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.
New York, Nov. 25th, 1952. Open Florida Dec. 18th
Salary 30 pounds weekly plus hotel accommodations and roundtrip transportation.
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. Stay-tuned for the second installment in this article series, A Dancer’s Life: Meet Mollie Fennell Numark
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 Barnes – Steve 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  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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article was written by Betty Jo Spyropulos in collaboration with the John Hemmer Archive in the spring and summer 2021.
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.
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.
~ 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.
Photographic print: Francois & Giselle Szony, 1940. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
A pioneer in the field, Francois Szony (1926-2020) brought adagio to new heights over the course of what would be an unusually long career.
Born to Hungarian parents in Budapest where his father operated a restaurant in a major train station, Francois and Giselle began performing together at an early age. At their mother’s insistence, the brother and sister duo studied folk dancing, gymnastics and ballet, but it was natural talent that organically developed into something altogether unique.
The Szonys (sometimes billed as Francois and Giselle Szony) was the result of this diligence and passion. The act brought them to the top venues of the era, across Europe and throughout the United States.
Following his recent passing, his son Ferenc Szony, shared some of Francois’ story with the John Hemmer Archive, as well as his own memories of a father who devoted his entire life to the art of dance.
JHA: Your father’s first partner was his younger sister, Giselle. Their rise to fame was just before and during World War II. Did your father ever talk about those circumstances and what touring during wartime was like?
Ferenc Szony: He said that when the war was looming he was concerned that he’d be dragged into the military, but that didn’t happen. He and Giselle continued to dance, even after Hungary was occupied, they performed for the Germans. At some point, they began to tour outside the country at various venues throughout Europe, including a well-known club in Berlin.
Paper magazine clipping: Unknown publication on Francois and Giselle Szony. Unknown date. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
Eventually settling in Paris, Francois and Giselle enjoyed a city that embraced the dancers’ lifestyle. They spent the daytime with other dancers and performed at night at infamous establishments such as The Lido de Paris, Moulin Rouge and Bal Tabarin.
What were the circumstances that brought Francois and Giselle to the United States?
Black & white photographic print: Francois & Giselle Szony publicity portrait, circa 1950s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
During World War II, German-American actress Marlene Dietrich was heavily involved in the war effort, performing in USO shows around the world. Francois and Giselle would sometimes get booked as an opening act for a solo artist. Dietrich took a liking to The Szonys and kind of took them under her wing, helping them immigrate to the United States following the war.
Francois and Giselle didn’t have a typical “Coming to America” experience. Because of Marlene Dietrich, they arrived in the United States and were immediately accepted into the nightclub circuit. This was an incredible opportunity.
They performed just about everywhere, including the Waldorf Astoria’s Empire Room and the Latin Quarter in New York City, the Palmer House Hotel Empire Room in Chicago, The Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco and some of the first Las Vegas hot-spots, Hotel Last Frontier, Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, and El Rancho Vegas.
Photochrome postcard: Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA, dated 1935. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.
My father and Giselle had an unbelievably full life in the 1950s.
Tell me about your mother and when you arrived on the scene.
Color photographic print: Francois Szony & son, Ferenc Szony, Paris Concord, Paris, France, circa early 1960s. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
My mother’s name was Joan [Szony] and she was born in the states. She was a dancer as a young woman.
Her first marriage was to Joaquin Garay. Garay was a Mexican-American singer and the impresario of The Copacabana in San Francisco, a popular nightclub and celebrity hub during the 1940s and ‘50s. They had a daughter together, but the marriage didn’t last.
Joan met Francois when he was performing at the Venetian Room at The Fairmont. They married and I came along in 1955.
My mother had pretty much retired from dance even before she met Francois, so she was a full-time wife and mother. The two of us traveled with my father and Giselle during the first part of my existance, including during this European tour where Francois and I are pictured together here.
Was Nancy Claire your father’s next partner? How did that transition between partners take place, and how was this collaboration different than that of Francois and Giselle?
Black & white photographic print: Francois Szony & Nancy Claire publicity still. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
Toward the end of the 1950s, Francois and Giselle returned to Europe and toured for about 6 years. My mother and I were traveling with them.
It was at the London Palladium that Giselle began to express fatigue over the many strenuous performances and decided she wanted out. Giselle was strongly recognized as part of The Szonys. Together they opened for Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and other stars, so finding the right partner to fill her shoes was no small feat.
Francois had gotten to know Nancy Claire back in San Francisco and contacted her when Giselle was considering leaving the act. Acrobatics were a large part of The Szonys’ signature style so it was important to find a dancer who was capable of that type of work.
Giselle was very special as a performer in part due to her acrobatic skills. She was a gymnast and a dancer. Luckily, Nancy Claire was able to adapt to those acrobatics, but she brought more of a focus on ballet. Nancy had a gift for displaying a beauty and grace in her performances and was able to combine that with the athletic qualities Giselle had developed with Francois. The Szony and Claire partnership was born, and they worked together for around 12 to 15 years.
Black & white photographic print: Francois and son, Ferenc Szony, Paris, France, circa early 1960s. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Francois and Nancy finished out the European tour, returning to the states in the mid-1960s. Throughout the rest of the 1960s they bounced back and forth primarily between New York City and Las Vegas.
Was this the time when they would perform at the Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter?
Digital photograph of black & white print: Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter exterior & marquee, New York, NY, circa 1950s/60s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
Francois and Giselle had performed there together previously, but yes, Szony and Claire performed at the Latin Quarter a lot during the 1960s. The Latin Quarter was obviously the premiere place to be.
The thing Francois loved about the Latin Quarter was that it was in New York City. When you did what he did, you could do it 24/7 in Manhattan, at a world class level. You could go to Luigi’s and rehearse during the day and get back to the venue to perform at night.
The entertainment scene was so elaborate in New York that Francois could completely immerse himself in dance. Francois returned to the Latin Quarter many times and was part of its community. The Szonys were a favorite regular act at its Manhattan hub and its Miami Beach, Florida location too.
Digital photograph of black & white print: Latin Quarter performers and friends, including Francois Szony, celebrate Lou Walters’ daughter Jacqui Walters’ birthday, the Latin Quarter, New York, NY, circa 1950s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
What are some of your own memories of the Latin Quarter and other venues your father performed at?
Paper program excerpt: Francois & Giselle Szony (right) featured in Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter souvenir program, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.
The Latin Quarter had a couple of acts that stuck in my mind. One was a part of the actual production and involved a large movie screen projecting a film of a reckless driver. Some ladies, probably Latin Quarter dancers or showgirls, came out on stage and drove around in front of the screen in this comical car that would gyrate and jiggle around. As a kid I thought it was pretty hysterical.
Magazine excerpt: Francios Szony & Nancy Claire at Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub in New York, NY, published Dance Magazine, 1963. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
A couple of novelty acts that are etched in my memory include, Mr. Electric [Marvyn Roy], a magician who performed stunts with light bulbs. Mr. Electric was seemingly able to illuminate light bulbs at will without being connected to a power source. Mr. Electric also pulled a long string of lit bulbs from his mouth. Another memory is of the Amin Brothers [sometimes billed as Brothers Amin], who were a two-man acrobatic act. They were unbelievable the way the one would lay on his back and use his legs and feet to toss the other twirling into the air.
Being the son of a performer, I had several suits even as a youngster. I would dress accordingly when going to these places whether I sat in the audience, viewed the show from the wings or from a light booth. I even recall going to a resort in The Catskills where Francois wouldn’t do the performance unless they had two shows. The place didn’t budget a crew for more performances, so I stepped in and operated the lights, having spent enough time in lighting booths that I was able to figure out what to do.
A lot of my memories around my father’s performances are from New York City and Las Vegas. However, by the time I was in 3rd or 4th grade, my mother thought we should settle down, first in New York and then making a permanent home in Vegas. Francois was still traveling to other cities to perform sometimes, such as Miami and Los Angles.
In Los Angeles he was no longer dancing at the Ambassador Hotel, but he and Nancy were performing on television variety programs. Recently, I found out they made a total of 11 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, which is pretty remarkable.
They also danced on the Hollywood Palace, which was another popular television variety program of the day. I especially enjoyed myself when Szony and Claire were scheduled to perform on Hollywood Palace because the studio would arrange outings for me with a staff member, such as a trip to Disneyland.
For a time my father befriended Russ Sanders, a movie stuntman. Whenever we would go to LA, my father and I would make a trip to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica to hang out with Saunders and watch performers do teeterboard acrobatics.
Francois obviously left his mark on the dance world. He’s referred to a pioneer not just of adagio, but of other dance forms. Can you elaborate on this?
Black & white photographic print: Francois Szony & Nancy Claire, publicity still, circa 1960s. Courtesy Francois Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
The key things about Francois and his partners’ style was they weren’t a traditional pas de deux adagio act. They were too muscular to be pas de deux. Luigi once said that what they brought were acrobatics that included a little bit of danger. With pas de deux, you don’t come off stage bruised or splintered. Those slides across the floor, low catches of your partner, became distinctly attributed to Francois and his dance partners. This type of movement and athleticism goes beyond adagio.
Your father enjoyed an unusually long career as a dancer. Are their aspects of Francois’ talent and drive that you attribute this to?
My father’s life was devoted to dance. He was always consumed with whoever his dance partner was at the time. He was either on stage performing or getting ready for it. He was a true artist. His whole identity was as a dancer. In a lot of ways he was like a pro athlete that didn’t get off the field. He preferred to continue dancing rather than open a dance school or take on a more supportive type role. He performed on cruise lines later in life and continued as long as he could. He even had two hip replacements, but still went to the ballroom.
You are the founder of Truckee Gaming, a group of casino resorts in Nevada. Do you feel as though your father influenced the direction you took in life in some ways?
I attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas and was recruited by Hilton Hotels just out of college. I was with the Flamingo Hotel for 17 years until I stepped out on my own in 1997. I’ve always liked the entertainment aspect of the gaming resorts, but I’m a businessman. Francois didn’t always understand that, but he had a strong connection to my son Franz Szony. Franz is a painter, photographer and multimedia artist. Francois felt as though Franz was following in his footsteps, so his legacy continues through his grandson.
What comes to mind if you think about the greatest lesson or inspired wisdom your father bestowed to you?
Love what you do. When it was time to notify family and loved ones that my dad had passed away, I didn’t say, “I lost my father.” I said “Today we lost a dancer.” Because “we” didn’t lose him. The world lost Francois Szony.
Digital photograph of black & white print: Nancy Claire & Francois Szony take a bow on the stage of Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter, New York, NY, circa 1960s. Courtesy Ferenc Szony. Image subject to copyright laws.
~ This conversation between the John Hemmer Archive and Ferenc Szony was edited from a phone conversation that took place on September 5th, 2020. Ferenc Szony remains in the casino business and is a life long Nevadan. Special thanks to dancer/entertainer, Sal Angelica for making introductions.
Black & white negative: Betty Jo Alvies with mother, Joann Alvies, circa late 1940s. Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
As the oldest of 10 children, most memories of my youth involve taking care of my siblings. I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to my mother who was a homemaker, and stepfather, a factory worker and part-time restaurant employee. With a large family, my parents struggled to make ends meet.
It was under these circumstances that I chose to drop out of high school at the age of 15 or 16 years of age and took a nanny position for 2 young boys. I did that for around a year before becoming a babysitter, taking up residence at a nearby rooming house, which was close to home.
Eventually, I transitioned to a job in a grocery store stocking shelves, writing prices on canned goods, weighing produce, and occasionally working in the butcher department. At the same time, I was working at a restaurant on weekends.
Because of my economic situation, surviving was at the top of my priority list. There wasn’t a lot of room for dreaming back then. Growing up I had no real interest or encouragement to pursue the performing arts. As a kid I listened to the radio a lot. My only memory of seeing dancers or showgirls was on the Jackie Gleason Show on the television. I remember his June Taylor Dancers. Up to that point, I knew little of the world of entertainment. That would all change soon enough.
Color photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies as “Miss Hindustan” at the Artists and Models Ball, Indianapolis, IN, 1959. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
While working at the grocery, a woman customer approached me and asked if I would like to be in an Artists and Models Ball fundraiser. I agreed and participated by wearing a costume titled “Miss Hindustan”. My guess is the name was invented to represent India’s style of dress. At the time, someone told me I was noticed because of my smile. I placed 3rd. It was my first taste of the stage.
I was 19 by then and a friend of mine, Joella, and I used to go to musical events now and again on the weekends around Indianapolis. One of these evenings we went to a Catholic Church Center. It was here that I saw Little Anthony and the Imperials and Harvey and the Moonglows. Over the course of these outings, we met a lot of showbusiness people.
One day in 1960, the MC of a club, Mr. Baron Harris, called and said a producer was talent scouting for a revue. The producer’s name was Mr. Arthur Braggs. Mr. Braggs was auditioning showgirls and dancers for Arthur Braggs’ Idlewild Revue. The renowned show enjoyed long runs at Braggs’ Paradise Club in Idlewild, Michigan, as well as extensive tours across the U.S.
Arthur Braggs (1912-1982) was a leader in promoting and showcasing the top talent of the day, focusing on African American entertainers. Mr. Braggs informed me that the latest revue was to be based in Idlewild, Michigan for the summer season. He said to bring heels. I recall both Joella and I taking a taxi over to the club. We met with the producer and auditioned. Later we both got the call – we were in. It was my first venture into show business.
Photochrome postcard: Showgirls (left to right), Joella, Rikki, Betty Jo & Carlean, Idlewild Revue, Paradise Club, Idlewild, MI, 1960. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
The Idlewild Revue was an amazing experience. I stayed for a year. We began at Detroit nightclub, the Latin Quarter [no connection to Lou Walters’ nightclubs in New York City and Miami Beach], then onto Idlewild Michigan where we performed at the Paradise Club, then the Black Orchid in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; the Orchid Room in Kansas City, Kansas; the Casino Theatre in Toronto, Canada; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland; and the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C, as well as The Apollo in New York City, and Basin Street South in Boston, Massachusetts.
Gelatin-silver photograph: Signed Larry Steele portrait with inscription to Betty Jo Alvies, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
When the tour concluded, I returned to Indianapolis and assumed my exciting and whirlwind life in the performing arts had come to an end. I was in fact, however, just getting started. Idlewild Revue choreographer, Lon Fontaine rang. He was working with Larry Steele and rehearsing for the producer/impresario’s revue beginning in Chicago, Illinois. Off I went to the windy city and stayed on with the show when it returned to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the summer season.
Larry Steele (b. 1913-1980) was a producer, songwriter and composer, bandleader, and impresario who developed all-star African American revues. Steele’s Smart Affairs staged productions that toured across the U.S., as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Widely recognized as a visionary, Steele brought overdue recognition to variety entertainers and focused on the beauty and talent of women of color that didn’t exist before in the broader world of the industry.
Color photograph: Thunderbird Hotel marquee, Las Vegas, Nevada, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Touring with Smart Affairs was remarkable. Mr. Steele was very respectful of his employees and also rather protective. It was his policy to keep his show people separated from the club patrons, so we didn’t mix much with the audience. It didn’t matter though because Larry Steele and company were like family. We performed at the Latin Casino at its Cherry Hill, New Jersey location, and made our way up to Montreal, Canada and also over to Las Vegas, Nevada where we performed at the Thunderbird Hotel in the lounge. I remember that a production of South Pacific was in the big room while we were there. We were also at the Regal Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, Charades Nightclub in Detroit, Michigan, a Syrian Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and many other venues.
The Smart Affairs shows were made up of 3 production numbers which consisted of 4 to 6 showgirls, 4 boy dancers and sometimes up to 8 girl dancers. There was always a featured headliner and a comic. The headliners would stay with the show for a certain period and then move on and another headliner would come in for a number of shows or weeks.
Gelatin-silver photograph: Larry Steele’s “Smart Affairs” cast, including Betty Jo Alvies, performing on stage with guest headliner, Sammy Davis, Jr., Club Harlem, Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
It was with Smart Affairs that brought about a friendship with Sam Cooke (b. 1931-1964). He was an accomplished singer and songwriter who had become known as The King of Soul. This was based on his distinctive voice. He had many hit singles and is considered a pioneer of soul music.
Black & white photographic print: Betty Jo Alvies & Sam Cooke, Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1961-65. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
We spent time together during his second summer with Larry Steele in Atlantic City. He and I would go on adventures between shows and it was Sam who gave me my beloved Yorkshire terrier, Cookie. Sam was a very charming man. After he left the show, it wasn’t more than a few months later that I learned of his untimely death. Needless to say, this was an unexpected shock. I am grateful to have known him though and remember him fondly. Cookie traveled with me everywhere and was a wonderful reminder of a special friendship.
I was with Larry Steele from 1961-65. A well-known jazz dancer, Norma Miller (b. 1932-2019) came through as a headliner with Smart Affairs for a number of shows. She approached me one day and said, “You belong on Broadway”. She was a celebrated entertainer, so I never forgot her words (decades later I got my chance to thank Norma in person). I had been with Smart Affairs for 5 years when Norma suggested I look beyond Larry Steele. Despite having some awareness of my beauty and talents as a showgirl, I never thought of breaking the ranks and stepping out. With Larry Steele I was able to perform all over the U.S. and settled in for wonderful summer seasons at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Still, I couldn’t shake what she said to me. And so, I was off to my next adventure – New York City.
Gelatin-silver photograph: Stage performance, “French Dressing” production with headliner, Jayne Mansfield, Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
In the fall of 1965, I arrived in Manhattan and auditioned for the Latin Quarter nightclub’s production of French Dressing. Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter was still under Walters’ leadership. The Manhattan location was on 48thand Broadway, which was the hub of entertainment in the city. My audition wasn’t an immediate success. I was turned away repeatedly, but Mr. Walters eventually brought me on and gave me new opportunities.
Black & white print: Les Olympiads performer trio publicity photograph, circa 1960s. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
As a lead showgirl, I did numbers with the four boy dancers. They carried me out and around the stage above their heads. I introduced guest performers such as the Whirling Dervishes, Les Olympiads [also billed as Trio Olympiads] and Mademoiselle Jeannine Pivoteau, a French aerialist [also billed as Mlle. Pivoteau, the Goddess of Flight]. I learned how to make those announcements in French. I grew as a performer during that production because Mr. Walters gave me the permission and courage to challenge myself.
That production ran about 8 months. The guest headliners who came through included Mickey Rooney, Nelson Eddy, Roberta Sherwood, Jayne Mansfield and Bobby Van.
At the Latin Quarter, I quickly formed friendships with my castmates and fellow showgirls, Bernadette Brookes, Betty Bruce, Eva Carter, and Irene Dorson. We were inseparable for a while. Whether it be in our dressing rooms at the club or after the shows came down. Late at night when we were finished with the show, we’d head out to places like Howard Johnsons, Jack Dempsey’s, Danny’s Hideaway or P.J. Clarkes. On one occasion we went to the Hilton to see Jerry Lewis.
Color photographs: Betty Jo Alvies in costume backstage during production of “French Dressing” at the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY. January, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos, Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Sammy Davis, Jr. came to see the Latin Quarter show when I was performing. He and I worked together for 5 consecutive summer seasons with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Having worked that much together, we’d become friends.
Once in between shows the 5 of us showgirls visited Sammy, who was appearing on Broadway in Golden Boy at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th. When we arrived backstage to visit him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage were there. I had never met Mr. King before, but the girls said I introduced him as though we had already known one another. They were all impressed.
Color photograph: Showgirls, Eva Carter (left) & Betty Jo Alvies strike during the run of the Latin Quarter production of French Dressing, New York, NY, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
When I was performing at the Latin Quarter, the union American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) directed us to picket for better wages and working environment. AGVA wanted us to demand higher rates for additional shows and do something about the number of bathrooms and dressing room space.
To be honest, we weren’t really aware of the politics going on and just went with AGVA’s requests. We were young and didn’t really understand what we were being asked to do. Nevertheless, I continued to perform at the Latin Quarter after the strike was settled and until the show closed before moving on to other gigs. I’ll always be grateful to Lou Walters for the way he helped me stretch creatively and take more of a starring role that I hadn’t previously experienced at that level.
June 27th, 1966, the Latin Quarter show ended its run. It was one of the best experiences. Mr. Walters was very kind and wrote several letters expressing his interest in my return, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Other opportunities knocked.
Paper clipping: Ad for Betty George’s revue, the Blue Orchid supper club, Toronto, Ontario, 1967. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Very soon after the Quarter, I was contacted again by Lon Fontaine. It was through him that I was contracted to perform with Marvin Gaye at the Copacabana in New York City. This production included Marvin as the headlining singer and 4 dancers, of which I was one. We did three production numbers around and with him.
I spent most of my life on the road in various shows between 1960 and 1975. Following the Copa run I reconnected with Smart Affairs and joined Larry Steele and his show in Puerto Rico, where we spent 8 weeks at the El San Juan Hotel.
Betty George (b. 1926-2007) was a singer that came out of the big band era. She performed with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. She also had a long run with Milton Berle and later in life she hosted radio programs. I joined the Betty George Revue after Puerto Rico and enjoyed traveling with her production to Toronto, and New York City. A couple of showgirls I’d worked with before on other shows helped bring me on. I was delighted because Ms. George was professional and very nice to work with. Her show featured 4 of us showgirls who performed with Ms. George. We were at the Blue Orchid in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for a time. I believe our shows in New York were at a place called The Living Room, which was a popular joint in midtown east of town back in the day.
The Broadway musical, Golden Rainbow premiered in 1968. The premise of the story revolved around a Las Vegas widower, Steve Lawrence who is raising his son by himself until his brother and sister-in-law show up to help. It also starred Steve Lawrence’s real-life wife, Eydie Gorme and actress, Marilyn Cooper. It was staged at the Shubert Theatre on west 44thstreet. My friend and fellow Latin Quarter showgirl, Bernadette Brookes was cast in the production before me. She called and said they needed another showgirl and helped arrange for my audition. I was with that show for 4 months before I decided it was time to move on.
By 1968, I was married to my first husband who was a dancer with the Harkness Ballet. The company was touring and encouraged their performers’ spouses to travel with them. Harkness was so supportive that they covered my travel and accommodations with my husband. So, I left Golden Rainbow early to tour with him in Europe for 8 months.
Color photograph: Betty Jo Alvies, Italy, 1968. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
When I returned to the states, I began an on-again, off-again stint with Minsky’s Follies and alternated those gigs with Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs. I was fortunate to continue a good relationship with Mr. Steele. He often requested my return to his show and whenever I was able, I gladly accepted. We even did a USO show in Needles, California, which was a thrill.
Color photographs: USO show performance (left); Betty Jo Alvies (right) boarding tour bus; Larry Steele’s USO show, Needles, CA, 1964. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Minsky’s Follies was a long running show that originated with Harold Minsky in New York City at the Gaiety Theatre. The Minsky family produced burlesque entertainment from the early 20thcentury during the genre’s hey-day. The Follies was a continuation of that early era but was crafted to be more “family friendly” than your traditional burlesque stage act. This tamer interpretation allowed the show to travel more widely and attract a broader audience.
Paper telegram: Western Union telegram to Betty Jo Alvies, from Harold Minsky, November 7th, 1967. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
My first Minsky’s experience was in 1967 when I took a 3-week engagement. I believe my fellow Latin Quarter showgirl and friend, Darlene Larson, might have helped connect me with Mr. Minsky. I didn’t audition, but rather Mr. Minsky arranged that I see one of their nearby shows. After that I was hired.
Color photograph: Betty Jo Alvies in costume backstage, Minsky’s Follies tour, circa 1967-75. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
During the first week we commuted from New York City in a hot back seat of a car to an even hotter open sided tent in the countryside. Lambertville, New Jersey was nice and peaceful, however, and it felt good to get away from the concrete jungle.
I traveled a lot with Minsky’s, touring throughout the East Coast, the Midwest, the South and also out West. This was periodic work that I jumped in and out of through 1975.
Some of the venues that stick out in my mind are The Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Marine Room in Chicago, Illinois; the Dupont Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware; the Lookout House Supper Club, Covington, Kentucky, and the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
In 1973, I stayed with Minsky’s for a year straight. We performed at the Playboy Plaza Hotel and the Fontaineblaeu Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.
Colorized photochrome postcard: Edgewater Beach Hotel, Marine Room, Chicago, IL, circa 1950s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws.
During my run with Minsky’s, one of my favorite headliners who came through was comedic actress and singer, Martha Raye (1916-1994). She was another nice woman to work with. She’d been heavily involved in performing with USO shows. Families would come backstage to tell Ms. Raye about their sons, brothers and loved ones who were missing in action or prisoners of war.
Color photograph: (left to right) Betty Jo Alvies, Martha Raye and fellow castmate, during Minsky’s Follies tour, circa 1970s. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
At one point all of us in the cast got these silver POW and MIA bracelets that featured a POW or MIA name on each. The idea was to continue wearing them until the men were found. It was a way to make sure those soldiers weren’t forgotten. Although wearing those bracelets all the time meant that they’d break or fall off over time, I do vaguely recall that at one point we were asked to stop wearing them. I guess it was considered an inappropriate political statement and of course this was the era of the Vietnam War, which was rather controversial. I just can’t remember where that decision came from. Still, Ms. Raye really cared about our troops and made us all more aware of the sacrifices our service people made. I still own and treasure my bracelet, even though they broke apart from wear.
Silvergelatin photograph: Jackie Wilson performing in Arthur Braggs’ Idlewild Revue, Paradise Club, Idlewild, MI, circa 1960. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Ms. Raye liked spending time with the cast too. Sometimes after the show came down, we’d all gather at a local restaurant. She often came along and at one particular restaurant, the owner closed the doors, allowing the people who were still eating to stay. Ms. Raye went over to their piano and began playing. She entertained the cast and the whole restaurant. It was a lot of fun and she was lovely.
Throughout my performing career, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many amazing entertainers. Some of them I’ve already mentioned here. Others include Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Aretha Franklin, Roy Hamilton, Jackie Wilson – so many others. I’ve also had the good fortune of meeting the likes of Jerry Lewis, Bill Dana, Vincent Edwards and Harry Belafonte, as well as forming friendships with unforgettable figures such as boxer and political activist Cassius Clay, comedian Lenny Bruce and musician and actor, Adam Wade.
In fact, decades later Adam Wade would produce a stage production whose central character’s story was inspired by my own. I consulted on that show, which was titled, On Kentucky Avenue, and it has run on and off since 2011. I was able to be present at most of the performances. It was satisfying to see some of my life reflected in its story. It not only celebrates that period in show business, but also gives a glimpse inside the life of a stage performer.
Color photograph: Adam Wade with Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos (center) with cast & friends of “On Kentucky Avenue”, Aaron Davis Hall, New York, NY, circa 2011. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Sometimes people ask whether I experienced racism or segregation during my career. I don’t recall any specific segregation, although venues often catered to certain communities where a particular race was predominant. When I was with revues that were more focused on African American entertainers, the audience was often dependent upon the venue and its location. For instance, in Idlewild, Michigan, we performed mainly to black audiences. That area was a popular resort town for African American vacationers. At Club Harlem in Atlantic City, it was more about the lead performer’s following. Patronage hinged on the city and the club. As far as bias goes, I’d say for the most part that I was very protected by the producers and shows I was part of. I feel lucky to have had mostly good experiences, as I know not everyone has had the same fortune.
Paper letter: To Betty Jo Alvies, from Lou Walters, impresario of the Latin Quarter, May 4th, 1967. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
A lot was going on in America in the 1960s and ‘70s while I was working and enjoying life as a showgirl and entertainer. Civil rights issues were even more fervently pursued than they are now. Protests against the war and other political resistance was everywhere too.
Because I was so busy performing, however, I missed a lot of the political activism that was going on in the outside world. Being on the road and living a life completely immersed in the business, I was a bit insulated. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the news or wasn’t part of conversations, but because of my work, the continuous travel, and intense hours it required, I was never grounded in one place long enough to get involved.
There were times when a performer friend would ask me to be part of a fundraiser show for a charitable cause or for a political figure. Those were sometimes hard to join in on because of my full schedule. Though, I did what I could, when I could. I always kind of wished that I had gotten involved in some of efforts going on during that period, but these days I stay active through volunteer work.
I look back on my career adventures with warm nostalgia and delight in sharing my history with those who have interest. Today, I am happy to talk my experiences with my local community, as well as with journalists and other platforms documenting this era in show business. I have a nice life with my wonderful husband, and we have two beautiful sons.
End of Part I
This article was written by Betty Jo Spyropulos in collaboration with the John Hemmer Archive in the fall and winter 2020. Visit https://www.johnhemmerarchive.org/diary-of-a-showgirl-meeting-betty-jo-spyropulos-part-ii/ for the second installment in this article series.
To learn more about Betty Jo’s friendship with Lenny Bruce, visit http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers/lennybruce/
For more about Betty Jo and Sam Cooke, see https://atlanticcityweekly.com/archive/salute-to-mr-soul-sam-cooke/article_4d6d12e5-e460-55dc-b49b-80f637e52062.html
Watch Betty Jo’s oral history interview from a recent Latin Quarter reunion.
Meet the Entertainers: Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.
With big eyes, full lips, and long legs, the statuesque and talented Bernadette Brookes enjoyed her fair share of notice over the decades. It was her infectious sense of humor and child-like wonder, however, that endeared her to those who knew the actress, showgirl and songstress. An introvert who loved inspiring a smile, Brookes once described herself as a clown trapped in a showgirl costume.
Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: Bernadette Brookes in costume, backstage at the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa mid-1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada where she studied dance, Brookes made her way to New York City as a young woman eager to make her way in the arts. By the mid-1960s, Brookes found herself at an audition for the latest Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub’s production, French Dressing. There she met a fellow performer who would become a life-long friend. Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos says she and Brookes immediately connected, eventually becoming roommates for a time in an apartment not far from the supper club.
Color photograph: Betty Jo Alvies in costume backstage with show cat, the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, January, 1966. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
“She was playful”, says Betty Jo. “When we were living together in 1965 and ’66, Bernadette’s cat had kittens. She decided it would be a good idea to incorporate them into the show at the Latin Quarter. So, we tucked a cat into our costumes and went out on stage with the cats peering out through the fur. The audience loved it. I’m not sure how we got by with it since cats weren’t exactly part of what was choreographed, but we just did it and no one told us to stop. That sort of thing wouldn’t happen today, of course, but we were young and adventurous and the cats didn’t seem to mind as memory serves.”
Decades later, Bernadette recalled, “I like being a little mischievous. At the Latin Quarter, sometimes I’d go around and tie my castmates’ shoestrings together just for fun. I don’t know if they ever realized it was me doing it. I was a clown trapped in a showgirl costume. I should have joined the circus, but I guess that was not to be.”
“Bernadette was ahead of her time too”, remembers Betty Jo. “She was always researching and taking different supplements. Those type of vitamins are commonly known for aiding in one’s good health now. Bernadette was that way though. She was a seeker who was always working on self improvement.
She took classes, painted and trained in voice. She encouraged me to pursue similar interests, but I wasn’t as disciplined in those ways. I admired that about her. With a passion for the arts, she painted quite a bit when we lived together. The artist name she adopted was ‘Alta’. She signed all her paintings that way. I never knew the inspiration behind ‘Alta’, but it has stuck in my mind to this day. Bernadette was a very creative spirit.”
Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: Bernadette Brookes, black & white headshots, New York, NY, circa 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
She was also active in her performing arts community as chronicled by the press. The New York Daily News published on September 8th, 1967 that a “Latin Quarter eyeful” visited City Hall to call for an end of the identification cards required of cabaret workers. Bernadette was the eyeful and she was joined by 20-some other performers who turned out in support of abolishing the law, claiming it was a carryover from the Prohibition Era. Representatives of AGFA and Actors Equity turned out to offer statements. The article further reported that “Next came Latin Quarter impresario Lou Walters, who said, ‘In all my experience I’ve never run across anyone who should be finger printed in order to get a job, whether it was a chorus girl or a star.’ Walters then introduced the last – and most formful – witness of the day, miniskirted, strawberry blonde, Bernadette Brookes, one of his showgirls. ‘The girls wanted me to come down and speak for them… because a number of them have children and they have to find babysitters and go to the added expense and inconvenience of coming downtown to get their police cards.’, she said.”
Silvergelatin photograph: Showgirl Eva Carter (left) & Bernadette Brookes on stage & in costume, publicity shoot for “French Dressing” production, the Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, circa 1965-66. Courtesy Betty Jo Spyropulos. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton Alberta Canada) printed on April 23rd, 1966 “Ambitious Showgirls Say It’s Hard Work But Fun”. The profile on Brookes by Rod Currie stated, “Perhaps one of the most erroneous images to come of Hollywood is that of the glamorous showgirl, the toast of the town, wined and dined by handsome escorts and pursued by wealthy stage-door johnnies. But for Toronto—born Bernadette Brookes, a statuesque brunette who graces the stage of the famed Latin Quarter, it’s all hard-work-but-fun.”
Fellow showgirl, Eva Carter recently recalled, “I spent a lot of time with Bernadette (Bernie) and Betty Jo in the [Latin Quarter] dressing room. We sat next to each other. There was always laughter and fun. We got along beautifully. The three of us would often go out between shows. If one of us had a date, the others were always welcome. It was safer that way and guaranteed laughs. We would go to Mama Leones for dinner, or after the second show to Jilly’s, on West 49 street, where we could sometimes see Frank Sinatra seated at the back of the lounge. He was a friend of Jilly’s. I believe I worked with Bernadette in about two shows, 1965-‘68. If I remember correctly, the shows were about a year long. Then when a new show was being prepared, we continued to work at night and rehearse during the day.”
Bernadette Brookes took to the stage at the Latin Quarter in productions The Venus Touch, Maid in Paris, and French Dressing. While performing at the nightclub she worked with notable talent such as director Donn Arden, choreographer Bob Herget, and costume designer Bill Campbell, among others. Some of the novelty and dance acts who made guest appearances during these productions were Aldo Richiardi Jr., “South America’s Greatest Illusionist”, the acrobatic team, Wazzan Troupe, The Barry Sisters, the Ballet Zigani, and headliners such as Nelson Eddy and Gale Sherwood.
Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: Publicity photograph, Bernadette Brookes (left), Steve Lawrence (center) and Thelma Sherr (right) for “Golden Rainbow”, New York, NY, 1968. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Following the Latin Quarter, the original 1968 Broadway cast of Golden Rainbow with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme came calling. “My journal from back in the day reminded me that it was because of Bernadette that I got the gig on Golden Rainbow”, recalls Betty Jo. “She had suggested me as a replacement showgirl in the production. She called one afternoon and told me to come in the following day to meet with Steve Lawrence and the board. The rest is history.”
Bernadette enjoyed a career that included dance, modeling, and acting on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, film, television, industrial and commercial work, and performed on tour with Minsky’s Follies.
As an actor, she performed in More Stately Mansions at the Irish Rebel Theatre, Irish Arts Center, New York, New York. She joined the 1965 cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as Panacea, staged at the Westport County Playhouse, Westport, New Hampshire. Her castmates were Dick Shawn, Danny Dayton and José Ferrer.
In 1966, she performed as Gloria Coogle, alongside John Forsythe and Corbett Monica in Who Was that Lady I Saw You With with the Kenley Players in Warren, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. Additionally she played The Young Wife in Inglewood Playhouse’s production of La Ronde and Estelle in No Exit, Los Angeles, California. Other regional productions included stagings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Maggie); Bus Stop (Cherie); The Owl and the Pussycat (Doris); and I Am a Camera (Sally).
Paper scrapbook page within leather portfolio: newspaper clipping, press photograph and ad for a production of “Who Was that Lady I Saw You With”, presented by the Kenley Players, Ohio, 1966. Photograph (left to right): Joyce O’Neal, Corbett Monico, John Forsythe & Bernadette Brookes. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Throughout these years Bernadette had the pleasure of working with such directors such as Harvey Hart, Norman Campbell, Norman Jewison, Howard Zieff, as well as choreography legends Ron Fields, Ron Lewis, and Jaime Rogers. As a constant student of acting, she studied under Paul E. Richards, Peggy Feury, Doe Lang, and Ginger Howard Friedman.
Photographic print: Bernadette Brookes publicity photograph, circa 1960s. Courtesy John Hemmer Archive. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Television credits encompassed popular series of the day, Dan August; Medical Center and Adam 12. Bernadette appeared in many industrials over the years for various corporations. Her favorite was a production co-starring Paul Lynde for American Express.
She explored other aspects of creativity by way of voice work with a various of vocal coaches and even learned film editing at City College in Los Angeles, California.
Later in life, having a strong interest in health and wellness practices, Bernadette attended Hunter College and worked at the Swedish Institute for Acupuncture in New York City. Without compromising her stage work, she continued to perform in Ziegfeld Society productions and enjoyed singing.
As an active member of the Latin Quarter Showgirls, Inc. charity, Bernadette lent her talents to several of their performances, which helped raise funds for children in need. She continued to attend the Latin Quarter performer reunions that developed after the charity dissolved in the early 2000s. She most recently attended the Latin Quarter Social Club New York City gathering in 2019.
Digital photograph: (left to right) Showgirls, Bernadette Brookes, Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos & dancer Francine M. Storey, Latin Quarter reunion, New York, NY, circa 2000s. Courtesy Eva Carter. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
As a dear friend to many, the loss of Bernadette Brookes is profound. Her contributions to performing arts and her passion as an artist are only documented here in broad strokes. Having lived a full life beyond her stage work, she was an avid reader on all things related to the arts, politics and natural health practices. Bernadette enjoyed discussing fine art, as much as reminiscing about her life, and genuinely liked learning about others. A wonderfully flirtatious tease, she charmed everyone around her. Bernadette retained her humor and sense of curiosity throughout her life and will remain a vivid figure in her community’s minds and hearts. Although originally hailing from Toronto and lived in Los Angeles for a time, Bernadette was a tried and true lifetime New Yorker.
Digital photograph: (left to right) God daughter, Kelly & friend, Shirley, with Bernadette Brookes, 2016. Courtesy Leatha Sturges. Image subject to copyright laws. Please do not appropriate.
Special thanks to Eva Carter, Betty Jo Alvies Spyropulos and Leatha Sturges for sharing their memories and reflections of their friend, Bernadette Brookes.