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Tommy Rall Did It All!

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Tommy Rall (left) and Tom Johnson (right). Image provided by Reel to Real.
Former MGM Studio Dancer — Who Was One Of The Most Admired Hoofers To Grace The Silver Screen— Talks About His Performances In Hollywood Classics As Well As Some Collaborations And Confrontations

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

July 28, 2014 — MGM contract dancer Tommy Rall was never a marquee name the way that Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly was. Nevertheless, without his presence, several classic 1950s films — Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers among them — wouldn’t shine as brightly as they do.

What Rall could do better than almost anyone else was hoof up a storm. He was a veritable chameleon on the dance floor; as comfortable executing a tour-jete or a burlesque buck and wing as he was propelling himself into an aerial cartwheel that seemed to defy gravity.

No matter what kind of dance was required, invariably, Rall would enthrall; so much so that when Gene Kelly finally got the green light to produce and direct his dream project, an all-dancing film called Invitation to the Dance in 1956, Kelly cast Rall in the role of a gambling tout alongside some of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. Rall not only held his own, but his synthesis of ballet, tap and acrobatics practically stole the movie.

We visited with the soft-spoken and unassuming Rall, 83, and his wife Karel (herself a dancer who performed with Rall in the American Ballet Theater) at their hilltop home in Pacific Palisades.

He told us that the famous “barn raising” number from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was meticulously choreographed by Michael Kidd and incorporated the dancing strengths of the various brothers.

“During the challenge dance on the wooden planks between the sawhorses, I really split open my leg in rehearsals,” Rall said. “The trick to that number is that we began the various steps with the planks laid flat on the ground and as we became more assured, we raised the planks a foot, then another foot. When we finally shot that part of the number, the planks were three feet off the ground suspended between the two sawhorses.”

Dancer/choreographer Bob Fosse and Rall starred together in Kiss Me Kate at MGM when the Golden Age of musicals was at its nadir. A couple of years later, they were cast in Columbia Studios’ musical version of My Sister Eileen where they squared off against each other in a ‘challenge dance,’ a dizzying showcase of each dancer’s athletic prowess and precision.

“Harry Cohn, head of the studio, came down to the soundstage where we were rehearsing and asked to see the number,” Rall said. “Bob and I pulled out all the stops and really killed ourselves performing it for him. At the end, as we were practically passing out from exhaustion, Harry said: ‘That number is all wrong! What you need to give them is a little of the old soft-shoe.’ He then proceeded to do some lame shuffle steps to show us. I was ready to lunge at this throat, when Bob took me aside and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him and convince him that our number is better.’”

Just as he was a changeling on the dance floor, after he hung up his Capezios, Rall osmosed into a successful operatic tenor in the 1960s, making appearances with the Opera Company of Boston, the New York City Opera, and the American National Opera Company.
When age ended his career as a performer, Rall, as he has done all his life, simply adapted himself. He worked in the banking industry for a number of years. Now retired, Rall is doing that in style too.

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. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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