Remembering Francois Szony: A conversation with Ferenc Szony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Kirsten

Kirsten Larvick is a documentarian and archivist. She is influenced by interests in mid-century political and cultural history, non-fiction filmmaking and the preservation of personal heritage and cinema art legacies.