It was 1961. Tim Harum, Susan Babel and I gave the Hollywood film industry over two months to discover us and sign us up on a studio contract. We were terrific dancers and fresh from NYC ready to perform in movie musicals. The three of us had recently graduated from the High School of Performing Arts and spent the summer at Utah State University performing in the musical “Brigadoon” and dancing in the Norman Walker modern dance company. When we were finished with our performing schedule, we were supposed to head back to NYC in Tim’s car, but instead our choice was to go on an adventure to Hollywood. The three of us held down low paying jobs while we tried to get our start in films. We were young, naive and clueless.
After two months we made the decision that it would be wiser to get back to New York where we would start rehearsals in January for the Norman Walker Modern Dance Company’s new season. None of us had any money, so the challenge was to get a job to pay us enough to get home. Tim and Susan landed a job in Las Vegas with a show for six weeks. The same production company, “Moro-Landis” had to replace one dancer for a show at the Golden Nugget Casino, in Sparks, Nevada just outside of Reno. I got that job. My schedule started later than Tim and Susan, who both intended to drive directly back from Vegas to NYC in Tim’s car. I would not finish until closer to Christmas and would fly home from Reno.
I rehearsed at the Moro-Landis studios on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, with an assistant teaching me the choreography for the show before going to the Nugget Casino in Sparks, Nevada and finding accommodations in town on my meager but decent salary. It was an AGVA job. (American Guild of Variety Artists). The Moro-Landis line of dancers opened for famous acts and their shows were in many casinos. I was in the “Pony” line toward the short end. The show theme was a salute to George M. Cohan. Our head liner was Jimmy Durante. The show also included a tenor singer, the line of dancers, topless showgirls and a separate novelty act, Bertha the Elephant.
This was my first commercial paying job as a professional dancer. I had mainly performed with modern dance companies. The other dancers were already at the Nugget finishing up a show and would go right into the next one. I would join the line; I was the “New Girl”. The other dancers had all done the choreographed numbers before and knew the ropes. I was given my costume and placement in the line. George Moro was out front watching the dress rehearsal. I did very well in the “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “For It was Mary” number and headed for the quick-change area to switch into the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” number, which required getting out of the long blue skirt, gloves, hat, shoes and jewelry. Underneath was the red, white, and blue leotard. I had to change heels, put on a navy cap, snap on epaulets, cuffs, medals and put on white short gloves and then grab a rifle and head around to the other side of the stage to join the dancers in the down stage wing ready to march on with the music and up a flight of stairs (a dozen dancers, at least).
“Stop, Stop! Where’s the new girl?” I was still fidgeting with the costume. The dancers were giggling and the dance captain was exasperated. Everyone was watching me as the dance captain came over to help snap me into my costume. We started the march up the stairs crisscrossing each other. I was fine going up the risers in those high heels but when we started the kick line coming down one stair at a time, I looked down to make sure that I did not trip. I was accustomed to dancing barefoot not in high heels. “Stop, Stop! Would the new girl keep your head up? The whole line of girls is starting to wave and it could pull everyone down the stairs”. The line of bitchy dancers stared at me with daggers. We started again with my head up and guiding right, not looking down at the stairs. The dress rehearsal finished at 4pm. Our call time for the opening show was at 7pm.
The other dancers were so nasty toward me and expressed their concern that I would make them look bad. They all left the dressing room for dinner. I skipped eating and stayed by myself in the dressing room going over and over the costume change and moving in the high heels. It was close to half hour and the dancers were coming back. I had to endure their snide comments. I was determined to not stick out like a sore thumb. Besides, I was beating myself up much more than they were. I needed to do it perfectly and keep the job. That night in performance, I ran over to the quick change table removing the long blue gloves, and took the hat off, skirt off as I ran (all done with great precision) I changed, grabbed my rifle and crossed over to stage right to my place. The girl in front of me was having trouble snapping her cuffs. I calmly and quick, snapped her up handed her rifle and marched on stage and up the stairs like areal trooper. I stood up straight with my head guiding right as we kicked our way down the stairs to the stage level to execute the “rifle dance’ (which was the actual US Navy rifle drill) where we tossed the rifles simultaneously to a partner to catch while we caught the rifle tossed to us. The whole time I thought, “Do not drop the rifle, miss a twirl, shift your head or else!” I managed to get it all together. The other dancers eased up on me; but, now I had to deal with “Bertha”. The elephant was able to reach my end of the quick-change table back stage with her trunk. She took to teasing me by holding up my white gloves, which I tried to snatch back from her trunk. She was so delighted to rile me up. I took to hiding the gloves under my hat.
Several weeks into the run, I tossed down my long blue gloves from the “Mary” number and saw that my sailor’s hat for the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” number, was turned over. I only had one white glove! “Oh, no”! Bertha stole my glove again. I carefully hid both gloves under my hat. I can’t just put on one glove, so I’ll have to do the number without my gloves and get the evil eye from the dancers and dance captain. I complained about Bertha. Finally, I was successful in moving the quick-change table out of Bertha’’s reach. It was not good to go on without gloves during the rifle drill. I endured the other girls’ snide remarks and saved money weekly from my salary to get myself back home where dancers were not so nasty. I promised myself “No more chorus line work in night clubs!” I wanted to dance with more freedom and expression. I found zero satisfaction in precision work in a night club atmosphere and not until I was much older, could I appreciate the Rockettes? I was depressed on this job and dreaded being in the dressing room with these bitches. I was relieved when it was all over.
“Bertha the Elephant” was submitted to LADC’s “Stories From the Inside” by Carolyn Dyer, April 1, 2020.
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Featured image: Vintage circus elephant postcard