Magazine article Dance Magazine

The Moving Image: Dance and Television

Magazine article Dance Magazine

The Moving Image: Dance and Television

Article excerpt

In its March 1953 issue, Dance Magazine began decades of reporting I on network television with this statement, "Television dance is not the art it could be. In fact, today it is not as interesting or imaginative as it was in the day of the seven-inch screen and the miniscule one-camera television studio with its extravagantly experimental choreographers, unpaid dancers, and accommodating cameramen." Such pessimism was based on awareness of the past. In 1944, when there were only 5,000 television sets in New York City homes, the short-lived Dumont network telecast Sketch Book, a program that included original ballets on which were lavished electronic know-how, montage, superimposition, and cinematic ingenuity. In CBS hired Pauline Koner and Kitty Doner to supply fifteen minutes of original choreography for its fledgling network and minuscule audience. There were other pioneering choreographers and dancers who had donated their time and talent for short-lived programs, but most are now forgotten, unrecorded in the history of television.

Television had been hailed as the savior of dance -- it would take the art to unbounded spheres, to regions oblivious of time and space. By 1952, however, the three major networks were devoting large-scale financing almost exclusively to meeting the taste of the masses. (The Ford Foundation-backed Omnibus on CBS-TV was a notable exception.) The big bucks went to vocalists and comedians who ushered television into what is referred to as television's "golden age." It was a time of variety show -- your Show of Shows, Your Hit Parade, Toast of the Town, Hollywood Palace. Soon programs were identified by their stars -- The Kate Smith Show, The Perry Como Show, The Dinah Shore Show. And some frankly admitted their commercial connection -- The Voice of Firestone, The Bell Telephone Hour The Colgate Comedy Hour.

These variety programs had voracious appetites for specialty numbers -- singers, musicians, comedians, acrobats, and dancers were in demand. It was not the art of dance that was sought, but the need for dance acts and dance numbers -- solos, duets, and group -- did provide a living for scores of dancers.

All this activity has had little influence on the direction dance has taken and has barely been noted by historians. Books about early television tell of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows, and of the vocalists who warbled the hit songs week after week on Your Hit Parade. Little mention is made of choreographers James Starbuck, of Your Show of Shows, or of Tony Charmoli, of Your Hit Parade, yet these prolific artists created several dances every week for many years. Charmoli's ingenuity was enormous -- it had to be, because week after week he had to make a new dance for the same hit song. Dance Magazine often reported on Your Hit Parade dances and dancers in its pages, particularly lovely Virginia Conwell. Charmoli often made use of such electronic possibilities, as the ability to multiply images, once he turned three cancan dancers into a swarm of ruffled, high-kicking flirts.

Dance groups that appeared regularly on shows included the Toastettes (on Sullivan's Toast of the Town), the Kateds (The Kate Smith Show), and the June Taylor Dancers (The Jackie Gleason Show). The Toastettes appeared weekly in the same routine at the introduction and the sign-off. The June Taylor Dancers are remembered as "living linoleum," geometric patterns made as they did their routines lying on the floor for overhead shots. These groups made careers possible for choreographers, as well as providing jobs for many dancers, Herbert Ross, for example, was an imaginative choreographer who wasn't given much leeway with the dance group of the All-Star Comedy Show, but he would adapt what he learned for his later films.

And then there were the numerous guest spots where experienced dancers performed numbers from their own repertories or dances created for the occasion. …

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