Miriam Nelson Shares Memories of Broadway's Golden Age
December 2, 2010
by Leo Buck
Miriam Nelson was there when Doris met Rock, the first time Judy traded the big screen for live TV, and when Fred Astaire tried shaking his groove-thing to a disco beat. Once, she managed to get Billy Bob Thornton to strut his stuff in a feather boa! Nelson has been called the “choreographer to the stars” for her work with an A-list of performers, from Betty Hutton and Ann Miller to Frankie Avalon and John Travolta. Even Mickey Mouse learned a step or two from her.
A crackerjack hoofer from way back, Nelson is still well-regarded as one of the most prolific choreographers ever. Even now at age 91, she is eagerly sought after to teach master classes across the country.
She shares some of her liveliest memories in her 2009 memoir, My Life Dancing With the Stars,published by Bear Manor Media. The title couldn’t be more appropriate. After all, this is someone who actually was dancing with stars (and they were far more notable than Brandy Norwood or Bristol Palin) long before it became the idea for a prime-time competition.
With a bright, breezy episodic style that allows readers to skip to anecdotes involving the personalities most appealing to them, Nelson recounts her journey from the chorus of such shows as Panama Hattie (starring Ethel Merman) to becoming one of the first major female choreographers. This was back when women weren’t easily granted such authoritative roles, so her accomplishment makes her reminiscences that much more fascinating.
Especially delightful are the parts detailing her courtship and marriage to ice skater-turned-dancing star Gene Nelson, perhaps best known for his turn as the cavorting cowboy Will Parker in the film Oklahoma!. When Gene Nelson was signed to a movie contract at Warner Brothers, the pair left the lights of Broadway to relocate in Hollywood, where Miriam began working as an assistant to Paramount’s resident dance director, Danny Dare.
After her divorce from Gene Nelson, Miriam continued sharpening her talents behind the scenes, frequently in television, which was a fledgling medium at the time.
“I worked on Judy Garland’s first television show,” she says. “In movies, you can cut, and then rearrange where the people are, so you can jump from here to there. But when television was starting, it was live and you couldn’t do that. You could never stop and then rearrange anything.”
Nelson recalls how they were trying to recreate a couple of numbers that Garland had done in her movies, which required Nelson to simplify and redirect a few aspects to tailor them for television--something Garland didn’t always understand. “When Judy came in, she’d ask why I had changed something. Once I explained the process to her, though, she’d get it and was fine. But she had no idea at the beginning just how different a medium this was!”
Nelson also happily recollects her long association with Doris Day, whom she counts among her closest friends.
“I worked with Doris on several movies, including Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two,” she says. One day, the actress called Nelson to see whether she was available to join her for lunch on the set of her latest film, Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson.
“Rock was a darling person,” Nelson said. “He was a good friend of Doris’, so I enjoyed getting to know him a little more, too.”
Better yet, that lunch date turned into a small part for Nelson. In the scene, Hudson ran into an obstetrician’s office with a waiting room full of expectant mothers who question what he’s doing there.
“I sit next to him, look at him, and he looks back at me like, ‘What’s wrong?’” Nelson says of her small role.
Her favorite projects, though, have often been the most challenging.
“I like to do something that has a story going,” she says. “That’s always fun for me when I’ve got a script and I have to conform to what IT is.”
Ironically, such conformity has inspired her most imaginative pieces. Once she was helping prepare a broadcast that involved a big ballroom scene where everybody in period clothes was doing what was called “The Mirror Dance.”
“I thought ‘What the heck is that?!’ I went around calling everywhere--dance departments at colleges -- I even called Marge Champion’s father, [renowned dance authority"> Ernest Belcher, and no one ever heard of it!”
With the airdate fast approaching, she let her creativity lead the way. She obtained little mirrors that had ribbons tied on them and gave them to her female dancers to tie to their wrists.
“During the course of the number, they would look over their left shoulder into the mirror, and whoever they saw was their next partner,” she says.
Later, she was introduced to the show’s writer, and he asked where she came up with such an original idea.
“Instead, I asked him, ‘How did you know about it?’ and he replied, “I didn’t--I just made it up for the script!”
Such innovation ultimately led her to pioneering feats with large-scale live events such as parades and record-setting theme park offerings. This flair for fast-thinking artistry made her Walt Disney’s choice to oversee all the dancing segments for the telecast of the official opening day festivities of Disneyland in 1955.This production was quite successful, and it led to a collaboration with the organization that spanned half a century.
“Everything I’ve ever done I always call an adventure--here goes another adventure,” she says with a laugh, “because they’re always such fun!”
Loaded with funny and fabulous memories as remarkable as the lady who lived them, My Life Dancing With the Stars makes the perfect gift for fans of the golden age of Broadway, movie musicals, classic ‘Disneyana,’and early television.
For more information or to order a copy, visit www.miriamnelson.net or amazon.com.