Dance Host With the Most
The sight of Donald O’Connor hoofing it up in the new Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon comedy, “Out to Sea,” is a joy to behold for fans of the legendary song-and-dance man.
O’Connor, who plays a dance host on a luxury cruise ship, has been entertaining audiences for seven decades. Beginning as a toddler in vaudeville, he developed into one of the most fun, versatile and athletic singer-dancers on the silver screen. In the 1950s, he starred in such musicals as “Call Me Madam,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “I Love Melvin.”
His greatest accomplishment, though, was his phenomenal acrobatic “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” widely considered the best musical ever made.
Equally adept at comedy, O’Connor played Peter Sterling, a young man with a talking mule as a best friend, in the “Francis” movie series of the 1950s. He also won an Emmy Award in 1953 for hosting the NBC variety series, “The Colgate Comedy Hour.”
Now a lively 71, O’Connor lives in Sedona, Ariz. Last May, he was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center for his contributions to dance on film. O’Connor recently chatted about his new movie, his life, career and his future plans.
Question: Was your role in “Out to Sea” fashioned for your talents once you came on board the project?
Answer: Yeah. They didn’t have much for me in the movie. I didn’t want to do it at the beginning. Then the gal who directed it [Martha Coolidge] said that they would build up the part. I was there for the entire picture because being a dance host, I was in all the scenes while they were dancing. So I danced a lot in that movie. I tell you, I got to hold a lot of nice ladies--all sizes.
Q: Gloria De Haven also appears with you in “Out to Sea.” You both starred together in 1949 in “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”
A: She’s one of my oldest friends. I think I was Gloria De Haven’s first boyfriend. We were about 9 or 10. I would take her to a movie and we would go down to the front and her mother would sit in the back. We were always chaperoned!
We were performing in Atlantic City when [“Out to Sea”] came about.
Q: Do you appear in concert a lot these days?
A: Quite a bit. I’m out on the road about 32 weeks a year. It keeps me really busy. I sing, dance, do comedy.
Q: So retirement is a dirty word to you?
A: Well, it really is. I was born in the business. I come from vaudeville and so I’ve always been in it.
Q: I couldn’t believe it when I learned you really had no formal dance training.
A: I learned two dance routines when I was 13 months old, but I didn’t know any of the basic steps. So when I went into movies when I was 13, I was fumbling all over the place because I had nothing to fall back on. It took me forever to learn the dance routines. I really had to woodshed for years and years.
Q: What type of act did your family have in vaudeville?
A: They came from the circus and they did the trapeze. Of course, when they graduated to vaudeville, they did slapstick comedy, singing, dancing and acrobatics. I got paid a salary when I was 13 months. The first thing I did was dance and do acrobatic tricks.
Q: How could you do that at just 13 months?
A: There are little tricks you can do. You can hold a kid up in your hand and he’ll try to keep his balance. You put music to that and it looks like an act.
Q: Did you feel you missed out on your childhood?
A: It’s such a part of me. I was born into it. There was never anything else. I thought other kids were very strange. They didn’t work or do anything.
Q: You were quite the teen idol in the 1940s, starring in low-budget Universal musicals like “Chip Off the Old Block,” with Peggy Ryan and Gloria Jean.
A: We did 14 pictures in one year. I was going into the service and the pictures were making so much money, they tried to get in as many as they could so they could release them once every three months while I was in the service. So when I was in the service, my career was going up all the time. They all made a fortune for the studio.
Q: The “Francis” comedy series was also a big moneymaker. But what were your feelings initially when Universal said they were teaming you up with a talking mule?
A: It was wonderful. It gave me a chance to get away from the song-and-dance character. I never thought they would be that successful. The first one grossed $8 million domestic on a 40-cent ticket. So that would be like $100 million in this day.
Q: Did you have a good relationship with Francis?
A: We had a fantastic relationship. I have worked with a lot of jackasses! I’ve had plenty of experience. We were very dear friends until he started getting more fan mail and that was the end of that! That broke up our relationship. Ego clashed with ego.
Q: How did “Singin’ in the Rain” happen? Did Gene Kelly request you?
A: [Kelly and the producers] requested me. At that time, I was terribly busy. I was doing the “Colgate Comedy Hour” on TV. I was doing the movies and personal appearance stuff. I was very hot at that time. I went over and met with Gene. I had never met him [before]. I had seen him in movies and always liked him. It sounded great, so we did it.
They didn’t have a solo for me [in the beginning]. I couldn’t think of anything and just by chance [composer-arranger] Roger Edens came in with this number “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Kelly said, “Why don’t you take the girls"--his assistants--"and a piano player and see what you can come up with.” I started doing pratfalls and whatever they laughed at, I said, “Write it down.” That’s how the number came to be.
Q: But didn’t you have to re-shoot the entire number because there was a technical problem the first time around?
A: Yeah. From the time I left the piano and all the physical stuff--they overexposed the film. So I went back and did it again. It was no sweat. I felt I did it better the second time. I was stronger and I could add a couple of things.
Q: Do you remember what you added?
A: I remember two turns I did and fell on my back just before I ran up the wall and did the back somersaults. I think I put in the thing where I made the crazy faces.
Q: Did you ever hurt yourself in any of your acrobatic dance numbers?
A: When you are into something and you rehearse a great deal, and you practice and you practice, you rarely ever get hurt.
Q: Is “Singin’ in the Rain” your favorite movie?
A: Parts of it [are]. I really don’t have a favorite. “Call Me Madam"--my favorite number is in there with Vera-Ellen. It’s the number I do out in the garden with her to “It’s a Lovely Day Today.” It’s a beautiful lyrical number. I think she was the best dancer outside of Peggy Ryan I ever danced with.
Q: Besides doing your nightclub act, what are you up to now?
A: I began a TV show [out of Phoenix]. It’s on the Senior Citizen’s Network. It’s a magazine format show, which means we do everything. It’s called “Senior Lifestyle.” It’s on once a week.
Q: You should do more movies.
A: Well, I know it. Get in there and talk it up. Be my agent!