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Still Hoofing It After All These Years

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The curtain opens and out prance the precision-perfect Rockettes. Red and silver sequins glitter on their midriff-baring costumes. Red feathers sprout from their sparkly red top hats.

From her orchestra seat, “Flip” (don’t call me Florence) Manne, 73, watches each eye-high kick. Fifty years ago, she was doing those kicks.

We’re at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for “The Great Radio City Music Hall Spectacular,” a traveling celebration of the fabled troupe’s 60th anniversary.

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The Rockettes strut to “If They Could See Me Now.” How apt. Manne is recalling that, in her day, “We did a little Quaker number once and there was a little bump in the middle. They got all kinds of phone calls.”

Before the show, chatting backstage with Rockette Lori Mello, Manne had asked if the girls still have the same Radio City Music Hall dressing rooms. Yes, Mello assured her, and newly painted--”They look like Maalox.”

Mello’s black-and-silver costume relies on the magic of Velcro. “I wonder how you ladies ever did it, with snaps and zippers,” she told Manne, who replied: “Buttons!”

There have been other changes. In the ‘40s, when the Music Hall was SRO, the 36 Rockettes were part of a permanent family that included an in-house orchestra. A live show with every movie.

Today’s Rockettes are part-timers, widely scattered and pursuing outside careers. Mello lives in the San Fernando Valley. At Christmas and Easter, they perform as one at the Music Hall.

In 1939, Flip Butterfield, a small-town New Englander just out of high school, hit Manhattan with stars in her eyes and a month’s worth of prepaid dance lessons. When money ran out, she took a club job wherever she found it--Boston, Jacksonville, Denver, Faye’s Theater in Philadelphia.

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There, dancers shared the bill with a trio of strippers. When the censors showed up, “that meant the act was cut and we’d have to throw our costumes on and go running down.”

In 1941, New York’s Roxy beckoned her at $25 a week. Dancers were part of a variety act that included Larry Adler on harmonica and the Step Brothers. When tenor Dennis Day was the guest for a Hawaiian show, Flip was tapped to place a lei around his neck.

She hula-ed onstage, had her big moment and danced back into line, where the girl next to her whispered, “You’ve got your bedroom slippers on.”

Off-duty, Flip would head for a local gym, where an aging ex-boxer stretched her legs “so that my kicks would be good enough” for the Music Hall.

But her Roxy supervisor was no fool. “She always made sure we were rehearsing the day they had the auditions for the Music Hall.”

Taking a week off, she tried out--and made it. The big time--$65 a week. A Rockette’s day started with wake-up rehearsals and ended about 11 p.m., after the fourth show. “We always had a couple of girls who would pass out opening day after the routine, but you’d get used to it.”

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Each new movie meant a new show. The Rockettes prayed for long-run films like “Random Harvest” and “Mrs. Miniver.”

To the public, they epitomized glamour, these long-legged look-alikes in their fabulous costumes. On that block-wide stage, they strutted and kicked as wooden soldiers, penguins, even Christmas trees. Manne says: “You’d have to tell your parents where you were. They couldn’t find you otherwise.”

When their Rockette days ended, few became stars. Most just wed the boy next door or opened a dance studio.

Flip, “a women’s libber since I was born,” wanted a career, not a husband. She never felt exploited, but admits: “I think I might now, with some of the things they put on them.”

Her career plans derailed when she met a young drummer named Sheldon Manne at a party. He’d brought a date, but “he took the other girl home and came back.”

Ten months later, they married. She remained a Rockette until war’s end, when he got out of the service. Then she went with her husband as he played on the road-- across the United States with Stan Kenton, to Cuba with Woody Herman. When Shelly played New York, Flip would fill in at the Music Hall.

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She treasures her memories of one-night band gigs, cheap hotels, America from a bus window. Of June Christy, Zoot Sims, Shorty Rogers.

Road-weary, the Mannes moved to Los Angeles in 1951. He was to become a world-famous jazz drummer and host at a Hollywood celebrity hangout, Shelly’s Manne Hole.

Widowed in 1984, Flip lives in the adobe house in Sunland where, on two-plus acres, the Mannes trained American Saddlebreds.

You might spot her at a San Fernando Valley dance studio, practicing tap. She’s packed on a few pounds since her Rockette days. She’s up from 115 to 120.

These Owls Are Not Spotted

Under a nascent moon, our band of owl-watchers, flashlights and binoculars in hand, treks down the road to Tara.

Tara? Well, OK, we’re in Calabasas. But this tree-lined road on the campus of Soka University of America is the one Scarlett trod in “Gone With the Wind.”

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It’s not Yankees on our minds. It’s those elusive owls. “As the sun sets, they start flying around,” says Robert Flippin, a volunteer docent for these now-and-again university-hosted outings.

Nighttime is dinner time for owls, which nest in the tall eucalyptuses and oaks, then swoop down on the verdant fields of this mountain retreat to grab rodents and other prey.

Before setting out, we’re shown an owl film, from which we learn that there are 130 species worldwide, most of them monogamous, and that an owl’s right ear is designed to pick up sounds from below; its left, those from above.

Five minutes in the field, we have our first sighting, an owl of debatable parentage in flight. Soon, a barn owl swoops high overhead, dropping a feather. But this is not Disneyland and no glow-in-the-dark eyes meet ours.

Reva Kern of Oak Park was hoping for something a bit more “up close and personal” with an owl. Still, like most, she and husband Harvey are glad they’ve come. It sounded “sort of kind of romantic,” he says, “and the price (free) was right.”

Someone has spotted a coyote; oops, it’s a German Shepherd.

But a truly exciting event is unfolding. The curious gather, flashlight beams playing on the ground. A great-horned owl, perhaps? No--a contact lens, dropped by owl-watcher Mary Alderman, a vet-to-be from Van Nuys. Miraculously, it is found.

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We number about 80, in four groups. Docent Steve Cook’s group listens, rapt, to his tape of owl hoots. If the owls are listening, they’re not answering.

Long minutes pass. The owls are out there, Flippin insists, even if not “as plentiful as sea gulls at the beach.” But owl-watching is an inexact science.

Perhaps, he muses, he should have brought bait. Once, he went so far as to fashion an artificial mouse, with wiener body, raisin eyes and spaghetti tail. Didn’t fool those wise old birds.

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