FEATURE STORY 04.09
OUR “QUEEN OF TAP DANCING” - ELEANOR POWELL
By Jim Taylor
Born November 21, 1912 in Springfield, Massachusetts Eleanor Torrey Powell was a shy eleven year old sent to dancing school to learn acrobatics and ballet (but no tap dancing!) in an effort to make her more sociable. Her stage debut in the Vaudeville Kiddie Review was at age eleven while visiting relatives in Atlantic City. Spotted by Gus Edwards, a famous producer of children’s shows led to this production led “Ellie” to meet Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In 1927, the two appeared in many charity affairs and at private parties but up until that time she still had not tap danced. It is obvious that he influenced her eventual virtuoso tap dancing both rhythmically and in her performance skills. Being asked if she could tap at every audition, she eventually enrolled in the dancing school of Jack Donohue.
Being taught to tap dance by hanging sand bags onto a belt around her waist that weighted her down and riveted her to the floor, Donohue forced her to tap close to the floor unlike the female tap dancers of the day. Developing what we call "rhythm tap dancing" now, she took to tap like a swan to water and was soon asked to assist Mr. Donohue. After performing in the New York nightclub of the bandleader Ben Bernie, she made her Broadway debut in The Optimists in 1928.
In January 1929, Powell became a star on Broadway in Follow Thru, tap dancing to the acclaimed tune “Button Up Your Overcoat" performed at Carnegie Hall with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and in the 1932 Florenz Ziegfeld production of Hot-Cha! During this time she was dubbed “the world’s greatest tap dancer” due to her machine-gun footwork, graceful style and dynamic dance abilities. In the mid-1930’s, the leggy, fresh-faced Powell made the move to Hollywood and appeared as a chorus girl in a couple of early, inconsequential musical films. Her first major film, George White’s 1935 Scandals, which she later described as a disaster due to a mix-up prior to filming of her scene - she was accidentally being made up to look like an Egyptian. An experience that left her unimpressed with Hollywood. Nonetheless, she was courted by MGM, but initially refused their offers of a contract. Reportedly, Powell attempted to dissuade the studio by making what she felt were unreasonable salary demands, but MGM agreed and she finally accepted. The studio groomed her for her future stardom making only minimal changes in her makeup and conduct.
She delighted 1930s audiences with her endless energy and enthusiasm, not to mention her stunning dancing and was acclaimed "The World's Greatest Feminine Tap and Rhythm Dancer" by the Dance Masters of America in the mid-1930s. According to dancer Ann Miller, quoted in the "making-of" documentary about That's Entertainment! III, MGM was headed for bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the films of Eleanor Powell, particularly Broadway Melody of 1936 were so popular that they literally pulled MGM out of the red and made the company profitable again. Miller also credits Powell for inspiring her own dancing career, which would eventually lead her to become an MGM musical star a decade later. In Broadway Melody of 1940, she danced with Fred Astaire and together danced to Cole Porter's "Begin The Beguine", which is considered by many to be one of the greatest tap sequences in film history. According to accounts of the making of this film, including a documentary included on the DVD release, Astaire was somewhat intimidated by Powell, who was considered the only female dancer ever capable of out-dancing Astaire. In his autobiography Steps in Time, Astaire remarked: "She 'put 'em down like a man', no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself." In Lady Be Good (1941), she danced Busby Berkeley's “Fascinating Rhythm” number in top hat and short tails that opened on an extended close up of her tapping feet ended with her being tossed head over heels over and over again down a corridor of men.
In 1943, after twenty years of performing, she married the actor Glenn Ford and retired from the stage, devoting herself to raising their son Peter. She became an ordained minister in the Unity Church and devoted herself to charitable organizations and religious endeavors. However, in 1950, she was persuaded to appear in a musical number with Esther Williams and Van Johnson entitled Duchess of Idaho. After that performance alone, Powell returned to private life. In May 1952, she emerged as a guest star on an episode of Four Star Revue with Danny Thomas and June Havoc and in 1954, she was asked to host "The Faith of Our Children", a non-denominational religious television program which featured appearances from film and sports stars. The show lasted three seasons and Eleanor received a regional "Emmy" award for children's programming. Her son, Peter Ford, was a regular on this show and would later find his own success as a rock and roll singer and as an actor. In 1955, Powell made her last-ever film appearance when she appeared in Have Faith in Our Children, (a three-minute short film produced for the Variety Club of Northern California) in which Powell asked viewers to donate to the charity. The short, which other than its title had no relation to the TV series, marked the only time Powell appeared on screen with her husband, Glenn Ford.
Powell divorced Ford in 1959, and that year, encouraged by her son, launched a highly-publicized nightclub career, maintaining her good figure and looks well into middle age. She was given an extended engagement at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and her live performances continued well into the 1960s. She made several guest appearances on variety TV programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, All Star Revue, The Bell Telephone Hour, the Hollywood Palace and This Is Your Life. In 1981, she received an award in her name and her honor, the Ellie Award, from the National Film Ceremony, for her outstanding contribution to the film musical. Eleanor Powell died of cancer at the age of 69.
As a minister in the Unity church, her ashes are placed in a bronze replica of the bible. She is interred at Hollywood Forever cemetery just a few steps down the hall from Rudolf Valentino, Peter Finch and several other great legends of film.
Her film credits include Queen High (1931), George White’s 1935 Scandals, Broadway Melody of 1936, Born To Dance (1936), Broadway Melody of 1938, Rosalie (1937), Honolulu (1939), Broadway Melody of 1940, Lady Be Good (1941), Ship Ahoy (1942), Thousands Cheer (1943), I Dood It (1943), Sensations of 1945, The Great Morgan (1946), Duchess of Idaho (1950) and Have Faith In Our Children (1955).
On A Personal Note ...
Elleanor Powell was truly a beautiful human being. She lived her beliefs and those were ones of unconditional love, compassion and charity. She warmly welcomed everyone she came in contact with and had the presence of the gal next door, rather than a former ex-movie star.
My best friend, Jeff Parker was her protégé and I was one of a small privileged group of tap dance film clips buffs, including TCM Host Bob Osbourne, that were invited a couple times a week to watch tap clips with Ellie, the Nicholas Brothers, the Condos Brothers and once in a while Ann Miller. Jeff's garage was remodeled into a small motion picture theater in West Hollywood and Ellie donated her tap floors. One of them was permanently spread out beneath the large screen. We would ask her to show us some of her steps and she was more than willing to share them with us. Unlike Ann Miller, and I quote “Now, don’t you steal any of my magic!” Those were some of my most cherished memories.
Ellie was definitely one of my mentors and influenced me spiritually as well as professionally. I still go out on the road and teach some of her motion picture tap numbers, particularly the ones she did with Fred Astaire, like Begin the Beguine and the Jukebox Dance. Ellie, in her sixties, looked very much like she did in pictures, but with shining silver-gray hair and maybe a few more pounds. The sparkling smile that she had on screen was not just for her fans, it was sincere and made everyone she met instantly comfortable. I remember that Fayard Nicholas would always snuggle in next to her. He said, more than once that Eleanor Powell was the very best tap dancer he had ever seen, and like Fayard, she choreographed all of her own tap numbers and her creativity in mixing dance styles gave her a unique versatility rarely seen today.
Her major contributions to tap dancing were her absolutely impeccable, yet effortless dancing, outstanding entertaining skills and the ability to perform certain moves that literally look impossible. She set a standard that is truly a challenge. In my 50 years as a professional tap dancer around the globe, I have never seen anyone capable of accomplishing the feats that were exclusive to Eleanor Powell. Unfortunately, many young tap dancers of this century aren't familiar with the rich heritage that tap dancing in motion pictures has given them. However, on the positive side, major tap dance company Artistic Directors, Acia Gray and Lynn Dally, along with dancers like Sam Weber, have made it a point to feature some of those historic numbers and I am finding that through touring, teaching their works and showing the tap clips of that era, the students and teachers are once again beginning to appreciate motion picture tap dance classics.
I feel that the creative innovators like Ellie and her peers are once again beginning to surface on the tap dance scene and hopefully restore tap dancing to the stature that once ruled the motion picture screen. The secret to the classics was the importance given to the “dancing” part of tap dancing. After all, their numbers had to fill an entire screen, bigger than life!
Sources: IMDb, Wikipedia & the American Tap Dance Foundation