State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
There was a time when your teacher of classical dance and your teacher of classical piano were of a like taxonomy, so to speak. If you are a person of a certain age today, you may remember with a shiver the dour, cloaked figure with the untraceable Eastern-European accent who hovered like a metronomic reaper over the piano bench, her gnarled and insistent hand gesturing you through endless repetitions of Für Elise until your most exquisite pre-teen fantasy was that of waterboarding Beethoven. Ah, Miss Olga. Once upon a time your childhood teacher of classical dance was likewise an Iron Curtain forget-me-not with a severe expression, a dense gray bun held together with knitting needles, and a manner that suggested she would eat Bob Fosse for lunch, derby and all, and spit the sequins out like bones.
The times they are a’changin’, as the poet Dylan Thomas (or some scruffy namesake) once famously wrote. These days your dance teacher is more likely to have, oh, danced the Shimmy with Elvis, for instance; or done the Watusi with beach blanket Mousketeer Annette Funicello. Or performed a sashay in gold lame with a faux-tipsy Dean Martin. Or twirled parasols with Streisand.
Yeah, right. As if.
Born outside Detroit, Emmy Lou came to California at four years old when her family packed up and made the move to warmer climes, landing in Riverside. Her milieu at the time was not that of a nascent hothouse flower of Dance. “My home life wasn’t necessarily artistic,” she says matter-of-factly. “My dad worked in floor coverings and my mom was a stay-at-home.” But as shall be seen, nurturing and reinforcing a child’s self-discovery is itself an art form; just possibly the one at the summit. Emmy Lou can’t point to a specific Eureka moment when her own sea changed. “I don’t know what specifically decided me to become a dancer. All I know is that I always wanted to be one.”
Her mother had noticed it early on – as soon as Emmy Lou found her infant feet, she was dancing – and so mom went in search of someone to throw a little water on this seedling-in-motion. Emmy Lou got into a dance school at the age of 8 and by 10 had topped out. “Your child needs to go where she can really study,” that first instructor said when it became clear that Crawford was born to it. The teacher referred them to a certain Eugene Loring, a quasar in the American Dance firmament who had a school in Hollywood to which people inside and outside the business were flocking. Perhaps most popularly known as choreographer of Aaron Copland’s 1938 game-changing ballet Billy The Kid, Loring later worked as MGM’s dance-whisperer-in residence, helping the “two left feet” movie stars (now obliged to dance once in a while, to their horror) with their on camera movement, and meanwhile choreographing Astaire, Charisse, Hepburn and other gossamer titans in gracious classics like Silk Stockings, Funny Face, and Sabrina. Meanwhile his storied American School of Dance preached Loring’s prototypically American vision of what dance art, in all its variety and breadth, is actually for. Loring felt that, America being so famously a melting pot, training in dance should be likewise a nourishing, varied stew of all the modes and varieties of dance under one roof, and taught by a round-robin team of stylistically distinct instructors whose students would emerge from the training having absorbed the world of dance. He became a respected proponent of a freeing but enfolding philosophy of art that drew dancers of every age and stripe to his school. This would be Crawford’s first audition, and soon Loring’s studio would become Emmy Lou’s second home, and the chrysalis from which she would emerge a fine artist; one with a less-than-predictable career arc in front of her…
Thank Heaven for Little Girls
When Emmy Lou, all of 11 years old, entered the redolent, marble-encased former ballroom in the basement of the old hotel on Hollywood Boulevard where the school was located, we can fairly imagine a stunned little string bean with her jaw open. But there was no time. She and her parents had been in the car for two hours and the appointment was looming. She dashed into the dressing room to change for her interview and audition and was brought up short. And this may be considered the first bit of evidence that the dance-possessed little girl from Riverside was being overseen by Terpsichore, the Greek muse with the silken shoes. “When I walked into the dressing room, Leslie Caron was in there. She’d just gotten out of class. She was my idol!”
Little Emmy Lou had found her Place. Loring’s immersive vision and insistence on an all-embracing dance vocabulary would inform the unnaturally talented and driven little girl’s launch into a Technicolor sock-hop to die for.
Sticking the 5th and Liza with a with a Little Z
Four days a week, Emmy Lou’s dad would drive her in to Hollywood from Bakersfield and home again; a four-hour round trip. This went on for three years “He would get off work and we were always hurrying. The opportunity he gave me,” she now says quietly. “Mr. Loring saw the effort and gave me a full scholarship.” It was at that point Emmy Lou’s parents saw what could be called “the handwriting”, and they moved to Hollywood. “ I spent my high school years in Hollywood, and I worked at the studio; mailings, typing – to work off my scholarship. I would be there till 9:30 at night and then go home and do homework.” Extra hours at the studio meant more exposure to the Hollywood kids; Annette Funicello training for her journey to Avalon, a young, strutting Liza Minelli already rattling the rafters. “She’d say ’My mother is Judy Garland!’ We’d say, ‘What?! Really?’ And she’d say ‘Yeah. Listen to this!’”
Near the end of high school Crawford auditioned for and got into an Industrial Show, a strange species of traveling, commercial infotainment unique to that time. These shows would feature real choreography, lavish sets, full-blown productions written and assembled by show business people, often the very best, and all done in the interest of promoting a company. Besides being essentially Broadway scale advertisements, these productions, which would actually be taken on the road, were considered a great way to gain exposure and illuminate on the show business radar. The companies themselves could be outshone by the high art being brought to bear on their promotional efforts. It was a risk worth taking, and some of the most talented songwriters of the day would toil at writing memorable pop tunes singing the praises of these places. “This industrial show was for a gas company in the midwest,” Crawford recalls. “It was for Speedway and Marathon. I remember, because they were merging. And that was one of the songs,” she laughs. The choreographer who hired her for the show was Nick Castle, dance master for the Dean Martin Show. Castle’s assistant was Maggie Banks, recently a behind-the-scenes dynamo on the Bye Bye Birdie film set. Banks was in that period a well-respected and ubiquitous Assistant Choreographer.
For the audition, held in a slightly dank Hollywood walk-up, all Banks wanted to see from Emmy Lou was a double pirouette. The simplicity of what was asked surprised her. “So, I went in and did it, and I landed in fifth,” Crawford says. “And I very clearly remember Maggie saying, ‘You landed in fifth.’” Meaning she stuck the landing with a pro’s exactitude. It was notable among the auditioning throng that day. And a harbinger. Still later, Crawford would audition for Hello Dolly, the Barbra Streisand film. The movie’s choreographer, Michael Kidd, greeted the young dancers on that occasion with a weary wave, saying immediately that he was too beat to cobble together a routine to run them through. He told them, instead, to just start moving around the space freestyle, “..and I’ll tell you what to do, whether it’s ballet or freestyle or jazz. Just start improvising.” Emmy Lou’s tone now indicates hushed wonder.
“And I moved!” she says. “And one thing I noticed immediately about the other two girls there with me, they were beautiful, highly-trained dancers, but if it wasn’t ballet they couldn’t move. Literally. So of course I got the audition. That was a pattern, that training that I had at Mr. Loring’s, it carried me through every audition I ever had.”
“Elvis would always come over and talk to us…”
From there the Kismet rolled out like a freshly shampooed red carpet. A choreographer friend managed to get her into an audition that landed Crawford a spot in the show that was being mounted at the newly purchased Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, a venue sufficiently soaked in Hollywood karma it is today said to be haunted by the ghosts of the Glitterati who partied there. Sinatra had just bought the place, slapped on a new coat of 24 karat paint and invited every show biz pal in the book to turn up and inject the joint with some Walk of Fame attitude. Contrary to this and that rumor, Frankie proved to be a no-nonsense gentleman, a big-brother figure who would ask Crawford and the other girls performing there to point out any unwelcome advances, at which time Ol’ Blue Eyes would personally, and not too genteely, escort the perp out by the collar. “He was very protective because we were very young,” Crawford says. “I saw Marilyn Monroe there one evening. She was beautiful. Peter Lawford…”, she pauses. “It could be very intense sometimes with all the famous people there. I was, you know, ‘this is really happening. Pinch pinch!’”
At Cal-Neva Nick Castle saw Crawford perform, hired her on Maggie Banks’ ‘she landed her fifth!’ recommendation, and helped get Crawford into the all-important Union. At Maggie Banks’ suggestion, Crawford took on a stage name, Carey Foster, and for a time was being groomed as a possible successor to Ann-Margret. Next came some months in the Dean Martin Show girl gang (“He would joke around with us but otherwise wouldn’t say much…”), and from there she would go Peppermint Twisting into the movies, with roles in such effervescent fare as “Winter a Go-Go” (Carey Foster’s billing in imdb: “Winter A Go-Go Girl”), Annette Funicello’s “Pajama Party”, Elvis’ “Kissing Cousins” to name a few; the happy-go-lucky swinging sixties diversions that featured synchronized, thoroughly rehearsed and highly trained dance youth doing the Mashed Potato behind the day’s lip-synching, glowing teen icon. On set, Funicello was not terribly chatty and would maybe say “hi” in passing if prompted. The kid stars, the manufactured pop idols, shall we say, kept to themselves. The avatars of older Hollywood were approachable and supportive.”Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire…they all came from where I was, and respected that. They were all so kind and encouraging.”
Elvis was a third thing. This Tennessee Nijinsky would shamble over between takes and shoot the breeze like a guy a little starved for conversation. “Elvis was a very personable guy. He would always come over and talk to us, always very relaxed. Not terribly happy, I don’t think.” At 16 Crawford auditioned for the film West Side Story with hundreds of other girls. Co-creator/dance giant Jerome Robbins asked each of girls to do the sweeping little flourish that signals, in dance, the Jets’ ownership of their turf in an early scene in the film. Director Robert Wise asked that they all put their hair up, like Maria, the star-crossed Juliet figure in the story. Crawford danced, read for Wise and made the cut, but her youth and that of her hireling colleagues made the proposition too pricey for the studio, what with on-set tutors and union work hour complications, and she was let go.
Hello Dolly, Goodbye Hollywood
Following appearances in numerous TV specials, the early Gene Roddenberry experiment “The Lieutenant”, and the classic “Finian’s Rainbow” (Francis Ford Coppola directing Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, no less), choreographer Michael Kidd hired Crawford for a role in “Hello Dolly”. By that time she was a wife and mother, and the rigors and indelicacies of TV and movie performing were wearing a little thin.
When the studio flew the Hello Dolly cast from L.A. to Poughkeepsie, NY for exteriors, she brought along her infant daughter and husband; two parents accompanying their little girl to a dance gig, just as Emmy Lou’s folks had once done years before in Hollywood. Crawford now says of that time on the set of Dolly, “I was probably coming to some sense of culmination of this work and, you know, moving myself forward.” As the realization dawned and her loving family fully upstaged her show business drive, Crawford became absorbed in more fully understanding her daughter and began reading books on Montessori, eventually becoming an impassioned Montessori teacher in the 1970s – today she teaches at Children’s Montessori School, in Lompoc. Later, she added to that skill set (of course!) “Dance Teacher to the Extraordinary Tinies”, specializing in working with freshly-minted little dancers still finding their feet, and giving them their wings in the process. Emmy Lou handily brings the Montessori themes of loving collaboration and mutual support to that dance work, as she did with local legends Santa Barbara Festival Ballet for 30 years. Last year, alongside her daughter Sean (herself a highly trained dancer, instructor and performer), Emmy Lou co-founded a vibrant new dance school called Inspire Dance (inspiredancesb.com). The new school teaches a range of dance disciplines, harkening all the way back to Eugene Loring’s sweeping embrace of all dance as One Dance. Crawford is paying it forward.
She looks back at her time in The Business and marvels – the good fortune and hard work, the constant happy surprises, the Montessori-like sense of collaborative common cause that would occasionally rear its lovely head even in the midst of all the glitz and show business ego. The first time she appeared on the Dean Martin show, her first time on television, she was waiting in the wings to go on, shaking like a leaf, when she realized someone was standing next to her. She peeked over and found guest star and Hollywood monolith Bette Davis standing next to her there in the shadows, ratcheting up the young dancer’s terror until it became uncontainable. She finally had no choice but to turn to the legend and blurt out “I’m so nervous!” Ms. Davis turned, wide-eyed, and as if relieved grasped Emmy Lou’s arm for support. ”I am too!”