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CHAPTER 5

Back To New York.
It was my first cross-country drive in the DeSoto convertible. I was headed North-East for Elmira, in up-State New York. I wanted to put all those turbulent years behind me and look over the possibilities of opening my own dance school there.

Why Elmira? Elmira is a city most known for Mark Twain, who lived there and is buried there. He called this beautiful county ‘the garden of Eden’ and there wrote his greatest works: Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee and more.

The study where he wrote his books, designed as a replica of a Mississippi riverboat pilot-house still stands on the Elmira College campus, which was the first American college to grant women degrees equivalent to those given men.

I thought it could be a good place to start a school, and reasonably close to New York City. Yet, I kept wondering if I should really settle down to teach quite yet? I was still young and a good dancer and had even learned tap and jazz dance. So after a week looking around I sped off to New York City once again and got settled in Greenwich Village. Romney Brent the director back at the Muny lived next door, but he was busy at the time acting in a TV soap opera. I didn't want to bother.
Photo: Mark Twain's Study

A Most Unusual Show!
I went to an audtion for two choreographers, Hale and Arlen. It was the usual 'cattle call' with about a hundred other dancers, but I was chosen with two other boys and three girls. It wasn't clear what kind of a show it was nor where we were to perform, but it was at least a union show, so I had to join AGVA - The American Guild of Variety Artists. Now there were two unions I belonged to.

We rehearsed in various Broadway studios and learned a jazz number, then an oriental number, and so on.

An odd woman kept coming to watch. We were told she was an 'angel', a theatrical term for a backer. Naturally, as hopeful dancers we all sat at her feet in false adoration. After all, she had suddenly emerged as our benefactor.

Word finally came that we were to open in Memphis and the girls joyfully, but too quickly sent their trunks on to the theater there. Well, the whole thing was just a run- around. The zinger was that, unknown to us, we were actually going to be part of a burlesque show!

Our ‘patroness’ was in reality a burlesque queen who had enough backing to open her own theater in Union City, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan.

Burlesque at that time was illegal in Manhattan.

So, why use really trained dancers for this, and boys as well? We dancers were suspicious, sensing it was not too aboveboard, but it was a job so we didn’t question it too much. . After all, we were just going to be dancing as background for the strippers and our girls certainly wouldn’t have to do any of that sort of thing. They were trained ballerinas. We all desperately needed a job. Why not give it a try?

As it turned out, Lola - our angel’s stage name, had a desire to produce an American version of “Les Folies Bergère" which she had once seen in Paris.

There, both boy and girl professional dancers appear in elaborate, high-class production numbers, very unlike the American version of burlesque which was considered trashy and vulgar. Her own backers appeared to me to be the Mafiosi - at least a lot of sleazy looking characters had started hanging around.

The show opened. We boys breezed through our jazz dance numbers just as if we were in a regular Broadway show. Changing into a tuxedo, I even had to sing ‘Lullaby Of Broadway’ along with the brassy orchestra, during one of the strip acts. At least I had a mike.

As expected, one of our girls, a long time and talented student of Doukadovsky in Carnegie Hall, had to endure shouts of ‘take it off’ during her impeccable 32 fouettés and she never missed a beat.

During our second week, Thanksgiving Day arrived. Benevolent Lola ordered a catered dinner for everybody. We dancers sat at tables backstage, right along with the burlesque queens and show’s comics as if it was all quite natural! Quite an experience!

It was three or four shows a day and by the third week I’d had enough. I think we all did. Fred Astaire was looking for a teacher for Syracuse, New York so I quit the show to teach ballroom and tap dancing there until Spring.

Opening and Closing my very own Dance Studio
Returning to Elmira, still with hopes of opening my own dance school, I found a studio space that was above Dr. Scholl’s - a store selling corrective shoes and foot accessories. “Feet Hurt?” was their slogan sign on the front of the building on Main Street, placed directly under my own sign announcing “Dick Holden’s Ballet Arts Studio”. Not very inviting I thought, but even so, within two weeks I had a sizable enrollment. Within a month, and with the help of some highly impressed mothers, I had enough students to open a branch studio in the nearby town of Horseheads.

Science fiction movies being the rage during the 1950s, my first recital had an outer space theme. I believe I was the first use this for a dancing school recital and the first to use a reel-to-reel tape recorder - rather innovative at the time. The show was a tremendous success and brought in more students.

Photos: Some of the students in my Elmira dance studio

During the summers I attended week long dance teacher conventions held in first class New York City hotels. Outstanding instructors were brought in to show their teaching methods and materials to the hundreds of members that filled the immense ballrooms. A faculty teacher one summer was Kyra Nijinska, daughter of Vaslav Nijinsky, my boyhood inspiration since the Braintree days. I certainly didn’t want to miss this one. Kyra arrived wearing a kimono, took one look at all the teachers assembled and waiting, then decided then and there she didn’t want to have anything to do with us and walked off the teaching platform! This was a great disappointment but Kyra was always considered, well, a bit odd. There was an un-kind saying going around that she was even crazier than her father!

With all the notated teaching material for jazz and tap that I received at these conventions, plus my knowledge of a ballet syllabus, my enrollments increased so much that I had to move the studio to larger quarters.

The Jewish Community Center created a beautiful studio for me in their building that ideally had a small theater on the premises where I could produce my spring shows.

The other teacher in town was Madam Halina, a Polish war bride who had a long established school. She taught her classes wearing an enormous tutu, claiming it was what the children and parents expected. Maybe so, but that would be considered quite ridiculous for a teacher to wear in any authentic ballet school.

Although I already had the professional background she could never claim, she considered me a newcomer, a young upstart. There certainly was rivalry.

The Corning Glass Center invited me to choreograph the musical ‘Kiss Me Kate” for their professional theater. I had to go to Eaves Costume warehouse in New York City to choose costumes for the dancers. I used my own students plus a couple from Madam Halina, and danced in it myself. Eaves was where I went a few years earlier to be fitted after I joined the St. Petersburg Operetta, my first Actor’s Equity show. “Kiss Me Kate” was one of the shows I danced in during that run in Florida, to Jamie Jamison’s choreography. Now I was staging it myself.

Photo: My students and myself in “Kiss Me Kate"

Camp Minnowbrook
During summer months I closed the studio and became the dance director and choreographer at a Science and Arts camp in Lake Placid, New York. Camp Minnowbrook was on the far side of the lake and you could get to it only by small boat. Kate Smith, famous during the 40s for her “God Bless America” hit song, lived on one of the small islands and would always wave as we rowed past. Composer Victor Herbert had also lived at Lake Placid back in the late 19th century.


Photo: A view of Camp Minnowbrook. Boat house on left, main house on right.

The all-Jewish camp was run by Paula and Lothar Epstein whom I had met in Ithica. During the winter, Lothar was a pussy-cat but during the summer months he turned into a genuine Nazi running a concentration camp! He scheduled and regimented everything down to the bone. I got on well with him as I just did my job and minded my own business, a trait that did me very well later on in life.

In addition to myself as the dance instructor, there were drama and music teachers, a conductor and science teachers. Also a cook, a nurse and scholarship students who served as our waiters, one assigned to each table. I taught modern, ballet and jazz dance classes. We had one day off every two weeks. Then I would go into town where I had parked my car and drive off anywhere to relax from the constant turmoil of the camp.

Photo: Teaching a class in the boat house with a view of Lake Placid from the window.

At the end of each summer I had to produce a dance performance for the parents who came up from New York City to see their children. There were only girls in the dance program.. The camp had a rather good student orchestra and owned a large collection of music scores. This meant I had to choreograph only dances that had orchestra parts for them to accompany us with, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Polovetsian Dances”, “Sadko” - these were some of the dances I prepared, rehearsing them often on the tennis court in the hot sun. Imagine, teen-age Jewish girls in tunics with bows and arrows as Tartar warriors! They put their hearts and soul into it and it was really quite good.



Photo: Rehearsing on an outdoor stage


For these six-week stints I was paid a magnificent sum of $600. But the food was good and with the wholesome life style and exercise I always returned refreshed and healthy to face another year in Elmira.

About this time my mother died. The last time I had seen her alive was when she was nearing 70, living alone in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She had re-married but was again left a widow. Perhaps this final marriage was the only happiness she ever had. She had led a hard and loveless life. Through it all she somehow maintained a strength to survive that I must have gained from her.

I never knew her as young as she was nearing forty when I was born. To me she always seemed an old lady. It was an ambivalent relationship. I had a very short childhood as by age fifteen I was working and struggling to keep my idealism alive in the face of the grinding poverty.

She was a true story- teller and during my early childhood would often relate to me stories of her youth, growing up in Carolina, either North or South she never said. Or how she, Cinderella like, had a stepmother who was cruel to her. How when she lived in Melrose, Massachusetts she was a playmate of the opera singer, Geraldine Fararr , who became world famous during the early 1900s. Then mother became a nurse and married Sam Holden, a Boston policeman. Later on, she treated me perfunctorily and left so much unspoken.
She came to New York City once, during the time I was working at the Roxy. I knew only too well the hard life she had endured, yet still faced her problems with humor and pride. I thought it would be wonderful if she could stay in New York and I could take care of her and try to bring some happiness into her last years. The problem was, I could then barely survive myself.

I was still young, perhaps too young to settle down to teach in a small city such as Elmira, however pleasant. I didn’t feel I could live without dancing in my life, but not in that kind of situation. I closed the school and went back to New York City.

Europe was beckoning me. What were the forces that led me to decide on leaving America? I had always felt that I would be more at home in England. It was a big decision. Meanwhile, I took some classes in the Carnegie Hall studio of Maria Nevelska,

I was living off the money from Minnowbrook and enjoying the classes and a beautiful Autumn in New York. It was time to leave for London.

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