FROM THE ARCHIVES: Stage and Screen Icon Ann Miller on Sugar Babies, Co-Star Feuds, and Those Wigs

Special Features   FROM THE ARCHIVES: Stage and Screen Icon Ann Miller on Sugar Babies, Co-Star Feuds, and Those Wigs
 
This 1981 interview, which took place in Miller’s Broadway dressing room, captures an era when star personas loomed large on and off stage.
Ann Miller and cast
Ann Miller and cast Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.

Ann Miller, the legendary Hollywood hoofer whose rapid-fire tap dancing blazed across the screen in dozens of iconic film musicals, returned to Broadway for her third and final time, in the 1979 burlesque musical comedy revue Sugar Babies—co-starring fellow Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney.

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Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller

A rare occurrence on Broadway today, both Miller and Rooney remained with the production (with exception for vacations) for the duration of its nearly three-year run, and then took the show on tour.

Miller was a one-of-a-kind personality, and this 1981 interview (conducted in Miller’s dressing room at the Mark Hellinger Theatre) captures an era when star personas loomed large on and off-stage.

“Listen, honey,” says Ann Miller to a dressing room visitor after a recent performance of Sugar Babies, “I know that some people think I’m 108 years old and bald, but frankly, I don’t give a rat’s rear anymore. See this hair—feel it—tug on it—it’s real and it’s all mine!”

The brassy tap star has removed the black lacquered wig she taps in and has had her real hair washed and blown dry by an aide before receiving visitors. Her long, silken black hair is worn pulled back in a bun and is a vast improvement over her trademark wig that has inspired many jokes.

“Henny Youngman’s the guy who started all those jokes,” Ann bellows. “He doesn’t realize that I have to wear a wig when I dance. It’s sprayed stiff so I won’t get hair in my eyes when I do spins.”

She wears a red silk David Brown float, huge gold loop earrings and numerous rings with enormous stones. As big a star as ever, she says to an assistant, “Tell my driver to cool it; I have an interview.”

The star sits down and launches into a defense of her age. “I was 13 when I made Stage Door at RKO with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in 1937. Ginger found out I was underage and tipped off the studio. My father, who was an attorney, had to forge a birth certificate that made me 18. He even changed my birthplace from Houston to Chireno, Texas—where my mother was born—to throw off the studio. It was the only good thing he ever did for me—but now, I’m paying for that lie. Earl Blackwell put in his Celebrity Register that I was born in 1919—and now everyone thinks I’m 62.”

What is of more interest than a few years—give or take—is the star’s incredibly youthful appearance—smooth skin, flawless long legs, great shape—and her continuing ability to wow an audience with 525 taps a minute, a flair for slapstick comedy and a belting voice that has even impressed Ethel Merman. (“Ethel’s seen our show four times,” boasts Ann, “and we’ve gotten to be great friends. In fact, I’m taking a few weeks off from Sugar Babies to do a two-hour Love Boat special with Ethel, Carol Channing, Della Reese and Van Johnson. That should be great fun. I’ll be back in Sugar Babies on October 12.”)

Ann Miller
Ann Miller Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The tap queen recently signed a contract for her third year in the burlesque musical at the Mark Hellinger, along with her co-star, Mickey Rooney. “I’m not at all bored with the show,” she says. “The audience is different every performance. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes they’re awful. Tonight—they were ROTTEN. They were glum, sat on their hands and smiled. We need laughs. They must have been New Yorkers. This is not a show for blasé New Yorkers. It’s for tourists and out-of-towners. They love us. Mickey gets hopping mad if the audience doesn’t laugh at his first couple of jokes. And he stays mad for the rest of the performance. I’m not trying to put him down—but he hasn’t learned yet that you have to woo a bad audience like a lover. That’s what I do. We have no problem at matinees. The ladies all love Mickey. As soon as he walks out, he’s got them in the lap of his hands.”

Ann is as famous for her “Millerisms” (verbal insanities) as the late Sam Goldwyn was for his “Goldwynisms.” Some sample “Millerisms”: Asked what she was doing for Passover, she reportedly replied, “I don’t do game shows.” On a questionnaire which requested her occupations she printed “STAR.” Recently, they say, she was amazed to discover that Christmas always falls on Christ’s birthday.

“Some of those stories are made up,” she insists, “but some are true. I say things in innocence and they come out funny. Like the time I read that someone was producing a Broadway musical called Ari. I thought it was about Aristotle Onassis, so I called my friend—that big agent, Milton Goldman—and told him that I wanted to play Jackie in that show. After all, I had dark hair like hers. Well, Milton fell on the floor, I think. He couldn’t stop laughing. The story spread all over town and it made the papers.” (Ari, a flop 1971 musical was not about Onassis. It was a musical version of the Leon Uris novel, Exodus.)

Ann Miller, who was christened Johnnie Lucille Collier because her father wanted a boy, began tapping as a small child to help support her mother. “My parents split when I was small and we were practically starving,” she says honestly. “I started dancing at the Elks and Rotary Clubs and at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. I worked with a pianist named Harry Fields and he studied numerology. He figured out a better name for me—Ann Miller—and I’ve kept it ever since.”

Little Ann Miller was discovered by Lucille Ball and Benny Rubin, tapping away in a San Francisco nightclub. “That’s how I got my RKO contract,” the star recalls, “and that’s when a man named Sherrill Corwin, who had helped me with my act, told me to lie about my age. ‘You’re tall,’ he said, ‘and if you put on a lot of makeup, nobody will know the difference.’ He was right. It worked.”

As movie buffs know, Ann began her film career tapping in such revivals as New Faces of 1937, Radio City Revels, and Too Many Girls. At Columbia, she appeared in the Academy Award-winning film, You Can’t Take It With You, starring James Stewart. “I got fat making that one,” recalls Ann, “because Jimmy Stewart kept feeding me candy bars. When I went to New York to make my Broadway debut in the 1939 George White’s Scandals, Mr. White took one look at me and put me on a diet. I lost weight and I was a smash in the show, with two great numbers to do. I made the cover of the News and the Mirror and got to meet fabulous people like Lucius Beebe, Brooks Atkinson, George Jean Nathan, and Mark Hellinger. And now, I’m starring in Sugar Babies at the theatre named in Hellinger’s honor.”

Ann Miller and Fred Astaire in <i>Easter Parade</i>
Ann Miller and Fred Astaire in Easter Parade Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Miller’s golden period occurred at MGM in the late 1940’s and 1950’s when her machine-gun tapping triumphed in such memorable musicals as Kiss Me, Kate (her favorite), Easter Parade, On The Town, Small Town Girl, and Hit the Deck. Her return to Broadway in 1969 as the last of the stars to pay the title role in Mame was sensational. On her opening night, when she pulled her tap shoes out of her bag, she got an ovation before she even started tapping.

Summing up her durable career that has spanned 44 years, Ann remarks, “I’ve been blessed like a cat with nine tails.” Reminiscing about the glamour 1930’s in New York, she recalls happy nights spent at the Deauville nightclub (she means the Versailles). Describing an accident she had during rehearsals for Sugar Babies, she says it happened at Tony Bennett’s rehearsal studio (she means Michael Bennett). Enumerating her many awards, most of which are displayed in her colorful dressing room, she states, “The Women Deflamation League voted me Woman of the Year.” Attempting to recall another award she received, she says, “It’s named after that dancer—what’s his name—Cohan or something.” (She means George M. Cohan.)

One of her fond memories is that of living at the Gorham Hotel in Manhattan with her mother when she was appearing in the Scandals. “Mary Martin had the suite right above us,” she recalls, “and her little boy used to drive us crazy. He was always running all over the place and we could hear the pitter-patter of his feet night and day. Well, just the other night that boy—Larry Hagman, also known as J. R. Ewing of Dallas fame—came to my dressing room wearing his big cowboy hat and carrying his cane. He said, ‘Ann, you’re not going to believe this, but I’m the little kid who used to live right over you at the Gorham Hotel.’”

Other illustrious visitors to Ann’s dressing room have included President and Mrs. Reagan (“I’ve known them for 35 years,” she says, “and they’re going to see the show again!”), Helen Hayes, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn. “One night I heard this familiar husky voice calling outside my dressing room—‘Where’s Stringbean? I want to see Stringbean!’ It was Katharine Hepburn—calling me by the name I had in Stage Door when I appeared in it with her. She’s such a great lady—I was honored to have her in my dressing room. I’ll never forget making Stage Door. Every afternoon at four Katharine had a tea break and I got to eat all kinds of cakes and cookies.”

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Ann Miller and ensemble

Ann was also very thrilled that the hostages* saw Sugar Babies. “I’ll never forget that night,” she says. “It was thrilling. They loved our show. There’s something for everyone in it. Of course, a lot of people think it’s a family show, and they bring their kids. It’s not really a family show. The jokes get very raunchy—but at least the singing, dancing and the juggler don’t let them down. That juggler is terrific. I’m so glad he joined our show.” (Michael Allen Davis, the extraordinary young juggler, joined Sugar Babies last summer after getting raves in the short-lived Broadway Follies.)

Ann Miller never hedges a question—not even one about her reported feud with Ann Jillian, a former performer in her show. “She was my very good friend when she was in Sugar Babies,” Ann explains. “In fact, I saved her job three times, because they were going to fire her. To think that I used to let her ride in my car with me and take her and her husband—who’s a cop—to dinner! Well, it seems that Ann has been giving out interviews to newspapers and to TV Guide, claiming that she left the show because I took her part away from her. That’s ugly and there’s not a word of truth in it. When I had my accident during rehearsals of our show, they had to have someone doing my numbers. They had to time them—so they gave Ann some of my numbers and gave other girls some of the other specialties I do. But as soon as I recovered, they gave all my numbers back to me—and that’s when Ann went around saying I had taken her part away from her. She was never the star of this show—I’m the STAR—and dumping on me is not very nice.”

Ann Miller had been married three times, but not happily. She has told interviewers that she will never marry again. She has, through the years, socialized with such luminaries as Conrad Hilton, Cole Porter, and George Abbott. “They all wanted to dance with me,” she told a reporter.

The star recently lost her constant companion and mentor—her mother. “It was a terrible blow to me,” she says. “She died in California in August—and the producers and Mickey were wonderful to me. They let me fly to the coast to be there at the end. My mother was an incredible person. She wore ten hats. She was my driver, she cleaned the house, cooked, did my secretarial work, managed my career, and even got me publicity. Once, when I was in New York, I asked her to send me my Christmas card mailing list. She sent me two California phone books! You know—this may sound strange—but there’s an old superstition that you must never wear real peacock feathers. If you do—there’s a death in your family. Well, they gave me a new costume last August for Sugar Babies and it had a stole of real peacock feathers. I only wore it once and the next night, my mother died.”

How does the star feel about Miss Piggy doing an Ann Miller takeoff in the current film The Great Muppet Caper? “I can’t wait to see it!” she exclaims. “I love Miss Piggy. She’s every tacky thing that a female star ever did. I think her eyes are like mine.” (She pointed to a huge Miss Piggy poster hanging on a door.) “Do you know what I’d really love—next to another hit show written especially for me? I’d love to have a tap-off with her. Then the papers could headline: ‘MISS PIGGY MEETS MISS WIGGY.’”

[*Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days as part of the Iran hostage crisis. Twenty-two of them were feted in New York City, which included a trip to Sugar Babies.]

Flip Through 20 Photos of Sugar Babies on Broadway Below:

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