She Never Stopped Dancing
“Tops in taps, honey, tops in taps!” With quotes like that, Ann Miller was always her best press agent. When she died on Jan. 22, another nail was hammered into the coffin of movie history-especially the chapter about those splashy, glamorous Technicolor musicals so many of us grew up on. In the court of MGM, in the reign of King Louis B. Mayer, Annie Crow-or Annie Pie, as the other members of the legendary MGM stock company called her-was royalty. She couldn’t sing like Judy or swim like Esther, but they couldn’t machine-gun tap, either. She loved the spotlight, she loved the attention, she loved the camera, and she loved to dance. I once took her to a Fourth of July picnic with an American Revolution theme on a farm in Bucks County and, to the delight of the guests, she danced all the way across a cornfield and into the barn draped in the stars and stripes of the American flag, calling herself “Betsy Ross on steroids.” God, she made me laugh.
She was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier from Chireno, Tex., and she died Ann Miller from Broadway and Beverly Hills. But first and last, she was a hoofer all her life. And she never tired of the fun and fame that went with it. The night after she opened in Sugar Babies in 1979, 40 years after she first appeared in George White’s Scandals , the biggest, brightest and perkiest new star on Broadway sat in the middle of the floor talking as fast as she tapped about how it felt to be the toast of the town. “Rex Harrison came backstage last night. I’ve got his old dressing room from My Fair Lady . Katharine Hepburn and Melina Mercouri had their behinds in that room, too. They put in a new toilet for me and everything! Richard Avedon is photographing me for Vogue , I’m being interviewed tomorrow for eight hours by People magazine, I’m doing a ‘What Makes a Legend’ ad for Blackglama mink, and I’m so thrilled about having dinner with Ethel Merman I could wet my britches!”
It started, as most things did in my life, with an interview. Then it grew into a friendship that lasted 25 years. Revisiting old notes and interview tapes collected through the years brought back a lot of memories this week. Piecing together the crooked little pieces that formed the colorful jigsaw called Ann Miller was a part-time frolic that was never dull. At her funeral last week in Hollywood, even the priest was confused about her age. (She converted to Catholicism on her death bed.) The books said she was born in 1919, but Annie said it was really 1925, claiming she had to lie about her age as a child to get dancing jobs to support herself and her strict, domineering backstage mother, Clara. Her father was a famous Texas criminal lawyer who represented Bonnie and Clyde. When she was 6, he took her to the state prison where she sat on “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s lap while he drew a picture of a peacock for her with Crayolas. I mean, who could make these things up?
When she was 10, she took tap lessons to cure a case of rickets. One night she came home from her grandmother’s house and found Daddy in bed with another woman, and Johnnie Lucille said, “Mother, pack your bags!” They moved to California, where they hocked their car, their clothes, everything to stay alive. She used to do her little tap act for $5 a night for the Lions Club, and when she was only 11 she told the boss of a seedy dive called the Black Cat Club she was 18 and he hired her. “When the customers threw coins on the floor, I got down on my knees, scooped them up and put them in my tap skirt, and that’s what we ate on. We were so hungry one year that a neighbor baked a chocolate cake and that’s all we had for Christmas dinner.”
Former Hattie Carnegie hat model Lucille Ball discovered her and got her a job in 1939 in Too Many Girls . It was Annie who introduced the popsicle-haired star to Desi Arnaz. In 1969, after the collapse of the MGM era, she was the sixth Auntie Mame to follow Angela Lansbury in Mame . And in the 30 years between, there were fabulous musicals like Easter Parade , On the Town , Lovely to Look At and Kiss Me, Kate . “I have worked like a dog all my life,” she told me once, brushing away a rare tear, “and, honey, I am here to tell you that dancing, as Fred Astaire said, is next to ditch-digging. You sweat and slave and, in my case, you sprain, twist and break every bone in your body, and the audience doesn’t think you’ve got a brain in your head. So every time a good-looking millionaire came along chasing me with cars and chinchillas, I married him because he always promised I’d never have to dance again.”
There were three of them, but she never stopped dancing. The first one was the heir to Consolidated Steel. “Listen, honey, he gave me the biggest ranch in California, next to San Simeon, and we raised prize Herefords for show cattle. Six weeks later, I realized the whole thing was a total disaster when he pushed me down a flight of stairs while I was pregnant and broke my back and I had a miscarriage. Louis B. Mayer said, ‘If you’d married me, none of this would have happened.’ So I dated Howard Hughes instead.” Still recovering from the broken back inflicted by the steel baron, she whirled through the show-stopping “Shaking the Blues Away” number in Easter Parade in a back brace.
Twelve years later, she married millionaire No. 2, a Texas oil tycoon “who looked exactly like the first husband. Three months later, he broke my arm.” The third marriage was annulled. “He was the nicest guy of them all, but he died.” So she immersed herself in her work. “I knew the end was coming when they stopped making musicals and forced me to play Dean Jones’ mother in a baseball picture called The Great American Pastime . I said, ‘I’m not playing anybody’s mother, and screw you!’ That was 1956, and it was my last picture. Mr. Mayer wasn’t chasing me around the furniture anymore, and MGM was no longer any fun. But while it lasted, MGM was the greatest fraternity of all time.” Even when former MGM stars like Esther Williams, Jane Powell, Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney expressed public bitterness over their old studio days, Annie remained loyal. She was MGM’s traveling ambassador for years, claiming she even smuggled frozen funds out of Jerusalem on the Arab side for the studio. “After 12 years there, I owed them something! Honey, let me tell you, when MGM fell, all of Hollywood fell. That was the end of an era.”
When MGM faded, so did many of the eight-by-10 MGM glossies. Not Ann Miller: She headed for TV and did Stan Freberg’s now-famous most expensive commercial ever conceived for Great American Soups, dancing on top of an eight-foot can of soup surrounded by 20-foot
But she was laugh-out-loud funny even when she didn’t know it. In her dressing room on the opening night of a summer revival of Panama Hattie , I told her I was perplexed because she never sang the show’s most famous song, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please.” “Oh, honey, can’t do that,” she shot back in her Texas Guinan accent. “I tried it in previews and got protest letters. I have a pure image, ya see, and my fans will not tolerate me with a drink in my hand.” She was serious. “Anyway, what this show needs is a big tropical-fruit number. It’s Panama. It’s hot. I see myself tapping in bananas and cherries. But those people who run the Cole Porter estate are the rudest people on earth. I wrote to them asking for permission to put ‘Heat Wave’ in the show, and they never even had the courtesy to reply.” I countered with: “But, Annie, ‘Heat Wave’ was written by Irving Berlin!” She gasped, her Nefertiti eye makeup widening her irises to the size of the pyramids. “Oh my God, honey, you just know everything! I’ll bet that’s why those Cole Porter people never answered my letter!”
Her naïve humor made her the butt of so many Ann Miller jokes that her gaffes were legendary. Filling out insurance forms for Mame , when she came to the blank listing “profession”, she wrote “STAR.” Halfway through an Oscar Hammerstein benefit in L.A., she turned to her escort and asked if anybody had seen Oscar. “Ann,” replied her astonished date, “Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960!” “Well, how would I know?” shot back Our Girl Annie. “I’ve been on the road!” When Ari , the ill-fated Broadway musical of Leon Uris’ novel Exodus , was announced, she even rang up the producers and asked if she could audition for the part of Jackie Onassis. Nobody laughed at those stories more than Annie herself. “I’m just a dingbat, I guess,” she once giggled to me. “But so what? At least I’m not a Communist.”
Instead, she firmly believed in the spiritual world, was often visited at night by the ghost of MGM dancing idol Eleanor Powell and insisted she lived in a former century as Hatshepsut, the first Queen of Egypt. “I’ve been recycled many times, honey. My hand has so many lifelines, it looks like an old monkey’s paw. I’ve drawn pictures of camels, palm trees and mummies since I was 3 years old, and how would I know about that if I didn’t once live there?” She visited Egypt three times and spent every trip crying her eyes out. The last time, the curator of the Cairo Museum personally escorted her all the way to the tomb of a female pharaoh and, when she walked through the door to approach the sarcophagus, she claimed she was bitten by the same kind of viper that killed Cleopatra. Never mind that no asp has been seen in the Valley of the Kings since 1,200 B.C. Ann Miller was flown out in a helicopter, spent three weeks in a hospital and nearly died. “It was a warning,” she said. “The spirits don’t want me to return there.”
Instead, she moved Egypt to Hollywood. The bedroom of her house on Alta Drive was a $20,000 Egyptian throne room populated by stuffed lions-not because of nostalgia for MGM’s Leo, but because she believed they protected her in a former life. Well, what do you want from a star who got knocked in the head by a steel beam on the opening night of Anything Goes in St. Louis, didn’t walk for two years and suffered from vertical vertigo every time she tapped until the day she died? They laughed at her lacquered Ann Miller wigs, but wearing one is what saved her life that night.
But when the wigs were in their boxes, the fans and autograph collectors were in their beds and the applause was silent, Johnnie Lucille Collier was herself at last. She made one final movie appearance in David Lynch’s bizarro crime melodrama Mulholland Drive and phoned me to say, “I can’t wait to read your review of this thing. Maybe you can explain it to me. The business is in the toilet, honey, but as long as I can stand up, I just say, ‘Point me in the right direction and get out of the way.'” Alone and suffering from crippling osteoporosis, her final days were sad, but she never once admitted she was down for the count. After her funeral, Esther Williams said, “She was lucky, because the entire focus of her life was her work and her career. She was unsullied by the stress and misery of domestic strife some stars go through after the career is over.” This was not entirely true. The last time I talked to her, she confessed her only regret in life was never having children or a marriage that worked or someone to make the end less lonely, “because no matter what you’ve achieved, honey, if you’re not loved, you ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” She still talked about a comeback, commanding her feet to dance, but her legs would no longer obey. “I can still tap,” said flamboyant octogenarian Ann Miller. “But who wants to pay an old lady to tap sitting down?”