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Ann Miller Is Tops In Taps

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Photo of Ann Miller from the television program The Big Record, 1957
The First-Lady Of Hollywood Terpsichore Talks About How She Honed Her Skills And About Working With Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire And Her Dancing Gal Pals

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 30, 2015 — Tap dancer Ann Miller was, perhaps, the quintessential female MGM musical star of the early 1950s. Whether she was whirling like a dervish around prehistoric bones in a natural history museum in On the Town, simulating the disembodied arms and instruments of a hot swing band in Small Town Girl, or kicking out a staccato rhythm on a coffee table in Kiss Me Kate, Miller was tops in taps for a studio famed for its musicals and knee-deep in terpsichorean prowess.

Miller’s movies were pure confection: cookie-cutter, candy floss escapism spun from a studio system geared to helping audiences forget their troubles and, well, just get happy. And it didn’t hurt that when she wasn’t riffing out taps like a Gatling Gun gone bonkers, Ann (or Annie, as we learned her friends called her) had a Texas twang that lightly insinuated itself into her singing voice and gave it a jaunty lilt that complemented the pizzazz of her dancing and seemed to sum up the whole optimistic post-war period in America.

As Frank Sinatra, another alumnus of MGM’s Golden Era recounted in the 1974 compilation film That’s Entertainment!: “Musicals were fantasy trips for audiences of their day – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings a song and gets girl. The plots were that simple.”

More important was the certainty that at least three times during a 100-minute musical, Miller could be counted on to beat out a spunky tattoo with her feet that rivaled any pneumatic jackhammer on a Manhattan street corner.

At 79, when we met her, Ann still claimed she could click out 500 taps a minute. “I still know how to lay down the iron,” she proudly exclaimed.

On the day of our visit back in the spring of 1998, Miller was late for a hair appointment that, unfortunately, cut our interview short, too. “I get my hair done once a week if it needs it or not,” she told us in her Texas drawl that had the strange, sentient effect of drawing us in and making us instant confidants. From our angle, as she descended the curved staircase from the second floor of her Beverly Hills home on Alta Drive, Miller didn’t need a coiffure. Her jet-black bouffant was piled skyward like a three-tiered chocolate layer cake that not even the fiercest Santa Ana wind could topple.

With her makeup impeccably in place, she was as well turned out as her pet Airedales that flanked her every move in the house. In fact, the troika reminded us of her haughty “Nadine” character and the two Russian Wolfhounds she took strolling down Fifth Avenue in Easter Parade – a 1948 hit that costarred Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

“It was the culmination of a dream dancing with Fred Astaire,” she told us. “But I was really too tall for him. I had to wear ballet slippers and when the dress flares out during our number, ‘It Only Happens When I Dance with You,’ you can see them. Now I’ve shrunk an inch and a half and would be the perfect height for either Fred or Gene Kelly. Cyd Charisse was the same height I was and so was Rita Hayworth. Cyd sort of crouched down in more of a ballet knees-bent thing so you didn’t notice the disparity as much.”

Miller’s home was decorated in what could be best described as a French Rococo-meets-the-MGM-prop-warehouse, as if a few gilded furnishings from the Palace of Versailles (or an approximation of it on the back lot) had errantly plopped down on the Westside of Los Angeles. After entering the expansive foyer of Miller’s house, we were immediately confronted by a full-length painting of Miller in all her glamour that was fully 10 feet tall. It hung suspended in the stairwell between the second floor and first floor landing and was ‘Ancien Regime’ all the way; more Jacques-Louis David than, say, John Singer Sargent.

A couple of cement lions stood guard at her front door and brought to mind not French (or even Beverly Hills) despotism, but the roaring trademark of Miller’s MGM alma mater, king of the Hollywood dream factories that once boasted of having “more stars than there are in the heavens.”

Although the day of studios with dozens of stars under exclusive contract is a historical footnote, Miller took pains to maintain a vibrant connection with her MGM contemporaries. As she pointed out, although the U.S. Senate is considered the most exclusive club in America, the fraternal order of MGM leading ladies had an even more rarified pedigree.

“Politicians abound and Congress is always in session, but they’re not making any more of us,” she laughed.

Point taken.

“I hosted a luncheon not long ago with Debbie Reynolds; just a little get-together at a Chinese restaurant off of Wilshire Blvd. for some of us who used to work together at the studio,” she said. “MGM was like our finishing school because many of us never went to college – we were working. Esther Williams came and so did Ann Rutherford, Janet Leigh, Cyd and Margaret O’Brien. June Allyson even flew in. We had a ball. It started at half past noon and we didn’t get out of there until 5 p.m. All the dishing that went on – thank God we didn’t invite the press.”

Miller’s favorite film is a toss-up between Easter Parade and Kiss Me Kate, but Parade does contain her favorite number, “Shakin’ the Blues Away.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m out there on stage all alone. And the tune by Irving Berlin is so good,” she said. “That’s the great thing about tap dancing; it’s very electric. No matter what you’re doing – reading a newspaper, washing the dishes – when a big tap number starts, it commands your attention instantly.”

At that moment Miller got a phone call. She picked up the receiver from a side table near her chair and chatted amiably for a few minutes. After she hung up, she told us that her caller – Robyn Astaire (Fred Astaire’s widow) – had just invited her to dinner later that week.

“Robyn’s a sweet girl,” Miller said. “You know the whole flap about her partnering with the Dust Devil vacuum cleaner people and using Fred’s image superimposed dancing with the vacuum is really nothing. She needed the money to help finance an air cargo business she runs. She’s a pilot, you know.”

We remembered that particular television commercial. It involved a clip of Astaire taken from when he danced with a wooden coat rack in the 1951 film Royal Wedding. The commercial, the subject of more than a few editorial condemnations, caused a negative stir especially among film purists who thought the idea of substituting a vacuum cleaner for the coat rack and thus relegating Astaire to a corporate shill doing housework was an unforgiveable blasphemy.

“Don’t know how Fred would have reacted, but we could take a guess,” we said. Miller just shrugged.

During the late 1940s Miller was heir apparent to the reigning tap dance queen on the MGM lot, Eleanor Powell. Although at age 12, Miller had studied ballet alongside Tula Finklea (who was 14 at the time) at the studio of Nico Charisse, the man Tula would eventually marry (changing her name to Cyd Charisse in the process); Miller herself never took a tap lesson.

“There was a Capezio shoe shop across the street from the dance studio on Sunset Boulevard where we practiced,” she said. “I would go over there and the owner, a man named Morgan, would let me practice on the tap mat at the back of the shop. He made me a pair of tap shoes that had little jingles in the toe taps. That’s where I developed my high-speed tapping. It all came from the man upstairs. I don’t mean Mr. Morgan, I mean the other Guy!”

Movie musicals flourished with the advent of sound and began to wane as staple entertainment in the late 1950s. Miller lamented that audiences are hard-pressed to suspend disbelief long enough to let film musicals thrive, especially in light of the fact that they, along with jazz, are America’s only true indigenous art form – our gift to the world.

“You have to have a good story now,” Miller said. “The great thing about the old musicals was that they were so innocent and sweet. You left the theater with a lift and there is nothing wrong with that. But today’s audiences — even the children — have become so sophisticated. Musicals can’t compete against the special effects movies now. They’d be going up against aliens and rubber toys that talk … there’s a thought! Maybe a pornographic musical or one with an animatronics dinosaur doing a big tap number would work!”

Sidestepping the nauseous thought of a chorus line of gyrating purple Barney’s (or possibly Velociraptors), we reminded Miller that tap dancing had achieved new currency (back in 1998) with the popularity of the Riverdance troupe of Celtic highsteppers.

“Michael Flatley, the lead dancer, stole two of my steps,” she said. “And they’re the two best steps that he does; always get big applause. I even bought the video to revisit the steps again.”

The legendary hoofer Bill Robinson once remarked that if you could copyright a step, nobody could lift a foot. “Bojangles” knew that the true art of Terpsichore lay not in individual steps, but in how thrilling tap combinations were strung together to create a memorable cohesion – the signature Morse Code of American musical theater.

We knew she could have expounded on all this but Miller just smiled the all-knowing smile of someone who had traversed that territory countless times before ankle-strapped into her own flying tap shoes.

Besides, it was time for her hair appointment and we could see that Miller’s Lincoln Town Car had pulled up out front right next to the cement lions.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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