Onna White, 83; Much-Honored Stage, Film Choreographer

Times Staff Writer

Onna White, the ballerina turned choreographer who won a special Oscar for the film version of "Oliver!" and was nominated for eight Tony Awards for her work on Broadway, has died. She was 83.

White died Friday in her West Hollywood apartment of natural causes of aging, according to spokesman Dale Olson.

Her prodigious output included nearly 20 Broadway musicals and seven motion pictures, some of them film versions of her stage productions -- "The Music Man," "1776" and "Mame." Her other films were "Bye Bye Birdie," "The Great Waltz," "Pete's Dragon" and her showpiece, "Oliver!" which she also choreographed for stage revivals.

Although choreography is not a regular category for the Academy Award, White's work in "Oliver!" was considered so outstanding that the Academy gave her an Honorary Oscar at the 1969 ceremony. The film also won five regular Oscars, including those for best picture and director.

White earned Tony nominations for choreography for Broadway's "The Music Man" in 1958, "Whoop-Up" in 1959, "Take Me Along" in 1960, "Irma la Douce" in 1961, "Half a Sixpence" in 1965, "Mame" in 1966, "Illya Darling" in 1968 and "I Love My Wife" in 1977.

Responsible for large-scale, intricate dance routines, White became known for her meticulous planning and ability to choreograph for the specific needs of character, plot and situation. When she began work on "Oliver!" she reread Charles Dickens' classic "Oliver Twist" to better design dances for the show's characters.

" 'Mame' and 'Music Man' were not difficult. They were big, but I'm good at big," White told The Times in 1991, when she shared the Professional Dancers Society's Gypsy Award with entertainer Debbie Reynolds. "In 'Who'll Buy?' from 'Oliver!' I worked with 276 dancers, and I had eight people in corners giving cues."

Actress Bea Arthur, who appeared in the 1974 film version of "Mame," starring Lucille Ball in the title role, told The Times when the choreographer received the Gypsy Award that White "can make anybody look good and think they're good."

"Besides that," Arthur said, "she's so involved with the script, she's one of those rare people who continues the action, rather than stopping it to do a musical number."

White began her career as a professional dancer, and, as she told The Times in 1979, "I never planned on being a choreographer. I was kind of forced into it by Michael [choreographer and director Michael Kidd], who ... found himself too busy. 'Let Onna do it,' he'd say."

When she was dancing in Kidd's "Finian's Rainbow" and "Guys and Dolls," White also was pregnant, and her dancing partner told her flat out that she was getting too heavy to lift. So she helped Kidd with his choreography assignments and became a choreographer in her own right with "The Music Man."

"Everybody thought it was the corniest bit of nonsense," she said of the show that Robert Preston made his own. "I loved it."

Born in Inverness, Nova Scotia, Canada, White grew up in a musical family and played piano as a child. She was a sickly youngster, and found herself only after the wife of a paper mill superintendent began teaching her to dance.

At 16, she joined the San Francisco Opera Ballet, where she remained for seven years, much of the time as a principal dancer.

Growing bored with ballet, she went to Broadway, where she danced in "Finian's Rainbow," "Guys and Dolls" and "Silk Stockings" before segueing into choreography.

"I loved every minute of it," White said in 1979 of her brief Broadway dancing days. "It seemed like I had the freedom to fly."

In her later years, she kept up with the work of young choreographers, but had no personal interest in choreographing for music videos or television.

"I don't want to direct any video dancing stuff because I don't have the feeling for it," White told The Times in 1991. "We based everything on ballet and tap, but [young choreographers are] into a different psyche, and I don't understand it.... It's an entirely different world and genre. You're trained for the period you're living in, and my era is gone."

She is survived by two children from her marriage to the late Broadway musical star Larry Douglas, Stuart and Jeannie Douglas, and two grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Actors' Fund, 729 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019.

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