Ann of a Thousand Taps

Polly-Annie Miller

“I see a Star of Destiny, here. You will see her name, up in lights…” (gypsy fortune teller)  

Ann Miller’s autobio, Miller’s High Life, is a weird and wonderful mix of gypsy fortune-telling, zodiac mumbo-jumbo, reincarnation and delightful, deliberate optimism. Yes, sure, everyone SAYS they’re an Egyptian princess in a former life, but Ann Miller (nee Johnnie Lucille Collier, of Texas) figures she can prove it because she instinctively knew how to do an authentic “nautch” (Egyptian belly) dance when she was but 7 years old. Imagine her Baptist mother’s delight when little Annie started shaking those skinny hips and flinging them every which way? But, that’s our high-spirited, happy-hearted Annie. Her story is part cautionary tale and part American anthem to hard work. It all started with a gypsy prediction, a chatty and surprisingly upbeat Ouija board, and an ambitious mother.

Going up?

Ann credits her sunny outlook and her stardom to forces beyond our ken. She declares a Ouija board told her: “Annie, always push the UP button in your elevator of life, never the Down button.”

She learned her lesson, declaring: “We all have our own wars within our souls, and special ways of killing our own mental dragons. Some drink, some take dope, some become nymphos, some eat themselves to death. Annie Miller is no better or worse than most people. When she gets frightened or scared or a case of the depressions, she just pushes her UP button, starts humming a song and goes out and buys some new clothes.” (Isn’t that so refreshing? Retail therapy, right out there on the table.)

Legs crossed and feet on the ground

“It’s not easy to keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground in this lotus land of milk and honey, which is ruled by the box office jingle.”

Annie started making movies at 13 in the early 30s; then called Lucille Collier. Ann declares she lived what she calls a Hollywood Cinderella story—and, she states proudly, she did it her way. Annie’s proud she got to stardom on her feet, not her back. And that was largely due to the sound morals mother Clara infused her with–and Clara’s relentlessly keeping showbiz wolves at bay while her VERY long-legged daughter rose to semi-stardom. Ann and her mother moved to California from Texas after a divorce (and some pointed advice from a gypsy fortune teller).

There, Clara enrolled her in ballet class to straighten her legs after a diagnosis of rickets (and to prepare for her daughter’s inevitable film career, per gypsy). Annie hated ballet, but endlessly rehearsed, determined to be able to support her deaf mother.

Fate time-stepped in when Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was backstage at a shared performance and taught a tap dance routine to lanky little Lucille. Ann recalls: “It was as though that little girl Lucille who loathed ballet suddenly and magically sprouted wings on her feet. And also stardust in her eyes. Now, at last, I didn’t mind rehearsing, because the wings on my feet seemed to lift me up and fly me away. It is still like that…a wonderful exhilarating kind of magic…that simply flies me out of the here-and-now of reality…” And that was the end of ballet—sort of.  Annie had wings.

Annie loves Lucy

In 1936, barely teenaged Annie was tapping up a storm in a San Francisco nightclub act when she was spotted by none other than Lucille Ball. Lucy immediately saw this coltish youngster could give mega-star tap-dancer Eleanor Powell a “run for her money.” A few strategic lies and a faked birth certificate later and Annie had a specialty number in RKO’s musical review film New Faces of 1937. (Ann at 13 was quite a bit newer than most folks assumed!)

Her twinkletoes danced her to her film, Stage Door, where she convinced major RKO star Ginger Rogers to dance with her—Annie was much taller (5’ 7”) and Ginger wasn’t sure the match-up worked. (It did!)

See for yourself just what a fun team they make—babyfaced Annie’s natural delivery in a barely altered Texas accent makes her dialogue darling. Get an eyeful and earful here from You Tube. The two Texans became and remained great pals.

A few forgettable pictures later and along came Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You—where Annie blessed her days in that dratted ballet class. She was critically acclaimed for her ditzy primadonna daughter role—it looked like she was poised for stardom (on legs that ended in bloody feet. Ann never made it to toe-shoe status in her hated ballet class, so she didn’t know how to protectively wrap her toes for toe-dancing and permanently damaged her feet).

For all you leg-lovers—a fascinating aside

“People are starved for glamour, because there is so much dullness in their everyday lives. They look to stars to provide it, off screen as well as on…”

Speaking of her fleet feet and gorgeous gams, because Ann’s legs were so long, it cost the studios a fortune to keep her in opera-length hose. Dancers need silk stockings (don’t we all?) and hers had to be custom-made (at $12-15 a pop from Willy’s of Hollywood. I know; don’t you want to shop there??) and she had to be sewn into them, the stockings stitched onto her underwear before each dance number. Nature will have its revenge; routinely, all hell broke loose when one of those stockings broke loose from its moorings during Annie’s vigorous dancing. Wardrobe ladies would then surround her, stitching like mad, while Ann endured pin pokes and angry glances from the director. From this recurrent and routine delay came a brainwave. Once, when young Ann was being measured by Mr. Willy de Mond, she asked the Hollywood hosiery king, “Why don’t you make stockings and underpants all in one so I don’t have to be sewn into them?” And that’s why women everywhere should bless (or maybe curse) Ann Miller’s name. Mr. Willy invented pantyhose.

Bye-bye Hollywood; hello Broadway

“…though the Hollywood I grew up in had its vices and its dens of iniquity, it also had a class, a quality, an elegance and sheen that are nonexistent today. I think the thing I miss most about Hollywood is the glamour of those bygone days.”

Meanwhile, Ann’s talent agency, William Morris, realized little Annie Miller really WAS giving another one of their other clients, Eleanor Powell, a run for her money. So, Ann was “encouraged” by the Powers That Be leave Hollywood to appear in a rundown Broadway show, George White’s Scandals. Insiders were sure that was the end of her, the creaky show was listing badly to port and not expected to stay afloat much longer. Surprise! Ann’s blazing, sensual tap number “The Mexiconga” (which name pretty much reveals its essence) revitalized the show and made her the toast of Broadway.

Closely chaperoned dates with suave Manhattanites at the Stork Club and “21” ensued, thunderous press approval followed. Not too surprisingly, RKO sent now super-star Annie a “gee, where have you been?” note to summon her back to LA. Annie’s next gig was with Lucy (and Desi) in Too Many Girls; she was a big hit.

She then hopped over toColumbia to headline in a string of B pictures—in fact, Annie became known as the Queen of the Bees.

Days were spent in rehearsal sweat shirts and tennis shoes; nights at the Mocambo or Ciro’s–doing, what else, dancing—with an assortment of Hollywood playboys and power-mongers. Annie didn’t mind her B-picture star status. She made millions for Columbia, her paycheck was robust, and besides, her idol Louis B. Mayer was in love with her.

Broken romances, dreams, and backs

“From here on, you’ll be seeing her in MGM’s important musicals, dressed by the studio glamour makers, and dancing in beautiful settings. Then we’ll see a ‘new’ Ann Miller, or I miss my guess.” (Louella Parsons, July 26, 1947) 

Yes, mother-complex/virgin-loving L.B. Mayer made calf-eyes at Ann while bedding sluttier stars, but it was all for naught. The nearly 40-year difference put the kibosh on the romance, even though a friend of hers counseled her: “It’s better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.” Truer words have ne’er been spoken. To wiggle out of her uncomfortable situation with L.B., Ann wed tall, handsome, blonde Hollywood boy Reese Milner after a 3-month courtship, even after being warned by Harry Cohen,Columbia studio head.

Milner turned out to be every woman’s nightmare: an alcoholic and a beater. Ann made excuses when she showed up for filming with bruises or black eyes, but when Milner knocked his nine-months-pregnant wife down a long flight of stairs (resulting in premature labor, the ultimate death of the newborn, and a nearly broken back for Ann), even romantic, forgiving Ann had to admit this man was a complete rotter.

Doctors told her she would never dance again. Them’s fightin’ words to a true Texan. When Ann heard of a role in Fred Astaire’s next picture, Easter Parade, she auditioned for and won the part. Taped and braced from bustline to bellybutton, she gave it her customary all, then returned to excruciating traction each night after filming.

Watch one of her dances from Easter Parade, and tell me you can tell!

Ann’s filmic “comeback” after her doomed marriage rolled out like a Golden Age musical script. In the early 1950s, her blistering tap-dancing (clocked at over 500 taps per minute! How is that even POSSIBLE?), striking coloring, and mega-watt smile were put to good use in Small Town Girl, On The Town, and Kiss Me Kate. She was at the top of her game.

Check out her crowd-crazing solo in On The Town here. I say crowd-crazing because I saw a full house at the Rochester, NY, George Eastman House’s Dryden Theater explode into wild applause after Ann’s Prehistoric Man number—the only time during that screening! And, if your heart doesn’t pick up speed during her stunning Too Darn Hot number from Kiss Me Kate, see a doctor.

Good ol’ reliable Annie

“In those days the studios actually created their own stars, designed, fashioned, and molded each one like a piece of valuable jewelry to glitter and shine not only on the screen but as a personal representative of the movie studio.” 

Back in the day, studios sent the stars on junkets to promote the films and Annie was at the top of the list of stars they sent. Why? Well, she nails it: “Let face it, some of the biggest screen stars were nothing but problem ladies off the screen. I got along with people. I didn’t booze it up, sleep around, take pills or smoke pot. I took my career seriously. I was always reliable. If they wanted me at 6 o’clock in the morning for publicity shots, I was there, Charlie.” (love the Charlie!)

Annie loved the fun and glamour of these trips, but she had another reason for being first in line. On stage and screen since childhood, Annie had been deprived of a basic education and now, she was hungry to learn all she could about the world around her. She’d rehearse “twice as long and work twice as hard so we could shoot my part twice as fast”…that way, she’d be available for traveling on the junkets. While the junket’s other star ladies (as she charmingly calls them) were sleeping it off or getting the beauty salon treatment, Annie was taking sightseeing tours or walking around, meeting the public, making friends with her ready smile and gracious Texas warmth. Not for her the snarling sneer, the swatted camera, the shade-disguised skulk, no. Ann Miller loved her stardom and embraced her celebrity.

Second act

“I’ll never stop dancing. I’m never lonely or alone when I’m dancing. There’s always a dreamlike feeling that someone else is up there with me dancing. Looking back, now, my whole life takes on a dreamlike quality. How can you tell where reality begins and the dream ends?”

A few more tragic romances and decades later, it’s 1969. Annie hates what passes for movies in this bare-it-all decade, but wants to stay in show biz. Much to everyone’s surprise, she’s goes back to Broadway and is a huge hit taking over Angela Lansbury’s part in Mame.

When an admiring fan asked how the aging actress still appeared to be a “walking eight by ten glossy,” Ann reported: “I think if you’re a star, you should act like one and look like one. I would never go out in public looking like…an unmade bed. When I go out, even if it’s only to the local market, I put on my make-up, fix my hair, and wear a pretty dress or pants outfit.”

But it’s not only clothes, it’s also your outlook on life that keeps you young. I know girls in their middle thirties who resemble doddering grandmothers because they think old. I don’t go to parties to booze it up or look for men, I go because I like to get all dressed up in my frills and velvets and beaded gowns. I go because I like to see other people dressed up and looking happy and smelling so good.”  “Trying to be a star and look like a star is a full-time job. These are the mental sandbags one uses to hold back the surging tides of time, to preserve the great monument one has built to the Image that Hollywood demands. But only material things are laid at the feet of the Altar of Fame that the great God of Hollywood demands of you.” In other words, Annie kept her soul her own.There are oodles more fascinating (and hair-raising) stories in Ann’s funny and frank autobiography. She cheerfully admits she comes across as a ding-a-ling, but doesn’t care. She’s happy in her beliefs that her career was written on the stars and that, at the writing of her book, wasn’t over yet. (It wasn’t; she was a huge hit in a 1970′s funny Campbell’s Soup commercial and wowed ‘em in Sugar Babies, a 1979 Broadway vaudeville review with Mickey Rooney and Debbie Reynolds.) 

I love her upbeat outlook—it would have been easy for her to dish the dirt, get all cynical and hateful, and bitterly bitch. But, she doesn’t; she just pushes the UP button. And isn’t that a great lesson for everyone, especially those of us who are over thirty? Doddering grann-attitude, begone!

Going for the gold

“I, for one, am grateful for what it’s given me and I would like to help revive and perpetuate that wonderful feeling that Hollywood still is or can be a land of dreams come true. I survived with a sense of values and ideals. If you come out of it with ideals, you have a handful of gold.”

Want to watch the well-groomed and buoyant Ann Miller reminisce in a 1996 interview? Click here:

All quotes from Miller’s High Life by Ann Miller with Norma Lee Browning, 1972. Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.