Have I ever told you about my tap dancing years? Yes? Well, too bad, ‘cause here they come again. I ran across some old promo pictures of me, taken in Butte, Montana, in 1950, for an upcoming screen test in… Hollywood! They are big pictures, in cardboard frames, too big to put anywhere in the house, assuming I’d want to do such a thing. So I’ve done the next best thing for them, taken pictures of the pictures and put them in a computer folder and called it “Dirty Dancing.” I thought that was the end of it, but the memories they kicked up began nagging at me, almost daring me to acknowledge them somehow. And away we go.
The first thing that hit me about these pics is how good they were. My braces had been removed for about a month so the pictures would look good. That by itself made me very happy. The Butte photographer was Earl Rooth, who probably took the graduation pics of the Butte High and Central graduating seniors for years. On the bottom of the pics was this – A Portrait By Earl Rooth, Butte Mont. 73 years old these pics are, and they still look good. I mean, you can tell by the backgrounds that they were from the end of the Art Deco Era, and for me that makes them all the more precious. Does the fact that I’m the one in those pics make me feel older than the hills? Of course, but that’s not the point of all this.
Very long story very short, my Hollywood screen test went well, I was picked to be the third youngest in the movie of The Seven Little Foys. The director died before the filming began, the new director had a shady history, and my folks pulled me out of the production. They sued, we counter-sued, and all was settled quietly and forgotten. All that is, except my memories of that fantastic two weeks in Hollywood when I was 7.
When I think about how most of Montana was back in the ’50’s, it’s somewhat amazing that tap-dancing was even tolerated, let alone enjoyed and appreciated. But it was. Back then there were at least two fine tap teachers in Butte. Mine was Irene Duckham. I have no earthly idea how Irene knew about, or figured out many of the steps that Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly were doing at the time, but she did, and she taught many of them to her students, or at least as much as they could handle. I tell you this next thing only because my mom, who was immensely proud of my tapping, would demand that I tell you… I was Irene’s little star!
A little history here. Butte was, back then, known far and wide as The Richest Hill On Earth. “Butte produced more mineral wealth than any other mining district in the world up to the middle of the 20th century.”
“Established as a mining camp in the 1860s in the northern Rocky Mountains straddling the Continental Divide, Butte became a hotbed for silver and gold mining in its early stages, and grew exponentially upon the advent of electricity in the late-nineteenth century due to the land’s large natural stores of copper.”
The ACM Club in uptown Butte
The ACM, or Anaconda Copper Mining Company, built a large, five-story structure in uptown Butte that became known as the ACM club. It’s relevant to this story because we had several tap dancing Revues in the theater at the ACM club. It was as big as any movie theater, with a pit in front of the stage that would seat 14 musicians. Our ‘revues’ were always in the Spring, and were fairly big events in the city at that time. Live orchestras played for our routines on those occasions. We even had several revues in the old Fox Theater. Yup, it was fun entertainment for SW Montanans, and the theaters were always full.
As kids, we took a lot of the public-performing side of tap dancing for granted, but those revues were a big deal, even for us. Small wonder that movie kids like Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple had such long and successful careers in the movies. After being in the bright lights several times, in front of hundreds or thousands of people that were all watching you, a young one quickly learned to be relaxed under most of those conditions, and perform their best, under what most adults would consider quite a bit of pressure. Ultimately, I found it more difficult to tap and sing for small audiences… PTA meetings or in my parents’ bar.
My worst experience in tapping happened at a PTA meeting in Virginia City one evening. I was about 10 years old at the time. There were five high school guys sitting in the back of the room. They were all “heroes” of mine, big kids in my eyes, who played football and basketball for V.C. High. Bud Romey, Dick Bigelow, Danny Kelly, Kenny Johnson and Kenny Paul. At the end of my routine, the few folks in the audience clapped but the whole back row of high school guys booed. I was crushed. I quit tap for awhile after that. Might be interesting to hear a psychiatrist’s take on how that might have affected me. I got over it, of course, but never forgot it.
Betty Ann Shaffer, Seattle Tapper
Betty Ann was a tapper, too. She danced primarily with her sister Karen, or did some tapping in sync with 4 or 5 other girls. She was a cutie, and I think we would have made a good team. Wait, we do make a good team, just not in tap-dancing.
Betty is in front
Betty is on the far right
Betty and her sister Karen
She tapped for 10 years, taking tap and ballet, and was a good little dancer. She says she did it mostly to please her mother and didn’t necessarily enjoy it for itself. I, on the other hand, loved it, and the spotlight, until I was around 10. At least Betty looked like she enjoyed it, right?
There were lots of pros to being a child tap dancer, and a few potential cons. B says there were benefits to it, the discipline and the exercise required being two. I sometimes wonder if my tapping years, and the somewhat uncommon attention that I got as a good tapper, might have been detrimental to my little ego. I remember thinking that I was pretty hot stuff from time to time. Butte’s best little tapper at the time, Pam McNulty, was often paired with me for a number or two. Thinking back on it, all that attention probably didn’t do any lasting damage. Case in point, at my Hollywood screen test the director asked me several questions after my number. One was, “Would you like to become a big Hollywood star?” To which I answered, “No. I just want to go back to Montana and ride my bike!”
Were there any lasting benefits for all those years of tapping? Eh, maybe, but certainly not commensurate with the time and energy we put into the activity back then. My dad used to tell his pals that my years of tapping had given me quicker feet and better balance, which would serve me well in my high school sports. Barely noticeable, as it turned out. And I don’t remember a single step from all the routines I memorized. Well, maybe one, the Buffalo. Oh, I know… totally useless. Useless, except for the sweet memories of those nights under the bright lights, with the music and the large, appreciative audiences. Those memories now survive as a small piece of surrealism in an otherwise fairly normal lifetime. I could share more, of course, but I think it’s time to shuffle off.