by Chuck Pennington III
Gemze de Lappe & James Mitchell dance to “Another Autumn” from Paint Your Wagon in this excerpt from “The Gold Rush” broadcast (1958):
“Who are you? What do you want?”
I stumbled over my words as Gemze’s stern directness over the phone took me by surprise. It was immediately clear to me the she tolerated no nonsense or even soft introductions.
“I’m calling because I’m friends with an old co-star of yours from Paint Your…”
“Who? A name.”
“John Schmidt. He was in the chorus and was an assistant stage manager during the Broadway run. Do you remember him?”
A deep sigh.
“I’ve worked with so many people over so, so many years. I can’t… The name doesn’t… Well, it’s possible.” Gemze seemed to be searching for words. I let her lead as it seemed the wisest course of action.
“What’s this all about?”
“Well, I’m working on a project about John’s life, and I was looking to speak with people he performed with on Broadway. He was a champion pole vaulter at Ohio State University before moving to New York for a career on Broadway, and…”
“Oh, he was, was he?” Gemze cut in. “He’s still alive?”
“Yes, he turned ninety-five earlier this year. I believe you two are the same age?” I phrased it as a question as I wasn’t sure my information was correct.
“Yesssss….” Gemze slowly purred, and I felt like she was rolling her eyes on the other end of the line, as if thinking sarcastically, Thanks ever so much for reminding me.
“Do you remember Winkie?” I asked. Winkie was the other reason I was calling. While going through scrapbooks, John pointed out a photo of dancer Virginia Bosler (as she was credited) and asked about “Winkie”, which was her nickname. He was in Brigadoon (1947-1949) and Out of This World (1950-1951) with her on Broadway, but they lost contact more than sixty years before. I could find no information about her beyond the ’50s (we didn’t know her married name), but an acquaintance suggested that I contact Gemze de Lappe, one of choreographer Agnes de Mille’s dancers. Agnes choreographed Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon and directed Out of This World; John was in all three. I was told that Gemze was the go-to person for recreating Agnes’ work and had been staging Oklahoma!, Carousel, Brigadoon, and Paint Your Wagon for various theatre companies for decades. He said that Gemze knew all the de Mille dancers and would be the person to ask about Winkie. It just so happened that Gemze also worked with John in Paint Your Wagon.
“Winkie Bosler?” Her voice perked up. “Of course, I remember Winkie. She’s a beautiful dancer.”
“Would you know how to get in contact with her?”
“Well, I… uh…” She was searching again. “Look, I’m not so good on the phone. Where are you?”
“I’m in Columbus, Ohio.”
“Well, when will you be here, in the city?”
“In a few weeks, yes, I’ll be there in April…”
“Well, come over then. Just call me the day before to remind me. You have my address?”
“Yes, the same guy who gave me your number…”
“Yes, yes, fine. We’ll talk when you’re in town.”
Shortly after that awkward first call to Gemze, I located Winkie. Virginia Doris, her proper married name, was now ninety years old, a widow for nine years, and living a quiet retirement in Maine. I had started to form a phone relationship with Winkie before I arrived in New York on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. I was going to be in town until the following Monday morning and planned to visit Gemze that first afternoon after my morning flight. We had a long conversation the day before my flight to confirm my plan to visit her the following day. Gemze was very interested in hearing about Winkie and took down her address and phone number. Although she said she wasn’t so good over the phone, I thought Gemze came across extremely well save for when she would frequently pause for a few moments while searching for words.
“You see, I had a stroke a few years ago. Since then, I can’t always come up with the words as quickly as I’d like,” Gemze explained.
“You sound perfectly fine to me.”
“Oh, but you didn’t hear me before!” She laughed. “I was quick! I could bring up the names… And now, I know what I want to say, but I can’t… I have to work at it, to get it out so that it’s right. That’s why I have trouble on this thing,” she said, referring to the phone.
“Is it alright if I stop by tomorrow?”
“What day is that?”
“No, no, no, the day of the week.”
“Uh, yes, that should be fine. When… What time does your flight… What time will you be in the city?”
“Oh, by 9am, though I’ll probably want to…”
“Where are you staying?”
“Midtown. 9th Avenue and West 49th, at a friend’s apartment.”
“Good. Just take the 1 uptown to 96th. I’m just a few blocks away. Whenever is fine. Just call beforehand. I’ll be here, probably.”
A brighter person would have at least Googled Gemze de Lappe before meeting her. All I did was ask John about her.
“I think she was one of the showgirls in Paint Your Wagon,” he started, closing his eyes to think back. “I didn’t have much to do with her except for making sure she was on stage when she was supposed to be. I remember one time when she and Agnes went back and forth on some turn, something she wasn’t doing just right, but that’s about it,” he said.
I had only seen a few photos from the original 1951 production of Paint Your Wagon, and none of them showed Gemze. I imagined her as one of the girls brought to town to work at the brothel in the show, nothing more. Probably one of a dozen interchangeable girls, I thought to myself.
After depositing my bags at my friend’s apartment and grabbing some brunch, I made my way up to Gemze’s apartment building on West Ninety-Second. The doorman had me wait in the lobby, all black and white tile with a large circular staircase, while he phoned her. She never picked up. “She don’t hear so good,” he said and shrugged. Then he waved me up.
I rode the rickety elevator up to the seventh floor and knocked on her door, even though I saw that it was slightly ajar. It didn’t take long for her to appear. She was quite petite with curled blonde hair, a green turtleneck, and a cream and black knitted sweater. A large round medallion hung from a gold chain around her neck.
Before I could introduce myself, she started.
“I opened the door a bit when you called because I don’t always hear people knock,” she said, waving me in while I made my formal introduction and shook her hand. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, leading me past a table with some scattered mail and a letter opener, down a hallway that opened to several large rooms to the left. The ceilings were much higher than those in any other New York apartment that I’d been in, and I assumed she must have lived in the apartment for quite some time.
“Is this you?” I asked as we passed a large painting on the right just outside her sitting room. The woman in the painting had a steely gaze, sharp cheekbones, and strawberry-blonde tufts of hair.
“A friend painted that,” she pointed out. “I’m not sure it really looks like me though, but… it’s nice. Look, come sit in here,” she said as she gestured over to a small couch in front of a low coffee table littered with black and white glossies. “I’ve got some photos and things to show you. You want anything to drink or whatever?”
“Oh, no, I’m good. I hope you didn’t go to any trouble.”
“No,” was all she said as she sat next to me, picked up a stack of folders, and began pulling out images from all kinds of productions.
“Now, what’s your friend’s name again?” I told her and she shook her head. “Doesn’t mean anything to me. It was a long time ago.” I pulled out photos of John from his pole vaulting days at OSU and from Brigadoon. “Hmm, maybe,” she said, perusing the images one by one.
“Of course,” I said, “he had a beard in Paint Your Wagon.”
“They all did!” she exclaimed then laughed. “See, I’m right here,” she said, pointing to a striking brunette with hair pulled back in a dotted dress surrounded by other dancers and bearded men. She pulled out a few more photos, several with her and a man dancing all alone. It quickly became apparent that Gemze’s role in Paint Your Wagon was far more significant than I had guessed.
“That was Jimmy… James Mitchell,” Gemze said, pointing out the handsome man in the photos. I recognized him from the photos I’d seen of Brigadoon as well as his appearance as Dream Curly in the film of Oklahoma!
Another photo was a slightly out-of-focus image of Gemze wearing a wide hat and sash, standing outside a stagecoach with a line of men gaping at her. I noticed that one of the men had John’s profile.
“I think this is John,” I said, pointing him out to her. She held the photo close to her face.
“Hmm, okay, I see… It was quite a while back, you know, but I vaguely remember something,” she said before sighing. “I’m just not sure.”
Gemze proceeded to tell me about her career as she showed me photos featuring her and Richard Rodgers (“He liked me, but there was no funny business! He was known for that, but not with me!”), Vivien Leigh (“I was performing in Oklahoma! in London when she and Larry invited me over for tea. She was either in a play or film at the time of Anna Karenina. They were nice.”), Michael Kidd (“He was in London with Finian’s Rainbow and was helpful to me when I had to cast dancers in Oklahoma! Very nice, sweet man.”), and a group of Japanese women in early 1900s costumes (“I taught them Oklahoma! They were so excited, really appreciative. All-female company. They seem to crave our musical theatre over there.”).
I didn’t learn anything about John, but Gemze went into detail about her life as a dancer; studying with Irma Duncan, one of Isadora Duncan’s adopted daughters, while she was still in grade school; summers dancing for Michael Fokine as a teenager; and her long association with Agnes de Mille. She also spoke about her parents and older sister, how she was born in Virginia, lived in Baltimore, and then settled with her family in New York at around the time she was in second grade. It was terribly interesting to just let her talk, though she didn’t dwell on any topic for long. Her work with Agnes began in the fall of 1943 when Gemze was cast in the road company of Oklahoma!, which stayed in Chicago for a year. After touring with the show, she moved on to perform in the Broadway company and then to the London premiere of the show in 1947. I asked a few questions here and there, usually ones that received only a quick matter-of-fact reply. I began to see the wide span and scope of her career and began to feel a bit naive for not having prepared myself.
After her long tenure with Oklahoma!, Gemze originated the roles of King Simon of Legree in The King and I (also playing it in the 1956 film, but wearing a mask the whole time) and Yvonne in Paint Your Wagon, both on Broadway in 1951. Agnes built the choreography onto Gemze for her role as the dance hall girl who falls in love with a gold miner, played by James Mitchell. The dances between Gemze and James portrayed their meeting, courtship, and ultimately their separation, all silently through dance. Their story was the dramatic counterpoint to the main plot of the show. I was familiar with the film adaptation of Paint Your Wagon, but de Mille’s choreography was not included in it and the story was completely rewritten; it is a different animal from the stage original.
Gemze spoke of recreating Agnes’ choreography at regional theaters across the country and how people often think they can improve on it. She said that what some directors and choreographers fail to realize was that Agnes was involved in crafting the shows when they premiered, her stylized movement designed to convey important aspects of the story through dance. Her work was intrinsic to the storytelling – the music, the lyrics, the book, and the dancing.
“Now there is just a lot of showing off,” Gemze said about the current use of dance on Broadway, adding that, “They just do a lot of gymnastics, and quickly, but it’s empty. There must be a reason behind all of it. Agnes gave us that reason. She had us act our parts, even though we had no lines. Our gestures represented all kinds of different things. If the audience didn’t know what each move meant, it didn’t matter; the fact that it meant something to Agnes would come across.”
The phone rang in the middle of our afternoon talk. Gemze excused herself, walked over to her land line phone, and I listened to her side of the conversation. It reminded me of when I first called and she was startlingly direct in her tone.
“Hello? Hello? Who are you?” Pause. “Well, what’s that got to do with us? What do you want?” A long pause. “I’m not. Thank you.” I heard the soft, crisp clang of the receiver dropping into position as Gemze chuckled to herself and then walked back into the room.
“I get very angry with people when the first thing they say is, ‘How are you today?'” she said with a solicitous smile. The smile vanished and she held up a finger. “I never answer them. I never give them the sat… That’s why I said, ‘What do you want with me?’ You can get these calls from anywhere asking for money.” She laughed again. I offered to put her on the Do Not Call registry, and she said she’d welcome it.
I checked my phone and saw that I would need to leave soon to meet my friend for dinner and then get to our 7pm performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I thought about the rest of the week and how I’d be attending most of the other shows alone. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by asking Gemze if she wanted to join me for any, though I made it very clear that she shouldn’t feel obligated at all.
“Oh, I’d love to go!” she exclaimed, and I was shocked. I had grown so accustomed to the many ways people have of saying no that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for a yes.
“Well, do you have any shows that you’d like to see?”
“Oh, any of them.” She must have noticed my eyes open wider in excitement at the possibility as she quickly added, “But just one a day. I can do a matinee or an evening, but just one or the other.” She went to get her planner to check her schedule when the phone rang again. She answered and the change in her tone let me in on the fact that she recognized the caller’s voice. When she returned she said that Friday evening was out as a friend had just called and invited her to the ballet.
“It’s either nothing or a lot at once, you know,” she said, and then shrugged. I told her I’d better map out plans with her before her dance card was full. She really laughed at that, but then turned serious. She said it was very important for her to be around people and have that interaction to keep her speech up. She said that after her stroke a few years prior she didn’t know anything was wrong until a friend came over and she began to talk to him. In her head she thought she was making sense, but all that came out was slurred gibberish. Her friend immediately took her to the hospital. She said that, with the help of her son Peter doing various speech therapy exercises with her, she learned to speak clearly again, but she sometimes still struggled to find the right words.
“If I go too long without talking or whatever, it’s like I start to lose some of it, regress a bit. Talking over the phone doesn’t help; it needs to be that back and forth in person to keep everything going.” She went on to explain the torment of being completely fine mentally but having people talk around her as if she didn’t understand or was somehow deficient.
We planned to see the musical Groundhog Day the next night, Present Laughter with Kevin Kline that Saturday night, and then play things by ear on Sunday afternoon. I knew I could score discounted tickets and she was all for it, lamenting the high cost of Broadway.
“I have only seen one show recently, and I just hated it. I don’t want to see it again. Ham… It’s difficult to see, but I thought it was just loud. The dancing didn’t mean anything. I don’t want to see Ham…” Gemze mumbled and it sounded like she said ham sandwich. I imagined a plot about a deli and the rising cost of commercial real estate in the city.
“What in the world…” I searched my mental list of currently running shows. “Do you mean Hamilton?”
“Yes, that’s it! Hamilton. I didn’t like it at all! I’d be glad to see anything but that.”
I openly laughed. “Well, there’s no way I could get us tickets to that! I saw it last year anyway.”
“Well, what did you think?”
“I liked it a lot, but it isn’t for everyone. The music has reached a different generation, and if it helps bring more people into the theatre, then I’m all for it.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Gemze sighed, adding, “It just isn’t for people like me.”
The next day began with luck. I won the online ticket lottery for a deeply discounted ticket to see Glenn Close in Sunset Blvd. at the 2pm matinee. By 5pm, I was headed uptown so we would have plenty of time to talk, have dinner, and get to the show at 8pm. I met Gemze at her apartment (her door was ajar again) and was delighted to find that another pile of photos and programs were waiting on her coffee table for us to go through.
“There may be some things of interest there,” she said as she waved a hand over towards the collection of prints and folders. “I keep a lot back here though,” she continued as I followed behind her like a puppy dog. Gemze walked through her kitchen on the right and stopped at a room just past it with shelves packed with files, boxes, and tapes. This little room seemed to serve as not only her archive but also as a place where cans of food and plastic bags were stored. I spotted slides, two open boxes of custom-made DVDs, quite a few VHS tapes – most labeled, some not – some audio tapes, and a great many tan folders full of what appeared to be notes, photographs, news articles and the like.
“Wow,” escaped from my lips before I could stop it. Gemze giggled.
“Yes, it’s a lot. I need to put things… I know where things…” Gemze was pausing again.
“Well, it would be incredible to go through and organize all of this,” I chimed in. She nodded and then shrugged. “Do you mind if I look through some of it?”
“Sure, whatever,” she said, leaving me behind as she left the room. I gathered up some discs and tapes that seemed promising and then brought them into her sitting room, where she was already seated.
“Maybe we can look at some of these later,” I said, a bit embarrassed that I had grabbed such a large pile of media. Some discs had Post-Its attached to their cases with notes like “good picture – bad sound” or “rough at beginning,” and others weren’t labeled at all.
“I use some of those for when I have to speak somewhere or need to see something,” Gemze said, adding that quite a lot was video of rehearsals as well as performance footage of herself and of productions she staged. There were also incongruous items such as JFK’s inauguration and a 1960s TV special about George Gershwin thrown into the mix. “People give me things all the time,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s for work, and sometimes it’s because they think I might be interested.”
We spent the next hour talking about Agnes de Mille, musicals of the past, and misconceptions about age. I didn’t get a chance to look through the new treasures she found or sample any of the videos at that time.
“I’m a dancer, and we stick around a long time,” Gemze reasoned when I asked if people treated her differently because of her age. “I know people in their hundreds and they are just fine. Aside from the stroke, I’m really pretty good. I still do barre work, not as often as I should – but I do.”
“It seems like show people are made of a different kind of stock than the rest of us,” I added, mentioning how John still drove and lived alone without any help. Gemze seemed impressed by that and added that it was the theatrical training of their generation that made the difference.
I told her that I was annoyed when people would speak to seniors as if they were children in a loud, slow, sing-song way.
“Oh, it’s the worst,” Gemze said and sighed. “But I have some friends who have started to act like what people expect them to act like because of their age. I was out with a friend, who is just around my age, and lately – whenever we pass a stroller or a dog – she starts to coo and babble. I say, ‘Why are you acting like that? Snap out of it.'” We both laughed at that remark. I couldn’t imagine no-nonsense Gemze putting up with any of that.
As I knew nothing of the neighborhood, I relied on Gemze to pick the place where we would eat. For this night, she chose Gennaro, just a few blocks away on Amsterdam. “It’s good, and they don’t overcharge,” she added after confirming that I was okay with Italian food as we entered the elevator.
“Gennaro,” I repeated, “like Peter Gennaro, the choreographer?” I knew the name from hearing Judy Garland announce The Peter Gennaro Dancers on episodes of her variety show. I thought maybe she’d be surprised that I would know of him due to my otherwise limited knowledge of dance, but all she did was nod and then exited the elevator. Gemze waved at the lobby attendant without stopping and only slowed when she came to the steps that would lead out of the building. Once we were outside, she pointed in the direction where we were going and then stuck out her hand.
“Now, I’m slow, but I’m strong,” she said. “I don’t need any help, but just hold my hand to keep me steady.”
“We’ll need a cab,” Gemze declared when I suggested we take the subway. I lost track of time back at her apartment and then at dinner, so I knew that we had better get downtown quickly to be nice and settled before the show.
Our cab was an SUV with a sliding door. I opened the door and, figuring that she might need some help getting in, said, “Ladies first.” Gemze pointed for me to get in. I gestured back at her to enter. She pointed again and grunted. I obeyed and climbed in.
As I slid over to make room for Gemze, I saw her lift one leg up into the car, grab hold of one of those straps along the roof, and, with a swift turn and no sign of exertion, leap inside and pull the door closed. I was speechless. She was unfazed.
“Where is the show again?” she asked. I told her that it was at the Virginia Theatre on West 52nd. She looked out the window to see in what direction the driver was headed. “If he knew what he was doing, he’d take us down 9th Avenue,” she said loudly enough for him to hear.
While waiting for Groundhog Day to begin, I filled Gemze in on Andy Karl, the star of the show; how he’d just won an Olivier Award for his performance in the London production, injured his knee during Broadway previews, necessitating the cancellation of some performances, how he had pushed through to perform on opening night, and how he was now alternating performances with an understudy while healing. She seemed very interested in the background.
“Who are we seeing?”
“Well, Andy is scheduled for tonight, but he didn’t do the matinee.” Gemze gave a grunt of recognition. Just before the show started, one of the ushers passed us. He quickly turned back around and asked if we’d like to move down to seats closer to the stage. We were already in good seats, I thought, at the rear of the orchestra on the left.
“I know that we have a few seats closer on this side that are free,” the usher said and smiled. It must be Gemze, I thought to myself. She looked like someone important, and I’m sure I looked like an odd escort for her.
“I’ve never had this happen,” I whispered to Gemze after we were re-seated. “Usually I sneak down to a closer seat once I spot one free.”
“Yes, very good of him,” Gemze agreed. I asked if I could take a photo of us and had my phone up on selfie mode before she could protest. I think she liked that she could see herself on the screen of my phone to judge the angle before I snapped. She smiled, and I gave a goofy grin and caught it. The same kind usher smiled at us, and I leaned in to whisper to Gemze.
“Can I tell him who you are?” Gemze shot me a look like I had just asked her if she’d like to hear me fart the national anthem.
“No….” she quietly hissed as the orchestra began to play.
Andy Karl was indeed in the show that night, and he was terrific; acerbic and swift, wry and jocular – his character slowly learning to be more honest and sincere as he kept reliving the same day over and over.
“See the brace?” I asked Gemze on the first occasion that we saw Andy putting on his dress pants upon getting out of bed, the first of many times he would be in t-shirt and boxers in the show. The brace appeared to be one of those spandex-like types, and was white with his left knee poking out. She gave a slight murmur of agreement. At intermission we remained seated and talked.
“Did you ever have any injuries as a dancer?”
“No, I was fortunate that I was never dropped, but most people twist something or other now and then. I find properly warming up helps to prevent that.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, pointing at the scrim displaying a projection of dozens of clocks in varying sizes and shapes, all showing different times.
“It’s because it doesn’t matter,” Gemze explained. “He goes through things again and again so that time no longer means anything. Whether they are all different or the same, it no longer matters.”
No sooner had she finished her sentence than the clocks became animated and all switched to the same time, 6am. The point was clear. I turned to Gemze and she gave a slight grin, as if to say, See? I told you.
After the show, I asked Gemze if she would mind if I waited at the stage door to see Andy Karl and maybe get a photo or autograph.
“No, go ahead. I’m going home.” The guilt hit me quickly.
“Do you want me to go with you? It’s alright. I can come back another time.”
“No,” she assured me, already walking down the block like a steadfast soldier. “The bus stops right up here. I’ll be fine. Good show. Talk to you tomorrow.” She waved without looking back. I was worried whether she’d be okay, but then I thought that after spending most of her life in the city, Gemze knew precisely what she was doing and needed no coddling.
I heaved a sigh of relief when Gemze answered her phone the next morning. “Ah, so you got home okay?”
“Of course,” she replied, as if there existed no possible reason why she wouldn’t have made the trip just fine.
After we had conversed for a bit, I asked if I could stop by that afternoon to view some of the videos in her collection. I was on my way to view some material at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and would just be a few subway stops away.
“Eh, fine, whenever,” was her response, noting that she would be done with lunch by 1pm.
I arrived closer to 2pm at Gemze’s building, and the doorman, having recognized me from the previous two days, just waved me on. I felt like I was now on some special list or something – Gemze approved, I thought to myself.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked.
“My friend Michael and I are going to a concert of Babes in Toyland at Carnegie Hall. Kelli O’Hara is in it.”
“Good, good,” she said, then asked what was next on the agenda. I reminded her that she was going to the ballet the next night with a friend and that we were going to a show Saturday night. She nodded in agreement, and I told her we could plan on dinner somewhere before the show.
“Leave that to me,” Gemze asserted and then laughed to herself.
“What about you?” Gemze asked after our dinner was served at City Diner, which seemed to be one of her regular haunts from the way our waitress and the rest of the staff greeted our entrance. It was Saturday night.
“What about me?” I asked, stupefied that she could possibly care. We had discussed her parents, how they met, and the acrimony between her and her older sister that prevented Gemze from visiting the hospital on the night that their father died. She had mentioned her two sons and pointed out framed black and white photos of them that were on the wall in her bedroom. She had said her husband was a musician but had “never made enough money,” whatever that meant. We had viewed many videos of her dancing and talked about her work. I had nothing to offer in comparison.
“Well,” she said, “I know you like theatre, that you’re working on this project, and that you’re from Columbus. Do you have any people?”
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned. She laughed and then started to eat her dinner as I elaborated. I told her that I was the middle child of three boys, and that I was estranged from both brothers for nearly twenty years. Unlike most people who react with a pitying “such a shame” to that news, Gemze seemed to understand and didn’t ask me to elaborate. I told her that my older brother was from my mother’s first marriage.
“How many times has she been married?”
“Eight! How does that happen, I wonder,” Gemze said as she took a bite of her meal.
“My guess is it started with someone asking her,” I said offhandedly.
It must’ve tickled Gemze as she started to choke and laugh at the same time. She covered her mouth with her napkin and looked away from me.
“Are you okay?” I asked, my voice full of panic as she continued to cough. This is it, I thought to myself. Now I’ll be known as the person who caused Gemze de Lappe to choke to death.
I started to get up to approach her. I was prepared to do the Heimlich maneuver, but Gemze shot me a look and held up a flat palm to me, as if to say, I’ve got this, kid. With a few more coughs and clearings of the throat, she regained composure.
“See? I’m fine,” she assured me. “Just went down the wrong side is all.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to be funny. It just is funny, not so much ha-ha as peculiar. One guy she married three times. THREE TIMES.”
Gemze held out a hand horizontally at eye-level and then slowly lowered it, as if instructing me to lower my volume without saying a word. Her blue eyes were fixed on mine, and I followed her silent command.
“I’m sorry, I tend to sometimes get loud when taking about my family,” I explained, though Gemze had already returned to her dinner as if nothing had happened.
We took the bus to the theatre, Gemze’s preferred mode of travel outside of a cab. She said she no longer took the subway because of how fast people moved around her on the stairs. We had three-quarters of an hour before the 8pm curtain, so I figured there was plenty of time. I hadn’t been on the bus in many years; it was nice but extremely slow. We made it to the corner of West 44th just five minutes before the hour.
“What theatre is it at?” Gemze asked as she clasped her right hand in my left and we walked along the sidewalk.
“The St. James.”
“Ah, my old stomping ground,” she said. That made me realize how she must have performed there in the original productions of Oklahoma! and The King and I so many decades ago. I was speechless, or at least I was until tried making a little small talk as we walked slowly towards the theatre.
“You know, you’ve lived in this city through so many phases… ,” I began. “I hear it was so much cleaner and classier in the forties and fifties, and then how it was so dirty and dangerous in the seventies and eighties. I’ve only ever known it to be safe and bright like it is today. When was the time you thought the city was at its worst?”
“NOW,” Gemze roared, without missing a beat.
I picked up our tickets at the Will Call window. As I had feared since we were pressed for time, our tickets were in the mezzanine. It was always a crapshoot as far as seat location with these discounted tickets, and I dreaded the slow ascent, as everyone else seemed to already be seated. It was a few minutes past the hour now.
As we began to climb the steps to the mezzanine, Gemze insisted that she was fine. She held tight to the banister and took it a step at a time. I kept pace behind her, just in case she needed any help. As we neared the top, an usher looked at us with a concerned face when she saw Gemze. I could tell that it was the look of someone who knew they were in the presence of someone very old, which also reminded me of how people react when holding newborns if they aren’t used to it, afraid that they might damage them. “Is she alright?” the usher mouthed to me. I nodded that she was. I’m so glad that the usher didn’t ask out loud if we needed any help, or, God forbid, reach out a hand to offer it unsolicited. I had made that mistake earlier in the week with Gemze, only to be shot down with, “If I need help, I’ll ask for it. Or if you see me in trouble you can offer, but only once. I’m not as frail as I may look.” She wasn’t being mean, just direct and to the point. I appreciated it and followed her direction.
The performance of Present Laughter began precisely as we were seated.
“Well, this is very funny, isn’t it?” I asked Gemze at intermission.
“You like it?”
“Yes, but I’m not the type to laugh out loud much. I’m not sure why.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she agreed. “It’s very good, but I also saw it years and years ago with Scott… George C. Scott? It was good then, too. Yes,” she started, then switched gears. “Did you hear the woman to my right? ‘Ha ha ha ha!’ People don’t laugh like that,” Gemze stated. I said that I hadn’t heard her.
“And this woman in front of me playing with her hair and moving about, leaning this way and that, did that bother you any?” I felt ashamed to admit that I didn’t notice it at all, and Gemze shrugged, saying that my height probably had something to do with it.
A few minutes into the second act, the audience rocked with laughter at a witty line. I heard the forced “ha ha ha ha” of the lady to Gemze’s right. I glanced at Gemze and she rolled her eyes back at me.
It wasn’t until the show was over and we remained seated for a bit to allow the audience to disperse that I noticed the women with the poofy blonde hair in the row ahead of us. As she gathered her belongings to leave, she looked back at both of us and smiled, no doubt thinking perhaps I was a grandson taking my grandmother out to a show. I heard Gemze start to speak, and the woman turned to face her.
“Pardon?” the woman asked as she smiled a little wider and leaned in.
“I said that it was very difficult for me to enjoy the show with all of your moving about and playing with your hair. It was very distracting.”
The smile drained from the lady’s face like water going down a drain after a stopper was removed.
“Oh, uh,” the woman stammered, obviously caught off guard. I could do nothing but watch this unfold. “I’m, uh, sorry.”
Gemze seemed satisfied. “Yes, well I thought you should know.” The lady turned and made a hasty getaway. Gemze then turned to me and made a quizzical face.
“That woman looked at me like I was going to give her a compliment. What did I have to compliment her about?” She held her expression for a moment, shook it off, and then extended her hand for me to help her up.
“You want to come up for some tequila?” Gemze asked as we exited the cab that dropped us off in front of her apartment.
“Yes, yes I would,” I said, perhaps a bit trance-like. I’m not sure that I had ever had tequila before, but if there was ever a first time to try it, this was it.
What Gemze referred to as tequila was a fruity margarita mix, which may have had little to no alcohol in it.
“A friend gave me this, and it’s quite refreshing, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I like sweet drinks. This is light.”
“I find just a nip of it helps me sleep,” Gemze said, seating herself across from me as I sat cross-legged on the floor, shuffling through photos. I started asking her questions.
“Well, he liked women too though,” Gemze stated when I asked about one of her famous dancing partners whom I had heard was gay. “Or he seemed to,” she said, then took another sip. “Oh, who knows anyway. Whatever.”
“I heard from John that people in the theatre were known to be gay but it wasn’t discussed. No one made a big deal about it back then.”
“Yes, we knew, but it didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. There are all these people with prejudices…”
“It’s like that song in South Pacific,” I said. “You have to be carefully taught to hate all the people your relatives hate,” I continued, splicing together two lines from different parts of the song, knowing that I was preaching to the choir.
“Well, that’s one thing I can say that my children are not is prejudiced. No. They wouldn’t have dared to be prejudiced around me,” she said and laughed. Then she was quiet for a moment. “They are good people and had a good bringing up.”
“I guess people teach what they know. You taught your sons just like you were taught by your parents and their parents before them.”
“Well, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think my grandparents on either side were that accepting. I credit my parents for breaking the cycle. I think they made an effort to seek out others – different cultures, ethnicities. I remember when I was a little girl in Virginia and then Baltimore that my mother couldn’t stand the small-minded people. I don’t think either of my parents could, and so we moved here. You can’t survive here unless you embrace it all,” Gemze warned.
We chatted a bit more before Gemze said that she was going to go lie down but that I could stay and look at things as long as I liked. I took her up on that and made a pile of tapes and discs that I was interested in borrowing. I asked about the possibility of her lending me some of this material as she walked me to the door, all dressed in her nightgown for bed. I thought I would have to sell harder, but she agreed immediately.
“Oh, sure, no problem. Now we have something tomorrow afternoon too, yes?”
On Sunday, I arrived at Gemze’s around noon with my friend Michael, to have lunch with her and then see what last-minute tickets we could score for the matinee. Upon entering the apartment, I could see that Gemze was feeling under the weather, and she sounded congested when she greeted us.
“Maybe it was because of dinner last night,” I said, thinking back to the choking incident.
Michael, who’d had dinner with Gemze and me earlier in the week and remembered how vibrant Gemze appeared, asked her what happened. Gemze pointed at me and smiled as she sniffled.
“Oh, I made a joke while we were eating and Gemze choked on some food. My timing was bad.” Gemze laughed in agreement, but even her laugh sounded a little labored.
“Let’s go have some lunch,” I said, adding that we didn’t need to try to see an afternoon show if she wasn’t feeling up to it. She looked at me as if I had started speaking a different language.
“What? Really? But what…” I could tell she didn’t want to disappoint me.
“We can come back here and talk and watch more of your videos. I have a show tonight at seven, so it’s not like I’m not going to see a show today. We can have all of this time to take it easy and enjoy ourselves.” She could see that I was sincere and smiled back. I know that she would’ve gone on our date whether she felt up to it or not, but she could also see that I honestly meant what I said about just spending the afternoon with her.
“Okay then,” she said as she extended her hand to me.
After lunch, Gemze, Michael and I returned to her apartment. While we had full meals, Gemze opted for one hard-boiled egg.
“Michael, you need to write down your name and number,” Gemze said. “I like you, and I don’t like many people.” After spending a week with Gemze, I could think of no better compliment. I assured her that I would write his information down for her and said that, now that they knew each other, maybe he could take her to the theater sometime.
“Sure, good,” Gemze said as she excused herself to the bathroom. When she was out of earshot, Michael turned to me and whispered.
“You know when we were walking back and you stopped into that deli and Gemze and I were waiting outside?” Michael asked, referring to when I ran in to get some aloe vera juice for her to try after she had replied that she’d never had it. I figured she would like the taste after the drink she had shared with me the night before.
“Yeah, I’m sorry that took so long,” I apologized.
“No, it isn’t that,” Michael said. “Gemze and I were talking, and then it seemed like she was somewhere else. She looked up at me and said, ‘Weren’t we in a show together?’ I thought she was making a joke, so I laughed, but then she said, ‘I have a photo of us in Paint Your Wagon in my apartment. I’m sure of it.'”
This surprised me, as Gemze had never seemed to have any kind of lapse in all the time that I’d spent with her. Based on my experience with other seniors, I told Michael that sometimes, when they were tired, it could lead to some mild confusion or disorientation.
Michael continued: “I told her gently, ‘I’m not old enough to have been in Paint Your Wagon. I wasn’t even born until five years after it closed.'”
“Well, hell, at least for a moment she saw you as someone who she thought she was in a show with! I’d be thrilled if she mistook me for an usher!” We both laughed at that as Gemze returned. We said our goodbyes to Michael and then retreated to her living room, where there was a television and a VHS/DVD combo player.
“Now I want you to try some of this with me,” I said, holding up the large green plastic bottle.
“What was that again?”
“Aloe vera juice. I can only ever find big bottles of it like this here in the city. It’s delicious.” I didn’t want her to have to get up, so I asked if I could go get us some glasses. She waved me on. I returned and started to pour.
“Just a little, now,” Gemze warned. “I want to see if I like it.”
We toasted, and I waited for her response.
“Oh, this is nice,” she said, seemingly surprised.
“I thought you’d like it,” I gloated, pouring more for her as she held out her glass. “I’m so glad you were open to trying it. I can never get anyone else to taste it.”
“But it’s so refreshing,” Gemze said between sips. “Who wouldn’t like this?”
“People who don’t want to try something with which they aren’t familiar, I guess.”
“Well, I had never tried it, so why not?” Gemze reasoned. If only people half your age felt the same way, I thought to myself.
I was granted permission to play videos in Gemze’s collection. Gemze was silent as she humored me, allowing me to play segments of her performing in De Mille’s A Rose for Miss Emily ballet in 1971, teaching The Duncan Technique in a documentary from 1990, and performing all of the dances from Paint Your Wagon in a 1958 television special. At one point I said to her, “You performed this same dance from Paint Your Wagon on television in 1958, and then you did it again with a different partner in 1980. I would think that it wouldn’t be as good of a performance so many years later, but somehow it’s even better. How is that? Here, let me show them both to you to see what I mean.”
Gemze looked at the television and studied herself dancing nearly sixty and then forty years before. I thought to myself, Ah, this is the moment where she imparts some deep wisdom about dance and performance. I waited with baited breath. As the second performance concluded, Gemze turned to me to speak.
“I was a better actress by then,” she declared, adding nothing more. Next I played a video of the same dance performed by two other people in 2006 at an event honoring Agnes de Mille. The choreography was the same, but something was missing.
“Now,” I said, “they appear to be doing the same dance, but I don’t feel anything watching them like I do when I watch you do it.”
“Yes, I tell them when I teach this piece – all of Agnes’ work – that they need to act!” Gemze exclaimed, moving her hands. “These young dancers… They can physically do so much, are very impressive, but they don’t know how to act! They don’t teach acting in dancing anymore, and that’s sad. It’s when you feel something during a performance that makes the audience feel something. You can say the same lines, walk the same steps – all of that – but if you don’t feel anything, then it’s dead.”
After another hour or so of viewing and then discussing more material, it was time for me to leave. I had with me a large bag full of various tapes and discs, still awed that Gemze so easily trusted me with this amazing material.
“Now, I should be able to return all of this in a few weeks. I can mail it back to you here and send a hard drive with all the…”
“Yes, yes, that’s fine,” Gemze responded, clearly unconcerned about the details. I looked back at Gemze, told her how much I enjoyed our week and appreciated her putting up with me.
“We need to settle up. How much do I owe you?” she asked, and reached for her purse. “My part of the tickets and our dinners.” I had paid for everything, saying that it was easier that way and we’d settle up later, but I had no intention of taking a cent from her.
“You were my date, and now I have the bragging rights. I get to tell everyone I spent the week taking out an Agnes de Mille dancer.” I smiled. Gemze rolled her eyes at me and shook her head. She clearly thought I was silly. “Look,” I said, “it wasn’t much. You were a cheap date. The show tickets for both of us altogether came to less than one regular priced ticket to a show.”
“Fine.” That satisfied Gemze. It was true though. For me to accept anything would’ve felt blasphemous after how much I surely must have gotten on her nerves that week. At least I also got a few laughs out of her, though.
“Say, there is something you can do for me. That clock there,” Gemze said, pointing at the round clock on the wall above her television. I hadn’t noticed it, as it was partially obscured from where I was sitting by some plaques and small items on top of the entertainment center.
“I keep getting the time wrong, thinking it’s earlier than it is. You see how it is hanging there? See if you can fix that.”
The clock was angled to the left, so that even though it was around 4pm, a quick glance without attention paid to the numbers around the perimeter made it look like 3pm.
“Oh, I’m sure I can fix this,” I said, reaching behind all that was in front of the clock. I didn’t want to move anything as I knew how particular some people could be over the smallest things.
“Move things out of the way,” Gemze said, reading my mind. I obliged. The main plaque – a silver circle encased in glass attached to a black, engraved base – was the one I picked up and moved to the side. I was surprised by its weight, and I did a double take when I read that it was an honorary Tony Award given to Gemze in 2007. I gulped.
After I had pulled the clock it off the wall, I found that the web of string and metal on its back would not allow it to hang properly without some work. “Gems,” I said, shortening her name a bit. “This thing has… Maybe we can prop it up somewhere, because it just won’t…”
“Oh, never mind,” she waved away my effort as I kept trying to adjust the clock on the wall. “It’s a little better anyway.” The improvement was quite small to me. I returned her Tony Award to its proper place with care and reverence.
As we were saying our goodbyes and shared a hug, I looked at her and felt a little funny. She knew something was on my mind and waited.
“There is so much more I want to talk to you about,” I said, lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be able to return until the fall at the earliest. “But I have a feeling you’ll be around for quite a while.”
“Oh, I do too,” Gemze quickly agreed. She said it with confidence, as if she wasn’t quite sold on the concept of mortality. Maybe she’d consider it in the future, but I got the impression that the idea of death held no interest for her.
I called Gemze the next three nights. On Monday, it was to let her know that I had arrived home safely. The next two nights, I asked her questions about some of the footage I had started to review. The calls weren’t long or involved, and partly I was inventing reasons to call to check on her. I would never have said that, as I’m sure it would have annoyed her, so I made sure I always had a legitimate question to ask.
I didn’t reach her on Thursday, so I left a message. When her voicemail said it was full on Friday, I feared the worst. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, but who was I? I wasn’t a relative or close friend. Still, I begged Michael to visit her apartment to check on her. When he did, he learned from the doorman that Gemze had had a stroke. Fortunately, she’d had an afternoon appointment on Friday with friends from out of town. When she didn’t arrive and there was no answer to any calls, a neighbor was notified to check on her.
From May to November, Gemze was shuttled between the hospital and a rehab facility. She suffered from paralysis on one side and couldn’t speak at first. Through Michael, who met and exchanged information with some of Gemze’s friends at the hospital, I was able to keep tabs on her. When I had finished compiling all the material that I had borrowed, I supplemented it with as many ballet videos and documentaries as I could find. I loaded up a tablet with it all and sent it to Michael to take to her. He visited Gemze and reported back that they watched some videos together and, though her speech seemed to be limited to “yes” and “because,” she was clearly interested in what they were viewing. He said that she wasn’t able to operate the tablet herself, but we hoped maybe visitors could spend time viewing things with her.
I called every week or two, and the staff was good about taking a cordless phone to Gemze and propping it up so she could hear me and respond. Our conversations might have been awkward as her vocabulary was terribly limited and descended into incoherence when she ventured outside of her limitations, but we were able to communicate. I phrased questions so they could be answered with a yes or no. And Gemze had so many ways of saying yes, each with variations in inflection and tone that said so much. She was mentally completely present but trapped without her words. It was just like how she had described her stroke from several years before, only this time the damage was far more severe. It must’ve been agony, and yet she always sounded alert. I mailed her prints of photos I found on eBay of her dancing with James Mitchell, and I let her know that copies of all the wonderful material she allowed me to organize was sent to The Agnes de Mille Working Group as I knew that so much of it would be important for students of dance to study. That comment resulted in an incredibly emphatic “yes” on her end of the extension.
I was looking forward to visiting Gemze in New York with John and his eldest son Flip the week before Thanksgiving. We were going to be in town to attend a 70th anniversary production of Brigadoon. Five days before we left I received word that Gemze had passed way. I couldn’t quite believe it as, stroke or not, she seemed indestructible. Her obituary appeared a week later and was quite an elaborate item in The New York Times. In accordance with her wishes, there was no funeral service.
Plans were made for a tribute to her in the new year. As luck would have it, I was in the perfect position to edit together a memorial video of Gemze including excerpts from her work and using her voice as well as that of Agnes de Mille from interviews stored on the tapes I had borrowed. It was not my intention when I digitized the material that it would be used for such a purpose, and I’m sure Gemze didn’t give it a thought either at the time, but less than a year later that is what happened.
I knew Gemze’s reach was far and wide, but it was never more apparent than at her tribute in February. So many people spoke of her work and dedication, and then the audience responded with thunderous applause after the tribute video was shown as well as rare vintage footage of Gemze and James Mitchell dancing the “Another Autumn” ballet from Paint Your Wagon. I hope she would’ve approved as the video went through nine drafts while I questioned everything, wondering what Gemze might think. Don’t use that music over the Dance Jubilee footage as people might think it’s from Carousel, I imagined her saying.
I was so happy to see her included in the In Memorium segment on The 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast recently, though her credit as choreographer was only one of her titles: teacher, actor, mentor, and dancer were some of the others.
“I’m a dancer,” I remember Gemze saying more than once when I would ask some question about discipline or her stamina, as if that title summed it all up. Maybe it did.
Here is the video I created for Gemze’s tribute:
Gemze’s bio from The Agnes De Mille Dance Theatre tour program (1953-1954)
BELOW: Tribute announcement and program (February 23, 2018)