When members of the Professional Dancers Society gathered at the Hollywood-Roosevelt Hotel last month to present the third annual Gypsy Award to Donald O’Connor, they had much more on their minds than the afternoon’s festivities. A major topic of conversation was the funding of the Gypsy Manor, a proposed home for retired and disabled dancers.
The society, claiming about 700 professional dancers as members, was founded 10 years ago to provide career counseling to dancers in transition and scholarships to young dancers. Since it began, the society’s primary goal, according to a founder, Peggy Gordon, was and is to build the Gypsy Manor.
Noting that most dancers must cross over from film to stage, television and nightclub jobs in order to make a living, Gordon says, “Dancers usually belong to five or six unions and don’t qualify for full benefits in any of them. And since the average dancer’s career life span is 11 years, unless they become actors, extras, stand-ins or technicians, they don’t qualify for the 20 years of film work required for acceptance to the Motion Picture Country Home. That’s why we need our own retirement home.”
But after 10 years, the society is less than $30,000 toward its goal. Ten years ago that might have launched a retirement home, but that won’t buy much real estate today.
On the face of it, 10 years may seem like a long time to work toward raising such a modest sum. After all, millions of dollars are raised annually to fund a myriad of arts-related causes. But therein lies a problem for the society and for other small grass-roots arts organizations. Competition for those millions is overwhelming and access has a great deal to do with visibility and clout.
“The sad truth of this town when it comes to charities,” says Marcia Smith, western representative of the Actor’s Fund, “is that even when you have a very honorable cause, unless you have celebrities to bring out the press and give you coverage, you can’t make it go. And PDS has not been able to do that yet. Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game here and how important or good your cause is, it’s secondary to who you have promoting it for you.”
According to Jack Shakeley, president of California Community Foundation, a public grant-making organization that once awarded a small grant to the Professional Dancers Society: “It’s a matter of priorities. PDS is trying to raise money within the entertainment industry, which is riddled with AIDS. The organization is such a relatively tiny constituency, the world at large isn’t terribly sympathetic, and this is a legitimate problem area.”
Another difficulty, Gordon says, is that the society has been operating with a small core of volunteers since its inception: “We only have about 25 people who’ve given us their time over the years. We all have jobs and families and we can’t devote 24 hours a day to our goal. After a while we get burned out.
“You know, dancers are not opportunistic by nature or we would have chosen different paths of endeavor,” she says. “That’s the weakness of this organization and that’s why we really need a powerhouse support group, people who have the contacts to help us do some major fund raising. We have the will and talent to put on great shows but we don’t have the ticket-selling capability. We’ve tried many kinds of fund-raisers but because we can’t attract the big names and big donors, even though we’ve been able to keep our group going on a bread-and-butter level, we haven’t been able to raise a substantial amount of money.”
The society has pursued various other avenues to achieve its goal, originally starting with governmental agencies. As Gordon remembers, “We had a HUD adviser and we worked for many years with the Community Redevelopment Agency and (former) L.A. City Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson. We tried to find property in her district that would meet HUD requirements and we attended at least 50 meetings with attorneys, accountants and real estate advisers. The problem was that we were also competing with numerous other organizations and developers of retirement homes who knew all the ins and outs and had lobbyists working for them. We took it a long way, but the bottom line was that we could not come up with enough money to acquire the land.”
Former Stevenson chief deputy Sylvia Yuster recalls: “We were able to get them $200,000 in HUD seed money which we kept for them for two years while they tried to find property to build on. But it’s difficult and complicated to find a site that meets HUD requirements. You need to have architects and planners, and since they were a new group, it was hard for them to get on the road. I finally had to give the money to another group, and it broke my heart to let it go. I’d still like to help them.”
After that, Gordon says: “We went for the old Studio Club in Hollywood, which would have been ideal for us. We tried joint venturing with private parties. I attended meetings with the mayor and HUD representatives and eventually I realized it just wasn’t going anywhere. Later I approached the Motion Picture Country Home, thinking maybe we could raise some money for a wing for dancers, but at that time they said it was against their charter. I even went up and down the streets ringing doorbells, but by then property values were so high I couldn’t manage it. A lot of people donated time and effort but we all finally burned out.”
Recently, however, a change in strategy has brought new hope to the group. Three years ago, says Gordon, the society chose to focus its energy on tributes, rather than fund raisers. “We hoped that by doing tributes to respected industry dancers and inviting celebrities to attend, we’d attract media attention and as a result make more people aware of us.”
This year’s luncheon honoring O’Connor drew about 350 people and did indeed attract some prominent Hollywood personalities including Lucille Ball, Mitzi Gaynor, Ann Miller and Patrick Swayze. Bonnie Franklyn and former O’Connor dancing partner Peggy Ryan co-emceed the event and television crews were much in evidence.
Dorene Wolfe, the current Professional Dancers Society president, says: “The tributes did well, although they were not fund raisers and were not intended to be, and they brought us a second wind. New dancers are starting to want to get involved with us and it’s time to move on with a new board and new blood. I feel we’re ready for a much larger event on a larger scale. Some of our members also belong to SHARE (Share Happily and Reap Endlessly) and they’ve offered to advise us about how to raise major funds, so we’re feeling encouraged at this point.”
Another recent development, Gordon says, is that the society is talking with representatives of the Actors’ Fund and the Society of Singers about exploring the prospects of pooling resources for joint projects.
In the meantime, there are a lot of dancers who are eagerly awaiting these positive developments. Casse Yaeger, 73, who began his 32-year career on Broadway in 1939 and danced in such movies as “Tea for Two” and “My Fair Lady,” says: “I’ve paid dues to five unions and I don’t qualify for pensions in any except for a partial pension in one. Thank God I live in a HUD project or I would not be able to exist.
“I started dancing at 3 and all I ever dreamed of was dancing in musicals. I worked hard for 32 years doing what I wanted to do and I have no regrets, but I’m glad it’s over. Dancers are always the most underpaid and least-respected of anyone in the business, and I wouldn’t want any part of it today.”
Deloris Blacker, a 63-year-old former choreographer and teacher, agrees that “dancers got the short end of it even though we probably worked harder than anyone else.” A Beverly Hills HUD project resident, Blacker, who has been wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis for 28 years, says, “My whole life in dance was so happy I thought I’d die when I lost it, but you live.
“It would mean so much to me to be in a place like Gypsy Manor with my own people. There could be master classes and shows and I could pass along the knowledge I’ve acquired the hard way about existing as a disabled person and helping yourself when the dancing is over.”
Although he lives comfortably in a Hollywood HUD project, former Busby Berkeley dancer, veteran of 42 musical movies and specialty material writer Tony Saylor, 84, says he would like to be around friends from his movie days. “The biggest worry in life when you get older,” he says, “is how to pay if you’re not subsidized in some way. I know loads of people who live on as little as possible and who need the Manor. They’re all getting to the age where it will be a joy to them to be among their pals in their own place.”
Board member Lysa Baugher MacVeagh, who has worked as a dancer since she was 2, lives in a pleasant Van Nuys home and has worked two part-time non-dancing jobs to maintain it since she was widowed four years ago. After years of television and movie dancing she says: “Occasionally I still get calls to work but it’s not worth it to me to risk my permanent work by taking time off for dancing jobs.
“I don’t have any pension or hospitalization and I still owe a lot on my house. I’ve been able to hang on to it so far, but the time may come when I can’t or don’t want to, so I might need the Gypsy Manor. There are a lot of dancers from the ‘30s and ‘40s who are in dire straits and really need it now. I hope it will happen in time for them.”