by Regina Cannon
Unaffected and unspoiled, you’ll like Eleanor Powell
“AND BELIEVE it or not,” Eleanor Powell rushed on breathlessly, “I play a part. I speak lines. In fact, I play two parts; you see, it’s dual personality business!”
Miss Powell, in case we’ve jumped you, is featured in “Broadway Melody of 1936.” Miss Powell is the twenty-year-old dancing sensation of New York night clubs and musical comedies. Miss Powell has been adjudged the world’s greatest feminine tap dancer by the Dancing Masters of America. And yet. that which principally interests Miss Powell is that she has lines to speak! ‘Twas ever thus, we suppose, since the time the clown wanted to play Hamlet and the millionaire’s son had designs on driving a taxi.
ELEANOR POWELL was brought to Hollywood to dance in Metro’s newest spectacle. She had no thought of speaking her piece. Tapping her way through a couple of hot sequences was what she was engaged to do. And then came the tryout for the, as she puts it, leading lady role. She won—as she’s had a way of doing since she was eleven years old.
At that time, the very youthful Eleanor was pushed into a Black Bottom contest. Yes, literally pushed into it. The other entrees were professionals, one of whom—the blondest and prettiest, of course—was scheduled to win. It was all sort of, as Bert Lahr would put it, “in da bag.” And then this child, who had been discovered turning expert cartwheels on the Atlantic City sands that very morning and engaged by Gus Edwards to fill in a spot on the huge cafe’s program, was asked if she’d like to get into the fun. The youngster didn’t realize she was expected to decline and she certainly didn’t know she was not supposed to win.
AND SO, the prize—two almost priceless tickets for a current prizefight—was hers. Afterwards, a waiter thoughtfully relieved her of them. If Eleanor had brought the bits of pasteboard home, they could have been disposed of for $200, which certainly would have helped the Powell exchecquer at that point.
After such a sensational and unpremeditated debut at the Ritz Grill, the very young lady decided that hers would be a theatrical career. Why, it was so easy. The music played and somehow you just danced. You simply couldn’t help it. All the drudgery of the Russian Ballet, bar work, and the floor turns suddenly emerged into a beautiful routine. Eleanor, herself, was surprised at what a cinch it was! Surely, this was the thing to do. It was far pleasanter than being a school teacher. Anyone could tell you that!
And so, every summer Eleanor and and her mother returned to Atlantic City, where there was always a good job waiting for a good dancer, which meant that Eleanor had a good job. In the winter she returned to her native Springfield, Mass., where she helped teach dancing school and attended high school. Then came the summer when Eleanor was sixteen and at this eventful date, it was decided that she try her luck in New York. Now, you know, no one has much luck in New York at first, and neither did this better-than-promising ballerina. The town is full of postponements and promises and people’s relatives who have an “in,” and managers who want tap dancers when you can only do ballet!
“It seemed,” said Eleanor, “that the only way out of a ballet bad situation was to learn tap dancing. And so, I took ten lessons from Jack Donahue—and that was all the tap training I’ve ever had.”
Imagine! And this gal is the title-holder for taps. She’s won the very stiff contest for five years in succession, a contest in which the judges sit under the stage and where perfect taps, shading and rhythm count. The contestants are never seen while in action, so beauty, personality and smart clothes are of no avail. You’ve gotta tap, sister, or you don’t win. Hard lines for relatives! (Incidentally, Bill Robinson has held the men’s tap dancing award for years.)
“And so,” continued Miss Powell, “with a few soft shoe routines to the good, I landed in ‘Follow Thru,’ a show that ran two years and gave me a chance to save up. Then came some other hits, and now the movies! I can’t believe it. Wait ’til my grandmother sees the picture. She’s just living for it!”
ELEANOR POWELL must be one of the minor mysteries to Hollywood. She is simple and unaffected and unspoiled. Nothing is too much trouble in order to perfect her work. Endless rehearsals, striving for new effects, bouncing out of bed at 2a.m. to try a new step that has suddenly, out of nowhere, occurred to her.
“I’m always afraid I’ll forget how,” she confesses frightenedly. Suppose sometime, I just can’t get going. I’m like someone who plays the piano by ear. He’s always afraid that the last thing he’s played is going to be—the last thing he’s played. Oh, gosh, don’t even let us talk about it!
Eleanor talks as fast and as entertainingly as one does who loves to recount experiences. If she makes a misstatement, her mother corrects her. She said she danced twenty weeks at the Casino de Paree on Broadway. Her mother reminded her it was seventeen. “Oh, yes,” she answered hurriedly, “you’re right, it was seventeen.” She never attempts to take credit for what she hasn’t accomplished. She’d rather be well liked than rich or famous. She did several years of vaudeville. Most troupers refer to it as “did”—like “doing” time, or something just as tedious. Eleanor made friends of everyone on the bill. Every stage doorman is remembered by her. She produced a little book which says: John Elmore, st. doorman Seattle—swell. Bill Everett, St. doorman Dubuque—swell. Jim Jason, Columbus, a little grouchy first half of week, but swell by Friday!
Yes, when people see Miss Powell, so tall and so expert in her profession, they forget she’s only a kid. Then they meet her. After that, you somehow feel like getting out the roller skates and going after hot dogs. Not silly; just young.
It isn’t easy to write the success story of a twenty-year-old who’s been one—a success, of course—for so long.
AND when I started, all I wanted was a job,” she’ll tell you. “My mother had done so much for me. She was a widow when I was only two and ever since then her ambition was to try to give me the things my father could have, had he lived. Well, I’ve always wanted to do my bit and, just lately, I think I have.”
Reports at Metro on Eleanor’s performance in “Broadway Melody of 1936,” are extravagant. Her dancing, of course, is the last word. Her acting, too, is said to be sincere and convincing. It would have to be that. Anything the Powell attempted would have to be that. She is under a longterm contract to the studio and will return to Hollywood after she appears in a Shubert musical show on Broadway.
“I like Hollywood,” reiterates Eleanor. “Of course, I’d like to meet people who weren’t so wealthy, too. You know, middle class, like I am. You know, without swimming pools. I get mixed up when I tell it, but—you know!”
And as she told all about it, Miss Powell packed to go to New York. Forty pairs of shoes—ballet and tap—all well worn, had to be crammed into a special trunk. Trick soles to make the taps come out clearer, and the pair that Jack Donahue fixed before he passed away several years ago—great-hearted Jack who helped the kids who wanted to dance and forgotto watch the clock to see when the lesson was up, Jack who starred in musical comedy, but never failed to notice the merit of someone in the chorus line. The pair that Mr. Donahue fixed for Eleanor has never been worn since he left the stage forever. To him, Eleanor gives credit for much of her success.