THE LOBBY OF THE PALMER HOUSE, STAIRS LEADING TO THE EMPIRE ROOM
My friend Parker thinks I should use my blog to tell visitors about my own
experiences in show business. Unlike the two kids in Grease whose dream came
true, I didn't even have a dream. What I had was an accidental merging with
opportunity. I hesitated to speak of these things, because I never intended
to talk about them on here, but after thinking it over, I decided, well,
maybe he's right, maybe it's the only time I'll ever do it in the first place.
Write about it, that is. He thinks oral history is a wonderful medium, and even
though I'm writing, it is kind of like oral history, isn't it... and so now
it won't be lost in the ethers of non telling.
I was fifteen years old, and my family had just moved to the western suburbs
of Chicago. I didn't know a soul out there, and I was very lonesome. A friend
of my mother's suggested that she send me downtown for dancing lessons to give
me something to do after school. I had taken lessons earlier in my life, but
then went on to other things, like riding my bicycle and playing baseball.
In high school, I was also captain of my basketball team, so I was very busy!
Dancing wasn't high on my list of priorities.
There had been a brief period when I was twelve, that I ushered at the Shubert
Theater in Chicago, in exchange for seeing shows for free. I had very
good seats for shows like South Pacific, Brigadoon, Miss Liberty, and one day,
I even went to the stage door and asked the manager if I could be in the currently
playing show, Guys and Dolls. He was so sweet. He said, "Go ahead in there,
watch the girls rehearse, and if you still want to be in the show, let me know."
I was thrilled! I sat in the fifth row and watched as these very tall women
walked around on the stage in time with the music, wearing only big hats,
daisies pasted on their upper and lower anatomy, bare otherwise, and singing.
Well, I knew I couldn't do that, my mother would kill me! I thanked
the manager, saying it really wasn't for me, and went home.
But in sophmore year, after school, there was this empty time. Both my parents
worked, my sister had married, and I was all alone in the house. So instead of
going home to the west, I took the Lake Street "L" to the east. Downtown.
Along the way, I discovered that the girl sitting across from me on the train
every day was none other than Carol Lawrence of West Side Story fame.
She studied, I studied, we were both going to lessons.
She to singing, me to dancing. Little did I know she would
one day become famous.
THE EMPIRE ROOM AT THE PALMER HOUSE HOTEL IN CHICAGO CIRCA 1953
After about a year of dance lessons at the Melba Cordes School of Dance, she
told me that there was nothing else she could teach me, and I should go over
to The Palmer House Hotel and practice the dance routines on the bandstand of
the world famous Empire Room with The Merriel Abbott Dancers. Turned out that
Melba herself had been a Merriel Abbott Dancer, and her mother was the
wardrobe mistress over there. Wow, was I ever surprised! So I went.
I mean, what else was there for me to do? I told my parents, and even
though they were amused, they knew that Ms.Abbott had an impeccable reputation
and that "her girls" were watched over and kept safe from the normal show
business elements. They had curfews, were not allowed to date musicians,
had to stay in school, etc. So my parents said it was O.K. I think they
were secretly quite proud of me!
I followed those girls everywhere. After rehearsal I would go with them
to the restaurant where they ate dinner. They would eat, and I would
have a coke. I usually didn't get home until eight o'clock at night. The
girls lived at the Palmer House and did two shows a night, one at 8 PM and
one at midnight. Well, one night, (just like in the movies) one of the
girls didn't show up for work! She called in sick. That is really unheard
of in show business. You know the song, the show must go on, even if you're
dying. Well, she wasn't dying, she just wasn't there. And guess who knew
all the dance numbers... ME! They pinned me into her costume, and the rest
as they say is history. She never came back, and I took her place in the line.
Isn't life just amazing!!??
HERE I AM AT SIXTEEN WITH THE WONDERFUL DOROTHY SHAY (PARK AVENUE HILLBILLY),
WALLY BOAG AND EDDIE O'NEIL, THE BANDLEADER OF THE ORCHESTRA.
(That strange looking dot is because this photo was in my scrapbook for the last
55 years, and something apparently dripped on it. Sorry about that)!
I'll tap into my brain archives more, next time the muse arrives.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
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