.

Cinderella with George Formby and his wife Beryl was a lavish show with ponies pulling the golden coach and I was in the flying ballet again. This time I had to spin from the stage up to the flys and somersault across the stage. One night my wires got caught on the scenery before I was supposed to land. Back and forth I flew across the stage yelling in the wings, “Get me down!” The orchestra kept playing the same piece of music and the audience followed me as if at a tennis match. The finale was the wedding scene, and we were Cinderella’s attendants.

We used to have Christmas Day off so we would catch the last train Christmas Eve to go home for the day. Most times we had to sleep on the floor of the train because the Army had all the seats.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Dance line, Mollie Fennell third in from right, Blackpool Tower Circus, Blackpool, England, 1948. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

For the Summer of 1948, I returned to The Tower Circus as one of the Circusettes again. Our director, Miss Schultz, always had brilliant ideas. One particular season, she put the small girls on trapezes and bareback horses, jumping on and off, doing ballet on the horses. I was grateful that I was too tall. Then she decided all the tall girls were going to learn to juggle. We started by learning to juggle with three hoops. The hoops would cut us between the thumb and the finger, and we bled all over the place. Finally, we said, “We can’t do this. This is awful. We’re bleeding to death.” It took a long while to persuade the director that we were not going to do this. In response, she ordered some new ones which were smooth, so we were able to use them. We continued to rehearse for weeks learning how to juggle. And it was all done in precision, and we’d have to throw a hoop to the girls, and they’d throw them back, and it was quite amazing once we perfected it.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Dancers performing, Blackpool Tower Circus, Blackpool, England, 1948. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In the circus I was asked to be a part of the famous clown Charlie Cairoli’s act. I had to be in a large box and wear a boxing glove and hit Charlie through an opening in the box. At the end, the box would open and I would parade across the circus ring. No extra pay, but at the end of the summer, Charlie gave me a five pound note and a bottle of perfume.

Left: Paper program cover featuring Charlie Cairoli. Right: Black & white gelatin silver print, Mollie Fennell in costume, Blackpool Tower Circus, Blackpool England, 1949. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Images subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In the water finale we looked like creatures from outer space because we were covered with silver sparkles over our skin and even our faces. We were listed as The Crystal Girls while the Colberg Christal Wonders performed their amazing acrobatics. It was hard to remove the silver sparkles at home with one bathroom and multiple boarders in the house.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Water finale, Blackpool Tower Circus, Blackpool, England, circa late 1940s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The Circusettes and many performers from the Blackpool season were invited to perform in The Royal Command performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at The London Palladium in November of 1948. This was thrilling because if you’re in show business in England that’s the top of the line. New costumes were made of pale blue satin.

Julie Andrews was there with her little pig tails. She was just thirteen at the time and was part of the performance. Danny Kaye was the headliner. Our digs in London were at the Theatrical Girls Home in Soho, which was the middle of the prostitute area. The home was run by an order of nuns. I think they ran it to keep us from “The Wicked Life Upon the Stage” [A song from Showboat]. The building was full of tiny little rooms with big crosses over the beds. The nuns were all in black with lots of chains and keys around their waists. And if you wanted a bath, they would come in and measure it with a measuring stick. We were only allowed two inches of water. We had to get food from the little hutch by the kitchen, it was like Oliver Twist, “Please, may I have some more?” That was really what it was like. The rehearsals, however, were in the Palladium. Danny Kaye was always nice. He would often come and talk to us.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Circusettes, Mollie Fennell third from right kneeling, Royal Command Performance, London, England, 1948. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The Palladium had official Royal Box seats for the royals where the King and Queen, Princess Margaret and Duke of Edinburgh watched the performances. Princess Elizabeth was home because she was pregnant. The performers were told not to look at the Royal Box. It was a big ‘no-no’. The big night arrived. We were so nervous opening the performance and worried about dropping a hoop. The curtain opened and we were almost blinded with the jewels in the audience. We didn’t drop one hoop. The applause is a wonderful memory. For the finale, everyone was on stage. I said to myself, “If I don’t take a peek at the Royal Box, I’ll never have another chance.” I turned and looked up at the box. The show finished with There’s No Business Like Show Business followed by the national anthem. The next day the newspaper published a finale photo with two heads turned to the Royal Box. Danny Kaye and me. I was terrified someone would notice and I’d be in trouble, but nothing happened.

Newspaper clipping: Cast takes the stage at Royal performance, London Palladium, London, England, 1948. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws.

We took the train back to Blackpool where we were booked into The Palace Theatre to perform our Royal Command performance for a week starting the following day. At the end of that week, I asked, “Aren’t we getting our paycheck?” I was told, “It’s an honor.” I replied, “But I have to get paid. I help my mother at home. I need to get paid.” “No, it’s an honor. It’s an honor.” So, I found out about the British Actors’ Equity. I signed up with some other girls and we got paid.

In 1950, I was at the Winter Gardens production, Take It From Here with the stars of the radio hit show, Jimmy Edwards, Joy Nichols, and Dick Bentley. Produced by George and Alfred Black and Jack Hylton. We were billed as Annette’s 16 Dancettes. The John Tiller Girls were in the Opera House show. Irene (my friend from the Tiller Girls) and I would meet for a cuppa in The Palm Court and continued our friendship.

Paper program cover: Take it From Here production program, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, England, 1950. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I was given a dance partner in this show for the first time. He was six feet tall, and we’d have to do lifts. I had to do one lift where I’d spring from a sitting position on the floor onto his shoulder. He’d pulled me up, I’d hit him – boom, on the floor. We tried it quite a few times, but he could never do it. We eventually had to change the lift. The show ran through the whole summer season. It was then sent to the Adelphi Theatre at The Strand in London. So, I found myself back in London again.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Dancers, Mollie Fennell third in from right, Take it From Here production, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, England, 1950. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

There was a beautiful white ballet with my six foot partner. We also did a precision tap routine. A new number was added to the show from High Button Shoes, It was the scene originally inspired by silent era slapstick films of Mack Sennett. It was a riot, we laughed all through rehearsals. My role was Mama Crook. I had a green face, black wig and long green fingernails. After all the work the show was too long, and the number was removed. Harry Dawson was our lead singer and sometimes I’d take his lovely daughter for a walk in a park. Her name was Lesley, and I named my first child after her.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Dancers, Mollie Fennell & partner standing left, Take it From Here production, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, England, 1950. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The show was mostly done barefoot, which was another painful experience because I had a problem on the sole of my right foot. In one scene, which was a Native American dance, we had to leap off a ramp with spears. I was sent to a foot doctor for a few weeks. Another number we had to perform knee slides across the stage. One day during a high kick I pulled some muscles and was sent to a hospital for therapy. The theatre paid the bills. No day off because we still had to work.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Scene from Take it From Here production, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, England, 1950. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Our digs were in the town of Barns over the Hammersmith Bridge. Our hosts were people who rented out their homes to theatricals, and this time we had a giant and seventh dwarves, and one bathroom. So, you can imagine the queue, trying to get by a giant and all these dwarfs. And you had to light your own heater to get some water. One time I lit it incorrectly and it blew out the window, so I lost all my week’s pay in the wind that morning.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Scene from Take It From Here production, Mollie Fennell back far right (upside down), Winter Gardens, Blackpool, England, 1950. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

On our day off friends and I would become tourists. Some of my favorite trips were the Thames boat ride to Hampton Court, The Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey. I finally talked Mum into coming to London for a few days to see the show and the sights in London. It was her first visit to London, and we had a memorable time.

I returned to Blackpool after that to audition for The John Tiller group and landed a contract for the City of Oxford. Aladdin was the pantomime. Oxford was beautiful. I loved watching all the guys on their bicycles in their robes, bicycling away to the university. I was assistant to the choreographer for this show and I had a minor speaking role as Hi Ki. I danced in all the numbers too. After the choreographer left, I ran the weekly rehearsals and took notes.

Black & white gelatin silver print: Scene from Aladdin production, Mollie Fennell as “HI KI”, far left, The John Tiller Girls, Oxford Theatre, Oxford, England, early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

During that production, the principal dancer, Betty, and I became friends. She asked instead of staying in the digs if I would like to stay at her home in Henley, which was beautiful, and by the Thames River. She had a little old car she called Lizzie. Every day we’d go back and forth from Henley-on-Thames to the Oxford Theatre. There was no heater in the car, so we used a blanket. One day Lizzie decided to break down. Now, you can never be late for the theatre, you just can’t, so we hitchhiked. Somebody rolled along with a car, and two men got out and we explained our problem. “Oh yes, we’ll take you to the theater,” they said, “No problem.” They took us to the theatre, dropped us off, everything was fine. Intermission, the police came in, the two men had just escaped from prison and they went back to try and fix the car as another getaway car. The two of us wound up at the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is the most famous courthouse in Britain. It was intimidating being there. Even if you’re innocent, you feel guilty because the Barristers are there with the white wigs, and it’s very scary. For two days we had to be there, two whole days, back and forth. Finally, the men were convicted and were returned to jail. My friend got her old car Lizzie back. I haven’t hitchhiked since.

My Last Show in England was London Laughs at the Adelphi Theatre. The famous Vera Lynn was the star of the show. She was the best known during the war years for keeping British spirits alive. Her radio show, Sincerely Yours, helped bridge the gap between fighting soldiers and their families. This was the first time I did a real kick line and the first time I rehearsed I wrenched my ankle. My friend and fellow Tiller Girl, Irene, helped me down the stairs and met me the next morning to help me up again. I knew I had found a true friend. I was very proud to be a John Tiller Girl.

Paper program cover & page: London Laughs production, the John Tiller Girls, Adelphi Theatre, London, England, circa early 1950s. Courtesy Mollie Fennell Numark. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Theatre people all read The Stage paper, which gives all the information for upcoming calls to audition. One day, Betty saw an advertisement. It was for the nightclub producer, Lou Walters.

 

Lou Walters requires England’s best girl dancers and showgirls for The Latin Quarter, Miami Beach Florida, U.S.A. 

REHEARSE

New York, Nov. 25th, 1952. Open Florida Dec. 18th

Salary 30 pounds weekly plus hotel accommodations and roundtrip transportation.

AUDITION

Prince of Wales Theatre, London

Friday, Jan. 25th, 1952 11am

 

“We could go and still be back for the evening performance,” Betty said. I looked at her, thought for a minute, “Thirty pounds a week, let’s go.”

 

End of Part I

This article was edited in collaboration with Mollie Fennell Numark and the John Hemmer Archive in 2021. It based on Mollie’s 2017 memoir, Looking Through My Window and from a 2018 live presentation at the Shelter Island Public Library in Shelter Island, New York. The second installment in this article series is at A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark, Part II

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

At this time, you were in Philadelphia rehearsing the upcoming Broadway show Nowhere To Go But Up and during all this the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. You didn’t know what was going to happen, but you returned to New York City to open. The show must go on.

Lawrence Merritt: Well, the show flopped so in this case it didn’t go on for very long. We played nine performances, and that was it. I said to Ron Field, “I hate this. I thought the show was so good. The dancing, the choreography, the singing.” I said, “I just need to get out of this damn town, somehow or other.” That was in the fall of ’62. A couple months later Ron called and said, “Guess what? I’m going to Paris. I’m going to choreograph Casino de Paris.” I had no idea what that was. He went on, “and I need an assistant. You want to come? It’ll pay the equivalent of $300 in French francs every week.” Yup. I’m there, and off I went. The Casino de Paris is still running. It is as old and venerable as the Folies Bergère. Many people played there. Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Josephine Baker and the list goes on.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt (left) with Josephine Baker (center) and cast. television special, Paris, France, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

It was spring. I fell in love. I’m French. They put me in the show as the lead dancer. I decided to stay. I learned the language. I studied opera, and I danced there for a year. I learned how to do the Can-Can. When the Can-Can star took off for two weeks, I did the Can-Can. Jump splits over three girls. Ouch.

While there I did TV during the day. I was on a television show with Petula Clark and another with Josephine Baker that was choreographed by Geoffrey Holder. I did other nightclub acts also and played toilets in Barcelona with this ex-patriot American girl who was, again, very weird. My partner, at the time, he was a dancer too. Now lives in the West Village.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt, Casino de Paris production, Paris, France, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Paper scrapbook page: Paper program, Casino de Paris, the Dunes Hotel & Country Club. Lawrence Merritt, Las Vegas, NV, 1966. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Then, I was asked to be one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge. Here’s little Larry Merritt from out in the apple orchard performing at Moulin Rouge now. The leads consisted of two men and two women. I was the American star. Then there was an English girl who had been a dancer, and she took her bra off, and became the nude dancer. The nudes made a little more money. As a nude, you still always wore a G string, feathers, and rhinestones. There was a Spanish woman who was the mistress of the choreographer. She sang and wore a bra. The other male lead was a German boy. We were the four stars of the Moulin Rouge. I did an underwater number in a plexiglass pool that came up on an elevator onto the stage. I was there in ’63, ’64, and ’65. I came back to New York and on to Vegas in ’66.

Frederic Apcar, who was the producer of the Casino de Paris show, bought the name to bring it to Vegas, staging it at the Dunes [Hotel]. He said, “We’ll do a special number, and I want you to come and be in the show.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll go back to America, and make some money”, but I had actually made quite a bit of money in Paris and remained in love with it. I still speak the language. I studied opera while I was there and just took it all in. I’ll never forget it. Nevertheless, I came back and I played Vegas for a year. At the end of that time, I said okay Frederic, my contract’s up. I’m going back to New York.

Paper scrapbook page: program interior, Lawrence Merritt with cast members performing water ballet, Moulin Rouge, Paris, France circa 1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

What brought you back to New York City?

I was contacted by Harold Minsky. Mr. Minsky said, “Guess what? I’m doing a review for the Minsky’s Follies. We’re going to rehearse here Vegas and then we’re going to go back East and play.” Delaware, Chicago and wherever. In 1967 I was back in New York, then Mineola [Theatre], and by the time we were in Chicago at the Edgewater. It was 1968.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt (center) with cast members of Minsky’s Follies, Edgewater Beach Hotel dinning room, Chicago, IL, circa late 1960s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

That same year, the Broadway show, Golden Rainbow had opened. Ron Field was its original choreographer and I stayed there for a while. I was also participating in industrials that took place over at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria. They were the Milliken Breakfast Shows. The yearly productions were staged at the Waldorf and produced by the textile company, Milliken, as a way to advertise their fabrics to the industry buyers.

I was doing some film and television as well. I partnered Anne Bancroft in her television special, Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man (1970), [Bancroft and Merritt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8U3q6Ix3YQ] and Lucille Ball in the movie adaptation of Mame (1974).

You stayed very busy during this period, doing just about everything.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Lawrence Merritt at rehearsal space, unknown location, circa 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Oh yeah. I did a revival of On the Town with Phyllis Newman. Again, that was choreographed by Ron Field. I went to audition for Zorba [Zorba the Greek], choreographed by Ron Field. Ron said, “You know why it’s Greek? Hal [Harold “Hal” Prince] just got back from Crete. He wants short dark types. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.” Yeah, it’s okay friend. We were good friends. I used to go to parties at his place.

I auditioned for A Mother’s Kisses, directed by Gene Saks, choreographed by Onna White. I danced. I sang. I was cast. This is in a week and a half, two weeks. I auditioned for Promises, Promises. I danced. I sang. I was cast.  I auditioned for Dear World when Donald Saddler was choreographing that. I danced. I sang. I was cast. So, in the period of two or three weeks, I was cast in three Broadway shows. I was like, “Oh God, now what do I do?” I picked Dear World.

We went out, colonial Boston. It was full of beautiful music, and it was a wonderful artistic success, but it did not last. We previewed for a month here in town and then we opened, and well it was like two or three months that we were respectable. Okay fine, Ron Field said, “Guess what? The hairdresser character, in Applause is leaving. Why don’t you come into the show and understudy the part of Duane?” I was like okay fine, sure. Ron felt good. He won a Tony for choreographing and directing that. Lauren Bacall headlined. By the time I came in, Anne Baxter inhabited the role of Margo Channing. I went in and the guy was getting ready to leave. I’m just starting rehearsals and I was up in the part. I took over. I played it for a week with Anne Baxter who was larger than life, even though she was about two feet tall. Then Arlene Dahl took over the role. I did it with her until the natural death of the show, which was not too long after, but I’m not sure what year. 1970 something.

By then I had choreographed the Lido show in Vegas and choreographed and directed it in Paris. Then the director of the Lido show in Paris called. He was also the artistic director of the Ice Capades. He said, “You have fabulous Broadway credits and good moves. Why don’t you come and assist me on Ice Capades?” See what happens when you watch Sonja Henie movies. I went and rehearsed in LA, which is where they did the costumes, they rehearsed and all that and that’s where the companies took their vacations. Off I went to New Haven where they rehearsed at some ice rink, and then we went to Atlantic City, right after Miss America contest in the same convention hall. I was with them for three years.

Paper scrapbook page: color photographic print, Ice Capades cast, Atlantic City, NJ, 1975. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Okay, we’re into the 1970s now. I know you did some television specials and touring acts with  notable performers and top-notch choreographers.

Paper scrapbook page: color image, magazine excerpt, Lucille Ball with Lawrence Merritt (bottom right), Los Angeles, CA, 1973-74. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Yes, somewhere in there, through Ron Field, I was also asked to do Ann-Margret’s big nightclub act. Ron Field choreographed it. I went out and did that and then came back to New York City to do something else. But anyway, that was Ron Field, Marvin Hamlisch, with music by Billy BarnesSteve Martin was in the act, whatever. I was featured. Later on before I moved to LA and right after Pippin, Roger Smith, Ann-Margret’s husband, called and said, “We’re doing a big TV special with Ann-Margret called When You’re Smiling (1973).” I’ve never seen it. I was busy doing a show at night on Friday and Saturday when they showed TV specials. So anyway, he asked, “Can you come on out? Nobody can do that walk that Ron choreographed in The Lady in Red number like you. You’re Melvin Purvis, the G man.” I went out and one of the dancers in the chorus was Teri Garr. So we did this number, it was three days. [Lawrence also performed in the Ann-Margret television special, Dames at Sea, 1971, with Ann Miller].

While I was there, I called Onna. She said, “Oh my God, I’m doing Mame [1974] and we need someone to partner Lucy who won’t make her look like she’s dancing with her grandson.” So, I then spent a month on the Universal Lot doing the first number. Then we went out to the Peckerwood Ranch plantation for that scene. It was February and March, which is their winter. Very rainy.

I still had an apartment in New York, but I kept getting called elsewhere. A friend of mine called. “I’m doing Juliet Prowse’s act. And one of the guys is leaving and I’ve recommended you. You want to come over and talk to Juliet and do a couple of moves with her? We’re rehearsing over here by the Farmer’s Market in LA.” Sure. Fine. I go over and they went, “We’d love to have you. It’ll be three weeks rehearsal here in LA, four weeks at the Desert Inn [Hotel] in Vegas, 700 bucks a week. You’ll get your lodging in Vegas at the hotel.” I went back to Mame and I said “Honey, I’m not really making a lot of money here. I’m only making like 100 bucks a week. They want me, 700 bucks a week. This is back in the seventies, not bad money. Plus hotel and your transportation from LA to Vegas, Vegas back.” So she “Oh honey sure, go ahead.” So I went for three days and stayed for almost three months. So that’s the way my career went.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Ann-Margret, Lawrence Merritt (left foreground and cast), Dames at Sea television special, Los Angeles, CA, circa 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

In light of all the work outside of New York City, friends were starting to ask, “Why don’t you move to LA?” A lot of dancers had moved there because they could dance on TV shows, Flip Wilson, Sonny & Cher, Dean Martin, all those variety shows. As a dancer, you could have a real life. You could go home at five o’clock. You could have a husband and a house and a car and one or two days off a week when you weren’t rehearsing or shooting. I began to plan.

Somewhere in there, however, I was cast in Pippin. That was in 1974 when I went into PIP as a replacement with four other people. It was when Michael Rupert replaced John Rubinstein, who was the original Pippin. And I went into the show knowing that in the spring of ‘75, I was going to move to LA.

Paper scrapbook page: color magazine clippings, Rachel Welch with Lawrence Merritt, Rachel Welch World Tour, Paris, France, 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

So, I went to LA with the Ice Capades. While I was with the Ice Capades, I was asked to do Ginger Roger’s act when it was four boys. I said, Onna White… She was choreographing. “I can’t, I’m sorry. I’m busy. I’m rehearsing Raquel Welch‘s world tour.” Raquel’s act was three male dancers, singers, Joe Layton, directing and choreographing, assisted by Joe Tremaine – loony bird, great fun. It was Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, then other places in Miami Beach, Acapulco, Mexico City, Paris, Barcelona, Caracas, Sao Paulo, Rio at Carnival.

Let’s see… I was called again by Onna White saying, “We’ve gotten rid of all four boys. We’re going to make it down to one boy in Ginger Rogers act, okay? We’d like for you to come over, you’re back from Raquel. You’re free.” Yeah. I am. “Come meet her, do a few moves, You’ll meet people, one of the boys that was in the act will teach you what’s going to happen. We’re going to do one big pastiche to a medley, The Continental, Cheek to Check, Night and Day, The Carioca whatever.” okay fine. I go over and I meet Ginger. So we do it. They said, “We like you. You want it?” Okay sure. So, I’m partnering Ginger Rogers.

Paper scrapbook page: Black & white photographic print, Ginger Rogers & Lawrence Merritt, circa 1970s. Courtesy Lawrence Merritt. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

We definitely played some toilets here and there, junky places. And then, all of a sudden, there we are at The London Palladium. The opening act is Donald O’Connor with four girls. We are the headlining act. I’m in white tie and tails singing, “must you dance, every dance with the same fortunate man.” Out she comes with all of her pink chiffon with marabou around the neck and the cuffs. No wonder Fred Astaire was going “puft, puft”. He probably ate half that marabou as they danced. But here I am, Larry Merritt from the Apple Orchard on stage at The Palladium with Ginger Rogers. And who do I meet next? Larry Fuller.

 

End of Part II

The above interview with Lawrence Merritt was conducted in 2015 with the John Hemmer Archive. It was edited with Merritt in 2020 and 2021. Stay-tuned for the third installment in this article series, A Dancer’s Life: Meet Lawrence Merritt

Diary of a Showgirl: Meet Betty Jo Spyropulos, Part II

Beginnings

Black & white photographic negative: Betty Jo Alvies, Indianapolis, IN, circa 1950s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the oldest of ten children. I attended public schools. I remember receiving a vaccination shot at an early age. Our school was just about seven blocks away, so it was a nice walk. On the street where we lived there were houses on one side and a park on the other. We used to go to that park as a family where there was a pool, as well as swings, slides, and seesaws. When I moved on to high school, I took a public bus since it was further away.

Growing up in a family of ten children, living on one side of a double occupancy house, and another family of ten on the other, we had a lot of family and friends to play with. Our father worked full time and our mother was a stay-at-home mom. My mother was born in Portland, Tennessee where she was one of eleven children. Some of her siblings settled in Indianapolis, others in Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago. During some summers, I went down to Tennessee to my grandparents for a week or two. I still remember the outhouse and oil lamps and gravel and dirt roads. My grandmother would send me to the hen house for eggs, which the hen was still sitting on. I was afraid to approach the hen with her wings raising up to protect the eggs and it scared me off. My grandmother would catch the chickens and after beheading them, she’d cook them for our next meal. Oh, and I recall milk straight from the cow – it was warm – Ugh!

Back in Indianapolis, during the summer we went to the Douglass Park – they had competitions for jumping rope, playing jacks, and arts and crafts. I guess the Parks Department ran the program.

Black & white photographic negative: Alvies family members, left to right, Aunt Ella, unknown, cousin Lucien, Betty Jo, cousin Bobby Jean, park, Indianapolis, IN, circa 1950s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alves Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I had a great relationship with my mother. She was only twenty years old when I was born. My mother showed concern when she thought I might be in danger. She worried when I left Indianapolis for Detroit, Michigan to join the Idlewild Revue.

Performers of Idlewild were registered to stay at the Gotham Hotel, where there was a lot of night life. My uncle had told my mother all this, so he convinced us to come to my aunt and uncle’s home. My friend and fellow showgirl and I stayed with them during the rehearsal period and leading up to the rehearsals in Idlewild, Michigan. In the end, however, our hours of coming and going interrupted their family routine, so we went back to the hotel.

My mother was really worried during the ‘60s while I was working in New York City. There was a Russian missile site being built in Cuba that seemed to threaten the East Coast. She said, “Just come home. We can get your belongings later.” Luckily the Cuban Missile Crisis subsided, and nothing happened. After a show-down between the U.S. and Russia, the ships with the missiles turned around and returned to their country.

The Artists and Models Ball event was really my first taste of being on stage. It was a local event in Indianapolis, and I was still a teenager when I was invited to participate. The Artists and Models Ball program excerpt, “It was the 3rd annual Frontiers Artists and Models Ball – according to tradition, will open the season to Indianapolis lovers of entertainment held at Indiana Roof which was on Friday, October 2, 1959. “

Black & white photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies performing in Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, Cosa Loma nightclub, Montreal, Canada, circa 1961. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

The entertainment included Roy Hamilton (the crooning baritone), Three Souls and last year’s winner of “Miss Frontier 1958”. There were twenty-four participants in 1959. The program further states, “The Frontiers Club is a movement of Pioneers. It seeks to harness the cooperative influence of the leaders of a minority group and direct their influence to the solving of major issues, civic, social and racial.”

As I look through the program today, after quite a search through my memorabilia, I recognize the importance of this event, of which a lot of people were involved. Each participant had her own sponsor and title. My costume/character was “Miss Hindustan” and was sponsored by Severin Hotel Rainbow Room. I lucked out by being a part of it all.

My next opportunities were as a showgirl with the Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue and then Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs . I remember both revues had the same format – three production numbers – the opening, the middle, and the finale. In between were specialty acts such as comics, magicians, etc. The opening act was a big production – showgirls, then dancers, next were boy dancers and the whole ensemble – exits, entrances – the works. We learned parts of the whole number, sometimes by counts, and not always in order, with music added later, and finally the whole number.

In Idlewild, I worked with Jackie Wilson, Roy Hamilton, The Four Tops, George Kirby, Sandman – a tap dancer [Howard “Sandman” Sims] , and many other acts. At that time, Jackie Wilson was already a big star and had many hit songs. Roy Hamilton had big hits also.

When I came into the Idlewild Revue, the show was a new production. The cast all started at the same time. We rehearsed first in Detroit and performed at the Detroit Latin Quarter [no relation to Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter clubs]. It was a one-time performance and then we went on to Idlewild, Michigan to perform at the Paradise Club, where we would at last perform as a real run. We were all starting from scratch, but I think most of the revue had performed together before.

Arthur Braggs didn’t direct the shows. He let his ideas be known and executed. He surrounded himself with, and hired experienced choreographers, musicians, specialty acts, stars, etc.

The shows in both Idlewild and Smart Affairs had themes. Each number or production had its own music, costumes, dance style – Caribbean, “Native Girl”, etc.

Black & white photographic print: Signed portrait, Lon Fontaine, unknown photographer, unknown location, circa 1950s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Lon Fontaine was the choreographer with the Idlewild. Mr. Braggs watched the show from the audience. There was a dance captain who kept a sharp eye out for unison. The costume sketches were drawn by someone, I don’t know who, but a company named, Variety Costumes made them. If a replacement performer came in after the show started, the costume would have to fit. I don’t remember anyone tailoring the costumes for various performers.

I recall learning my first routine with Lon Fontaine. He got down on the floor and put his hands on my feet (shoes) and directed them by count to make sure I was getting the movement. Remember, I had never danced before. After a while and with hours of rehearsing, I got it.

Larry Steele would sometimes borrow from Broadway shows such as Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, and Mary Poppins. Costumes reflected these themes, even down to the dress and blonde wig of Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, and My Fair Lady.

The Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue and Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs also had the same production calendar – 3 weeks rehearsals, performances during July, August and closing after Labor Day, then go on the road. We rehearsed in sections – showgirls, dancers and then the boy dancers were added – couples. There was always a Tiller line [origin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiller_Girls]. When I was with Larry Steele, rehearsals were usually at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We would rehearse 12:00p.m. to 6:00p.m., break for dinner and then be back at 9:00p.m. to 12:00a.m. or later. We’d rehearse with and without music, do run throughs in rehearsal clothes and in costume. In between we had costume fittings at Variety Costumes in New York City.

Black & white photographic print: Idlewild Revue showgirls (left to right) Betty Jo Alvies, Carlean, Rikki, Joella, Lake Idlewild, MI, circa early 1960s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I was in Idlewild, Michigan doing the Arthur Braggs’ show just for one season. I guess for two or three months. On days that we had “free” (no rehearsals), we leisurely spent the day doing what? I don’t’ remember. I think we were out and up late. Going to breakfast before going in. We stayed in small bungalow rentals. We had our own rooms, sharing the house with three other showgirls. I’m sure that the resort part of Idlewild was popular, but I can’t remember participating in any activities being a night owl, and also afraid of the water. It was a great introduction into show business on that level. Every day felt new and exciting. Jackie Wilson was one of the fascinating performers that I worked with there. Everyone was charmed by him, including me.

When I came to Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, I felt like it was a continuation of Idlewild. It had prepared me for the next step in the same direction, although Mr. Steele’s process was a little different than Arthur Braggs’.

Mr. Steele set the tempo as he was on stage singing the songs and giving the lighting cues. Some of the songs he wrote and published. He’d also took existing songs, and made adjustments such as, I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, from My Fair Lady. He picked up the tempo with the band.

Black & white photographic print: Larry Steele’s Smart Affair cast with friends. Larry Steele (far left), Betty Jo Alvies (blonde), Nat King Cole (center, sitting), backstage, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

I worked with many famous entertainers doing Smart Affairs, such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Nash, Adam Wade, Sam Cooke, The Platters, as well as comics, specialty acts, such as limbo dancer, Roz Croney. They all stand out as professionals – well groomed. In fact, I remember Billy Eckstine wearing color coded suits, socks, shirts, shoes in canary yellow, powder blue, grey, pink – always impeccable. Sammy’s shows were always exciting and different. You never knew what he would do, so we always watched him, of course we never had a finale production number because he just kept going.

Color photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies, preparing for performance, backstage, Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, Club Harlem, Atlantic City, NJ, circa 1964. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Sam Cooke was another one who “brought the house down”, packing and rocking the clubs. While on the road with Smart Affairs, the show might run for four or eight weeks with options to stay longer. We knew that when we signed contracts. I always remember fondly Las Vegas Nevada. I loved the mountains. We did, I think, three shows in the lounge at the Thunderbird Hotel. When we finished to go home the sun was up. I would have liked to perform in the showroom instead of the Lounge though.

A few more memories stick out in my mind of Smart Affairs when performing at Club Harlem. The Miss America Beauty pageant was always held in Atlantic City. One year, I think it was 1962, we were invited to participate in the pageant’s parade on a float that went down the Broadway Boardwalk. Another is a tradition we had. It was to “bury the show”. The boys and girls would exchange costumes and do each other’s parts in the show. A fun time had by all.

We didn’t always go on the road directly after summers in Atlantic City. I’d often return to Indianapolis, Chicago or Detroit and wait patiently. Larry Steele always knew where to reach his show people, by phone, telegram, or many times by mail.

 

Broadway

Yellow paper show running order notice: Original stage management posting of show order for the Latin Quarter production of French Dressing, New York, NY, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Norma Miller, the jazz dancer planted the seed in me for Broadway. I probably thought about the Latin Quarter [Lou Walters’ New York City location on Broadway] because I had seen the similar shows in Las Vegas and thought “I can do that”.

When I auditioned for the Latin Quarter in New York City, I was familiar with the nightclub revues by then having performed in clubs similar to the Quarter such as Casa Loma in Montreal, The Charade nightclub in Detroit, among other venues.

I probably felt the same onstage during performances in the Idlewild Revue, Smart Affairs and the Latin Quarter, all very different but so much the same. Different cities, but all had beautiful costumes, music, and big stars along with great audiences.

Because I was a featured showgirl at the Latin Quarter, that made the difference for me personally and professionally. With the Larry Steele and Arthur Braggs’ shows I was one of four showgirls. At the Latin Quarter suddenly I was standing out front. I loved it.

At the Latin Quarter I enjoyed working with Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Rooney, Roberta Sherwood, Nelson Eddy and others. We had publicity photos taken with Jayne Mansfield and she was so gracious. I also remember watching her act and being really entertained.

Mickey Rooney (it seemed) was being protected and shielded from us showgirls because he had been married so many times. But, I did manage to get a photo with him backstage. He was a nice guy.

Black & white gelatin silver photograph: Betty Jo Alvies in costume, backstage, the Copacabana nightclub, New York, NY, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

It was Lon Fontaine who brought me to Marvin Gaye’s show at the Copacabana – plus timing – the request to work with Marvin at the Copa came at end of my engagement at the Latin Quarter. I was free to travel.

The Latin Quarter show, French Dressing closed on June 27th, 1966, and on July 17th, 1966, I met Marvin Gaye for the first time. His show was in Detroit, Michigan, and from there it went to Atlantic City, New Jersey to rehearse and have a run there before opening at the Copa on August 4th, 1966. We closed on August 28th, 1966. That was the end of my performance engagement with Marvin Gaye’s show.

It was a pleasure to work with him. He was a real professional. I felt fortunate to be part of the only show where he actually danced with the dancers as part of his act. It was fun. Marvin Gaye was rather charming and handsome. I think all of us dancers had a crush on him. It was during that time when he was quite suave and debonair.

 

The Road

When I reconnected with Larry Steele it was after the Copa, which followed the Quarter. I went with Smart Affairs to Puerto Rico in 1966 for eight weeks. Our option was picked up for an addition four weeks. But beforehand, I joined the cast in Atlantic City on August 28th, 1966, to sign contracts and arrange rehearsal for the show that he staged that summer season in Atlantic City. We went to Puerto Rico to perform at the El San Juan Hotel in the Tropicoro Supper Club from September 12th, 1966, to November 25th, 1966.

Color photochrome postcard: Old San Juan Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico, circa 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to subject copyright laws.

On November 26th I traveled from Puerto Rico to New York City, and then Toronto, Ontario I went out with the Betty George Revue. I performed with her show on December 25th and 26th, 1966 at the Cherry Hill, New Jersey Latin Casino. We’d rehearse until 6p.m. and then did two shows a night. On New Year’s Eve in 1966, we had a show in New York City.

Paper promotional card: Minsky’s Follies, the Blue Room, Shorehman Hotel, Washington D.C., circa 1970s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Larry Steele continued to offer me jobs and invited me to return to his show at any time. When I was in Chicago, Illinois at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, he asked me to take a night off from Minsky’s Follies to do a show for him there. I think it was a presentation for investors who might want to finance a production or book future shows. Mr. Steele said that Harold Minsky would understand, but I was concerned about appearing unprofessional, so I declined. I felt bad about it, but I had left Minsky’s once before in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and so I was just too apprehensive.

I continued to stay in touch with Mr. Steele through the years. He always knew where to call or wire me and stayed aware of my performance schedule at least roughly. Timing is everything in show business, however. After that 1966 gig, fate prevented me from returning to Smart Affairs, even though I’ve always had fond memories of working on productions that felt both professional and like family.  Opportunity ended up presenting itself with Minsky’s Follies. I kept with that production on and off between traveling overseas with my then husband’s ballet troupe. This was the early ’70s, and I ended up performing with Minsky’s until 1975. I am forever grateful to Arthur Braggs and Larry Steele for giving me my start of what would become a lifetime of wonderful experiences.

Working in Minsky’s allowed me to experience another part of showbusiness. We performed a wide variety of venues and in doing so I learned to constantly adapt to the different sizes and configurations of any location. Summer Stock, which was also called “the straw hat circuit” which meant that we performed outdoors under tents. We also did shows that had been choreographed for productions “in the round” (rotating stages), which required performers to enter and exit the stage through the house aisles. Not all aisles went as far as the stage, so there was always the risk of entering one that couldn’t take you to or from the stage. That meant you’d have to turn around and rush to the correct one. I was guilty of that mistake a couple of times. You always had to keep your eye on your mark.

Paper program: Inside page, Granny’s Dinner Playhouse program for Minsky’s production tour, Dallas, TX, 1975. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

We also worked clubs, dinner theatres, and lounges of all shapes and sizes. Memorable dates were at the Dupont Theatre in Wilmington Delaware, Latin Casino, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Scotsman Club, Totowa, New Jersey, the Lookout House in Covington, Kentucky, Granny’s Dinner Theatre, in Dallas, Texas, Three Rivers Inn, Syracuse, New York, and three or four of the Chateau de Ville Dinner Theatres that were sprinkled around New England.  The Marine Room at the Edgewater Hotel in Chicago was a beautiful place to perform, as was the Blue Room at Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. For the show at the Marine Room, we did a publicity event where we met some Marines at the airport. They were gentlemen and it was fun.

Black & white photographic print: Minsky’s Follies performers, Chicago International Airport to meet U.S. Marines for publicity photos. Left to right, Francine Storey, unknown performer, Betty Jo Alvies, Juanita Boyle, with unknown Marines, Chicago, IL, circa 1970s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Initially, the show was booked for a typical 8-week run at the Playboy Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. We ran out our 8 weeks in their lounge and then moved over to the Fontainebleau, Miami Beach. When we finished there, Playboy asked us back. We returned to their lounge for a year. I remember that around that time the hotel was sold because the Playboy Plaza Hotel was going out of business. A few of us were able to leave with some hotel memorabilia because it was sort of the end of an era in a way. For awhile those hotels and clubs were real destinations spots.

Martha Raye headlined with Minsky’s a couple of different times. Raye and the entire cast were invited to visit the White House. Nixon was president. He had a Yorkshire terrier, maybe named Pasha. I also had a Yorkshire terrier, so I was fond of them. I called her by name, and she came running over. The Secret Service wondered how the dog knew me. I said I just read about her and had a Yorkshire terrier myself. They thought that was funny. We were all invited to the White House because of Martha Raye, who was being honored. She did a lot to honor POWs during the Vietnam War. In 1972, while she was touring with us, she gave an interview to the New York Times about her performance in Minsky’s, and her then upcoming return to Broadway in No, No Nanette. The Times reported that Mrs. Raye made a closing speech in our show about the boys in Vietnam. I remember it.  In the article, she was quoted as saying, “They ask so little and give so much.” [referring to US soldiers serving in Vietnam] The interview continues with questioning the meaning of her closing speech. She was quoted as saying, “…I’m not promoting the war, I’m promoting empathy for our fighting men. I’ve been entertaining troops since Pearl Harbor.” Her politics made an impression because she cared so much, whether you agreed with her or not. I remember that she was a committed hard working and friendly with the cast.

Paper program: Playbill cover for Minsky’s at Valley Forge Music Fair, headlining Martha Raye (pictured), Devon, PA, circa mid-1970s. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Rehearsals were always in Vegas, but I was part of the touring show, so I never performed with Minsky’s in Las Vegas. They had their own permanent show there and I was with the road show. The productions consisted of four showgirls, a production singer, one lead female and one lead male dancer (the leads would sometimes do an adagio), and four production dancers. This was a lounge sized act, but for larger venues we’d have to spread out which could become complicated in terms of the staging and choreography. If we only had eight counts to get across, we’d have to make adjustments. These shows were definitely more compact than Arthur Braggs or Larry Steele productions.

When I first saw Minsky’s, the production was in Long Island. The Mineola Theatre was a grand venue. It’s now a catering hall for weddings. There was a big chandelier there that was pretty spectacular. For the Minsky’s show they had a ramp from the stage that went out into the audience – about four rows out – and under the chandelier. They did a number where the showgirls wore satin coats in different colors and performed to the [Duke Ellington] song, Satin Doll. That was my introduction to the Minsky’s Follies. I was invited to see the show by one of the Minsky’s managers. His name was Maury. We met me there to watch the show and that was essentially the audition. He then sent a report to Mr. Minsky, and I was offered the gig as a replacement. Later I ended up doing that same Satin Doll routine. My coat was green.

As I worked periodically with Minsky’s over the years, I usually a replacement. Because I was coming into an existing production and part, I’d have just a little time to learn the routines. Sometimes same day. Toward the end, when I rejoined the show after traveling in Europe, they had switched to piped music. It went from a live orchestra to popular recorded tunes. Songs of the day, such as Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, Live and Let Die from the James Bond series for examples were what our routines were set to. The adagio dance was performed to It’s Cheaper to Keep Her. There was a dancer who called herself Saki Tumi, who wore a straw skirt and coconuts and performed with fire. The showgirls in the production went from an elegant and controlled performance to go-go dancing, swinging our heads around and so-forth. We were playing the same beautiful rooms, but the shows were completely different. To me, this shift seemed out of place. I suppose they were trying to adapt to the times, but to me it wasn’t quite the same.

Color photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies,, Minsky’s Follies tour, Dallas, Texas, 1975. Courtesy Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.

Still, there were opportunities that Harold Minsky gave me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. At one point there was kind of a slapstick comedy scene where there was a straight woman who basically feeds lines to the person playing the comedic role. The skits were full of double entendres. I never thought I could do anything like that, but I played the straight woman, and it was a lot of fun.

Our contracts were always with “Pat Ava Corp”. Pat was Harold Minsky’s wife and Ava was their daughter. His son Danny was the manager. Minsky’s has a long history and even in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was still a family owned and operated outfit.

Harold Minsky was a quiet, kind, and calm person, who liked to stay in the background. He was a perfect gentleman. Even when I had to leave the show unexpectedly, and earlier than my contact stipulated. He followed with a telegram. It read, “All is forgiven”, which allowed me to return, and I was grateful. The Minsky’s experience was a long relationship and a good one.

End of Part II

This article was written by Betty Jo Spyropulos in collaboration with the John Hemmer Archive in the spring and summer 2021.

To read Diary of a Showgirl: Meet Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos, Part I, visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/diary-of-a-showgirl-meet-betty-jo-alvies-spyropulos-part-i/

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. See https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/a-dancers-life-meet-lawrence-merritt-part-ii/ 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.