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Show Business At Its Brightest

by Leonard Maltin
April 2, 2014 3:07 PM
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Photo Courtesy of Getty Images and Professional Dancers Society Mitzi Gaynor poses with Chita Rivera and honoree Dee Dee Wood.

Any event that reunites Broadway’s Bye Bye Birdie stars Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, then brings together Astaire (Fred’s daughter Ava) and Kelly (Gene’s widow Patricia) is top-shelf as far as I’m concerned. You may not have read about it or seen media coverage, but all of us who gathered for the Professional Dancers Society luncheon on Sunday enjoyed the best and the brightest of old-school show business as PDS president Mitzi Gaynor presided over a terrific tribute to Leslie Caron and choreographer Dee Dee Wood.

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images and Professional Dancers Society. Longtime pals and Broadway costars Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera.

The PDS is affiliated with The Actors Fund, which helps dancers and other performers in times of need, as well as providing job counseling and—in its most ambitious effort—affordable housing. No one who cares about the entertainment world could fail to support such efforts.

Fortunately, the PDS has a number of “angels” who support its annual awards luncheon. Young performers from the Carousel Dance Studio dazzle the audience with sharply choreographed routines and a bevy of film clips, assembled by Lee Hale, remind us of the honorees’ timeless work. Past award winner Florence Henderson introduced a special tribute to one of the most endearing tap dancers of all time, Shirley Temple. And the Gypsy Robe, designed by Ret Turner and passed from one chorus “gypsy” to another every year, was presented to Rick Rossini.

Dapper as ever, nonagenarian Norman Lloyd sports Jean Renoir’s cap, which the director bequeathed to him.

The afternoon got off to a rousing start when the irrepressible Mitzi Gaynor delivered her saucy opening remarks. Audiences (including me) are grateful every time we’re in her presence.

Dick Van Dyke is another perennially youthful spirit who gave Dee Dee Wood (and her late husband/partner Marc Breaux) complete credit for turning him into a dancer when they worked together, first in New York and then on Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He says he never worked so hard in his life—or laughed as much.

He then introduced longtime friend, the inimitable Chita Rivera (who, he says, once had him thrown out of a rehearsal hall for “horsing around”). She revealed that she and Dee Dee have been arguing for decades about where they first met: she insists it was in a ballet class, while Dee Dee says it was in a bar.

When Dee Dee danced onto the stage, it was clear why performers would do anything she asked: what a buoyant personality she has. It was clearly a love-fest for her, Rivera, and Van Dyke and a treat for all of us to share in, even for a little while.

Leslie Caron needs no buildup, and Hale’s film tribute reminded us of some glorious moments from her screen career. Having Ava Astaire McKenzie and Patricia Ward Kelly join together to present her award was an inspired idea: after all, Gene Kelly brought her to Hollywood and Fred Astaire partnered with her in Daddy Long Legs. Their gracious introduction was matched by the elegant Caron’s heartfelt thank-you speech.

Ruta Lee, Robert Clary and choreographer Miriam Nelson are in high spirits.
Ava Astaire McKenzie, wearing a ring her father wore in "Top Hat," with Patricia Ward Kelly, whose wonderful one-woman show about husband Gene is returning to the Pasadena Playhouse

The audience was dotted with familiar faces, a vivid reminder that there is still a healthy contingent of show-business veterans who care about each other and are happy to congregate at upbeat occasions like this. It’s a crime that the general media chooses to ignore such events—and a slap in the face to readers and viewers who would love to know more about them. I’m happy to have my own soapbox, and no one to object. Kudos to PDS Chairman of the Board Joni Berry, show producer Lee Hale, and all their hard-working colleagues. To learn more about the Professional Dancers Society, click HERE.  

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  • Walt Mitchell | April 3, 2014 12:01 AMReply

    YOU know WHO's important and WHAT's important! THAT's what counts!

  • Karen Snow | April 2, 2014 5:26 PMReply

    How I envy your being able to attend such an event. Chita Rivera was a dear family friend; she and my Mother (also a dancer) were roommates in a touring production of "Call me Madam" and they stayed close up until my Mother's death last year. I grew up appreciating all dancers !

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