Any event that reunites Broadway’s Bye Bye Birdie stars Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, then brings
together Astaire (Fred’s daughter Ava) and Kelly (Gene’s widow Patricia) is
top-shelf as far as I’m concerned. You may not have read about it or seen media
coverage, but all of us who gathered for the Professional Dancers Society
luncheon on Sunday enjoyed the best and the brightest of old-school show
business as PDS president Mitzi Gaynor presided over a terrific tribute to Leslie
Caron and choreographer Dee Dee Wood.
The PDS is affiliated with The Actors Fund, which helps
dancers and other performers in times of need, as well as providing job
counseling and—in its most ambitious effort—affordable housing. No one who
cares about the entertainment world could fail to support such efforts.
Fortunately, the PDS has a number of “angels” who support
its annual awards luncheon. Young performers from the Carousel Dance Studio
dazzle the audience with sharply choreographed routines and a bevy of film
clips, assembled by Lee Hale, remind us of the honorees’ timeless work. Past
award winner Florence Henderson introduced a special tribute to one of the most
endearing tap dancers of all time, Shirley Temple. And the Gypsy Robe, designed
by Ret Turner and passed from one chorus “gypsy” to another every year, was
presented to Rick Rossini.
The afternoon got off to a rousing start when the
irrepressible Mitzi Gaynor delivered her saucy opening remarks. Audiences
(including me) are grateful every time we’re in her presence.
Dick Van Dyke is another perennially youthful spirit who
gave Dee Dee Wood (and her late husband/partner Marc Breaux) complete credit
for turning him into a dancer when they worked together, first in New York and
then on Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He says he
never worked so hard in his life—or laughed as much.
He then introduced longtime friend, the inimitable Chita
Rivera (who, he says, once had him thrown out of a rehearsal hall for “horsing
around”). She revealed that she and Dee Dee have been arguing for decades about
where they first met: she insists it was in a ballet class, while Dee Dee says
it was in a bar.
When Dee Dee danced onto the stage, it was clear why
performers would do anything she asked: what a buoyant personality she has. It
was clearly a love-fest for her, Rivera, and Van Dyke and a treat for all of us
to share in, even for a little while.
Leslie Caron needs no buildup, and Hale’s film tribute
reminded us of some glorious moments from her screen career. Having Ava Astaire
McKenzie and Patricia Ward Kelly join together to present her award was an
inspired idea: after all, Gene Kelly brought her to Hollywood and Fred Astaire
partnered with her in Daddy Long Legs.
Their gracious introduction was matched by the elegant Caron’s heartfelt
audience was dotted with familiar faces, a vivid reminder that there is still a
healthy contingent of show-business veterans who care about each other and are
happy to congregate at upbeat occasions like this. It’s a crime that the general
media chooses to ignore such events—and a slap in the face to readers and
viewers who would love to know more about them. I’m happy to have my own
soapbox, and no one to object. Kudos to PDS Chairman of the Board Joni Berry, show
producer Lee Hale, and all their hard-working colleagues. To learn more about
the Professional Dancers Society, click HERE.