Annie Get Your Gun Meeting Ronald Field
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Annie Get Your Gun, NY City Center, 1958. I learned the Wild Horse from Helen Tamiris, who had to describe the aggressive entering leap. On Broadway the original Wild Horse had been danced by Daniel Nagrin, at the time her husband and later her ex. Or maybe he was already her ex because he never came to an Annie rehearsal.
The move started as a grand jeté then switched legs at the top of the arc, the front leg kicking back, the back kicking front, as good a wild horse move as any tame biped could muster.
But she demonstrated less demanding moves herself. When I'd been in Kismet, Ronald Field told me he'd auditioned for her and instead of showing the moves, she described what she wanted.
"Rotate within your periphery," he said mockingly.
Here's where the divide between modern dancers and ballet-tap-jazz dancers was clear. Modern dancers liked to be taken into the creative process. Commercial dancers expected the choreographer or an assistant to precisely demonstrate every move.
One day Tamiris demonstrated a complex step. On each surge forward, the rear foot did a quick pattern of thrusts. It wasn't difficult but the pianist played a tempo too fast to get them all in. She stopped me several times, each time demonstrating slowly. Finally I said, "Miss Tamiris, can you show it to me at tempo?"
"Sure." She waved to the pianist but when the music began realized there were too many moves. So she cut some, I learned it and we moved on.
A few days after the show opened, Tamiris asked if I'd be willing to help my understudy at his rehearsal. Of course. A promising lad, he already knew the moves and did them well, except, I thought, with a bit too much classical aplomb where they should be rougher. Nevertheless, I resolved that the Wild Horse was not going to be the vehicle with which young Edward Villela would show his stuff to the world.—Stuart Hodes
Meeting Ronald Field
Kismet, Ziegfeld Theater, 1955.(Photo: Ronald Field, Kismet, between numbers.) A call summoning me to the Ziegfeld Theater; I arrived prepared to audition but dance captain, George Martin, offered me a job. Jack Cole's moves, in a style termed "Broadway Hindu," which I later discovered to be astonishingly accurate if faux Barata Natyam, could not be "picked up" at an audition. None of Cole's west coast dancers were available so George Martin had suggested a Graham-trained dancer which led to me. The dancer I was to replace had given a contractual six-weeks notice allowing me plenty of time to learn the three numbers which altogether amounted to maybe six minutes of dancing.
Or so I thought until George Martin showed me the first two counts. On top of a simple glissade was a precisely timed: heel-step, hand-slap palms together, head slide right, foot stamp, head slide center, open palms. Each move was on a separate syncopated beat. Instead of counting "One-two," it was more like "One-and-a-two and-a-two and-a-two-and." It lasted two seconds and took me thirty minutes to learn.
In the third week, the other male dancer, Ronald Field, came to rehearsal. He was my approximate size with a high forehead, receding hairline, tired eyes, and casual kinetics, not what I expected a "Jack Cole dancer" to be. Yet moves slid out of him exactly how and when they should. He'd been Kismet's first replacement and disagreed with George Martin about where to put the weight on one foot. To make his point he said something like: "Jack came to rehearsal and changed it. He put his foot behind, then to the side, then in front and shifted his weight from sole to heel. It was raining that day."
Martin pondered, nodded, said to me. "He never forgets a thing." Ronnie's look of weary resignation didn't change.
After I got to know Ronnie, he told me that as a kid he'd hung out at his aunt's a tap dance studio learning by something like osmosis. His memory was astounding. He'd been a June Taylor dancer on the Jackie Gleason Show, learned one or two dances a week for two years and could remember every step of every one, plus names of guests, songs sung, jokes told, etc. Once I gave Ronnie a telephone number to call the next day. He nodded. "Aren't you going to write it down?" I asked.
He spoke it once, aloud. "I have it."
One day, overture playing while we waited for the curtain to rise in the Kismet bazaar set, he reeled off a section of Bojangles Robinson's famous stair dance he'd picked up watching a Shirley Temple movie. The elegant moves were wildly funny in his ragged beggar's costume.
I said, "Your memory for steps is going to come in handy when you start choreographing."
"I don't think I'll ever be a choreographer."
"I don't know enough. Choreographers have to know... everything."
"Ronnie, you'll be a choreographer."
Years later after he'd won Tony awards for Applause and Cabaret, he'd give me a wry smile and said, "I know. You told me I'd be a choreographer some day."
Milton Berle Show, NBC-TV One week earlier on the Buick Circus Show, my double tours en l'air had flashed out dependably, but vanished on Day One of the Berle show. Choreographer, Edith Barstow, reeled out a simple combination to Minute Waltz: first to right - Glissade assemblé, glissade jeté, sous-sous double tour, sous-sous double tour, then left, two doubles to each side. On the first tour I pitched wildly, hit the ground a-tilt and ended up on all fours, face an inch from the floor. During the second tour I was scrambling to my feet, to join the other three men for the phrase going left and again ended up on my face. Edie Barstow paid it no mind.
I was mortified and in my first free moment found a corner and practiced but my doubles were gone! Edie noticed and strolled by. "Don't worry, they'll be back!" she said, almost gaily.
The week before on the Buick Circus Hour, costumed as a ringmaster surrounded by clowns, aerialists, and jugglers, I'd done effortless pirouettes into double double tours during a closing tableaux that went on until the camera red lights went out. I could have toured all night. Now I couldn't do one.
Barstow was soon working on another number and we didn't get to Minute Waltz until Saturday when Berle showed up. Known as "Mr. Television," Berle also cherished his image as lovable "Uncle Miltie." The show began with him leading the entire cast in a parade, preceded by a girl and boy strewing flowers. The pair were about 10 years old and the first few times smiled sweetly. But as we kept stopping and starting the smiles faded. Suddenly Berle erupted.
"Wassamatter wit these kids? Can't they smile? If they can't smile, get me some kids who can!"
Crazed smiles were plastered on the little faces from then on.
Time for Minute Waltz. Berle watching, I fell flat on my face, scrambled up, and fell a second time. A puzzled expression drew his face together.
Edie took command, "Start further downstage fellas," she said, as though nothing unusual was up, and gave us a new mark. We did it again, and then again. Every time I ended up sprawled on all fours.
Milton Berle, master of the prat fall, was watching me with a puzzled look. Finally a smile rippled out from his mouth to his ears. He turned fondly to Edith Barstow. "He falls down! That's funny!" (PS. I stayed upright for the broadcast.) — Stuart Hodes
Peer Gynt, 1951, NYC
Peer Gynt was an ANTA production with a four-week run. Everyone earned $75 a week from movie star, John Garfield, to ballet star, Sono Osato, modern dance star, Pearl Lang, stripper star Sherry Britton, and a clutch of Actor's Studio stars including Carl Mauldin, Mildred Dunnock, and Nehemia Persoff. A rising star named Marlon Brando dropped in to watch rehearsals which starred the director, Lee Strasburg.
Strasburg was the American guru of the Stanislavsky Method. . The only acting skill that impressed me was the ability to cry tears on cue, yet one of his Method actors couldn't even scream on cue. Among them I felt like an alien life form.
The first day, everyone had to choose an animal for "animal improvisations." I chose a stork and stood silently on one leg flapping my wings, while others howled, hooted, roared, whinnied, hopped, crawled, stalked, bit, and lashed their tails. Some of these goings-on appeared in the insane asylum scene.
On Wednesday, with a matinee going on in the theater upstairs, Strasburg set up an improvisation. Across the river, we townsfolk could see Peer Gynt carrying off Solveig. Action! Actors stared, squinted, pointed, milled, shouted, jumped on chairs, shook each other's shoulders. Irving Burton and I grabbed a couple of benches and began building a bridge. Others rushed to help, we heaped up benches, and an actor scrambled across yelling, "I'm coming, Solveig!" and dashed out of the rehearsal studio.
Strasburg screamed above the din, "Stop! Stop!" He was irritated, his voice a reedy squawk. "I said you can't cross the river! You can't build a bridge across! You can't swim across! You can't get across!"
We started again, yelling, sobbing, rushing around pounding on each other until with a throaty roar, Nehemia Persoff bashed through the studio door, his shouts echoing through the basement hall.
"Stop!" shouted Strasburg. The tumult died and Persoff reappeared wiping away tears, followed by a frantic usher who pleaded, "There's a show going on! You have to be quiet!" Strasburg waved him away.
Nobody paid attention when Marlon Brando slipped in to watch. He was having a terrific success in Streetcar but hadn't yet become an icon. I assumed he was there to watch Strasburg until one of the actors told me he was having an affair with one of the actresses.
John Garfield was serious and thoughtful, neither inviting nor accepting deference. Stripper, Sherry Britton, on the other hand, stayed in a private little tent strung on clotheslines in a corner of the basement and never watched a scene she wasn't in. She accused one of the actors of peeking at her while she was dressing. Another pointed out that bare skin was her stock-in-trade so she was probably unwilling to give it away. Everyone agreed that Britton had to be handled with kid gloves.
In the first rehearsal of the rape scene, Strasberg told an actress to scream. She emitted a faint yelp. Strasberg said louder and when she couldn't, Lucille Patton produced an ear-splitting shriek. The scream-challenged actress told Strasburg she needed to prime herself emotionally. He nodded. I forgot her until the first performance when following Lucy Patton in a backstage crossover, we passed her on the floor, in costume, writhing and moaning. I shot Patton a glance.
"She's working up to her goddam scream."
Valerie Bettis had asked actors to be in the dances. They agreed but treated dance rehearsals like breaks, chatting away while Bettis worked out moves. One afternoon, crossing the stage, as I approached Lucy Patton we both veered upstage and crashed. Next time, sidewalk tag. Bettis's eyes flickered our way. The third time as we approached, I said, "You go downstage, I'll go up. Okay?"
"Any way you want it, honey pants!"
"Stuart!" yelled Bettis. "You've been fucking up all afternoon! What's so hard about passing another dancer without bumping into her?" The hubbub died. My face grew hot but I said nothing. "All right," said Bettis, "Let's start from the top, and can we please do it right?"
The actors were shamed into paying attention, the number quickly finished, and I felt extra friendliness from Bettis who'd blown up at me, I realized, because she felt she could not blow up at the actors.
Bob Emmet and I carried Sono Osato in on a litter, set her down, sat cross-legged, and watched her do Anitra's seduction dance with such sweet sexy charm I could have watched her for the rest of my life.
In the insane asylum scene, I was a guard outside a huge cage. Inside, Mildred Dunnock was a fairy godmother, Irving Burton ran around tightening bolts like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, others were Mephistopheles, Don Quixote, General Patton, Terpsichore, and God. The actors adored this scene and tore into it with such crazed gusto I "broke up" revealing a pathetic lack of concentration. Even in performance! The only way I could get through was to turn my back on the rampaging actors and glare furiously at the audience — Stuart Hodes
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There used to be an Equity Contract with a 3-day clause, meaning you could be fired during the first three days of rehearsal. And yep, it happened to me! Does that 3-day clause still exist? What rehearsals stories can you tell?