Eileen Casey is one of the original five founding members of Dancers Over 40.)
Interviewed by James Dybas
What Inspired You To Become A Dancer?
Movie Musicals. As a child I would go to the movies with my mom on Saturdays or Sundays and was always really excited by the fantasy of it all; glorious technicolor, the beautiful clothes, the music, Fred and Ginger and most of all the glamour. I lived outside of Boston, so, the song “I’ll Take Manhattan” was the height of sophistication to me. I can remember seeing a film called “Lovely to Look At” with Marge & Gower Champion and Ann Miller and I knew from the time I was a little girl that this was where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. Dance.
What Do You Remember Most About Your Early Dance Training?
I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, walking up a very long flight of stairs at a local community center to my very first dance class. We would hold on to a back of a chair and do our “exercises”. At one point during the class, we had to do leaps across the room and some big fat girl in front of me tripped and landed on top of me. I hoped that it wasn’t an omen.
What Teacher Had The Most Influence On Your Career?
The biggest influence was Mary Corbett Burns. After having studied with two other teachers from the time I was six years old, I started to study with her when I was about 15 . Her studio was in the basement of her home, in Arlington, MA. She taught me that dancing wasn’t just about doing a tap number and knowing names of steps. It was about technique and knowing why you were doing those steps and combinations, and that the stronger your technique was, the freer you could be. Margaret Craske who taught at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School came to the studio to guest teach from time to time and I continued to study with her when I moved to NYC.
Do You Remember What Your Earliest Dancing Jobs Were?
Then it was a season of summer stock in Dayton, Ohio for a snappy $87.50 a week. Later that year Peter Gennaro hired me for my first Broadway show. I was a replacement in The Unsinkable Molly Brown on Broadway and then
went on tour with it. I was so excited, I ran to the wall phone and called my mom and said “Guess what mom, I’m going to California. We traveled across the country by train playing all those wonderful old touring company theaters. My dreams were coming true. I was making a living in Show Business. I remember getting my first pay check. I had one of the fellas in the show walk me to the bank because I never had so much money in my pocket.
I had moved to NYC and was living at the Brandon Residence for Women on West 85th St. for $15 a week, which included two meals. It’s still there and a great place for female dancers to live inexpensively. While living there I got my first job in NYC, which was a commercial for I product I can't even remember, but my pals Charlene Mell, Donna McKechnie and Dan Siretta also got the job and we had a lot of fun. It was also great fun to do the Milliken Breakfast Show for several years. They were lavish productions, with great choreographers and we got to keep the clothes we wore. Yes, there was a bit of glamour in my life from time to time.
Tell Us About Some Of Your Fun Or Crazy Dancing Jobs
Well, a real crazy one was when along with about 10 other dancers, I was a dancing Orange for Tropicana Orange Juice. Our costumes were these big molded oranges that we wore over our heads and extended down to our waist. Our green tights were supposed to be the orange tree stems. We could barely see out of the tiny netting portion, and you can imagine what went on in rehearsals. It didn’t seem so at the time but as I look back it was hysterical. Another commercial, this one for Sylvania, which had us wearing big bass drums that hung down from our necks over our stomachs. We had to dance and run thru a big maze of television sets while banging on these big drums. We laughed alot. What a way to make a buck.
What Choreographers Have You Worked For?
After the Molly Brown tour was over, I came back to NYC and over the years, got into other shows with the creme de la creme of choreographers: Michael Bennett, Gower Champion, Jack Cole, Joe Layton, Onna White, Jerry Robbins,, Tommy Tune, Graciela Danielle,Ron Field, Bob Fosse (Pippin, Dancin’ & the film All That Jazz} and so many others. I learned alot from each and every one of them. When I think about it, I feel so grateful for having worked with every major choreographer in my time. What a blessing and truly a dream come true. On the Broadway “boards” for twenty years. Not bad for a little girl from Boston.
What Experience Or Legacy Would You Like To Pass On To The Next Generation?
When I look back, I’d have to say “Diversify”. Study and learn as much as you can about your craft. These days not only do you have to be a great dancer to get a job, you also have to be a great singer/actor. I went to the HB Studio and studied acting with Bill Hickey. It helped me to nail those non-dance commercial auditions I’ve done; and I certainly used some of the techniques he taught me to get my long running AARP commercial. I’d also say to learn something else that really gives you pleasure and that you can do when your professional dance days are over. We know that this is a youth oriented business and there might come a time when you have to do something else to make a living. It should be something that you really enjoy doing and possibly keeps you connected to “the business”.
Do You Have Any Regrets?
Yeah, that way back then, I didn’t find a bigger rent controlled apartment.
Interviewed by Teddy Kern
What inspired you to become a dancer?
Joy Serio Dunbar’s legs!!!!! That’s really only half of it. The other half is Gary Gendell. I was working as a bus boy at Ben Maksik’s Town and Country Club in Brooklyn, the country of my birth. Milton Berle was the star, but an accompanying act was Georgie Tapps who had two dancers with his act. I watched every performance I could and decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I later found out that the two dancers were Joy & Gary. So I went to dance class only to find out that it wasn’t as easy as Joy and Gary made it seem. It was the beginning of many, many, hours, gallons of sweat, and lots and lots of cursing.
What/who do you remember most? Which mentors had the most influence?
No doubt about it, Frank Wagner. He is a much under-rated teacher. Not only did he teach ‘steps,” but he taught about your body and how it functions. Also, I think, he appreciated my work ethic. He would watch me busting my tuckus, three, four jazz classes a day which I would sneak in between my ballet classes. I worked all day, every day, seven days a week. I started late so I had a lot of catching up to do.
Tell me about your career:
I received my Equity Card doing a summer tour of WEST SIDE STORY. I played Action, and, being recently off the streets of Brooklyn the acting part wasn’t much of a stretch. But the dancing? Wow! I was surrounded by dancers like Miguel Godreau, Frank de Sal, Ross Miles, and so many others.
It just seems that once I got started I worked all the time. After WEST SIDE STORY ended its tour Bob Fosse hired me to replace Gene Foote in the national company of HOW TO SUCCEED WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. When I came off the road I was asked to continue in the Broadway production but, as luck would have it, Jerry Robbins offered me FIDDLER. I started as a dancer/villager, went on to do the Fiddler, followed by playing Mendel, the Rabbi’s son. Most of this time I understudied Motel the Tailor.
Those Motels were a healthy bunch. It was a long time before I got to go on. But I finally did and got to go on the road as Motel with Robert Merrill playing Tevye. I went on tours with IRMA LA DOUCE with Elke Summer, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM with my beloved hero, Zero Mostel, and THE ROTHSCHILDS with Theo Bikel or Jan Peerce. In 1980 (and this is the best part), I joined the Broadway company of ANNIE. I actually replaced my original hero, Gary Gendell. And sometime after, I joined Dancers Over 40 and became really good friends with Joy Serio Dunbar. Bad timing. She was already happily married to Wally Dunbar. During that time I met Dru Alexandrine who became my wife and the mother of my son. Dru is gone now and my son, Michael, is 35. Where does the time go.
Larry Ross in Fiddler
Any mishaps or memorable moments onstage?
It would be a shorter answer if you asked did I ever do anything right. In Chicago during HOW TO SUCEED, we had to make a quick change, go downstairs, cross over to stage right, go upstairs and do the “Brotherhood of Man” number. Dyan Cannon who was dating Cary Grant at the time was the leading lady. As I was running past her dressing room a man came out and we bumped into each other. It was Mr. Grant. You could have scraped me off the floor and put me in a shoe box I felt that small.
Before we opened in Chicago, Fosse sent out his assistant, Merritt Thompson, to clean us up. He told the boys that we should stop the show with “Brotherhood of Man.” We didn’t think it was possible. Merritt rehearsed all day and on that night the number stopped the show. The whole cast screamed as if we had just won the World Series. Merritt came backstage with tears in his eyes. I still get welled up when I think of that night. I still find it hard to think that this little schmuck from Coney Island is doing this.
What motivating legacy would you like to pass on?
That’s easy. Have a good work ethic, work harder than everyone else, don’t complain, enjoy what you do, and realize that there are literally thousands that would like to be in your place. And don’t get distracted by outside interests like Joy Dunbar’s legs.
How did you make the transition from Dancer to teacher?
Frank Wagner and I had become really close friends over the years. Eventually he asked if I would teach some classes for him. I taught for a long time even after Frank had left us. I loved teaching. I’m 77 years old now, and I wish I could start all over again. I’d work a little harder on my turnout. After my last show, ANNIE, I became Business Rep for Equity. After a short stay at The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, I did the same thing for Local 802 of the AFM. I ended my working life as Business Representative for The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
How did you get involved with DO 40?
Eileen Casey, Audrey Ross, John Mineo and others told me about it. I joined, became treasurer for several years, and I still pay my dues. I love being a dancer and being around dancers. A few years ago I thought Id go back to ballet class, but I couldn’t get my dance belt past my knees.