Remembering Daddy Long Legs

ON THE GO

By Masha Leon

Published July 03, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.

CELEBRITIES LAUD MEMORY OF FRED ASTAIRE AT AUDITORY SCHOOL BENEFIT

PICTURE PERFECT: Brooke Shields presented a lifetime achievement award to Tommy Tune.
PICTURE PERFECT: Brooke Shields presented a lifetime achievement award to Tommy Tune.

“We loved you as a teenage prostitute in ‘Pretty Baby’, onstage in ‘Chicago’ and as a worthy adversary to Tom Cruise,” said gossip columnist Liz Smith to Brooke Shields, who presented dancer-choreographer Tommy Tune with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the June 2 “Fred and Adele Astaire Awards Gala To Benefit the Auditory/Oral School of New York.” Samuel and Pnina Bravmann, the founders of the institution, had built what is known as an option school (Option Schools International is an umbrella organization of 49 educational institutions that mainstreams profoundly deaf children by providing auditory/oral education). They taught their profoundly deaf daughter, Batsheva, who received a cochlear implant, to listen and to communicate verbally. Licensed professionals now provide infant-toddler intervention programs in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Urdu and Yiddish, enabling 98% of the children to enter mainstream kindergarten. Arlene Dahl, one of the evening’s Astaire-nostalgic celebrities, described a party at which “Fred was talking to Clark Gable about Walt Whitman. In comes this fantastic blonde, in a dress with nothing underneath. It was Marilyn Monroe. When she heard we were talking about Whitman, she sashayed over and said, ‘I love his chocolates!’ Fred just stood there, then said, ‘Gee, I do, too, Marilyn.’” Ava Astaire McKenzie recalled, “He was an absolutely wonderful father… I was a beneficiary of [aunt] Adele’s [Fred’s sister and dancing partner] hand-me-downs and am wearing one now.”

Tune, best known for performances and choreography in “My One and Only,” “Grand Hotel,” “Nine” and “Will Rogers Follies,” began his career in the chorus of three shows. Recipient of the presidential National Medal of Arts, nine Tony Awards, Obies and Drama League Awards, long-legged Tune strode over to the mike and informed: “This is my 50th year in show business, and 50 years in show business has gone by much faster than this evening.” Joining in the evening’s Astaire reminiscence fest, Tune said: “I actually met Fred once. He came to see me in ‘My One and Only,’ looking exactly like Fred Astaire. He said to me, “You’re a tall son-of-a-bitch.” The next day, I received a note from Fred… even his penmanship looked like choreography.”

“I never danced with Fred Astaire. I never slept with Fred Astaire,” joshed Marge Champion, who had been married to, and the dance partner of Gower Champion, a Tony Award-winning theater director, choreographer and dancer. “In 1976… at a screening of ‘That’s Entertainment,’ I was Fred’s seat partner at the Ziegfeld Theatre. He was muttering at the screen, unhappy about his performance. [In the film] I saw him dancing with Adele. I never saw him dance live until [that night] when Ginger Rogers came down the aisle and they danced together. Fred was Gower’s idol,” Champion said.

“Listen!” Lilliane Montevecchi exclaimed, “I danced with Fred Astaire in ‘Daddy Longlegs.’ It was so good, but Leslie Caron cut it out!” Jane Powell revealed that she was been the first choice to do “A Royal Wedding” with Astaire. “June Allyson was, but she was pregnant; [then] Judy Garland, but she was taken ill, and that’s how I got the job,” Powell said. “On the set, I said to Fred, ‘I understand you and your sister used to dance together.’ He answered, ‘1929 was the last time I danced with Adele.’” Powell said she blurted out: “‘Oh! That’s the year I was born!’”

“Dance has always been a part of my life,” Carole Lawrence said. “I was in ‘West Side Story’ when Fred Astaire came to see the show…. He was so beautiful, so shy. He was forming his own recording studio and asked me to be his first recording artist. And here I am, a girl from Chicago, Illinois, and — I got to dance with Fred Astaire!” One of the evening’s presenters was Countess Luann de Lesseps, one of the five well-situated housewives in the Bravo series “The Real Housewives of New York.” Her husband, Alexandre de Lesseps, is the great-great-grandson of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who designed and supervised the building of the Suez Canal and presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States on behalf of France.

In her closing remarks, Pnina Bravmann, director of the school that, according to its literature, “has become the fastest growing and most successful school of its kind in the world,” noted: “Dance is a universal form of education. A great dancer communicates to us with his or her energy and passion. Imagine being born without the ability to speak, talk, hear…. To date, the school has helped over 1,000 children. We are building a new facility which will double our space.” Lauren Vergara, a student with a cochlear implant, described her desire to “be able to use a cell phone and hear the ice cream truck coming,” and got a chuckle with, “How great to hear my mother in the next stall in the bathroom ask me to ‘pass the toilet paper.’” Vergara told of how difficult things were before she got her implant. “It was hard to love music. Now I am able to sing along with the songs,” she said. Jennifer Dumas and Patricia Watt produced the benefit; Lee Roy Reams directed and served as master of ceremonies for the event.

Founded in 1982 by the Anglo-American Contemporary Dance Foundation, this event was known as “The Astaire Awards.” In 1986 I was invited to attend the Astaire Awards gala. whose honorees that year included Debbie Allen (best female dancer), Peter Martins (best male dancer on Broadway and best choreographer) and Bob Fosse (best choreographer on Broadway, for “Sweet Charity”). Among the guests at the New York Plaza were Britain’s consul general, James Mellon, and David Dinkins, then Manhattan’s boro president. Suddenly, the chatter and clinking of glasses ceased. Then there was a communal whisper: “Ahhhh — there she is!” “She” was none other than the incomparable Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s legendary dancing partner and the evening’s guest of honor and award presenter. In contrast to the bejeweled ladies in shoestring, close-fitting black little things, Rogers made her entrance in a voluminous apricot organza crinoline creation with fitted bodice and scooped out décolletage straight out of Scarlett O’Hara land. With her signature black beauty spot on, and a rose at the neckline, she dazzled and dominated the room.

Everyone wanted to be photographed with her, and she graciously agreed to pose with assorted re-shuffled groupings. Here was the reigning Hollywood Queen in her glory, bestowing nostalgia-rich benevolence on her adoring fans. As we were having our photo taken together, I mentioned that, as a child, I had seen one of her films in Vilno in 1941. Don’t know if she heard, but flashing a megawatt smile, she autographed my program, which is now a collector’s item. As the dinner bell rang and guests headed for the Grand Ballroom, Rogers, hands on hips, stood her ground. Turning to one of the remaining photographers in the room, she half-wistfully, half-imperiously, in a little-girl flirtatious manner, demanded: “How about a photograph of just little old me — alone. The others were with all those people.” The photographer appeared to bow — then his camera flashed.


BEATLES HEAVEN AT 92ND ST. Y SPRING GALA TRIBUTE TO THE FOURSOME.


“We’re here to celebrate The Beatles and the 134-year legacy of the 92nd Street Y,” said stage-film-concert star Carol Woods, one of the performers at the Y’s May 19th “Come Together” spring gala. Behind Woods, onstage, HUNG a montage of the covers of 134 Beatles long-playing record albums from around the world. “They were written in just nine years,” Woods said. Resplendent in a teal-blue silk shirt, folk singer/guitarist Richie Havens told the overflowing crowd in the Y’s Kaufmann Auditorium: “I’m glad to be here. I am glad to be anywhere.” He then launched into “Here Comes the Sun,” which, he said, he sang at the Woodstock festival, and followed up with “Strawberry Fields.” Turning back the clock to 1969, Havens sang “Freedom” (based on the spiritual “Motherless Child,” which became an anthem for an entire generation) and ended with a flying airborne karate kick!

“We don’t speak much English,” said a member of The Backwards, aka The Slovakian Beatles, who performed an impeccable version of “Help!” The group, which was founded in 1966, won the 1998 International Beatles Festival in New York, defeating 36 other bands for the title of best Beatles sound-alike band. They won the title again in 2003, and they’re the only band to win twice. Then Dolibor Stroncer (John Lennon), Miroslav Dzunko (Paul McCartney), Frantisek Suchansky (George Harrison) and Daniel Skorvaga (Ringo Starr) (nicknamed Dali, Mimi, Fero and Dano, respectively) returned to the stage in Sgt. Pepper costumes singing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band.” They closed with “Let It Be.”

“We were lucky enough to have Paul write some songs for us,” said Peter Asher of the duo Peter and Gordon (Gordon Waller), aka “the Everly Brothers of the British Invasion.” They sang “Yesterday” before the Beatles sang it. “One day John Lennon came over and Paul and he wrote ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ Unfortunately they would not give that to us”. Peter and Gordon sang “World Without Love.” The Fab Faux, a critically acclaimed Beatles tribute band known for its painstaking re-creations of Beatles’ songs, performed “Nowhere Man” and “All You Need Is Love.” The group is composed of five top New York musicians: Will Lee (“Late Show With David Letterman”) who’s played with all four Beatles; Jimmy Vivino (“Late Night With Conan O’Brien”); Rich Pagano, Jack Petruzzelli, and Frank Agnello. Grammy award-wining artist Melissa Manchester, a hardcore Beatles fan, sang “Blackbird.”

During intermission, I had a quick chat about Parkinson’s disease research with a lookin’ good Michael J. Fox, whom I had last seen at dinner for Huntington’s disease victims. Acknowledged from the stage — and sitting behind us — was Sid Bernstein (who said he “knew” the Forward), the man who recognized the talent of The Beatles and booked them at Carnegie Hall before Ed Sullivan got wind of them back in 1964. Afterward, I had a quick chat with advertising maven Donny Deutsch, one of the event chairs. The 700 guests — some of whom paid up to $1,000 for a show, cocktails and an exceptionally delicious buffet dinner that was served on several of the Y’s floors — helped raise $2.8 million. I didn’t not stay for dessert, as I was too sated on Beatles music. There was no sighting of Yoko Ono.


KAUFMAN CENTER GALA HONORS YOUNG CLASSICAL MUSICTALENT

“Whenever I go to a concert at Merkin Hall,” said Joseph Cabrera, executive vice president of the real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, “I’m struck by the quote from Nietzsche on the program cover: ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’” Cabrera received the Corporate Leadership Award at the Kaufman Center’s May 28 gala, held at the Mandarin Oriental. “Wait… or was that Carnegie Hall? I get them confused,” Cabrera joshed. “Well, without funding, music would be a luxury reserved for but a few. It takes a great deal of generosity to open these doors and to keep them open.” Liz Callaway, event host and award-winning actress and recording artist, caused a stir when she revealed that the evening’s guest artist, noted composer and pianist Philip Glass, had suffered a mishap prior to a recent marathon piano concert. “Shortly before the concert, his 4-year-old son accidentally stomped on his hand and broke it!” (A communal Ohh!) But, I’m happy to tell you his hand has completely healed.” (A several-hundred-strong sigh of relief.) Glass performed his own work “Opening” and received an extra measure of applause for (piano) “fortetude.”

It was applause, applause time as students from the Lucy Moses School (one of the country’s largest community arts school, serving more than 2,400 children, teens and adults) and the Special Music School (P.S. 89 in Manhattan— a unique public/private partnership between the New York City Department of Education and the Kaufman Center) thrilled family members and guests with their musicianship and virtuosity. First grader Annaliese Wee stunned everyone with her rendition of Robert Schumann’s Sonata for Youth, Op 126; fourth grader Amory Benjamin was impressive with his sublime solfeggio rendition of J.C. Bach’s Cello Concerto in C minor; 10-year-old Alice Ivy Pemberton (violin) and 11-year-old Brian Ge (piano), whose kvelling parents were at my table — may have concert careers in their future. Completing the program was an ensemble of seventh and eighth graders from the Special Music School performing Johan Joachim Quartz’s (1697-1773) “Concerto in G major” (lst movement). The center’s Creative Arts Award was presented to Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. His overflowing “portfolio” of credits includes host of PBS’s 1986 eight-part documentary “Pride and Place: Building the American Dream”; member of the board of the Walt Disney Company (1992-2003), and author of several books, including “New Directions in American Architecture.” Phyllis Feder, a member of the Lucy Moses School’s participating board, received the Distinguished Service Award. Chairman of the board Bethany Millard touted Cabrera, Stern and Feder as indispensable contributors to the success and expansion of the Kaufman Center.



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