Tell us about your background, where were you born?
I was born in Canada, in a tiny town called Kamsack (Saskatchewan province). Both of my parents were British. My father was a Mountie, my mother was a stage actress and married my father at the end of WW1 and went to Canada with him. And we were surrounded with Indians. I have pictures as a child with the Indians on their reservations. They made me moccasins and all sorts of lovely things which I wish I still had! At the age of 6 we moved to Los Angeles. I started dancing at the age of 7-8 at a little neighborhood dancing school. When I was 11 my parents separated; it was a very topsy turvy time in my life, so I wasn’t interested in dance. Not until the day my father saw a newspaper article saying Muriel Stuart wanted to take on six children protegés and showed the article to my mother. When I started training with Muriel it was a challenge. The other five girls were already on pointe and I was just a beginner, but I hung in there. Muriel Stewart was so inspiring! She had this long neck and gorgeous epaulement. And I wanted to look like that.
Your mother encouraged you to dance. Was she a dancer too?
She studied very little, so she didn’t have much technique but she had a wonderful personality and a lot of nerve. For example if somebody in the show would say "Can you sing?" She would say "Yes!". She had a very nice voice but hadn’t been trained. Same with dancing. But she projected and came across. So she was the ingenue of the show and not just in the chorus. Her sister often told me “Your mother faked like crazy! It looked like she was doing tap but she wasn’t making any sounds!” My mother had a theater background. And I remember seeing her on stage even as young as I was when I went to London with her. My grandmother would take me to the Apollo Theater and we were sitting in a box and I would look down and say “ There’s my mommy!” and get all excited.
How did your mother support you and herself? Did she pursue acting when you moved to Los Angeles?
My father provided child support but she worked on and off as a sales lady, at a lingerie shop on Hollywood Blvd. Even though she had been in theater in England she wasn’t really interested in pursuing a showbiz career here in Hollywood, except for a couple of things here and there. My mother was a very good roller skater. She could go backwards and go into arabesque. She did demos at the skating ring at the Ambassador Hotel which led her to be a movie double for Marion Davis in a roller skating scene.
What was your first professional stage experience?
My first stage experience came about through Muriel Stewart. I was 12 when this happened, Muriel got six of us into the Midsummer Night’s dream production at the Hollywood Bowl (1934). Max Reinhardt came from Europe to produce it. Nini Theilade did the choreography and danced in it, she was the main fairy. The shell at the bowl was moved and they brought in trees, huge trees, that was the fairyland and they went up into the hills. Firemen had to be positioned in the hills (the play featured a procession with fire torches). At the beginning of act 2 we little ones stood high on a hill and were lit from the back so that we were silhouetted and danced. Olivia de Havilland was Hermia and she was 17 years of age, and she was so nervous she fainted on opening night. They had to wait for her to come around. Mickey Rooney was Puck, he was a 13 year old boy, he was so cute. He climbed on the trees and hung from the bough and hopped across the stage. He was adorable. The show went for ten nights, all the Hollywood stars came, drove up in their limos, in their ermins, sparkling jewelry and white fox furs and we were just..in awe! But of course all the time during rehearsal we had to go to school down at the base of the bowl. That kind of spoiled it a little (laughs). We got 50 dollars for the whole thing, for the three weeks of rehearsal and 10 nights of performance. 50 dollars was a lot of money in those days!
How old were you when you started to study with Carmelita Maracci and performed with the Carmelita Maracci Concert Group?
I was eleven or twelve and it was 1935. I stayed with her until I was 19. When I was 14 she decided she needed a group to perform while she was doing costume changes. We performed a lot of Spanish dance, we did a lot of flamenco with her. We did one called Spain Cries Out. I still have some old programs. I was the only one of the girls who did a solo, other than Carmelita. She gave me a flamenco which I did on a platform box. It was a whole group of dances and we all started on a floor… I did a Pavone and the flamenco where I did a lot of heel work and did a lot of clapping. It was very exciting. There was another one I did, to Joaquín Turina’s music, I opened that on stage by myself and had a minute and a half of solo before the others came on. I remember the opening steps, in fact I gave it in class once. I jumped on my pointes in fifth and reached out, still on pointe in a wide effacé fourth and then bourréd on the spot with high passés with a thrusting foot into the floor and then in fourth on pointe, I did a double pirouette finishing on pointe which always made me nervous (laughs). Another one which I remember is A Madrigal of Sorrow. Before the curtain went up I had to put the castegnettes in a certain spot on center stage. The other girls had to be aware so no one would kick them away. In the middle of the dance I went into the center and did a spiral turn to the floor, and stayed in a pose while the other girls went around me. Then behind my back I would put on the castegnettes. In a dramatic moment of music I shot my arms out and rose to play the castegnettes throughout the piece. Out here in Los Angeles there were two or three schools but Lester Horton and Carmelita were the leads. We all knew each other and respected each other but they were modern, we were ballet. Even though with Carmelitait was never purely ballet she was very experimental. We did lots of avant-garde things and lot of things heavily influenced by Spanish dance.
At 15 years we toured to New York. Carmelita went by train. We girls took a greyhound bus. Five days! It was awful. We stopped for thirty minutes meal stops. And we would skip a meal and do barre work holding on to the bumper at the back of the bus. But when you are young hardships don’t matter and you bounce back quickly. We were in New York in no time.
Was it exciting to arrive in New York?
Oh yes! That was the epitome of the dance world! Carmelita took us to nice places for dinner and also to the Russian Tea Room. And of course I got to see Muriel and I got to take class up there. And Carmelita always gave us class before we started our rehearsal. She would rent a studio on 8th Avenue run by a family of Spanish dancers. Then we came back here to Los Angeles and performed at the Philharmonic. We got big publicity for that since we had been to NY. We did two more tours with her. First time in New York we only played the YMHA, a high school, MacMillan theater at Columbia University. But eventually we played at the St. James Theater.
Did you have stage fright?
I was terrified. I was always so nervous. I never got over it. But I think that’s because you care, if you are blasé about it it’s not good. I think you need that adrenaline push and once you step on stage it’s gone. It’s the standing in the wings “Why am I here? Why am I here? Where’s the bathroom?” (laughs). But once you are on stage you forget everything and it is wonderful.
Did you have a routine to prepare yourself for a performance?
We’d always rehearse all day long ahead of performance. And then, well, we would never eat but we’d go out and have some toast with honey and cup of tea. Oh, but how we’d eat afterwards. Especially when you were on tour the society women would always have a soirée for you, we would just rush to the food table. First of all you’d probably be very hungry. If you travel with a company, with Carmelita there was no money involved, but normally with a company you were on half salary when you rehearse. When you are on tour you have to pay for the hotel and so on. So when you get to these parties you could have...some shrimp, something nice (laughs).
How did you take care of your costumes? Did you have to do your own laundry?
We did everything ourselves we didn’t have wardrobe lady. We had to buy our own shoes, sometimes you didn’t have beautiful new pointe shoes, so then you’d clean them and put make up on them..that’s the trick!
When did you leave Carmelita Maracci and why?
I performed with her until I was 19 and the only reason I left was because she never recognized the fact that I had grown up and she still treated me like I was 14. It became a very difficult relationship.
Did you stay in touch with Carmelita after you left her?
You couldn’t. It had to be a clean break. It was very difficult. She wouldn’t let me go. I always heard things about her from other people. I met her husband, Lee Freeson, after Carmelita had died. He told me things that just made me want to cry. My mother and I had lived in an apartment on Franklin and La Brea close to her studio on La Brea. He said “Every time we drove by that corner Carmelita would say That’s where Joan lived!”
Can you describe her personality, what was she like?
She was her own worst enemy. There wasn’t a dance critic who saw her that didn’t put her on a pedestal. But such a difficult person. I remember one day, she berated us for not having gone to see a particular piano concert, she was furious with us. She had a temper and was very opinionated. She had tremendous technique. Yet so few people ever saw her. The big NY times critic at that time John Martin came out here and wanted to see her dance. And Carmelita put on a performance for him just in the studio with a piano player. And he wrote the most glowing review. And he did column after column about her. In Dance magazine. He wrote things like " this tiny little body with perfect proportions with a strong face that looks like an Aztec painting... And when she starts to dance the world breaks wide open." Yet, it was all wasted. So few people ever saw her…For example, Martha Graham didn't mind being commercial. She was still an artist but wanted to make money, wanted to be a success so she hired great set designers with names. But Carmelita wouldn't stoop to that. She couldn't come down to your level. Sol Hurok was our impresario. He only represented us for one season and then he couldn't take it anymore. But in another sense she was wonderful too! She was a wonderful cook! Lots of butter and lots of cream, and hosted soirées with just her little group of students.
And I learned so much from her. She didn’t just teach us dance, she taught us art and music and made me open up to everything. Told us what books to read and I would read them.
She turned down a lot of movie stars who came to her school wanting to take private class, even though she was struggling and needed the money. There was Ruth Page, who was the only American who danced with the Diaghilev company and then had a big school in Chicago. Ruth came out here every two years and wanted private lessons from Carmelita and Carmelita told me to teach her. Now this is the kind of person that Ruth was. So gracious. She, a mature woman, came and took class from me, I was a 16 year old! Another person who came to her school to take class was Agnes de Mille. So we became familiar. Even though she was an older woman we called her Agnes. She wasn’t THE Agnes de Mille yet. But she did do a film, Romeo and Juliet in 1936. She said to Carmelita “I’m having an audition and you can tell your girls because they are the best dancers in town”. The audition was not a typical Hollywood audition, we had to do 16th century court dances. She explained to us about the gowns that were made of heavy velour and how we had to gather up the fabric…I ate all that up because we delved into these kinds of things with Carmelita all the time, whereas the other girls who were used to doing Busby Berkeley numbers were not so interested. I had six weeks on that. And we made 50 dollars a week. I bought my mother a whole outfit, a suit, a purse! Romeo and Juliet was my first film experience. And Agnes became a backer of mine for a long time.