Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson

Born: May 25th, 1878 Richmond, Virginia
Died: November 25th, 1949 New York City, New York (age 71)
Cause of death: heart disease
Real name: Luther Robinson /nicknamed “Bojangles”
Marriages: Two. His first to Fannie S. Clay ended in divorce in 1943 after 21 years. Little is known about his marriage to Elaine Plaines in 1944. No children are listed to either marriage.

Remarks: Bill was brought up by his grandmother after the death of his parents and, since he didn’t like the name Luther, he traded names with his younger brother. He began dancing at the tender age of 6 and worked in vaudeville and on the black theater circuit. Bill was 50 years old before he ever performed before white audiences. Best known for his stair dance and for the movies he made with Shirley Temple at 20 th Century Fox, Bill’s best performance was in “Stormy Weather” (1943). On the day he died, schools closed in Harlem and people lined the streets to watch when his funeral passed by. After his death, a group called the “Copasetics” formed to keep his dance steps alive.

Films (17) also included “The Little Colonel” (1935), “The Big Broadcast” (1935), “In Old Kentucky” (1935), “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (1938)

 

Ruby Keeler
Ruby Keeler

Born: August 25th, 1909 Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Died: February 28th, 1993 Rancho Mirage, California (age 83)
Cause of death: cancer
Real name: Ethel Hilda Keeler
Marriages: Two. The first to actor/singer Al Jolson lasted 12 years before ending in divorce. They adopted a son, Al Jolson, Jr. The second to John Horner Lowe produced 4 children and lasted until his death into 1949.

Remarks: Ruby was born in Halifax but raised in New York City where the family moved when she was 3. During the Roaring Twenties she became a dancer in speakeasies because it was the only place a teenager could work nights and there was a big family to feed at home. Ruby was dancing in Texas Guinan’s nightclub when Florenz Ziegfeld tapped her for the ingénue role in “Whoopee” but after only 3 weeks she left the show to become Mrs. Al Jolson and headed for Hollywood. Warner Bros. gave her the lead in “42 nd Street” (1933). It was one of the most successful pictures the studio had ever made. Ruby retired in 1941 but her Broadway comeback in the 1971 production of “No, No, Nanette” was a huge success.

Films (12) also include “Footlight Parade” (1933), “Flirtation Walk” (1934), “Go Into Your Dance” (1935) and “Ready, Willing and Able” (1937).

 

 

George Murphy
George Murphy

Born: July 4th, 1902 New Haven, Connecticut
Died: May 3rd, 1992 Palm Beach, Florida (age 89)
Cause of death: leukemia
Real name: George Lloyd Murphy
Marriages: Two. The first to Juliette Henkel (Julie Johnson) ended with her death. The couple had two children. The second to Betty Blandi ended with his death. There were no children to his second marriage.

Remarks: George tried college (at Yale) but found it didn’t suit him. He tried a lot of other things, too…tool maker, miner, salesman…but when he began dancing he knew he was home! By 1927 he and wife Julie were dance partners on Broadway. In 1934 Hollywood beckoned and he went west to do “Kid Millions” with Eddie Cantor. George also danced with Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. He even played Ronald Reagan’s father in “This is the Army” (1943). George became president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s and worked actively with the HUAC before winning a US Senate seat in 1964 (after all, he was born on the 4 th of July). But after losing his larynx to throat cancer, he only served one term. His autobiography “Say, Didn’t You Used to be George Murphy?” was published in 1970.

Films (45) also included “After the Dance” (1935), “Broadway Melody of 1938” (1937), “Little Nelly Kelly” (1940) and “For Me and My Gal” (1942).

 


Eleanor Powell
Eleanor Powell

Born: November 21st, 1912 Springfield, Massachusetts
Died: February 11th, 1982 Beverly Hills, California (age 69)
Cause of death:cancer
Real name: Eleanor Torrey Powell
Marriages: One to actor Glenn Ford that lasted 15 years before ending in divorce. They had one son, actor Peter Ford.

Remarks: Eleanor began her dancing career on her toes or the balance bar but success only came after she created her own special style of tap dancing, often referred to as “machine-gun” tap! She became known as the “world’s greatest tap dancer”. Eleanor’s film debut (after taking Broadway by storm) was a specialty dance number in “George White’s Scandals”. Then MGM snapped her up for “Broadway Melody of 1936”. She danced on drums in her big number in “Rosalie” (1937) with our favorite baritone, Nelson Eddy. She left MGM after doing “Thousands Cheer” in 1943, freelanced for two more movies before marrying Glenn Ford in 1944 and then retired from the screen. After that, Eleanor restricted her appearances to the stage and nightclubs.

Films (15) also included “Broadway Melody of 1938” (1937), “Born To Dance” (1936), “Lady Be Good” (1941) and “Ship Ahoy” (1942).

 

 

Ray Bolger
Ray Bolger

Born: January 10th, 1904 Dorchester, Massachusetts
Died: January 15th, 1987 Los Angeles, California (age 83)
Cause of death:cancer
Real name: Raymond Wallace Bulcao
Marriages: One to Gwendolyn Rickard that lasted 58 years until his death. No children.

Remarks: Ray was another hoofer out of vaudeville where he had begun as half of “Sanford and Bolger” and then as a solo on Broadway. His comedic brand of dancing opened doors and MGM signed him for “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936). His first singing and dancing role came in “Sweethearts” (1938) where he did a “wooden shoe” routine with our favorite redhead, Jeanette MacDonald (see the Baritone’s Corner). It was this performance that won him the role he became famous for…the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”. While he was allowed to recreate his stage role in the film version of “Where’s Charley?” Ray never achieved the same success on the screen as he did on the stage.

Films (16) also include “Sunny” (1941), “Four Jills and a Jack” (1942), “The Harvey Girls” (1946), “April in Paris” (1952) and “Babes in Toyland” (1961).

 

 


Ann Miller
Ann Miller

Born: April12 th, 1923 Houston, Texas
Died: January22 nd, 2004 Los Angeles, California (age 80)
Cause of death: lung cancer
Real name: Johnnie Lucille Collier
Marriages: Three all ending in divorce. The first to Reese Miller produced her only child.

Remarks: Ann advanced her age by 4 years to get work in Hollywood. Her father, a criminal attorney, wanted a boy so she was named Johnnie but Ann faked a birth certificate that claimed she was Lucille Ann Collier born in 1919. She learned to dance to strengthen her long legs affected by rickets. Discovered by Lucille Ball while she was dancing in a San Francisco nightclub, Ann went on to make 41 movies. But in most of her films from 1936 to 1946 her dramatic and comedic talents were wasted. “Easter Parade” in 1948 was her first big hit but she was destined to play second or third female leads and rarely “got her man”. After leaving films in 1956, Ann danced in nightclubs, Broadway stage productions and television guest appearances. Another career boost came in the 70s with the Busby Berkeley ads for Great American Soups. Back on Broadway in 1980, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in “Sugar Babies” with Mickey Rooney.

Films (41) also include “On the Town” (1949), “Lovely to Look At” (1952), “Kiss Me, Kate” (1953), and “”Hit the Deck” (1955).

 

 

Dan Dailey
Dan Dailey

Born: December 1 th, 1913 New York, New York
Died: October 1 th, 1978 Los Angeles, California (age 64)
Cause of death: anemia
Real name: Daniel James Dailey, Jr.
Marriages: Three, all ending in divorce. His only child, Dan Dailey III committed suicide in 1975.

Remarks: Dan was the son of a hotel manager and began in show business as a child, with a minstrel show. Later he went into vaudeville and appeared with Minsky’s burlesque troupe. However, the enterprising young man also worked as a grocery clerk, golf caddy and shoe salesman when gigs weren’t available. He made his Broadway debut in 1937 with a small role in “Babes In Arms” and, in 1939, got the lead in “Stars In Your Eyes”. That brought him to MGM’s attention, …a Hollywood contract….and a role in “The Mortal Storm”…..as a Nazi! After that he took over as stock song and dance man at the studio until he went into the Navy during WWII. After the war, he was paired with Betty Grable in “When My Baby Smiles At Me” (1948) and got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. When musicals faded he did comedy and drama roles on both stage, screen and television.

Films (48) also included “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941), “Mother Wore Tights” (1947), “Call Me Mister” (1951), “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954) and “It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955).

 

 

Vera-Ellen
Vera-Ellen

Born: February 16th, 1921 Norwood, Ohio
Died: August 30th, 1981 Los Angeles, California (age 60)
Cause of death: cancer
Real name: Vera-Ellen Westmeyer Rohe
Marriages: Two, both ending in divorce. Her second marriage to Victor Rothschild produced her only child who died in infancy, the victim of a crib death.

Remarks: Vera-Ellen was a petite, energetic blonde who held her own with even Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She began dancing at the age of 10 and became one of the youngest Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. She appeared in nightclubs and and Broadway musicals before her film debut in “Wonder Man” (1945) with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. Mayo got Danny in that one but in “White Christmas” (1954) Vera-Ellen had him all to herself! She made 13 movies before retiring in 1957. She suffered from anorexia and aged prematurely because of vitamin deprivation.

Films (13) also included “Three Little Girls in Blue” (1946), “On The Town” (1949), “Three Little Words” (1950)< “The Belle of New York” (1952) and “Call Me Madam” (1953).

 

 

Donald O'Connor
Donald O’Connor

Born: August 28th, 1925 Chicago, Illinois
Died: September 27th, 2003 Calabasas, California
Cause of death: heart failure
Real name: Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor
Marriages: Two. The first to Gwen Carter lasted 10 years and produced one daughter. The second to Gloria Noble lasted 47 years until his death and left 3 children.

Remarks: Hear the name Donald O’Connor and usually it recalls that unique dance he created for “Singing in the Rain” (1952) or the guy who talked to a mule in the “Francis” series. No one automatically remembers the “Reflections d’un Comique” , a symphony he composed and conducted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Donald was the son of vaudevillians and literally born in a trunk. Her appeared on stage with the family act at a very young age. He was signed to a Paramount contract at 12 and got his first big break in a film opposite Bing Crosby called “Sing, You Sinners!” (1938). He was later paired with Peggy Ryan for “What’s Cookin’?” and they were an instant hit. The team of O’Connor and Ryan lasted 1944 when Donald went into the US Air Force. In the early 50s when his film career seemed fading, his star rose on television where he kept the flame burning through the 1960s and again in the 1980s.

Films (55) also included “Beau Geste” (1939), “Mister Big” (1943), “The Merry Monahans” (1944), “The Milkman” (1950), “Call Me Madam” (1953) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954).

 

 

Peggy Ryan
Peggy Ryan

Born: August 28th, 1924 Long Beach, California
Died: October 30th, 2004 Las Vegas, Nevada (age 80)
Cause of death: complications from 2 strokes
Real name: Margaret O’Rene Ryan
Marriages: Three, two ending in divorce. The first to James Cross lasted 7 years and
produced 1 child. The second to dancer Ray McDonald lasted 4 years and they also had a child. Her third husband, Sherman Eddie survived her. They had 1 adopted child.

Remarks: Peggy shared a birthday with her best friend and dance partner, Donald O’Connor. He also preceded her in death by one year and one month. She was a full-fledged song-and-dance gal equally talented in both. Also like Donald, she was born to vaudevillians and was on stage as soon as she could walk. She began her show business career in vaudeville and debuted in films at 13. After the war, she paired up with Ray McDonald onscreen and off . She retired from films after their divorce and opened a dancing school. Television gave her a boost in the late 60s and Peggy played a secretary on “Hawaii Five-O” until the series ended.

Films (32) also included “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “Miss Annie Rooney” (1942), “Mr. Big” (1943), “The Merry Monahans” (1944) and “Shamrock Hill” (1949).

 

 

Ray McDonald
Ray McDonald

Born: June 27th, 1920 New York, New York
Died: February 20th, 1959 New York, New York (age 38)
Cause of death: visceral congestion (he choked to death)
Real name: Raymond McDonald
Marriages: Two, both ending in divorce. The first to Elisabeth Fraser lasted 6 years with 4 daughters. The second to dance partner Peggy Ryan lasted 4 years with 1 daughter born to the couple.

Remarks: Grace and Ray McDonald formed a brother-sister act before they were out of school. The, at 16, Ray took it a dance step further and the team made it to Broadway in “Babes in Arms”. Hollywood wanted them but not as a duo. MGM signed Ray and Grace went to Paramount and then Universal. Everything seemed to be coming up roses. Even when Ray went into the Air Force, he got the chance to appear in Moss Hart’s “Winged Victory” first on the stage and then on the screen. MGM used him in a few movies after the war and then he freelanced a role at Warner in "Whiplash” (1948). He met and married Peggy Ryan and they paired together in two films for Eagle Lion…”Shamrock Hill” and “There’s A Girl in My Heart”. But the marriage tanked and so did Ray’s career. Alcohol reared its ugly head and he began to drink heavily. He was only 38 when he was found dead in his hotel room. The press covered it as a drug overdose until autopsy results proved he had actually choked on food.

Films (13) also included “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” (1941), “Born To Sing” (1942), “Presenting Lily Mars” (1943) and “Till The Clouds Come Home” (1946).

 

 

Dixie Dunbar
Dixie Dunbar

Born: January 19th, 1919 Montgomery, Alabama
Died: August 29th, 1991 Miami Beach, Florida (age 72)
Cause of death: heart attack
Real Name: Christina Elizabeth Dunbar
Marriages: Three, two ending in divorce (her second husband died). No children.

Remarks: When she was 16 her mother, who nicknamed her “Tootsie”, took her to New York. But when songwriter/bandleader Harry Richman heard her speak, he immediately dubbed her “Dixie”. She took dancing lessons as a child and so, lying about her age, she got a job dancing at Nels T. Granlund’s Paradise Restaurant . Dixie made her screen debut in “George White’s Scandals” (1934) and her Broadway debut in “Life Begins at 8:40” dancing with Ray Bolger . By 1936 she had signed with 20 th Century Fox and was making one picture after another and also dating some of Hollywood’s most eligible men….Tyrone Power, Wayne Morris, Johnny Downs and studio mogul Carl Laemmle, Jr. But her heart wasn’t in the movies so, in 1939, she left for Broadway and “Yokel Boy” starring Buddy Ebsen and Judy Canova. In the early 50s she did a television ad wearing a huge Old Gold cigarette box and then she retired for good.

Films (19) also included “Educating Father” (1936), “Sing, Baby, Sing” (1936), Life Begins in College” (1937, “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (1938) and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1938).

 

BCEFA