When I heard that a world class tennis player was named Anna Smashnova, I couldn't believe it. Even after reading in Wikipedia that she had reached a ranking of fifteenth best in the world, I still can't believe she was born Smashnova. It's pure camp.
Show biz, of which tennis is a variety, rewards catchy names although just what makes a name catchy changes. In the golden age of Hollywood, hopefuls were re-named by studio heads. Virginia McMath became Ginger Rogers, Fred Austerlitz, Fred Astaire, Norma Jean Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe,
The ideal Hollywood man's name had three syllables: James Cagney, Clark Gable, Cary Grant. (Is it significant that the last two have the same inituals?) But major exceptions include John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart.
Female stars seemed to have more musical names: Lana Turner, Claudette Colbert, Shirley Temple, Katherine Hepburn.
The stage name camp award goes to strippers: Norma Vincent Peel, Gaza Stripp, and Helen Bedd. Runners up are drag ballet dancers: Ida Nevesayneva, Tatiana Youbetyabootskaya, Vera Namethattunerova, Vladimir Legupski.
Modern dancers seemed indifferent to names until one day, a somewhat modest dancer named Harold Silver appeared as Spider Kedelsky. That's when I decided Shakespeare was wrong about roses. Spider Kedelsky left a bold spoor and his career leapt forward. It is not only what name people call you, but what name fits.
In a restaurant with friends, photographer, Harold Lowe, said he wanted a name that would give his photos pizzazz. I grabbed a napkin, wrote, "Koomis Maja," and shoved it over.
"Where did you get Koomis Maja?"
"It just came to me."
"I like it!"
But a week later someone told him that Koomis means "shit" in some language. He never did find a name with pizzazz.
A dancer with a forgettable name (I've forgotten it) asked me for a suggestion. I offered Al Fresco. He was intrigued but decided against it. As far as I know, no performer was ever named Al Fresco although there is a sausage company of that name.
At birth I was named Stuart Hodes Gescheidt. When I first danced I used Stuart Gescheidt and almost lost a job because the choreographer, who had seen me perform couldn't remember Gescheidt. I needed a stage name.
I asked Mark Ryder, who'd been Sasha Liebich, where he'd gotten Mark Ryder.
"Out of the air."
I tried to come up with a name using my initials (refusing to consider the cynical suggestion that I become Stuart Graham.) Stuart Gillette, Stuart Grant, Stuart Gifford, and Stuart Gorth (ugh!) were all on my short list.
Another idea was to translate Gescheidt, which means clever in German: Stuart Brilliant, Stuart Bright, Stuart Smart, Stuart Sage.
Then my uncle, Ira Hodes, said I had a good name, Hodes.
"But there already is a Stuart Hodes!" Ira's son, my cousin, is named Stuart.
"Why can't there be two?"
Stuart Hodes appeared in my very next theater program.—Stuart Hodes
I was heading for the Zeigfeld Theater with Kismet's Dance Captain, George Martin, when we bumped into Jonathan Lucas. Martin introduced us.
"Stuart, this is Jonathan Lucas. Maybe he'll hire you for one of his TV Shows."
Eventually he did, the Herb Shriner Show, a midweek half-hour that opened with a dance number. Shriner was a likable guy with wholesome down-home charm. In one scene, he entered a smoke-filled night club and asked for a cigarette.
"I didn't know you smoked," said the straight man.
"I don't," said Shriner, breaking off the tip, "I just want to breathe through the filter."
Lucas spoke about playing the role of Paris in The Golden Apple in 1954, unconventional casting since the cowardly Paris is traditionally tall and handsome while Lucas was short and dark with a bulbous head. Perhaps choreographer, Hanya Holm, wanted to emphasize the difference between Paris and his warrior brother, Hector, played by Jack Whiting, the star.
Lucas's gfts as a choreographer were fortified by enormous self-confidence. He told me that after dancing for a few weeks on a TV show, he went to the executive producer and said he could choreograph it better than the guy doing the job. Amazingly, or maybe not, it got him his first job as a choreographer.
He said he'd been born with the name Giarraputo, and that as a kid had lived near Native Americans who allowed him to join their own kids in learning tribal dances. But when he enrolled in a tribal dance competition and won, it caused consternation.
He also told about a conference of sex researchers who watched an Alfred Kinsey film of two men having sex, one of which was him. After the showing, researchers recognized him and offered congratulations.
An Internet biography has Lucas born in Salaparuta, Sicily, his name, Luca Aco Giarraputo. His English was that of a native speaker likely because his mother, an English translator named McCrady, spoke English to him from birth.
After the Shriner Show, I worked with Lucas on two TV specials, The Esther Williams AquaSpectacle, 1957, and Cinderella, 1958, then in Broadway's First Impressions, 1959. First Impressions replaced him with Herbert Ross yet Lucas landed on his feet directing in California, somewhat less hazardous than making up dances.
An Internet site, FilmReference, lists some fifty theater credits ranging from dancer in A Lady Says Yes, 1945, through Associate Director of Dom DeLouise and Friends, 1986. The Herb Shriner Show, which he choreographed and I danced in is not listed.
Lucas loved to tell stage stories and some were zingers:
He'd been to the ballet, and afterward went backstage to see the ballerina, whom he knew. She was famous, aging, discouraged strangers, but hearing it was he, invited him in, sitting naked at her dressing table removing makeup. When it was removed she leaned close to the mirror.
"Oh face, face! I pamper you with creams and lotions, shade you from the sun, give you the finest makeup and still you are falling off my bones!"
Then she looked down are her crotch. "And you! You've been scratched and bitten and crushed and sucked and fucked, and not a mark on you!" — Stuart Hodes
The O'Tooles Tonight!
The O'Tooles Tonight! is a two-person musical written for my wife and me by Gayle Stahlhut of the East Lynn Theater Company, Cape May, NJ. It's an Equity house and we performed it there in 2000 and 2001.
New Year's Eve, 1899: a veteran show-biz couple, Tim and Molly O'Toole, have an offer to headline a new show by Florenz Ziegfeld. They celebrate by exploring songs, scenes, skits, and dances for their act. It kept Elizabeth and me on stage from the first minute to the last, like entering an alternate reality!
The show opens with Hello Ma Baby, in which a new invention – the telephone – is discovered to be a great way to propose. They sing of their old Irish neighborhood in The Babies on Our Block, and You Naughty, Naughty Men from The Black Crook. They Castle Walk, tap, soft-shoe, waltz, and minuet, and go over scenes from Robin Hood, The Great Tycoon, and try out jokes and repartee. My personal high was Casey at the Bat.
And now I'd love to see another dancing/singing/acting couple do it. (I don't think it would take much convincing to get Gayle Stahlhut to revive it at Cape May!) We made digital videos of many performances, still waiting to be edited and burned to DVD. But anyone can see the script now! Click The O'Tooles Tonight, and email me your postal address. While you're at it, take a look at East Lynne's web site: East Lynne Playhouse—Stuart Hodes
Jack Cole at Harkness
The Harkness Ballet flared into existence between 1964 and 1974, plaything of Rebekah Harkness who bought a mansion for it on East 77th Street: crystal chandeliers, three dance studios, canteen, resident masseurs, and a private aerie for herself.
Visitors entered a marble lobby where a windowed niche held a pedestal upon which stood a revolving urn whose mechanical butterfly wings slowly opened and closed. Wrought of gold and jewels by Salvadore Dali, it was meant to hold the ashes of Rebekah Harkness.
The troupe had a succession of directors, each replaced for paying insufficient attention to Rebekah's amusements. But the accompanying school, armed with bountiful scholarships and left to its director, Patricia MacBride, attracted talented young dancers from all over the U.S.
Into this menage came Jack Cole, enticed by a chance to make a ballet for the troupe's superb dancers. He began by giving them class. When I popped in to watch, they were usually on their backs, bodied curled over heads, knees and shins on the floor. Jack walked among them beating on a small drum except when beating softly upon a dancer's back or thighs. In the canteen you could tell which dancers were taking his class by the red abrasion on the top vertebra where spine and neck meet.
When he actually began working on the ballet the doors were closed. No Visitors. From within emerged pounding rhythms of a drummer and his traps.
I'd run into Jack in the dressing room or canteen. One day he asked about Harkness House.
"It's kind of under siege," I said.
"You mean the hooker? She propositioned me too."
Jack was aware of the territorial battle raging between Pat Wilde and an interloper whom Rebekah had found somewhere and who now wanted to take over.
Outside on the sidewalk one day, a woman passed pushing a stroller with a screaming four-year old who was banging a toy telephone against the frame.
"He hates his telephone," commented Jack.
After working for about six weeks Jack left, withdrawing the ballet. He claimed it was unfinished and could not be performed. But the Harkness lawyers said they owned all rights and that the troupe would perform it. I couldn't help but be on Jack's side and yet, when I saw his ballet, was exhilarated by its furious joy, its divine or perhaps demonic power.
Homage to James Dean.
I don't suppose it will ever be seen again.—Stuart Hodes
Genius at Work
The word, "genius," brings Einstein (photo) and Mozart to mind.For me it also summons Martha Graham, Jack Cole, Richard Foreman, and a wonderful student, Anne Teresa de Keersmacher, who came to NYU from Belgium and stayed one semester circa 1976. After one month she showed me a solo titled, FASE. Today, her Antwerp-based troupe plays the Brooklyn Academy and Manhattan's Joyce. FASE is still in its repertory.
Working with Jack Cole was like following a brilliant guide up a mountain no one had ever scaled. You stepped exactly where he stepped and hoped you wouldn't fall off.
Richard Foreman was like entering a secret hidden country where everything was different, yet when you entered you became part of its culture.
Martha Graham was like landing on a planet where the landscapes, the light, the gravity, your muscles, even your breath felt different, but so right and so good you never wanted to leave.
Paul Taylor's dances shout genius although face-to-face, he keeps it hidden. Back in 1956, Michael Kidd hired him for Li'L Abner then fired him in Boston. Paul never found out why and still feels hurt. I think I know why. Kidd, talented but no genius, sensed the genius in Paul and was rattled by it!
I never worked with Merce Cunningham or George Balanchine but their genius seeps into all of dance. Never worked with Bob Fosse or Twyla Tharp either, although I did work with Erick Hawkins and José Limon, all four knocking at the gates of genius.
Every genius is different yet all have one thing in common, the capacity for fierce concentration. In her autobiography, Twyla Tharp speaks of dancing alone in her studio for six hours at a stretch.
Erick Hawkins did that too and sometimes expected me to do it with him, which I couldn't, so faked it.
Martha Graham demanded a lot from her dancers but really didn't expect them to follow her imaginatively for extended stretches. Yet Bertram Ross stayed completely with her for weeks and months.
As for Jack Cole, I worked with him under Chorus Equity rules which demanded breaks. They often came when he was in a creative frenzy and at ten minutes past break time the Equity Deputy would nudge the dance captain, who would whisper to Jack, who would throw up his hands, once saying,
"All right, all right! Send them to lunch. My God, I don't want them hating me the first day!"—Stuart Hodes
Golden or Passé?
Well paid theater critics can mistake their opinions for reality. Yet I don't believe stars who say they never read reviews. Take a look at www.talkinbroadway.com. It ranges on and off Broadway. In an article from 2006, "What's New on the Rialto," Nancy Rosati interviews Rick McKay about his documentary , "The Golden Age of Broadway," the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Those decades were pure gold foro me: Army Air Force, Victory in Europe Day, newshound on the Foggia Occupator, return to Brooklyn, learn to dance and by 1960 a dozen Broadway musicals.
And that's the trouble. Working dancers are all in their golden years and if they become film makers, thirty years hence are likely to claim that this is Broadway's Golden Age.
McKay says heavy use of mikes debases performers, now so amplified they couldn't possibly play unmiked, like Ethel Merman, John Raitt, Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, Kaye Ballard, and so many more. It's also true that before danskins, tights were made of baggy cotton, scratchy wool and expensive silk.
What's more, McKay claims today's talented young performers have no models. I suppose that's true if you eliminate off-Broadway which until the 60s and wasn't much. But today great theater is off-Broadway and now attracts writers, composers, directors, performers, and audiences. As much as I love the shows of my own era, I'd hate to think that today's gypsies have less. So I am eager to add their voices to Chorus Gypsy. Meanwhile, take a look at the Rick McKay interview: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/spot/mckay.html
How to Succeed in Show Business by Really Trying
Carol Burnett may not be the first star to have launched her career by producing her own show, but it's a part of her legend. She was living in Manhattan's Rehearsal Club, a residence for female show-biz hopefuls. The daily routine was "making the rounds"of producers, agents, and casting offices, auditioning, and taking acting, singing, and dance lessons. They also exchanged sisterly advice and tips, alerted each other to "casting couch" creeps, and against other perils of being a young actress in New York City.
Burnett realized she was living in a talent pool, got a cast together and in the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie tradition, "put on a show." Producers, directors, and agents came and her career was up and running.
Choreographer, Ronald Field, may or may not have known about Carol Burnett when he began dancing at NYC's Latin Quarter in Rosalind Russell's night club act. I was in the house production but about to leave for a Broadway musical.
Ronnie got permission to use the Latin Quarter stage mornings and afternoons, enlisted other dancers and created numbers from jazzy to torrid to romantic to comic, invited agents and producers and the very next day the Latin Quarter's owner asked him to choreograph its next production.
After that, Anything Goes, an off-Broadway hit, and not long thereafter came Cabaret. For the movie they chose Bob Fosse, who did a fine job. But the Broadway version was slimier, sleazier, nastier – in other words, better.
When Ronnie was asked to direct and choreograph Applause, star, Lauren Bacall, was afraid that he didn't have enough experience. So he had her accompany him to several Broadway musicals and while they watched, he analyzed book, direction, musical numbers, costumes, sets, even scene changes, whereupon Bacall decided Ronnie was a genius.
So why don't more young hopefuls do like Carroll Burnett and Ronald Field? All it takes is ambition, knowledge, guts, drive, and talent.—Stuart Hodes
Conductor, Lehman Engle, was also a composer and musical theater scholar. In 1959 he began leading workshops for young composers, librettists, and producers, and in 1967 published a book, The American Musical Theater, a Consideration. Tracing musicals all the way back to The Archers, in 1796, he gets to modern (1940s-50s) musicals in Chapter 4, using eleven hits, from Pal Joey ( 1940) through West Side Story (1957) as examples. He analyzes their librettos, plots, sub-plots, characters, principals, openings, lyrics, comedy, songs, musical sequences, and styles.
Engle made it clear that his book was "unfinished," because musicals never stop evolving and he certainly never intended it to became a sort of how-to manual with formulas for writing musicals, yet that's just that some took it to be.
In 1968, one year after it was published, Hair opened and broke every "rule," followed by A Chorus Line, 1975, Sweeney Todd, 1979, Cats, 1982, and other hits that I was not fortunate enough to see.
Yet Engle's book is still valuable for anyone dreaming of putting on an original musical. Its major lesson is that the only essential requirement is talent.—Stuart Hodes
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