February 20, 2014
I was watching TCM last night, the 1938 Best Picture Oscar winner, “You Can’t Take It With You.” And there was one of my favorite showbiz people, the great movie dancer Ann Miller, playing the crazy little sister of Jean Arthur and granddaughter to Lionel Barrymore. “Easter Parade,” with Fred Astaire, “On the Town,” with Sinatra and Gene Kelly, “Kiss Me Kate,” with Howard Keel. And after not acting for awhile, her famous 1970 Campbell’s Soup commercial in which she played a wife who morphed into a Broadway star and danced on a giant can of soup, her ‘husband’ admonishing, “Why do you have to make such a production out of everything?”
In 1980, Miss Miller came out of retirement to star in the touring company of “Sugar Babies,” with Mickey Rooney, homage to Vaudeville. She was middle aged then but she still had the legs for dancing. “Sugar Babies” came to the Airie Crown Theatre. I had a job as a part time bus driver, delivering the stars from McCormick Place to their north side hotels. Which is how Ann and I became pals.
That year, I chauffeured the obnoxious Micky Rooney, in-the-closet Rock Hudson, Imogene Coca, Margaret Hamilton (the wicked witch), Yul Brenner (a true prick), Gilda Radner, Father Guido Sarducci, G.E. Smith, and my all time favorite, six feet tall Angela Lansbury. I watched Angela in “Sweeny Todd” at least twenty times.
One rainy night, Ann Miller was the last person on the bus. I had already told her I had seen all her movies. She asked me to sing, “New York, New York,” from “On the Town.” I parked the bus, stood and belted out the song, and Ann applauded. She said, “Gene, I don’t feel like going to the hotel. How about having supper with me at the Pump Room?”
A half hour later, I was dining with Ann Miller, in Booth One. She had eaten in that very booth with Frank Sinatra. People lined up for her autograph and asked her questions, which she answered in her Texas twang. After supper, she told me story after story: Being Conrad Hilton’s date for the opening of the Hilton Hotel, even though she was only sixteen (she had lied, in Hollywood, from the beginning, signing a contract stating she was eighteen when she was really thirteen); having an affair with Frank; loving her costar Vera Ellen and being devastated when Vera committed suicide; Fred Astaire’s bad breath; Gene Kelly’s sour temper.
In the midst of this monologue, Ann Miller said, “Gene, you are easy to talk to. Come work for me.” Doing what? “Being my bodyguard.”
I thought she was hitting on me. I told her I had been in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and was going to start writing plays. “Then you must go your way. Can I give you a good luck present?” Ann Miller kissed me in front of a cheering crowd.
And, as I dropped her at her hotel, she gave me my nightly one dollar tip. And I drove to the bus yard in Evanston, climbed out and sang in the rain.