THE PERFECT 36 – The Rockettes (Dec, 1936)
THE PERFECT 36
Here’s the greatest team on earth—a fast-charging line of 36 all-American girls from 17 states, combining clockwork precision with beauty, brains, and rhythm
By THOMAS SUGRUE
EVER since Lord Cornwallis turned his cutlery over to George Washington a certain type of American has been complaining about our lack of culture. We do not appreciate opera; we do not patronize the Russian ballet; we are not greatly interested in monumental literary achievements. We are a crude people, and we’d rather watch a bobbed-haired blues singer build contralto innuendoes into an Irving Berlin lyric than listen to the best opera singer interpret the dismal fate of Isolde. This, to the patrons of the arts, is a sad and shocking thing. It is a sore subject with youngsters, this culture business. They feel, when they slip off to a musical comedy or a movie, that they ought to be attending the opera or a dance recital. But they would rather see a movie. They would rather see, for instance, the Rockettes.
How many times have I sneaked into the Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes, when down the street the opera house was ablaze with lights? I could not help it. I have never been able to resist the Rockettes.
And so finally I have decided to face out my shame and to brazen forth my love for the thirty-six musketeers of the world’s largest stage, who are the world’s greatest precision dancers; who not only are a rich and rhythmic parcel of American culture, but who personify the American girl at her best.
ALL this came tome very suddenly one night when I had passed by the opera house and resisted an impulse to “better” myself by seeing a dull opera that I had been avoiding like castor oil for years. I avoided it again and slumped into my seat at the Music Hall just as the overture ended.
After the applause the eighty-six mu- sicians began to play again—a stately, even melody. From the wings came the Rockettes.
They were dressed as Quakers, in modest gray gowns with peaked bonnets on their heads, held firmly by chin straps. Their hands were folded, as in prayer. They moved demurely, processionally. Then suddenly the music faded, as if tired. Only the wail of a trumpet re- mained, rising higher and higher in its note. The Rockettes stopped to listen.
The trumpet reached its highest note, hung there, and then descended as the other eighty-five players burst forth in a scream of hot jazz—senseless, wild, and howling. The Rockettes smiled, nodded to each other, and began to dance.
Thirty-six bare white legs shot from the folds of their gray gowns. Thirty-six right arms went up over thirty-six heads. The thirty-six left legs emerged. There was a rat-a-tat as the feet tapped on the stage. I leaned back in my seat and sighed with relief. I had been afraid for a moment that they were not going to “get hot.”
They were no longer, now, thirty-six Quaker girls. Their heads moved as one, their arms moved as one, their seventy-two legs might have been operating from a single gigantic hip. The audience, 6,200 strong, held its collective breath in admiration.
Here was something almost unbe- lievable. How was it possible for thirty^ six individual young women to dance together with such smooth teamwork that not a flaw was visible, not a head or a body or a limb out of line? A gorgeous machine with white, flashing legs was going through a quick, athletic routine to the beat of a popular tune that at least half the audience had danced to. They were at the back of the stage now, and they broke away from each other and did a step that involved bending and twisting and moving so that they could not possibly see each other. Yet they were as perfect as when their arms were around each other’s waists and their noses were pointed left.
Finished with that, they joined together again and moved upstage—one step at a time, flinging first their right legs upward, then their left. A murmur of involuntary awe started at the back of the theater and moved down across the audience to meet them. This was their famous upstage march, the most perfectly rhythmic parading to be found anywhere in the world. The audience roared and clapped. The Rockettes, stopping at the footlights with right legs upraised, smiled in answer. They had never failed yet to draw that ringing cry of approval.
THEN it struck me. Was not this an effervescence of American spirit? Was not this a part of our infant culture, destined in the future to be to the United States what the ballet is to Russia? I forgot shame. I decided to call it pride instead. I decided to find out about the Rockettes and tell the world. So I went to work and discovered who and what they were and why. I found out that they are really the greatest precision dancers, the finest human machine ever constructed, and the grandest bunch of American girls ever assembled in one place. And I went around telling my friends that any flesh-and-blood man who met these Rockettes and came away with only lukewarm enthusiasm was a jellyfish.
“And I mean it,” I said to the editor.
“Then write it,” he said. …
The Rockettes owe their existence as a group to Russell Markert, now assistant producer of the stage show in which they appear, and still their boss. He is a blond, fortyish fellow, with nervous manners and a flair for wisecracks, fast roadsters, and hot dance music. He was born in New Jersey and never danced a step until he was twenty-three. Back from overseas after service with the A.E.F. he considered himself overweight, and took lessons in tap dancing to reduce. He liked dancing, got a job as chorus boy in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, rose to assistant dance director, and then struck out for himself.
In 1925 he got the idea of a troupe of highly trained tap and acrobatic dancers which would put line-up dancing on a new level. The Tiller girls, of London, had been the first to do this, and people said that American girls would never succeed in the same way, being too individual to work together. Markert got sixteen girls, trained them, called them the Rockets, and very soon had them dancing in the Roxy Theater.
From the beginning they were a sensation, and soon Roxy—the late S. L. Rothafel—rechristened them the Roxyettes. Their number was increased, their fame spread, and they became the best-known portion of the stage shows. They went to the Music Hall when it opened, were again rechristened—this time the Rockettes— and continued to add to their laurels.
THERE are forty-six of them altogether, although only thirty-six appear on the stage. The other ten are always on vacation. They work every day for three weeks, then get a week off. One of their number, Emily Sherman, acts as captain. She does not dance in the line-up, but learns all the routines, helps to teach the other girls, and fills in whenever there is an unavoidable absence. She also looks after the pay roll, sees that the girls get to places on time, listens to their complaints and troubles, and acts as professional mother.
They work a twelve-hour day, from about 10 a. m. to 10:15 P. M., when the last of their four daily shows is over. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday they rehearse between shows for the new show, which begins o»i Thursday. Between shows on the remaining four days of the week they are free to go shopping, take sun baths on the roof, read, knit, crochet, listen to the radio, or otherwise amuse themselves.
They are not, as a group, facially beautiful. Markert found out that beauty and the kind of dancing ability he requires do not often come in the same package. He also found that make-up and distance from the audience smooth out imperfections of face, but that nothing takes away a misstep or a leg out of line. So the girls, first of all, must be good dancers.
Next they must be good troupers; that is, they must work together for the sake of the group, not for their individual selves. One girl with a personal ambition or one girl with a grudge against another could ruin the whole troupe. Each is dependent on the others, and the chain of thirty-six is only as strong as its weakest member. . Markert likes them about 5 feet 5 inches tall and about 118 pounds in weight. He doesn’t object to good looks, naturally, but at present only about a dozen of the troupe could qualify for beauty, whereas all of them are fine dancers. They aren’t required to diet or keep certain hours or do setting-up exercises. Their work keeps them healthy and their youth supplies boundless energy.
Their rehearsal work goes on in two large halls, one equipped with a long mirror running from the floor to a height of six feet. In this the girls can observe themselves and correct any flaws, since they cannot see themselves ordinarily while dancing. Gene Snyder, Markert’s assistant, puts them through their paces, with Captain Sher^ man helping out. The dances, though they seem intricate and difficult to the average observer, contain usually the standard steps which all the girls know. The routine itself is what must be rehearsed again and again, until all thirty-six move through it with the timing of a combustion motor and the grace of a swan.
THE Rockettes have been almost everything in their stage life: sailors, soldiers, policemen, waiters, chauffeurs, cadets; Cossacks, Cubans, Chinamen, caballeros, Arabs, Afghans—an endless list.
But, whatever they are, they eventually march upstage, arms around each other’s waists, kicking to right and left, in a line as straight as a rule could draw. This is the big moment for the audience, when honest men and women make the welkin ring for seventy-two slim white legs that move as one.
The girls know this is their big moment, and they await the applause smiling and expectant. It is one of the things which sends them forth from the theater each night with head high and body poised.
Most of their time, except for vacation weeks, is spent backstage. They wander about in lounging pajamas and slacks, now and then dressing up to go shopping. There are lots of things to do besides rehearse—costume fittings take time, and many of the girls sneak off to do private exercise for certain steps they are not sure about. The last show is over at about 10:15 in the evening, and their boy friends are allowed to wait for them in the lounge.
They receive $48 a week for their work. This, on the surface, does not seem much, but they receive it 52 weeks a year. The average actor or actress in New York works only two or three weeks a year. Thus an unusually fortunate actress, getting a salary of $500 a week, may make less than a Rockette in the course of a year.
The Rockettes know this and they appreciate their status. They do not consider themselves chorus girls, and they are not. They are precision dancers, highly trained and highly skillful, and once they get into the troupe only marriage or illness takes them away, and some stay on after marriage. Often there is not a vacancy for a year, though sometimes there are several.
Those who wish to join the troupe have a hard road to travel. If they pass the rigid dancing test which admits them— and of 125 aspirants recently only four were accepted—their names go on the waiting list. Suppose a girl is sixteenth on the list. It may be years before her chance comes, and years, when youth is a required asset, are important. Yet a dozen or more try out every week.
JUST who are these girls? I knew I couldn’t attempt to interview each one individually, so I suggested to Captain Sherman that a questionnaire be submitted to them, a questionnaire which would tell me where they come from, what they do, what they think about, and where, eventually, they are going.
” Sure,” said the amiable captain, brushing her black hair from a damp brow. “Send it along.”
So I wrote down all the questions I could think of. I figured that if the answers to these questions made a certain pattern, recognizable as typically American, my thesis would be proved—that the Rock’ ettes personify the American girl.
The answers were even better than I expected. Of the 46 I was able to corner 40, and here’s their testimony: First, all the Rockettes were born in America (with a quick bow to Toronto, Canada, for Rheta Stone), in 17 states and 34 towns and cities: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Providence, Seattle, and points north, east, south, and west—Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, Nebraska, Michigan, Massachusetts, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Iowa, and New York. Most of their parents were born in the United States, too, and the mixtures are typical of democracy: French-Irish, German-English, Swiss-Austrian, Dutch-English, and so on.
Of the 40, only 14 are blondes. Brown hair crowns 21 of the heads, 3 have black tresses, and 2 are redheads. Half of them, just 20, have blue eyes; 13 have brown eyes; 4 have gray; and 3 have hazel. All but 10 are neither engaged nor married, but—26 of these 30 live with their families, parents, or mothers, in and around New York. Of the remaining 10, 6 are married and 4 are engaged to be married.
The average Rockette, the ideal mixture of the 40, is 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 114 pounds, has brown hair and blue eyes, is a graduate of some high school, lives with her parents or mother, and is neither engaged nor married. She is 22 years old, having been born the year the World War began. She prefers men in this order: intelligent, ambitious, neat, thoughtful. She would also like him to have a sense of humor and be tall and handsome.
Her ambition is to travel around the wot Id, and especially to see Hawaii and the South Seas. Secondarily, she would like a business of her own and a home in the country. She does not, of course, consider her job as Rockette a permanent career, since it demands eternal youth. A few Rockettes would like to be singers or actresses, and one each would like the following—a career in Hollywood, a dog kennel, a golf championship, a job as interior decorator, a career in portrait painting, a life of study, a career as a good wife, and, oddly enough, happiness.
The Rockettes’ favorite screen stars are Fredric March and Irene Dunne. Miss Dunne “has everything . . . she is beautiful, can act, and (Continued on page 64) (Continued from page 62) is a good singer.” Leslie Howard and Helen Hayes are the favorite stage pair.
The favorite books in the dressing-rooms of late have been Anthony Adverse, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, and Century Readings in English Literature. All the Rockettes liked Mutiny on the Bounty best of last year’s movies, and they would rather read about Helen Wills Moody than any other figure in sports. When they turn on the radio they listen to Jack Benny.
“That settles it,” I said. “They are Americans, typical, average, and ideal.”
Then I added up the votes for honors in the troupe—for Prettiest, Wittiest, Best Dressed, Most Popular, Most Likely to Become a Star, Most Romantic, Most Studious, Best Dancer, Best Mimic, Quickest Costume Changer, and Practical Joker.
When I presented myself again to Cap^ tain Sherman I showed her the results.
“If I could talk to these honor girls,” I said. ” I could . . .”
“Sure,” she said. “They’re going on in a few minutes. We’ll go down and watch them from the wings and then get them into the cafeteria for lunch.”
ON THE stage the Rockettes went through their routine and started the march upstage. I looked the line over, straight as any that ever marched across the parade ground of West Point. When the ap^ plause ended and the curtain came down I followed Captain Sherman through devious passageways and into an elevator. Down we went, to the last basement stop, and then along more passageways to the cafeteria.
“You sit down there,” Captain Sherman said, pointing to a long table. “I’ll bring them over.”
I sat down, and she began singling out girls at the counter and pointing toward me. They would look at me, frown, and say something to Captain Sherman. Sud^ denly I became frightened. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
They moved toward me in a mass, care” fully, as people approach strange animals which have strayed into their bedrooms. Captain Sherman introduced them. They bowed and slid into places. I gulped and sat down. After swallowing twice I dared to look at the girl on my left.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
“I’m Jean Eckler,” she said.
I was even more frightened. This was the girl who was selected almost unanimously in my questionnaire as the Rockette Most Likely to Become a Star. She was brown-haired, slim, and very young.
“I’m scared,” I said. “I don’t know what to ask.”
“We’re scared too,” she said. “We’re afraid of what you’ll ask.”
I looked cautiously around the table. All eyes were on plates, all conversation was guarded and low. Now and then glances were shot toward me.
“This is awful,” I said to Miss Eckler. “Tell me who they are again. I don’t remember.”
She leaned toward me and spoke in a low voice. “Next to me is Muriel Le Count, the Most Popular.” I saw a demure, very lovely brunette with long ashes and a classic profile, opening her red mouth and putting the end of a sandwich into it.
“She’s so popular because she is quiet and good-natured. Nobody has ever caught her out of temper. Honestly, she’d come to rehearsal at three in the morning and never complain. Her family is that way, too. They’re very devoted. Her father or brother calls for her every night.
“The next girl is Peggy Todd, our Quickest Costume Changer.” I wrenched my eyes away from Miss LeCount to look at a small, animated blonde.
“She lives in Kearny, New Jersey, with her family and she is always catching a train. She seems to be always in a hurry, and she can change a costume faster than I can adjust a shoulder strap.
“The next girl is Rheta Stone. She’s our Practical Joker and Best Mimic—two honors for one girl. She sees you looking at her. Watch her blush.”
IN AMAZEMENT I saw a tall blonde turn deep crimson under my gaze.
“That’s how she gets away with it. She slips flat pans of water under the covers of our seats—we call it the wet seat—and when we accuse her she blushes just like that. It’s funny, isn’t it? She can mimic anybody or anything, and she blushes the same way if she’s caught.
“That girl next to her is Betty Sasscier, one of our brunettes. She is our Best Dancer and Most Romantic. Sassy is very romantic. She’s scared stiff of men; won’t go near them. She never has a date and she lives way over in Brooklyn with her family. She reads poetry and Shakespeare and she thinks Leslie Howard is grand. Know what? She met Robert Taylor last week and she still likes Leslie Howard best.
“The next two girls are our Most Studious, Evelyn Lauper and Emmy Lou Petri. They sit together over in the corner and they have a whole library there. Laupy is always reading and Emmy Lou is an artist. She studied in Paris and at the Art Students’ League. She does woodcuts and etchings and oil portraits. She wants to make a career out of it some day.”
“How about your career?” I asked.
“I’m studying singing—I’m a lyric soprano. I’d like musical-comedy work, but you know how hard it is to get started. Perhaps radio would be a beginning. I don’t know.”
She stopped suddenly and looked confused. Then she took up her tale of the other girls: “Next is Charlotte Joslin, our Prettiest. Isn’t she lovely? French-Irish, a good combination. We voted her prettiest for a woman’s reason: She’s lovely in the morning, in the afternoon, at night—with her make-up off or on. That’s real beauty. Look at that skin. It’s like cream.”
Miss Joslin must have caught a word, for my eyes found her paralyzed, with her teeth in a sandwich.
“She lives with her family, on Long Island. That girl next to her is our Wittiest. She won’t say anything while you’re here, though. The next one is Florence Mallee, our best-dressed.”
It was impossible to talk about Miss Mallee, a tall, handsome blonde, because she was sitting directly across from me and could hear every word. We decided to face it out. I asked her how she happened to be the best-dressed.
“Just a clothes horse,” she said. “I’m big and tall. Get most of my clothes wholesale, because I wear a size 14—that’s a sample size. Mother makes some of them. . . . Say, you aren’t like other interviewers. They ask us about love and night clubs and all that nonsense.”
“Love isn’t nonsense,” muttered Miss Sasscier.
“Of course it isn’t,” I said, grabbing the opening. “You’re going to be a dancer, aren’t you?”
“THERE is no future in dancing nowadays, “Miss Mallee said flatly. “There is something rotten in the state of the dance world. I was reading Hamlet last night and I laughed when I found that quotation: ‘There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.’ I use it all the time, and there it is in Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare was a modernist,” said Miss Petri. “Modernism as it is interpreted nowadays is incompetence. People use it to excuse their inabilities. Rembrandt was a real modernist. Every painting, with him, was an experiment in technique. He never painted two canvases the same way.”
“Chaucer was a modernist, also,” said Miss Lauper. “He had the courage to shake off the domination of a foreign language, French, which had been imposed on the English, and use the tongue of the common people.”
“We are modernists, too,” Miss Eckler put in. “These dances we do have never been done before. They are American. Some day they will be traditional and old-fashioned.”
“Time,” said Miss Mallee, “is too much for us. Look at clothes. They pass out of fashion before you can get any wear out of them.”
“And what is a face,” said Miss Joslin, “but a twelve-year mask—from eighteen to thirty.”
I SAT back in my chair and tried to convince myself that I was listening to the Rockettes. They might have been a group of graduate students in a university, talking of life and love and literature.
They gave me, as I sat there, a picture of American youth I had not before encountered. Here were a dozen nationalities, blended after generations into lovely, shapely American girls, alike in habits and ambitions and intellectual interests— happy, healthy, full of love of life and all things living.
I could have stayed there indefinitely, talking about horseback-riding, swimming, hockey, Goethe, Toscanini, Shakespeare, Paris clothes, Leslie Howard, Hawaii, books, poetry, and their selves and my self. But they were only relaxing. Presently Captain Sherman hustled them off. I tramped along behind with Miss Eckler. I felt that I knew why she had been voted the most likely to become a star. She had the personality for stage success—something that came out of her without effort and made an aura of pleasantness. I followed her right into the elevator like a sheep, and the door closed.
They all laughed. ” Where do you think you’re going?” Miss Sasscier asked.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” I said, “but it’s all right.”
“Sorry,” the elevator boy said as he stopped the car and the girls got out. “This is No Man’s Land—the dressing-rooms.”