Valerie-Jean Miller was one of the busiest professional dancers of her era the late 1960’s into the 1990’s. She was the quintessential dancer able to work in all forms, a quick study, a great look, and an ability to allow her performance to shine with the joy of dancing. When Valerie is onstage you watch her
The highlight of her professional dancing career, which began at age 15, was working for Bob Fosse from 1978-1981 in the Broadway Tony Award-winning musical “Dancin’.” After performing in the show at the Broadhurst Theatre for the first year it was on Broadway, Valerie-Jean went on to be the Dance Captain and Featured Performer for the 1st National Tour for two years, including playing the Ahmanson for 3 1/2 months in the summer of ’79, as well as in cities all over the country.
And, for those who remember the golden age of television, Valerie-Jean performed as a June Taylor Dancer on the Jackie Gleason show at just eighteen. She also danced on the Carol Burnett Show, Sonny and Cher Variety Hour, and The Jackson Five Show among many others. She toured with such notable stars as Juliet Prowse, The Osmonds, Ray Anthony, Jimmy Durante and more as well as being cast in countless movies, dance companies, television series and TV specials. She appeared on six Academy Awards Shows and countless nightclub acts, musicals, and Industrials. She also was an assistant to top choreographers including Jaime Rogers and Stanley Donen and choreographed the Writer’s Guild Awards in 1990.
#1. After working on the Jackie Gleason Show how did you find your way to Los Angeles from Miami? Please explain how things transpired once you arrived in LA.
After the Gleason show I was hired to dance in the Jimmy Durante show at the Deauville Hotel by Ada Broadbent. She was the official and only choreographer for the show, which never changed. Jimmy and his musicians and conductor would do two-week bookings, and always hire the dancers locally, in whatever city they were appearing, and they would learn the same choreography as the girls in the last town. His act was probably on the boards for a good 20 + years, exactly the same way we did it. There were cute routines dancing around him, in tasteful but sexy costumes, usually hamming it up with him while he cracked jokes with the audience, and then we were each part of a joke that he performed as a skit, one by one – I think there were six girls altogether. My character was a stewardess, and the whole joke was told as he rubbed his famous nose on mine. It was a long vignette, and a big sandpapery schnozz, too. By the end of the two-week run my poor little nose had a cherry-red blister on top of it.
That was the beginning of the summer, 1970. I was immediately hired for a show at the Carillon Hotel, the Ruey Rhodes Show, which played there for a few months. They were a popular local band that was expanding their sets into more of a production.
In my first interview with you, I forgot to mention that in high school I also danced on a teenage morning show hosted by the popular DJ on WQAM, Rick Shaw Morning Show, which we taped on Saturdays, doing choreographed routines on location in different spots around Miami to popular music from the radio. We would tape all five shows for the week that day and they would play throughout the week each school day morning. My high school friend, Linda Rogers, also a dancer, did a lot of the choreography. She and I were two of the four dancer/singers in Ruey Rhodes’ Show. I also managed to take vocal lessons during that time and did some singing gigs with my boyfriend and his band at places like The Forge.
When and how did I do all this?
Ray Anthony, the big band leader, was to follow us in at the Carillon with his show and he happened to catch our closing night and asked us both if we were interested in touring with him on the road. I was all game, as there really were not that many professional dancing jobs in Miami at that point. I’d pretty much done them all. As I look back, I realize how lucky I was, then. Without a plan in place, I somehow kept working from that moment on.
There were two girls at the time who danced and sang with Ray Anthony, Carol Cali and Candy Valentine. Linda and I had to audition the very next day and long story short, not only did he expand his show from two to four “Bookends”, as we were called, but Ray hired my dance teacher Ronn Daniels to add choreography to all of the songs. When we hit the Frontier in Las Vegas, it was a whole new show. I toured with Ray Anthony around the U.S. and Germany for a year-and-a-half. My favorite part of that tour was six months in Hawaii at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. I got to take up surfing again and had the time of my life there with a fun group of gals. I’m still in touch with them constantly to this day. We all got together this past January 20th, here in L A to celebrate with Ray for his 98th birthday!
While still in Hawaii, I got a call about a Barry Ashton Show, that was to rehearse in Los Angeles and then play at the Americana on Miami Beach for the “season.” I had heard of Barry Ashton, since he often produced Vegas-type shows at hotels on Miami Beach and in Puerto Rico.
I left Hawaii to rehearse in Los Angeles, and really looked forward to being at home again with my family after a few years away. For a 21-year-old Gypsy, it was golden time. My family was everything. We were a tight foursome. It was also a chance to focus on dance again. The Choreographer was Steve Merritt, and his choreography was robust and challenging; the perfect antidote for my longings to keep growing through new experiences.
It was a seven-month run, and one of my favorite jobs with so many talented dancers and performers who I’m still in touch with today. The choreography was exciting, a six-minute Can-Can, triple pirouettes galore in the wild production numbers, and triple head rolls, even with twenty-pound headdresses on our heads. It was a dazzling presentation.
During the run, another show that Steve Merritt had choreographed, Sammy Davis‘s Nightclub Act was in town and one of the dancers in that show, Adele Yoshioka, came to see our show at the Americana. After the show we met her backstage and she took me and two of the male dancers, Blane Savage and David Chavez, aside to encourage us to come out to Los Angeles to work. She was so gracious; offering her apartment to stay at when we first arrived.
When the show closed late spring of 1971, Blane, Dave and I decided to go to LA, and see what might happen. As I reminisce , I am struck by the fact that there was no preconceived plan after achieving my initial goal of being a June Taylor dancer. I was led by the opportunities that were presented to me, and as usual, followed my heart.
When I arrived in Los-Angeles, I stayed a week at Adele’s apartment along with Dave Chavez. Blane came out about a month later. Adele helped me start working in Los Angeles. The first week I was there she took me to Claude Thompson’s class, asked Jaime Rogers to come by and watch the class. Then she had an audition set up for us with Jaime. It was a private audition with just Blane, Dave, and me at CBS, in a rehearsal studio. It was a high-powered, energetic and vigorous routine that felt absolutely glorious to do. I did not find out until many years later, that Jaime taught us all the men’s combination, for the audition, which included knee work, complicated leaps and tricks, some tuck-rolling on the floor from a knee slide and some very modern movements, which I had never really studied before. Within a few months time, Jaime had hired all three of us, albeit for different jobs. The second week I was in L.A. I got a job dancing on a TV Summer Series, The John Byner Comedy Hour, choreographed by Jack Regas.
My first job working with Jaime was with The Osmond Brothers, in their show at Caesars Palace. Jaime, much like June Taylor, was a taskmaster, and required 100% from you 100% of the time. He was tough on us six girls (most all of us had never worked for him before) and rehearsals were grueling, but the payoff for the hard work was getting to perform his choreography, a mixture of modern, jazz and some very funky stuff, and working with the sweet and very talented Osmond family.
As I learned more of Jaime’s’ “style,” I felt I was growing in my dance vocabulary, discovering more ways of expressing myself through dance. Jaime was also famous for his legendary three-hour dance workshops. Using every ounce of strength, you had, you came out dripping wet, soaked to the bone and totally exhausted but beyond exhilarated, having just danced your brains out to some kick ass music. So, satisfying!
There were so many incredible dance classes and teachers at that time in Los Angeles. Besides Jaime‘s marathon workshops, there was the great Claude Thompson, the incomparable Lester Wilson, Hama, Jerry Grimes, Doug Rivera, Bobby Banas, Joe Bennett, Roland Dupree, George Jack and Joe Tremaine; Stefan Wenta, Michael Panieff and Stanley Holden for ballet, Paul De Rolf, Alex Plaschert, Gene Castle, Lou Wills and Stan Mazin for tap and so many more.
Throughout the next few years, I was never out of work.. I went from one job to another, sometimes doubling, meaning doing two jobs at once, even flying in from Vegas after doing two shows and reporting to a movie set at 6 AM to dance on a movie.
#2. It seems like you hit the ground running when you got to LA. Did this hot streak continue for you? I know at some point you worked with Juliet Prowse who was a great dancer herself, was this a particular highlight for you?
There were a few stars that were not only incredible dancers, but also triple-threats, meaning they could do it all: sing, dance and act. And do it marvelously. Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, Rita Moreno, Shirley MacLaine and Juliet Prowse were the ones I grew up watching perform, in movies and on television. Blane Savage, my boyfriend since the Barry Ashton Show had been dancing in Ann Margaret’s fantastic nightclub Act at the International Hotel. Following her act Blane was hired to dance in Juliet Prowse’s Nightclub Act, which played Las Vegas four months of the year and toured the U.S. most of the rest of the year. Subsequently, on short notice I was asked to replace one of the two female dancers, Lorraine Fields, in Juliet’s Act, allowing me 5 rehearsals here in Los Angeles to learn the entire show.
I truly idolized Juliet and she captured my heart the first rehearsal with her at Roland Dupree’s. I had previously arranged to pick up a 2-month-old kitten from the airport that same day. A friend in Miami, one of the June Taylor Dancers sent the kitten on National Airlines Freight. I went on my lunch hour and picked her up and made it back to rehearsal, carrying her in the carrier all the way up a flight of stairs to rehearsal. As soon as Juliet laid eyes on her she took her out of her carrier, started the rehearsal and danced with her, holding her for much of the rest of the afternoon as we worked. I had named the kitten Little Miss Muffet. She had been handpicked for me and was a purebred bluepoint Himalayan, and I was beside myself watching this beautiful little kitty perched on Juliet’s shoulder, my dreams coinciding as lover of Cats and Dancing.
Juliet’s Act was exceptional. A perfectionist, Juliet was everything a dancer should be and more, truly a role model for me. Not only that, but although she was a star, she was down to earth and shied away from all the attention that she could have had. She was wonderful to me, as she was with all of her dancers. She seemed to prefer being around us while we were on the road or in Las Vegas, at the Desert Inn, rather than the glitz and glamour that a lot of stars are addicted or subjected to. She would often have us over after our two shows and cook a huge tasty, spicy Indian dinner for the entire cast.
At the time I joined her act, Jerry Jackson and Tony Charmoli were the choreographers. There were six male dancers and two female dancers, plus three female singers. It was a terrific act, and each year the closing number won an award in Las Vegas for Best Production. Choreographed by Tony Charmoli, it was set to Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is 15 minutes long and an amazing piece of music. How Tony interpreted it was genius. It was always thrilling to perform and audiences loved it. The Act was re-choreographed a bit later, by Nick Navarro, but “Bolero” was always our finale.
The Performing schedule with Juliet’s act allowed for time off between engagements, and at that time in Los Angeles there was a ton of television and film production happening. There were a lot of variety series, big-budget specials and a slew of awards ceremonies and I worked on a lot of them. Somehow, I was at the right place at the right time.
In between touring, I worked with many choreographers. Sometimes on movies, like Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York,“ choreographed by Ron Field, whom I also worked with later on one of the Academy Awards ceremonies and another movie, “The Entertainer,” starring Jack Lemmon, Ray Bolger and Tyne Daly. Television-wise, I worked with Tony Mordente on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” and an Opryland Special; with Tony Charmoli on a few Mitzi Gaynor Specials, a Burt Bacharach Special with Jaime Rogers, and my first Academy Awards gig with Anita Mann. Also with Don Crichton on the People’s Choice Awards, Walter Painter for the very first televised SAG Awards, Scott Salmon on the Golden Globes, and many other choreographers, Bob Banas, Tony Stevens, Michael Shawn and Danny Daniels, among others.
In 1976, Jaime Rogers hired me to do the last two seasons of the “Sonny & Cher Show,” which was exactly the same format as the “Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” that came before it, only Sonny and Cher were now divorced. There were four dancers that were on every week, Harvey Cohen, Andre’ de la Roche, me, and Jaime’s wife, Lee Lund. Besides all the crazy and wonderful dance numbers Jaime choreographed we got to be in all of the skits. Being the daughter of a vaudevillian that was right up my alley. I had such a blast working with the zany comedians on that show. They were always getting me in trouble.
At the same time, I was working on Sonny & Cher I assisted Jaime in staging and choreographing concerts for two pop singing acts. The rehearsals took place from late night through about three in the morning. Even though doubling jobs and doing Jaime’s work, was more than exhausting it was so much fun! Jaime’s work was either very modern and fluid or funky and loose. The first act, a family who sang and played instruments was The Sylvers, and then we worked with The Manhattans. “Let’s Just Kiss and Say Goodbye,” is one of my favorite songs, still.. After setting their shows we also toured with them to work out the kinks. It’s not easy to debut a new show.
During those two years working with Sonny and Cher, we would have hiatuses of a few weeks at a time before picking up with a substantial shooting schedule. We rehearsed at CBS, at the rehearsal studios on the second floor, where, in a row, The Carol Burnett Show, The Jackson Five and The Tony Orlando & Dawn shows also rehearsed. On my weeks off I often danced on all three of those shows, On Carol’s Show, I did a lot of the last season, getting to work with the meticulous and wonderful Ernie Flatt and his great dancers!
Shortly after those shows ended, there was an open audition call for a movie, where probably 250 girls showed up. As with most auditions during those days it would be an all day affair, first to weed out whom they don’t want and then figure out whom they do want. This took an enormous amount of time. From the moment you got there, sometimes standing on a line around the block just to sign in, you were stressed out and anxious. I never relished auditions, but that was the way you got work. Especially for a choreographer you had never worked with before. Honestly, I can’t remember how many open auditions I’ve gone to in my life. All I know is, I’ve paid my dues!
But this was for “The,” Stanley Donen. He was actually to direct the film, originally entitled “Double Feature,” and had not yet set a choreographer. It was a long audition and I remember there being a fantastic tap combination at the end. When the audition was over they announced that they would be notifying those dancers that got the job within the next week.
Stanley Donen asked me to stay and asked if I would work with him, one-on-one, to develop the choreography for the main characters in the film, sort of like a skeleton crew. Needless to say, I accepted and spent the next few months working with Stanley, singing, dancing and acting all the parts as he created them. He was open to all my suggestions, and I truly felt we collaborated well. I screen-tested for those parts, although ultimately people with “names,” stars, got the roles.
The movie was renamed “Movie, Movie,” and Stanley hired Michael Kidd to choreograph the group numbers. One of the characters was a vamp, a temptress, who sang and danced at a saloon. Stanley, being long-time friends and co-workers with Bob Fosse, asked Ann Reinking, Bob’s girlfriend at the time to learn the number and try out for the part. She had worked for Bob on shows like “Pippin,” and “Chicago” and was preparing to star in a new Broadway Show. Bob had just started auditioning dancers for it in New York.
Ann and I worked together for probably a week and I taught her “Torchin’ For Bill.” Ann was easy to teach, and a very warm person. It was fun seeing her interpret the dancing Stanley and I created. She would get that part, and I had a new friend. She told me she thought Bob would like my dancing and if I were interested she would let me know when the callback in New York was. Before she left, she taught me the famous “Tea for Two” audition combination that Bob always used. Guess what my answer was?
Interview of Valerie-Jean Miller by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
To read Part I of Warner’s interview with Miller, click HERE.
Featured image: Barry Ashton Show – Valerie-Jean Miller 2nd from left – 1971-72 Miami Beach at The Americana – Photo courtesy of the artist