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CHAPTER 4

Meet Me In St. Louis, 1954
Now, as a member of Actor’s Equity, I was notified of all dance auditions and given first choice. Even though I considered myself vertically challenged - which was my way of saying I was a bit on the short side - I now stood a better chance.
In May, an audition came up for the Municipal Opera in St. Louis. The choreographer was Anthony Nelle.

"The Muny", a 12,000 seat outdoor amphitheater featured Broadway musicals from mid-June through mid-August. It was and still is entrenched in the entertainment fabric of St. Louis and has gained international fame for the quality of its productions. It’s located in Forest Park where the nearby Art Museum is nearly all that remains of the famous World’s Fair of 1905. This fair serves as a background in the closing scene of the 1944 movie “Meet Me In St. Louis” starring Judy Garland. The Muny had a huge revolving stage the size of Radio City Music Hall and the scenery for the musicals were built right there on the lot, which usually surpassed even the original Broadway sets. In the pit was the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Edwin McArthur, who had been the famed opera singer Kirsten Flagstad’s personal accompanist and biographer.

 

I was accepted along with four other boys and five girls, each of us New Yorkers. The other five boy dancers and the rest of the girls, seventeen in all, were to be from either St. Louis itself or its surrounding areas. We were to leave for St. Louis in a week or so.

Photo: Anthony Nelle

Joan and I spent our final night together in my tiny room on 12th Street in Greenwich Village and the next day I left for St. Louis with the other dancers on an overnight train. I was out of pocket of course and asked one of the other dancers if he could lend me some until our first pay-check. The generous lender of ten dollars was Mickey Callin, who was later to change his name to Michael Callan and become a movie star of some magnitude, after he was discovered in the original musical “West Side Story”.

It must have been a particularly unusual crop of dancers that season as of us nine boys, several more would become famous. Larry Fuller became assistant to Michael Bennett who achieved world fame as the choreographer of “A Chorus Line” and other Broadway hits. Bennett later died in Tucson, Arizona, while Larry went on to become a choreographer himself with his most famous Broadway hit, “Evita”. Carl Jablonski was another who later went to Hollywood and choreographed Academy Award specials. Don Emmons became a dancing star in many musicals on Broadway. Richard Gain, then little more than a beginner and just out of high school, went on to become a principle with American Ballet Theater and with Martha Grahams’s company. As far as I know, none of the girls went very far.

                      Photo: Main entrance to the Municipal Opera, Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri

We opened with “Call Me Madam” starring then little known Elaine Stritch. Then “New Moon”, “Song Of Norway”, “Roberta”, “Mikado”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “Three Musketeers”, “Panama Hattie”, “Where’s Charlie”, “Red Mill” and ending with “Oklahoma!” in which I had a solo role as the rodeo cowboy on a wild bronco.

A steady stream of well known personalities appeared in the productions. Gretchen Wyler, later to become a Broadway star in the musical “Silk Stockings” was one of our stock members. The leads included Martyn Green from the British D’Oyle Carte Gilbert and Sullivan company, Robert Rounseville, Irra Petina, Russell Nype, Hal le Roy, Kent Smith. The lead dancers were, Mary Ellen Moylan, Gemzi de Lappe, Robert Pagent, Scott Merrill and Patricia Bowman. The famous stage and screen actor Romney Brent was our stage director.

Many years later, while in Las Vegas, I happened to run into Patricia Bowman who had retired there. By then she was a little old lady with a cane. It was after a performance by the Nevada Dance Theater, run by my friend Vasilli Sulich. Vasilli had long been a featured dancer in the spectacular stage shows at the Tropicana Hotel. After retirement he had gathered a group of dancers from the Las Vegas entertainment industry to form his world class ballet company.

I mentioned to Bowman that I had once danced with her at the Muny. Actually, I had only lifted her once and supported her in a pirouette during the big ballet sequence in “Song Of Norway”. I was just one of the undistinguishable ballet boys, but she graciously said she remembered me.

Patricia Bowman was the first American Prima Ballerina who opened the Roxy Theater in New York in 1929. The great Leonide Massine was the house choreographer then, producing extravagant production numbers, some even including elephants, which received popular if not critical acclaim. This was of course long before my humble job there as a candy salesman in 1950.

Photo: Prima Ballerina, Patricia Bowman posing for me backstage at the Muny.

Charlie Tate was the other choreographer. He only set the tap numbers, and there were lots of them. Apart from Mickey Callin, we New York boys were basically ballet dancers. We knew nothing of tap, and since most of the musicals called for at least one tap number, all we could do was to fake it as best we could!

Both boys and girls took turns being ‘swing person’, meaning that you had to learn the numbers but actually dance in them only as a replacement if someone was out. As the summer wore on and no one seemed to be missing a performance, we grew lax at learning routines that we were unlikely to perform anyway. That was a big mistake. During the week’s run of the musical “Roberta” I happened to be swing boy for its opening number, a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers type of routine. I hadn’t really bothered to learn it except for the opening moves. Fifteen minutes before curtain I was told I had to go on, and it was the dance number that opened the show. My partner and I, placed downstage front and center, began the dance. We boys were dressed in tuxedos with detachable cardboard shirt fronts, called dickeys. Behind us were the other dancers, following us.

After the first few steps I was supposed to leave my original partner and go to different girls. “Where do I go to next” I would whisper to each girl while setting her down from a lift. She would whisper back ,“Go to Sally, then to Jane” and so on, while I frantically searched the stage for whoever was next.

The huge audience began to laugh. “They’re laughing at me” I whispered to the last girl I danced with. Finally the dance was over. I’m going to be fired, I thought as I heroically walked off stage. Backstage, to my relief, Mr. Nelle said they were not actually laughing at me but at another boy dancer whose dickey had broken loose and rolled up in his face! From then on I made it a point to totally learn any number I was not to dance in, but that was the one and only time I ever had to do it.

Photo: Oklahoma! I’m in center with striped pants. Mickey Callin and Larry Fuller on my right side, Richard Gain is on end, far to my right. Man dancing in front is Hollywood film star, Hal Leroy. Note, although faking tap dancing, notice that ALL our feet are all in same position. How did I manage that?
 
Photo: Wedding scene in “Oklahoma”. I’m standing far left as’ best man’...

It was a rough schedule; While we were performing one show every evening, during the day we rehearsed the show for the following week. After the final performance on Sunday evening there was the dress rehearsal for the next show, lasting until dawn. Monday was the only free day, but then, when you are young you have boundless energy.

Photo: In “Oklahoma” [backstage snapshot]

Midway during summer I received a letter from Joan containing my ring. She was breaking off the relationship. Apparently her family had convinced her that I was “far too wild” and it would be better to end it while I was away. I took this break-off rather hard at the time but of course she was right. As a dancing “gypsy”, how could I possibly have been in any kind of a position for marriage when I could scarcely look after myself? Besides, we were both far too young.

Summer ended. Should I go back to New York with the others to continue the same round of auditions? It would be the same routine: checking into the WMCA and finding another menial, routine job. What kind of a dead-end future was that? Or, should I make a complete break and do something else?

Luckily, one day I noticed an announcement placed on the backstage call board from a local dancing school that was looking for a teacher. At Summer’s end, the other dancers went their own ways and I began a new life as a teacher and resident of St. Louis. I moved into a nice apartment and bought a TV set and a little puppy, then my first car – a DeSoto convertible. The driving exam after one lesson was during rush hour in downtown St. Louis! Scary!

Photos: Above - First car, a DeSoto convertible. Right - First recital

I truly missed New York, but I’d made a lot of new friends and kept telling myself as I drove my car around town, how much better off I was in St. Louis. In the end, after a year of teaching and staging my first student recital in which I also danced, I made another move. I wondered, as long as I enjoyed teaching - why not have my very own dancing school? I would have to shop for a location. Stuffing my car with possessions and saying goodbye to my friends I headed back East.

 



 

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