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DO40 Arts Legacy Interview

Karin Baker

What inspired you to become a dancer?

At the age of five, I saw the movie AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and I wanted to be just like Gene Kelly. After that there was SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and THREE LITTLE WORDS that stirred me on even further. A few years later, it was THE RED SHOES that had a huge impact as I witnessed this dark romance with the arts. I sat in the movie theatre breathless as I watched beautiful choreography of dance in flight.

By this time I was just starting serious ballet training at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Lee Roy and I both studied at the Conservatory with Marian La Cour when we were teenagers. That training led to work with the Cincinnati Opera Ballet Company and eventually a scholarship with the San Francisco Ballet Company and Alan Howard’s Pacific Ballet.  Looking back I have to say that those early movies and training had a powerful impact on my life as a dancer.

Who was the most influential person in your career?

Heading the list would be my husband of forty years, Greg Kayne. We met when Greg was assisting Alan Jay Lerner with the Broadway musical, COCO. Michael Bennett always took the credit for introducing us, but our life together took off shortly before I was hired as a dancer for that show. Greg has always wanted me to take chances, supporting my work as a dancer, writer, teacher, and director/choreographer.

Next would be all my teachers; Luigi heads this list, giving me a style and keeping this body dancing through the years. Then the great tap legend, Paul Draper, and my first tap teacher Doris Mae Geisen in Greenhills, Ohio. She was an ex-vaudevillian who played the xylophone and tap danced at the same time!

As a young student, I learned a variety of old Buck and Wing time steps from her that eventually landed me the job as Gower Champion’s assistant on 42nd Street.  But, in all honesty, probably the person who has had the most major effect on my career is producer David Merrick. He was such a crazy perfectionist. Working around him for 8 ½ years I devoted to 42nd Street(Broadway, First National, West Coast & London companies), and seeing his attention to detail through it all, gave me a world of knowledge about the business. He was always willing to risk everything for what he believed in.

David once told me that it was the gamble that was everything. “It’s when everyone says you can’t do it, it won’t work and yet you know it will work.” We don’t have producers willing to take risks like that anymore and I’m glad I had the opportunity to work for him. He once told the Shubert Organization that with the change of a few letters, the Majestic Theatre could become the Merrick. I hope this dream of his can someday become a reality. He was “the very best.”

What was the most memorable moment in your career?

I have two. The first was when I assisted Gower Champion on the original production of 42nd Street. We just clicked. He thought I was really funny! I never tried to be funny, but I just seemed to make him laugh. He always needed to feel comfortable while he was creating. His imagination was limitless and his motivation to move through space and dance was always dictated by the circumstances of the piece.

I loved being his dance assistant and just watching him work. I used to think his 42nd Street Ballet, a masterpiece of choreography, would be held on to and performed by dance companies throughout time. But now I think his legacy with 42nd Street will be the simplicity of his “Lullaby of Broadway.” Gower’s work had it’s own stamp of humor, joy and charm. He was able to craft a unique platform with his shows to display his talents as director/choreographer and the world of musical theatre is richer for his gifts. There is no one today even remotely like him.

The second most memorable moment was when the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization gave me the opportunity to create The Melody Lingers On. Donald Johnston, the dance arranger for42nd Street and I were presenting revues at Trinity School for their Upper School students based on our great American composers and lyricists. Mary Ellin Barrett’s book, “Irving Berlin, a Daughter’s Memoir”, gave me the idea to base a revue on her parent’s love story.

So, together with Tom Briggs and Donald Johnston, Mary Ellin and I put together a revue which was then published by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. “The Melody Lingers On” is performed by both professional groups and schools all over the world. Today, I’m continuing this work at Trinity as Head of the Upper School’s Musical Theatre program.

Lawrence Merritt

Lawrence Merritt

What inspired you to become a dancer?

One week before my high school graduation at the age of 17, I escaped Burnt Hills New York for Kennebunkport, Maine and 10 weeks of summer stock, grand opera and musical comedy. During my busy senior year, a young assistant coach who had been to Maine suggested I write and ask for an audition. They wrote back no, and I forgot about it. Then a month or so later in March of 1955, they wrote again and said if I was interested, to come in two weeks. I called and said "yes".

The two men who ran the theater met me at the bus. I was to stay overnight. They took me to the theater lobby and had me sing scales and such. I told them I had six months of tap, was in the glee club, had done two local light opera shows and was going to be a fashion designer. The next day on the way to the bus, they told me I had a full scholarship of $600, room and board, and $100 in pay for the 10 weeks. They saw something there I wasn't aware of and it changed the course of my life forever

Every morning after breakfast we walked down to town and the church hall for a one-hour ballet class, my first. At the end of class the choreographer told everyone to go back to the theater and their respective jobs. He said the dancers would rehearse at the hall and I should stay and rehearse with them. Until then, I had no idea what I would be doing. I was to be one of the dancer/singers.

The first show, Faust had eight part har-mony. Help! I suppose I had a natural aptitude. I learned fast and must have done well because they kept me. At the end of the summer, one of the guys in the chorus said "if you're interested in pursuing dancing, I have an apartment in New York and a roommate, but there is room for another if you're interested." I told my shocked parents I was leaving the fashion world to go and dance on Broadway, not having a clue what that would entail! They said okay, but I had to have $100.

I picked apples for a month, and on my 18th birthday, with my little fake leatherette suitcase, off I went. My naïveté saved me, or I never would have taken that leap of faith.

The first few years I sowed some wild oats. I eventually worked as a bartender and was making great money, but one day I realized I wasn't doing what I set out to do. I decided to start studying seriously and audition more. I got my second audition -- the St. Louis Municipal Opera.

They gave me a contract and told me to go join Actors Equity. That was 1959 -- 50 years ago. At the end of that summer I continued my studies and for the next 22 years never stopped studying and never stopped dancing.

Who was the most influential person in your career?

The most influential person in my career was Matt Maddox. He truly taught me to dance.  He was always the tallest, 6’1”, with long arms and legs. He taught me how to use and control my body. I am eternally grateful.

Luckily, my career spanned many genres. My first, paying job was the Latin Quarter with Ron Lewis choreographing and Ron Field as the lead dancer. After that I got my first Broadway show, "No Strings." After six months, Matt Mattox asked me to do a big Las Vegas glitz and feathers review. By then, Ron Field was choreographing and asked me to assist him doing the summer shows at the O'Keefe Center in Toronto.

After that, Ron got his first Broadway show, Nowhere to go but Up,with a great ensemble of talented male and female dancer/singers. Unfortunately, we played only nine days at the Winter Garden. I was so upset, all the great work and then a flop. I told Ron I just wanted to get out of New York for a while. A couple of months later, Ron called and asked me to assist him in Paris on a show at the venerable Casino de Paris. I stayed for three years, and became lead dancer.

Finally, I went back to the USA with another big review, Casino de Paris at the Dunes in Las Vegas for a year. Then, back to the New York area for Ron Field’s Golden Rainbow, and a replacement in Applause, taking over the role of Duane, the hairdresser. Nightclub acts followed, with Abbey Lane, Juliet Prowse, Ann Margret, Raquel Welch and Ginger Rogers.

My last show in New York was Pippin, where I met the wonderful Louise Quick. I moved to Los Angeles after that and did my last show, the lead dancer in Evita, at the Shubert Theatre. It’s been a great life, and I’m still involved in theater as an actor and singer.

What was the most memorable moment in your career

I auditioned for A Mother's Kisses. I danced, I sang, I got it. I auditioned for Promises, Promises. I danced, I sang, I got it. I auditioned for Dear World .I danced, I sang, I got it. I was dumbstruck. I was cast in three Broadway shows in ONE week! But which one to choose? I chose Dear World, which was not a big hit, but very respectable, artistically.

Remember, take nothing for granted, study and be prepared, show up on time and know what you're doing, and if a door opens in front of you, always step through it. It has been -- and is -- a life I never could have dreamed of as a 17-year-old kid from Burnt Hills, New York.  

 

Lee Roy Reams

What inspired you to become a dancer?

When I was a little boy growing up in Covington, Kentucky, whenever I heard music, I would get up into the middle of the floor and start dancing and singing. My mother decided to send me to dancing school. She read in the local newspaper that The Jules Scienz School of dance would give you a free pair of tap shoes if you signed up for a certain amount of lessons (then you could be in their annual recital).

My mother couldn't resist a bargain and off I went. This dance school was not unlike a lot of dance schools in the Midwest:  they taught, tap, toe, ballet, acrobatic, baton, ballroom, voice, personality and culture. You also bought rehearsal records (that's how they made up for the free pair of tap shoes!). My teacher was Joan Bamberger. For my first class, she said, "Pick up your right foot and kick the can out, kick the can back and step on it. Now do the left foot." 

For ballet class, she said, "Put your arms in a circle way above your head, get up on your toes and make little running steps. Now move right and give a big beach ball to mother. Now move left and give the beach ball to father."  Those two steps qualified you for the annual recital!  I danced to The Johnson Rag. Shortly after the recital, Jules hung himself, and the school closed. My tap dancing had nothing to do with that!

The next year I went to The Bob Ziegler School of Dance that just opened a block away from our home. Bob was 18 years old and had an assistant named Shirley who taught our class. I was about six.

There were many people who influenced me in my formative years. First of all, my mother always supported me in everything I did and gave me unconditional love.  It's the reason I'm a happy person today.  Whenever I would perform, I'd say, "well, mom, how did I do?" And she said, "best looking thing on that stage!"  Whenever people would ask her how many children she had, she'd say, "I've got three boys, three girls and Lee Roy!"

When Alma Tranter took over Bob's school, she told my mother that I had "it" and put me in a more advanced class with older kids. She also gave me a solo recital even though we couldn't pay for the classes.  She validated my talent and was a great inspiration to me. She taught me how to "sell it." She said, "even if you fall down, get right up and keep on smiling!" With her blonde hair and prickly eyes, she gave me such confidence and joy.  She even had me sing in recitals.  Our big finale number was "Keep on Smiling".  She instilled the love of song and dance in me forever! 

When I was 18, I was asked to join the Cincinnati Zoo Opera Ballet. Yes, the opera was in the Zoo Pavilion and the animals sang along every performance. It sounds funny today but it was a big cultural thing in Cincinnati.  I met another dancer Suzi Ficker, who later became Suzanne Farrell of the New York City Ballet. She asked me if I would like to study with her teacher, Marion LaCour at the College Conservatory of Music. I told her I couldn't afford classes and she said she could get me a scholarship. I asked if I had to audition and she said Ms. LeCour always went to the opera and could observe me there.

Indeed, I got the scholarship and a lifelong friend in Suzi. Little did I know that anything that resembled a male could get a scholarship because someone had to lift the ballerinas! Suzi left for New York and a scholarship at New York City Ballet the next year and I began dancing with Karin Baker. However, I studied very hard and believe that ballet builds the strongest technique.  I was also attending the University of Cincinnati as a theater major.

My junior year, Ms. LaCour retired and Tatiana Grantzeva of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo replaced her.  Mme. Grantzeva was a great teacher and I'm so grateful for the tecnique she gave me. She also had meticulous style and flair! The College Conservatory of Music became a College in the University of Cincinnati my senior year.

Who was the most influential person in your career?

Paul Rutledge was head of the Theater Department at UC and became my mentor. I will forever be indebted to him for his teaching and friendship. By my sophomore year, I was choreographing musicals and by my junior year, I was also directing them.

For two summers we operated theaters in Maxinkuckee, IN and Daytona Beach, FL.  I also returned a few years later to finish my Masters Degree by operating the Showboat Majestic on the Ohio River. I am who I am today because of Paul Rutledge. He and Patricia Corbett of the Corbett Foundation at CC, were instrumental in my receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1982.

When I came to New York, I was a trained professional and had my Equity card by doing stock at the James Alex Theatre in Dayton, OH at the end of my sophomore year. I'm a product of the arts in Cincinnati and Covington and was very lucky to have been born there.

What was the most memorable moment in your career?

There have been many highlights in my life: being selected at my first audition in New York by Juliet Prowse for her nightclub act, having Richard Rodgers personally select me to play Will Parker in his Lincoln Center revival of Oklahoma!, partnering Mitzi Gaynor, Cyd Charisse, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno, Jane Powell, Ethel Merman, Carol Lawrence, Liza Minnelli, Janet Leigh, Anne Bancroft, Lana Turner, Lucille Ball, Graciela Daniele, Donna McKechnie, Toni Kaye, Wanda Richert and Karen Ziemba and working with Bob Fosse, Tony Charmoli, Ernie Flatt, Peter Gennaro, Ron Field, Tom Hanson, Bob Sidney, Susan Stroman, Joe Layton and Gemze de Lappe.

However if I had to select one,  it would be working with Gower Champion on 42nd Street.

Getting 42nd Street was not easy. I was told I was too old to play Billy Lawlor (the Dick Powell part) and was being seen to play Andy Lee, the part of the choreographer. I wasn't going to take the audition, but my partner, Bob Donahoe, told me to audition as if I were Billy Lawlor. I sang my “up” tune, went right into my ballad and had Toni Kaye come out and we went into a tap dance I'd choreographed to This Can't be Love. When I finished, there was dead silence. I could see Gower walking towards the stage. (Yes, we auditioned in a Broadway theater back then.) He said, "you're not right for Andy Lee, but you’re right for Billy Lawlor."     

Gower didn’t tap dance and had two assistants, Karin Baker (my dance partner from Cincinnati) and Randy Skinner, who did. Wanda Richert (the Ruby Keeler role) and I worked privately with Gower, Karen and Randy before official rehearsal started.  Being a part of the creation was as good as he gets in show business. He was very collaborative with us all.

Once official rehearsal started, he gave me the We’re in the Money number and let me put my own steps in. We watched him create the Lullaby of Broadway number from scratch at a rehearsal.  He let me stage my own movements through the Dames number.

All he had to do is look at me and I knew exactly what he wanted.  He had such a cinematic style of dissolving and building a number into sections that concluded with a big finish.  He even made the sets dance. He had such clean lines with choreography. I told him I always wanted to be in an MGM musical and he said this would be his present to me.

Gower told me one day that he tried to be "with it" in the 70s. He did the drugs, went to the discos to learn the movements and realized he was just an old-fashioned song and dance man. And when David Merrick asked him to do 42nd Street, even though his doctors advised against it, he told me, "I had to do it, Lee Roy, because I don't want to be remembered as a has-been."

After David Merrick announced Gower’s death from the Winter Garden stage on opening night and we went to the Waldorf for the opening night party, the first person I ran into was Bob Fosse. He said "that son of a bitch! I filmed my own death and he had to better me by doing it on opening night!" Gower would've loved our laughter!

 

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