Many Texas teachers have come to know Dr. Charles Flanagan as an immensely popular speaker at Humanities Texas's workshops. The National Archives' educational specialist has mined that institution's priceless documents to create some extraordinary resources for stimulating civic engagement and active learning. His e-book, Congress Creates the Bill of Rights, has been of particular interest to teachers. Moreover, Charlie's experience as a gifted high school teacher for thirty years before joining the Archives staff ensures his presentations are pitch-perfect for teachers. After all, he has been one.
While my association with Charlie spans almost a quarter century, during most of that time, I always referred to the collaboration as "Jayne and Charlie," never just "Charlie." Jayne Karsten was his mentor and colleague at the Key School in Annapolis where both served on the faculty. Jane taught English; Charlie taught U.S. History. Together they created and team-taught an interdisciplinary course on the American experience, immersing their students in the analysis of primary sources in history, classic works of literature, and big ideas from philosophy.
My introduction to Jayne and Charlie was born of necessity. The National Archives had received a grant to develop an educational resource to accompany an exhibition of Thomas Jefferson's letters to Congress on such issues at the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The problem was that neither my staff nor I understood how to devise classroom activities and lesson plans using those documents. Nor could the teachers whom we had already consulted enlighten us. In desperation, I turned to my wife LeAnn, who worked at the Key School, to ask about teachers there who might be able to help. Her inquiry produced the names of Jayne Karsten and Charlie Flanagan. Next came a meeting with the two at the National Archives. There they viewed the original Jefferson documents as well as our realistic facsimiles. This encounter began an ongoing dialogue that transformed how we thought about using historical documents in the classroom. Jayne and Charlie taught us how to select documents that could stimulate students' analysis and critical thinking. They also field-tested some of the initial selections in their classroom.
The collaboration with Jayne and Charlie soon produced a second educational resource, Our Mothers Before Us. This document-based publication used women's petitions to Congress to explore their influence on significant issues before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The project's director, Lucinda Robb, spent a day testing the documents' effectiveness with Key School students. Jayne and Charlie's role in shaping the resource was so central that Jayne was asked to speak at the Capitol ceremony in which we presented the volume to the women members of Congress. Richard Hunt, my deputy and successor at the Center for Legislative Archives, recreuited Charlie to join the staff soon after my departure.
Throughout my association with the ever-youthful Jayne, I received hints of a remarkable life spanning much of the twentieth century. But only after Humanities Texas staff member Lindsey Wall, who shares Jayne's passion for dance, recorded a six-hour interview with her did I learn the full dimensions of the latter's magical story. Jayne herself polished and supplemented the interview's narrative and unearthed a treasure trove of photographs to accompany the text. Charlie followed up the interview with a series of recorded conversations with Jayne about their experience teaching together. The current feature, "Dancing Through Life," is the first in a series of the narrative's excerpts and conversations to introduce our readers to a very special and profoundly influential teacher.
M. L. G.
In retrospect, it was as though I had three lives that morphed together in strange and wondrous ways. One was my life as a dancer; two, my life as a scholar and teacher; and three, my life with my family.
I was born on November 12, 1924, in my grandparents' home on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Although the Model-T Ford and other automobile models were beginning to take over transportation in America, the horse and buggy still prevailed in many areas, particularly in Oklahoma. In those days, doctors still made house calls. There was a raging blizzard on the day of my birth, and the doctor had a lot of trouble getting his horse and buggy through the heavy snow, but he got there in time. I held up, I guess, just for the doctor.
In 1924, much of the state of Oklahoma was still, in many ways, a rural territory. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, in an effort to settle the prairie West, the federal government had sponsored a series of land runs, the goal being to stake out claims for free land. In the 1889 land run, Oklahoma City was settled overnight as a tent city. Oklahoma became a state in 1907. By 1924, Oklahoma City had developed a sophisticated culture on many fronts; however, some of the surrounding areas were still gun-toting, rough, cowboy-whooping territory. I grew up in this eclectic environment in my maternal grandparents' home on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
My father was in the Navy in World War I. When he came back from the war, like many of the returning military, he was trying to decide what he was going to do with his life. He stopped in Oklahoma City for a brief visit with a Navy buddy and the latter's family before returning to his own family home in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, TV didn't exist and movie theatre venues were sparsely located; ballroom dancing was a prime form of entertainment. Whole families would go together to regularly scheduled Saturday night dances. My mother loved to dance. At that time, my mother had been dating one of the Kroger boys, and it was expected that they would soon be engaged. Guess what? She went to a Saturday dance with her mother and father and met this very handsome guy, who was probably still wearing his WWI Navy uniform. Well, forget Kroger.
This abrupt change didn't go over very well with her parents. My grandmother, Jennifer McGowan Noble, was from a big Scots-Irish Catholic family. My father was not a Catholic, and my grandparents had no knowledge of his family background; both were big issues. When my mother told her mother and father that she was married—that she had eloped—my grandmother went berserk. My grandfather's immediate response was, "We'll have the Justice of the Peace annul this immediately." So they did, even though my mother passionately protested. My mother was a strong, independent woman in many ways, but she was very bonded to her mother, and my grandmother could be a very strong-willed woman, though she was also a kind, wonderful woman.
The local sheriff, who was a friend of my grandfather, basically ran my father out of town. It's such an Oklahoma story. That's the way you did things in parts of Oklahoma at that time. I grew up tiptoeing around my grandfather's loaded six-gun that he kept by his bed. It sounds hokey now—you must be thinking, "Oh, yeah, cowboy movies and John Wayne"—but it was so true.
I grew up not knowing my father until age fifteen. But I was happy and busy as my life began to unfold. My grandfather would take me with him to many places: wrestling matches, to see them break in horses for the rodeo, all that kind of stuff. He also once took me with him to the bootleggers because Oklahoma was a dry state. My grandmother found out. She couldn't believe it! I was so young for such adventures. I was only about three years old, and I gladly told her where we had been. My grandfather was not happy, and she was even unhappier.
I adored my grandmother. She had enrolled me in dancing school when I was two-and-a-half, and that would be a key factor in the rest of my life. Most of my life, in those early years, was spent with my grandmother raising me to catch a streetcar to the dance studio in downtown Oklahoma City. Kathryn Duffy, the woman who was the teacher and head of the studio, became big-time in dance production and performance. I started in a course with the studio, and my life became centered on it.
Kathryn Duffy's family was highly connected in politics in Norman, Oklahoma, and was very connected to the University of Oklahoma. Her brother-in-law—I think his name was Frank Riley—was a state senator or something like that. Her family was absolutely appalled when she withdrew from the University of Oklahoma because very few women went to college at that point. She took them on and said, "I'm going to open my dance studio." They couldn't believe it.
The dance studio caught on quite fast, one reason being that the nascent state of Oklahoma didn't have many such cultural options at that time. Also, Kathryn Duffy was a classy lady, a wonderful teacher, and just a first-class person. She had that nice balance of firmness and empathy, of dignity and warm outreach, all tempered by a good sense of humor. But she didn't put up with any foolishness.
Duffy started her little beginners slowly, intertwining real ballet a bit at a time. None of this "skip around the floor" that a lot of dance studios do now. Her philosophy was that a certain amount of playtime for the little ones was fine, but beginner ballet class, even for preschoolers, should focus on learning the basics of classical ballet form. So, bit by bit, she taught us the five basic positions of hands and feet, how to avoid getting dizzy by spotting a turn, the movements and French names of pliés, pas de bourées and other classical ballet rudiments. She would insist that we strive for perfection. If you didn't have your knees out over your toes in pliés, and if you rolled your feet forward, or if you were sticking out too much in the back, she would use her small baton-type stick to gently remind you to make a correction.
As the studio enrollment grew, she hired an acrobatic teacher who taught old-fashioned types of acrobatics: walkovers, tinsicas, handsprings, etc. She believed that a dancer should have broad training and, shortly after, added a tap teacher. At age four-and-a-half, I was enrolled in both acrobatic and tap lessons. My first tap teacher was named Paul Michel; I will never forget him. He introduced me to the 1920s style of tap dancing called hoofing. The dancer pounded out such basic moves as "shuffle, step; shuffle, step" vigorously. It wouldn't be until the early '30s, almost the time of Fred Astaire films, that tap-dancing became more graceful. Gene Kelly brought back close-to-the-floor hoofing but tempered it with subtle sound control and softer, more complex body motion.
The Great Depression that followed the 1929 crash of the stock market affected practically all aspects of American life, but Kathryn Duffy was able to keep her studio going, partly with support from her now-reconciled family and from her loyal student-parent community. My mother, grandfather, and grandmother made many sacrifices during the Depression years to keep paying for my dancing classes.
My grandfather, as noted earlier, was very involved in Oklahoma politics. In those days, regular evening political meetings, featuring a wide range of political speakers, were held before elections on the grounds of the Oklahoma City County Courthouse. A temporary, medium-sized speaker platform would be set up each day of the event and a piano placed on the corner of the platform. A piano player was hired to play background music during the opening and closing of the gathering and during the break between speeches.
In many ways, those long-ago political meetings bring to mind the political gatherings of today, except those protests operated in a somewhat different mode. Instead of a main protest group gathering outside the indoor venue of the meeting or at the fringe of an outdoor rally audience, the opposition candidate of a key speaker would hire a gang of "thugs" to time their arrival a little before the speaker was scheduled to take to the podium. On arrival, they would disperse throughout the crowd, and, at a propitious moment, initiate an old-fashioned, down-and-dirty fist-fight with male opponent supporters in the audience. Well, my grandfather was very aware that this was probably going to happen when his favored candidate took the stage. The candidate's name was Jim Bodine. I was only about age four, but I still vividly remember the candidate and the exciting way the evening played out.
Al Smith was running for president. I had just learned my very first tap dance choreography, a waltz clog set to Al Smith's election theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York." My grandfather alerted the piano player and primed me to carry out his diversion scheme. "When Mr. Bodine takes the stage for his speech, and, at the moment when his speech might be interrupted, I am going to lift you onto the platform and give a signal to the pianist to hit it. I want you to break into your 'Sidewalks of New York' dance when you hear the piano start and keep repeating your dance routine until I signal the pianist to stop." Sure enough, shortly after Bodine started his speech, the gang arrived and started a fight. My grandfather quickly lifted me onto the platform and yelled, "Hit it!" to the pianist, and I stared dancing my heart out. I don't know how many times I repeated my routine, but I like to think I had some effect on helping the crowd-control efforts.
Many years later I told my American Civilization class this story. We were talking about politics and the election process. This was right in the heat of a pending election. At the end of the school year, the class presented me with a fold-out canvas bench, and, on the canvas seat, was a picture, hand-painted by the students, of a political meeting at which a little girl was on a platform dancing "The Sidewalks of New York." It's a treasure! So, you see, dancing comes in handy in a lot of places.
My mother had been in touch with my father on and off through the years, especially through letters of inquiries from him about me. He had even tried to arrange visits and a reconciliation with my grandparents during the first few years after my birth—but to no avail. When the question of meeting him came up, I hesitatingly said yes. We were doing a big band show in St. Louis at the time, and my mother arranged for us to meet my father between the rehearsal and the night performance. We met in the elaborate lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis, the venue of the show. I remember sitting there intensely watching the revolving door as each man came through, thinking, "Is that he?" But when he did, I recognized him immediately—I looked a lot like him, with similar hair color and brown eyes. He introduced himself, and a brief, somewhat awkward conversation followed. (There wasn't much time between rehearsal and the performance.) He wanted me to meet his family. He had remarried and had two children. Again, I said yes, and we met again the next morning where I was introduced to his wife, an attractive and gracious woman, and their two young children. In the years that followed, I was invited to visit them on a number of occasions. We were never terribly close, but I am glad I said yes to that St. Louis hotel lobby meeting and later family visits.
It was meaningful to be able to fill in the blanks about my father’s background. He was from a well-established family in Memphis, Tennessee. He later moved to California, where he started a business of importing musical instruments from all over the world. He then moved to Saint Louis and then Atlanta, Georgia, where he lived out the rest of his life. He was fortunate to build his business of importing and promoting a variety of musical instruments during the Big Band era and, especially, guitars at the time that Elvis Presley was emerging as a star. My father, contrary to my grandparents’ predictions, would become a very successful entrepreneur.
A few years before the Depression hit, Hal Roach, producer of the Our Gang series, had started sending agents all over the country to recruit young talent. Also, Hollywood had launched talent contests, held in local theaters, for a chance to have a Hollywood screen test. A successful screen test could lead to a film contract. In the Depression years, a lot of people were drawn to participate because you could put bread on the table if your kid made it into Hollywood films; so the contest fever grew. In 1928, Kathryn Duffy, recognizing the chance for publicity, signed me up for a try-out at the Orpheum Theater. And, I think largely because of Duffy's increasing influence in the show business world, I was offered a chance for a Hollywood film test. Well, my grandmother said, "No way! Jayne Frances is not going to Sin City!" That was her perception of Hollywood as it was developing, and my mother acquiesced.
I didn't go to Hollywood, but, ironically, that story took a strange twist. Drawn by the popularity of the above-mentioned contests and Kathryn Duffy's growing reputation, a mother who had a little girl named Darla Jean Hood brought her daughter to Kathryn Duffy's studio. I think the family lived in a small town outside of Oklahoma City. Darla was about three years old, really an appealing, pretty little girl and smart as a whip, and Kathryn Duffy immediately took her under her wing. Duffy and her husband lived in a luxurious apartment within the studio complex. They had an African American maid, as did some of the studio parents. Some mothers brought their maids to the studio to help their little ones change into dance attire and to supervise them until lesson time was called. In segregated Oklahoma, the maids had to wait out the lesson in a separate sitting room from the white parents. Such segregation rules are an important part of the rest of my Our Gang story.
Darla Jean was never really a good dancer, but she surely could sing and act. By this time—I don't know exactly how old I was—maybe twelve or thirteen. I was put in charge of coaching Darla Jean on how to dramatize her song lyrics plus teaching her a few dance steps—or trying to. All sorts of stories have been circulated about how Darla ended up in Our Gang films. The one that has prevailed is that Darla's parents, at Duffy's urging, had taken Darla to a performance event in New York City and had volunteered to let her go on stage to sing a song. A Hal Roach talent scout was in the audience and, captivated by Darla's voice and personality, negotiated with her parents to bring her to Hollywood for a screen test. Darla goes to Hollywood; the result is a starring role in the increasingly popular Our Gang series.
Kathryn Duffy had now become Darla's agent. An arrangement was made with the Roach Studio to send Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla Jean, and, occasionally, Scotty back to Kathryn Duffy's studio to learn new script lines and accompanying movements. I was put in charge of helping four of the Our Gang cast learn script lines, song lyrics, and interpretative movements. Spanky was three years old in the first sessions. Keeping Spanky on task was quite a challenge. The group was supposed to sit on fairly high stools for the first part of each session. I would place Spanky on the stool; he'd jump down. Up and down became a game. It was a huge studio, and he would jump down, then run around and around, with me chasing to catch him and get him back on the stool. Eventually, I won, and he learned to stay put.
Darla Jean was attentive and focused, as were Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Scotty. Buckwheat, being African American, could not stay in the same hotel suite or eat in the same areas of restaurants with the other three cast members. Kathryn Duffy's African American maid—who was a delightful gal—took him into her home. Buckwheat was such a wonderful kid. During the 1960s when the civil rights movement was coming together, I would often think of him. He couldn't quite understand why he couldn't be where the other kids were or even go out to dinner with them. But, because of the nature and generosity of Kathryn Duffy's maid, he was very well taken care of, and he grew to love her in a lot of ways.
Meanwhile, Hollywood was growing. Circuits of movie theaters were opening across the nation, adapting many elaborate existing vaudeville stages to accommodate motion picture screens, as well as adding new theater venues. The Orpheum circuit was one of the first. A branch of the circuit opened about 1921 in a converted Opera House in Oklahoma City. It's 1927 when the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer, was made, starring Al Jolson. To put that into perspective, I was born in 1924. The silent movies had been around for a while, but cinema technology was very limited, certainly by comparison to the way it later developed. There was increasing interest in Hollywood, and Hollywood was increasingly interested in reaching out across the nation to recruit talent.
One of those ironies of history was that Broadway was closing down during the Depression while Hollywood was building up and taking on the role of morale-builder, such as with Busby Berkeley's musicals. 1933 was the first of his Gold Diggers series. Even the songs addressed the Depression. There's one that became especially popular; the opening line was "We're in the money! Come on, my honey!" that celebrated the dream of a new prosperity. Broadway vaudeville had reached a high point with the Ziegfeld Follies, starring Fanny Brice. In the early Follies, the elegantly costumed showgirl-parade style of choreography dominated but, with time, was increasingly infused with sophisticated choreography. The old vaudeville "bring the kids out" family acts, like Eddie Foy, with his eight kids, juggling and tap dancing, was being overshadowed by glamour and glitz.
The end of the nineteenth century saw enhanced agitation for women's rights. The suffrage movement lobbied intensely for the right of women to vote. Another branch of the movement angrily fought for prohibition with such antics as invading—even breaking bottles—in saloons. Then along comes Freud with his argument of the divided self. It can be argued that Freud's influence helped spark a new dimension of women's rights, particularly on college campuses. Women, after 1910, become increasingly socially liberated. It's as though, in discovering they have an id, they felt they had a right to practice new freedom in their behavior. When Sally comes home from college, her hair has been bobbed, her brooch has been replaced by a long pearl necklace, and her skirt's gone up to just below her knees. Instead of dancing the ragtime one-step, two-step, she's now dancing the Charleston and Varsity Drag.
When Broadway began to close and the lights were going out on 42nd Street, there was a push, particularly by the Broadway show business artists, to get to California to try and make it in Hollywood. Kathryn Duffy's studio was positioned right in the middle of the nation in Oklahoma City, and she was smart enough to take advantage of this situation. The New York dance artists' migration west would have a big impact on the studio. People who later became celebrated names in show business were stopping at the Kathryn Duffy Studio because she offered them a chance to recruit students for special dance lessons, using her studio for the instruction. It was a win-win arrangement. Although I was quite young, I certainly won because of it.
The artists included people like Ted Shawn, who, along with Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, was considered an early American pioneer of modern dance. Ted Shawn would gain fame in the dance world with his innovative choreography, the stunning performances with his group of male dancers, and eventually as founder of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Colony in the Massachusetts Berkshires. He had stopped in Oklahoma to study Native American dance as background for some of his choreography. The Duffy Studio provided a place to rehearse his male dance group and to help fund his initiatives.
I was about age seven or a little bit younger, and the special lesson opportunities had been designed for the older students. However, Kathryn Duffy, feeling that I had particular dance talent, arranged for me to have some of the special lessons with performers such as Elisa Cansino, a member of several generations of professional Spanish dancers. Cansino taught me how to play the castanets while dancing authentic classical Spanish dances. I really took to the castanets and the Spanish dancing. I think I must have Spanish blood. Although at the time I was timid and somewhat scared to be included in this select group, the experience would a strong shaping force in many aspects of my life.
Oklahoma City was growing rapidly. Kathryn Duffy's business was booming, and her studio had become a premier place where people from all over, including wealthy Nichols Hills and other outlying areas, had enrolled their children for dance instruction. A large outdoor park had opened on a spring-fed lake—one of the few natural lakes in the state—outside of Oklahoma City called Springlake. The park had become a very popular spot, in spite of the Depression. You could ride a streetcar there for a ten-cent fare, five cents for kids. It was a wonderful family environment; it even had a few carnival rides. Families would bring picnic baskets and spend the day. As the park became increasingly popular, a performance pavilion was added, one somewhat like Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Maria Tallchief, who would later become a principal dancer in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet, and I were in the same classical ballet class before her family moved to Los Angeles where she began her apprenticeship with celebrated ballet masters. The two of us were young, but we were invited to give several performances at the Springlake pavilion. Maria had not been en pointe very long, but her extraordinary ballet talent was already evident in the classical ballet segment she performed. I did my Spanish castanet dance, La Mantilla. Both of us were a hit with the audience, especially because we were so young.
One of Ted Shawn's male dancers was engaged to a young woman named Wendolyn Beavers, a dance teacher who had a studio in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Because of this relationship, Wendolyn had invited Ted Shawn to use her dance studio to rehearse his male dancers for performances they were giving around the state. Wendolyn and her mother had come several times to Springlake to see Shawn and his group perform.
Mrs. Beavers had developed a friendship with my mother and grandmother when attending the performances, and she approached them with a request to let me come to Ponca City to teach Wendolyn and her students—although I was so young—some tap dancing, some classical Spanish choreography, and how to play the castanets. She would cover train ticket fare both ways. My mother, feeling it would be a good experience for me, and, having trust in Mrs. Beavers to take good care of me, said yes, and my grandmother agreed. In retrospect, I can't believe my grandmother's response—she was so protective of me. By this time, I was eight, maybe nine years old.
The train was the old Pullman-type that puffed clouds of smoke and blew loud whistles as it came into the station. My mother explained to the conductor that I was to get off at Ponca City. As an extra precaution, she had written my name and destination on a tag and pinned it on my sweater. The conductor assured my mother that he would check on me frequently, which he did. He even brought me a candy bar during the trip and, flashing a big smile, informed me that "Ponca City is coming up soon!" and that he would help me off the train. Wendolyn had received my mother's telegram about my arrival time and was there to meet me. At that time, telegrams were the most frequently used method of communication for such purposes. One could phone, but long distance calls were very expensive, and it was the Depression era. That trip was quite an adventure! Even this many years later, I remember the details vividly.
The train ride was the first of several incredible adventures I would experience in my Ponca City sojourn. For instance, I was invited to be in the studio when Ted Shawn was working with his male dancers. I would sit on a little seat in the corner and watch Shawn and his dancers practice elevation movements. From my vantage point, it looked like they were soaring at least twenty feet in the air. I was awed by the quality of their dance capabilities and how gracious and gentlemanly they were in their interaction with me.
Ted Shawn traveled with a rehearsal pianist, Jess Meeker. Jess was about nineteen then. He would remain with Shawn throughout the latter's life, composing special music for his choreography, as well as accompanying rehearsals and performances. He eventually became the music director at Jacob's Pillow, a position he held until the end of his life. In the 1990s, after Shawn had died, I attended a Jacob's Pillow event at The Kennedy Center. Jess was there with a performance group. I was delighted that he remembered me. We had become pals during the Ponca City rehearsals. He had even invited me, on some occasions, to sit next to him on the piano bench during some of the rehearsals.
Another reason Ted Shawn had stopped in Oklahoma was to study Native American culture and dance as inspiration for some of his choreography, such as his celebrated Thunderbird number. Wendolyn had made arrangements for Shawn and his group to make several visits to different Indian reservations in the Oklahoma area. Wendolyn and her mother were included in the visits and invited me to go with them. Again, what a life-shaping experience!
Ted Shawn was a visionary who created fresh and provocative dance choreography. In doing so, he changed the role of the male dancer in a lot of ways. Eventually Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov would push that change even further. In founding Jacob's Pillow, Shawn provided an environment that continues to explore and capture new themes and forms of dance expression and project modifications in gender roles. There's a fairly new DVD called Never Stand Still that tells the story of Jacob's Pillow. The story of the founding of Jacob's Pillow is fascinating. In the heart of the Depression, Shawn and his male dancers went door to door asking for donations that would help fund renovations of an old, dilapidated barn located in Massachusetts. They did most of the carpentry work and interior finish themselves. It's quite a story, the story of Jacob's Pillow.
Kathryn Duffy was beginning now to really have an established name in the show business world. She was readying this increasingly popular performance group of dancers—girls about ages sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, on up to twenty for her productions. One of her dancers, a girl who had studied with her for years, moved out of the area and Duffy was looking for a replacement. She approached my mother about considering letting me rehearse with these girls, suggesting that maybe I could eventually be worked into the performances. My mother had known her for many years and trusted her. Even my grandmother finally agreed that I could intern in the performance group.
The second part of the intern agreement came sooner than expected. Duffy had booked two important shows for the same night, one requiring two solo numbers and the other a group performance. Already short a dancer in the seasoned group, Duffy called my mother to ask if I could fill in the solo spot at a small nightclub in one of downtown Oklahoma City's finest hotels. My mother said, "Yes, if I could go with her." Duffy's studio pianist would be my music accompanist. Her presence and the fact that my mother would be there gave me comfort. Still, the thought of being the only dancer performing in such a close, intimate space brought some nervous fear. I danced a Spanish castanet number, and a finger cymbal Oriental dance that Duffy had taught me. Duffy had studied Oriental dancing from Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn's wife. Both St. Denis and Shawn had traveled extensively in the Middle East to study Oriental dance genres. In fact, much of their early pioneer work in modern dance came from Oriental roots.
Meanwhile, Kathryn Duffy was continuing to make inroads into the show business world. Her dance performance group was now increasingly booked for big band orchestra floorshows featuring such band leaders as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Guy Lombardo, and Glen Miller. At age thirteen, I became a full-fledged "Duffy girl." Although the economy was improving because America was moving toward World War II, 1937 was still a Depression year. I was earning a small salary in my new role, and that was important. The downside was that I was absent a lot from school because of out-of-town shows. But my academic teachers were absolutely wonderful. They sketched out challenging assignments for me to complete when I was on the road. I became a poster child for independent study. The teachers trusted me, and my mother trusted Kathryn Duffy to take good care of her dancers and respect my need for study session time.
Duffy girls were not called "chorus girls" because we really danced. We did shows all over the country in fancy places like the Waldorf-Astoria and Savoy Plaza in New York City, the Palmer House in Chicago, the Brown Palace in Denver, the Del Monte Hotel in the Mayflower in Washington, DC, the Rice Hotel in Houston. A special highlight of those years was being part of the big Houston-Fort Worth-Dallas rodeo shows across Texas that featured such radio stars as Jack Benny, George Burns, and Gracie Allen.
We would do a rodeo show in Fort Worth and Dallas on the same day. Duffy, to expedite time spent on costume changes, would arrange the program so that the last number in Fort Worth would be the first number in Dallas. One of the Texas oil millionaires or ranchers who helped sponsor the rodeo would arrange for their private planes to fly us, still in costume, from Fort Worth to Dallas to do our second show, then fly us back. The whole rodeo episode was exciting!
Looking back, those years were an "Age of Innocence." Being a Kathryn Duffy girl was like being in a convent. We were separated from everybody. We never entered a hotel when we were doing the big band tours without stopping beforehand to get dressed up—the gloves, the hose, the high heels, the big hats. Duffy consistently reminded us that we were ladies and that we needed to make that obvious from the minute we walked in the hotel lobby door.
Kathryn Duffy dancers' reputation as a first-class performance group was solid now, and we were booked for several years as a starring segment of the Radio City Music Hall's Christmas and Easter extravaganzas. The Rockettes had been a big part of the theater's stage shows since its opening in 1932 but, at that time, they were not what we—somewhat arrogantly—considered "real" dancers; they were precision high-kick artists and were obviously good at what they did in that entertainment mode. Also, as the Radio City stage shows expanded, the Rockettes added "real" dance modes to their repertoire. I find it interesting that, off and on, a few college girls from Barnard and Columbia who had had extensive dance training would work in the precision line. Our performances at Radio City Music Hall through the years usually included a spectacularly costumed Ziegfeld-like Christmas and Easter parade number, plus several challenging "real" dances.
Duffy would arrange for us to go to New York or Chicago to get fitted for these costumes. Standing on a long table for hours while the costume designers sketched watercolor drawings of possibilities and the fitters cut and pinned together trial white muslin try-ons is a story in itself.
Elegant costumes were a lot of what Duffy was all about. Press releases on Duffy productions through the years almost always mentioned her dancers' gorgeous, tasteful costumes. For instance, my dance partner and I, who were exactly the same height, were featured in several of the big production numbers. Our costumes were always spectacular but were especially so in the ones we wore in our dance performance crafted to Cole Porter's song "Night and Day." The style was a fitted, all sequined long-sleeved dress, ankle-length in the front but tapered into a long train in the back. My dance partner's "Day" costume was fully silver sequined; my "Night" costume was fully black sequined. All of the sequins were hand-sewn, so you can imagine what an investment that was.
Kathryn Duffy and her dancers had gained much nationwide prominence by this time, reflected in an invitation to perform for a full season—which turned out to be three full seasons—at The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, from June 1 until Labor Day in September. We were to be housed in The Grand Hotel, an elegant place that still boasts of having the longest porch in the world. The Mackinac Bridge had not yet been built, and the island was a get-away paradise, particularly for elite, wealthy families from Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. Performing in such a venue was incredible, even though our schedule kept us working day and night. We had matinee performances two days a week as well as two shows every night, including Sundays, and constant morning rehearsals. Because of the repeated attendance of hotel guests and islanders in any given week, we needed to keep the repertoire fresh. We couldn't just do the same program over and over.
Our rehearsal time was divided between our work with Duffy in reviewing and incorporating new additions to our repertoire and our rehearsals with the orchestra. The Grand Hotel orchestra leader was known there by his show business name, Charlie Swick. His real name was Charles Z. Wick. Most of the guys in the band, and Charlie himself, were music majors from the University of Michigan. Charlie, while working on his degree in music school, had put together an orchestra of fellow music school majors who played regularly for Saturday night University of Michigan ballroom dances. During the three summers we danced at the Grand Hotel, we had hours and hours of rehearsal time with the Swick orchestra. And, each year, on Day One of our arrival on the island, Kathryn Duffy would remind us of her strict, absolute rule that her dancers have no interactions with the Swick orchestra boys outside of rehearsal and performance time. She and her husband were quartered in a Grand Hotel suite down the hall from our rooms, and they kept a close eye on us. We knew that, if we were caught breaking that rule, we'd be shipped back to Oklahoma, starting the return on the next Mackinac Island ferry.
As mentioned earlier, Charlie's real last name was Wick. After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan music school, he completed a law degree. In time, he moved to the Los Angeles area, where he became involved in several creative adventures: making Hollywood films, contributing to new developments at the Hollywood Bowl, sponsoring arts alliances, etc. During that time, he became close friends with Ronald Reagan, and, when Reagan became President, he appointed Wick to head the U.S. Office of Information Agency. In that position, Wick created Voice of America and other outreach initiatives. Wick was an honorary pallbearer at Ronald Reagan's funeral.
On graduation from high school, I applied to only one college—the University of Michigan, an outgrowth of my experience at Mackinac Island. The Michigan Union still had Saturday night dances. Guess who was the orchestra leader? Charlie Wick!
Many years later, when I turned eighty, and Charlie was about eighty-six, I got a long, wonderful letter from him. (How he knew it was my birthday is still a mystery to me.) The letter starts with eightieth birthday congratulations, but the main focus is on summers at Mackinac Island. "I just want to tell you, I still resent the fact that Kathryn Duffy would not let her dancers even hardly speak to my band members! They were nice boys. Her girls were nice girls. There was no reason . . ." He went on and on! He was still carrying resentment, this many years later, that Duffy had locked us up from association with his "nice" orchestra boys! I chuckled at his lingering resentment. It would have been fun to get to know his nice boys, but, in spite of being locked up, our Grand Hotel years were a wonderful adventure. Mackinac Island was just a heavenly place.
Kathryn Duffy's reach continued to expand as America moved closer to World War II. As mentioned earlier, we had done floorshows with the Big Bands in many of the finest hotels in the West—and a lot of shows in Texas. I will never forget the show we did at the San Jacinto Inn located close to the San Jacinto monument. We walked into the lobby of the inn and encountered a full-sized teepee and two Indian squaws cooking something on an improvised fire. The day marked the beginning of a celebration of an historic event related to the Battle of San Jacinto. Their mission was to promote the beauty and culture of their tribe and its role the history of San Jacinto.
Our first show in Las Vegas, Nevada, was in a casino/hotel soon to be converted into the Last Frontier Hotel. Las Vegas, then, was mainly desert. The area that would eventually be known as The Strip, at that point, consisted of about three buildings. The year was 1933 or 1934, and the Hoover Dam was near completion. Kathryn Duffy arranged for us to take a bus out to see the Hoover Dam, which was not very far from Las Vegas. The Duffy dancers would be booked into premier venues on The Strip for many years after World War II ended.
As the war build-up intensified, we performed several shows in the West in airplane hangars and other venues, which were being converted into defense factories. Our stage was usually a makeshift platform constructed for us to entertain Rosie the Riveter-type workers and their male counterparts, who were working in twelve-hour shifts all day and all night.
Eleanor Roosevelt was very well known for going around the country and giving speeches at different [locations], trying to explain FDR's programs, among other things. She always had to be on a stage, and she always wanted to have some girls at the back of her to act as sort of a backdrop for her. She came to Oklahoma City, and, because of the Duffy connection, I ended up being the person that Duffy sent. I was about eleven or twelve, before I became a professional dancer.
I remember how excited I was. I had never had a formal gown before. I had lots of costumes but never a formal gown. My mother made this beautiful cerise taffeta princess dress and bought a beautiful white satin cape that I still have hanging up in the closet. Eleanor wanted her girls to have a little cover-up of some sort. We processed behind her as she entered. I think it was at the Criterion Theater, one of the old theaters in Oklahoma City. Then she reversed us [according to] how she wanted us to get into this amphitheater contour. That was quite a moment. Then she invited us to come out to the state fair where FDR was going to ride around. He went 'round and 'round in his convertible. That was another big moment.
It was a big deal when the first Santa Fe streamliner came cross-country at a speed impossible for steam engines to achieve. The train was rightfully called the Super Chief. It was to come into Dearborn Station in Chicago on its maiden voyage, where there was to be a big celebration as it entered. Mickey Rooney, then at the height of his Hollywood career, was to ride on the end platform as the train slowly pulled into the station area. His entrance was scripted in typical Hollywood style. Mickey was very short and part of his sell in his movie roles and publicity was to dramatize his short height by often showing him surrounded by tall girls. In planning the Chicago arrival, Mickey's agent approached Kathryn Duffy who, at that point, was a well-known name in Hollywood circles, to ask if she would allow two of her tall dancers to take that last lap of the trip with Mickey and stand on the end platform, one on each side of him, as he entered Dearborn Station. My dance partner, mentioned earlier in the "Night and Day" number, and I were selected. To add drama to the event, we were requested to wear high heel platform shoes and wide-brimmed hats, which we did. What a stunt! Little Mickey Rooney surrounded by two very tall young women!
Mickey was very gracious and appreciative in his interactions with us during the ride. Later, the president of the Santa Fe Railroad sent us each a handwritten thank-you note and, with his and Mickey's compliments, a beautifully woven Aztec Indian handbag to thank us personally for our participation.
I have thought, through the years, of that long-ago grand entrance, with bands playing, and large crowds loudly cheering, particularly in watching news films of political figures standing and waving on the end-platform with crowds cheering as they enter a train station. The current practice of coming down the steps of a plane at an airport, waving to a small crowd, seems a letdown by comparison. I chuckle as the thought goes through my mind, "They should have hired a Hollywood stunt man!"
Dancing provided a lot of fancy, exciting moments in my life. A lot of hard work, but a lot of joy. What is amazing to me is, although my walking is not very good anymore—the kids are around to help me walk over to the dance studio—when that music starts, I can still out-dance them.