No easy steps to becoming a choreographer
Once out of the Navy, I decide to take an aptitude test. I mention to the counselor that I am interested in becoming a choreographer.
“Alright, let’s see what the prospects will be for that line of work,” he says These were the days before computers, so he pulls out a huge manual, flips through a set of statistical charts, and says, “Well, Mr. Walker, your chances for success as a choreographer are slightly above that of being a shepherd.”
Hmm. Not thrilled with his answer, I chalk it up to government bureaucracy, and go to my ballet class.
Using the GI Bill of Rights, I sign up at a, Hollywood drama studio. I also take ballet classes from Madam Nijinska.
She says things like, “Voi possible you do spaghet arms.”
Because she’s the sister of the best ballet dancer the world has ever known, we smile, and straighten our arms.
There are absolutely no dancing jobs in Hollywood, so just like in the movies, I decide to seek my fame on Broadway. Problem is, every other kid in America has the same idea. Three hundred dancers show up for auditions offering 6 jobs. Amazingly, I luck out, and am a regular on the Perry Como Television Show. For 3 weeks, I’m on TV and dancing on Broadway at the same time. My Broadway job is at Jack Silverman’s old Rumanian nightclub. You walk down a flight of stairs, sit at a table the size of a half dollar, and watch a “borscht,” circuit revue. But, I am the only gypsy (chorus dancer) who has two jobs in the City at one time. When the time comes, this fact will appear on my tombstone, with the music from “Mama Mia” blaring full blast.
Two years in New York is enough. I return to the land of my birth, Hollywood. I’m too old. My mind says this, not my body. I’m 30 years old, and this is nonsense. My adolescent thinking evaporates when I meet Orllyene. Orllyene comes with a package deal; her kids, Randy,3, and Marla, 1. Orllyene is a lithesome, irresistible brunette, and we marry. Suddenly I’m reborn, and young enough to dance again.
Completely out of condition, I audition for Barry Ashton (producer), and get the job. We sub-lease our apartment for three months, and move to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. Parlaying my job with Barry Ashton into a job at the Castaways’ Casino in Las Vegas, we buy a house on the strength of a three-week contract and settle down there.
Just prior to the Castaways’ show closing, I start prowling all the casinos in town for a job. One night, at the New Frontier Casino, I spot legendary producer, Frederic Apcar. He’s wearing a $600 blue, silk suit, and a starched white shirt with gold cuff links that have the letters “F” and “A,” on them. Choosing my moment carefully, I walk up to him and say I’m a dancer at the Castaway’s and the show is closing; can I audition for your new Casino de Paris show at the Dunes? He stutters, squirms, and stammers, but says, I should show up at rehearsals the following morning, so Ron Lewis, his choreographer, can have a look at me. Lewis is the most admired choreographer in Las Vegas.
“What have you done dance-wise?” Ron Lewis asks, and I tell him. I’m in awe of him. Mr. Apcar gives him carte blanch, and their collaboration raises the level of show business in Las Vegas for decades. Ron Lewis scrutinizes me carefully, and without even seeing me dance, says “OK, he’s fine with me.”
For two years I’m the swing boy (the dancer who learns all the boys parts in the show). I do two shows a night, teach jazz classes at a local dance studio, and am on a local TV show once a week. But, I’m still scoring zero as a choreographer.
Hal de Becker, a smooth talking adagio dancer, is the opening act for Liberace at the Riviera. Liberace is good friends with the woman who owns the Hacienda Motel and Casino. Hal and Linda, his wife, Orllyene and me, become good friends. Our young kids play together. By now, Tom, our youngest has joined the family.
As a complete surprise, Hal says, “Ron, would you like to choreograph a lounge revue at the Hacienda?”
Hallelujah! My fears of becoming a shepherd are over. Hal finds a clean cut, four-piece band. I hold an audition, and pick four energetic, young dancers and rehearsals begin. What I lack in choreographic skill, I make up for in passion. Those four girls dance look cute, sexy and dance their patooties off. Let’s go-a-go-go is a commercial success. It ain’t Ron Lewis, but I’m on my way. Hal gives me a $500 check, and Orllyene, and I splurge and buy our first ever color television set.
Yesterday at an In and Out Burger location, I noticed a woman wearing a T- shirt that mentioned dancing. I couldn’t resist and asked her about it. She studied the Martha Graham technique, and was devoted to dance.
“Dancing is God’s gift to us,” she said. I couldn’t agree more.
Ron Walker lives in Smith Valley