When did you start working with movie musical choreographer Robert Alton?
The first film I did as a dancer for Bob was Call Me Madame (1953). This was an A film with top notch cast. Donald O’ Connor, Ethel Merman, George Sanders and Vera-Ellen. We did the Ocarena number which we rehearsed 4-5 weeks and it was shot in a week. We wore costumes by Barbara Karinska (Academy Award winning Russian costume designer). They were peasant skirts but made of canvas. Heavy! And we did a lot of turning. So when you’d turn and then stop the costume was still going. Bob had a tendency to rehearse at a good clip, he liked fast, he kept things moving. When he went to the sound stage to record he would always take me with him so that the orchestra could see what the dancers are doing. But he always moved the music up a notch because he knew that when we got going on the day of filming the adrenaline would take us over. I mean, we’d manage just fine but he thought it created more excitement. So this was one of his tricks that I learned from him. But I didn’t know it at that time, and with those skirts…oh my goodness!
But that’s the picture I was on when he asked me to become his assistant. He liked me because I was a quick study and I could get along with everyone. He also loved my port-de-bras. And I suddenly realized he did a lot of tap. I only had tap as a little girl, very basic and I picked it up over the years but had no technique. So Ray and I took semi-privates with Willie Covan, a wonderful black man who had danced for years in Vaudeville, he was well known. He had a school down Central Ave, big classes. We went at 9 pm at night and had an hours private but we'd go until midnight because we all had so much fun. He got to really choreograph things on us and helped us how to put taps in turns, in chainees. but he'd try to incorporate our ballet technique. He would give us a tap combination and then a big scisson and then more tap. He was enjoying that because it was something new to him. So we licked tap long enough to keep Bob happy. So that was the beginning of what I consider my most interesting days as an assistant because I was able to do such wonderful things. Different things too. Shooting for example, I was in charge of camera cues. In those days, I mean now they have such little cameras, now everything is different, but in those days we had the big cameras and the big booms and I had to cue them to the music. While for example Vera is getting ready, I’m on the stage doing all the numbers so the camera crew know what’s gonna happen. So it was a fun time, it was an interesting time.
In my commercial career, I met so many interesting people in the music field. I met Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin…both saw me dance. I met Noel Coward. Martin Blaire and I were good friends. Berlin came out when we were doing White Christmas. He came and watched rehearsal because he knew Bob Alton who had done a lot of the Ethel Merman shows. And she did a lot of Irving Berlin numbers.
I met Cole Porter because we did a show at the Ford Theater “Salute to Cole Porter” a 90 minute show on CBS. We worked months on that. We had stars galore, Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, Louis Armstrong…Cole Porter watched me dance the principle parts. Noel Coward I met in Las Vegas, where we did a show with Vera-Ellen. I was backstage with her in the dressing room and he came back there after the show to congratulate her and he stayed with us for 20 minutes and talked to us, he was charming.
Did Bob let you pitch in ideas when he choreographed the numbers?
Not when I first started working with him, but after a while he had confidence in me and would ask for my opinion, you know, sometimes he’d get stuck in a creative process and then we would throw ideas back and forth.
I picture the actors rehearse to playback music. How was it really done? Did the actors sing too?
We would only rehearse towards the end with playback music but most of the time we had a piano player. Which is actually more convenient this way because you could tell the pianist to slow down or speed up. Bob used this time to make a basic music plan and then later went to the orchestra to make adjustments. He usually would speed things up. Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey would actually sing but most of them just sort of marked the words. But when I worked with Judy Garland, she always sang.
Describe your rehearsal day with Vera Ellen and the cast on White Christmas.
She’d come in in the morning and we would start with a ballet barre, Vera and I would always do a ballet barre together. And then we’d start working until lunch. She would go into her dressing room and have a French lesson or something and then we’d work until 5. She worked hard, she danced the whole time. I’d dance the number with her and then she would do it without me and I would just watch her and correct her. Rehearsal would last for two weeks for the “Mandy” number. Danny would come in, not for that many hours but he would work hard when he was there. Before we put Vera and Danny together I danced Vera’s part with Danny, and Vera danced with second assistant Ernie Flatt. It was such a pleasure to work with Danny Kaye. Bing Crosby was pleasant, he’d come to rehearsal and do it and then light his pipe and walk out. But Danny...he loved to entertain! 3 or 4 times he would ask Ray and I to his dressing room at the end of the day. He had a nice bungalow, he would make us a drink, he didn’t drink. And he would put on a show for us, he’d sing and play on the piano, he just couldn’t help but entertain. And we enjoyed it, I mean how could you not.
Bob Alton also brought you on to work on Judy Garland’s Las Vegas shows as an assistant, along with George Chakiris who later went on to be a star in West Side Story.
Well, George was not known then. He had danced in the chorus for White Christmas. He was only 19 years old. But he stood out because he was so handsome. He didn’t have to do much, he could just pose and look good but he danced reasonable well. When we rehearsed in Las Vegas George’s room happened to be right next to us. When I would shower in the morning I could hear him singing! He sounded so good. So day after day I would listen to him sing and I finally said to Bob, “You know that boy could do so much, he has so much potential!” I had him sing for Bob, and Bob agreed "..what, with his looks and ability to dance and great voice!" And then, when White Christmas came out, George got all this fan mail even though he was just a boy in the chorus. So he got a screen test and during his test he sang and he took it from there. So I still say that I discovered him. Through the bathroom window! (laughs).
How was it to work with Judy Garland?
Judy would only rehearse at night, so we would rehearse during the day with the boys that danced with her in the show. She moved well, it was a natural part of her. She was in Vaudeville as a child. She had that innate rhythm and she is “theater”. She knows how to sell a number. She was very corporative. I don’t know, people said she was difficult, maybe there was too much pressure on her. But she was a wonderful, warm person during the time she worked with us.
Tell us about your work with Marilyn Monroe.
I was working with her in No Business like Show Business (1954). Ethel Merman was in it, who was a big pro, and Mitzi Gaynor who was a good dancer. Marilyn wasn’t really a dancer. She had trouble learning…I don’t know if she had her mind on other things or if she had difficulty with counts. She managed her solo number alright because she was on her own, except that she wanted to make everything sexier than we wanted (laughs). Anyway, there is this number with all six principles and they had to come up a staircase in the back off camera and start descending the stairs all together. I had so much trouble getting her to go on the beat. So it ended up when we were actually shooting she was on stage left of the six and I was on my hands and knees next to her and saying “left right left right! “ to get her stay on time otherwise she would double up or hesitate and not be with them. It was crucial for the principles to come over the top of the stairs at the same moment, on the same beat. She really had trouble with that. But she was a nice person, polite and not gushy, and always very sweet to me. One day I took my daughter who was five on the set because we were shooting the big finale. We had a 156 people, so I had to have a loud speaker and a whistle. My daughter sat in the tall director chair and knew she wasn’t supposed to make noise. It was the finale with dancers, skaters, scarves flying and I thought it would be fun for her to see this. Well, Marilyn passed by and said "Who’s that child?" and someone said, "That’s Joan and Ray’s daughter". And she invited my daughter into her dressing room. She spent the whole day with her. She was so sweet. Marilyn didn’t have a child on her own. I guess this cute little blonde girl must have appealed to her. They played school, they played house, Marilyn put make up on her. Ray would have to go and say “Marilyn, you’re on” and stay with my daughter until she came back. In the end my daughter spend more time with her in the dressing room than watching the shoot.