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 Tops in Taps

by David Westheimer

 

When Dody was still wearing bobby socks and saddle shoes to Albert Sidney Johnson Junior High in Houston, she got on the Riverside Terrace bus (the line that went through our neighborhood) and saw a girl in the class behind hers that she knew by name, Lucille Collier. Lucille was arguing with her mother over a little sack of candy Mrs. Collier had firmly in her grasp. Lucille wanted another piece and her mother wouldnt let her have it.

A few years later Mrs. Collier up and left her husband and took Lucille out to Hollywood. It was only a few years later that Lucille came back to Houston on the train with a touring musical she was dancing in. I forget the name of the musical. The star was a famous comedian and I forget his name, too. Ben Blue, maybe. Anyhow, when he got off the train and saw the enthusiastic crowd waiting he got this big grin on his face (I know because I was there covering the event for the Houston Post). But they were strangely silent. When Lucille stepped down from the train they yelled and called out her name.

But the name they were calling out wasnt Lucille Collier.

The name they were calling out was Ann Miller.

That was the name her agent picked out for her when she got in the movies. Ann Miller was born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Houston, same city as Dody and me, in 1921 or 1923, depending upon whether you look her up on the web or your source is the Los Angeles Times, which in a recent interview said she was 78.

The "Johnnie" was for her father, a name she dropped about the time her mother dropped her father, reportedly for his playing around with other women, and hauled her to California. When she was nine, according to a biography I read, although Dody believes she must have been a few years older, she studied tap and started supporting herself and her mother at a tender age. Her mother was hard of hearing and couldnt work much. So apparently Lucille got over being mad at her mother for withholding candy on the Riverside Terrace bus.

Incidentally, there was no river on the bus route, although Brays Bayou was only a few miles away. I lived in Riverside Terrace when I was boy and skinny-dipped in it (it wasnt called skinny- dipping then, it was called swimming without no clothes on). It was against my mothers rules. Not about skinny-dipping. About swimming in the bayou.

While continuing her education being home-schooled, Lucille worked nights dancing in Hollywood nightclubs until 1937, when she was barely 14, she was offered a contract at RKO. There was one catch. She had to be 18 to sign a contract. So she got a fake birth certificate showing she was that old. (Gypsy Rose Lees mother, Rose Hovick, jumped the age of Gypsys sister, June Havoc—Ellen Evangeline Hovick—, a few notches by substituting a fake birth certificate for her real one in Vancouver, Canada, where Baby June was born. The vaudeville act Rose had out touring got a date in Canada, where you had to be 12 to perform and June was only nine.)

Lucilles first picture at RKO was Stage Door, in 1937. After more movies, she was a hit on the Broadway stage in 1939 in George Whites Scandals. RKO let her out of her contract in 1941 but without missing a beat she signed with Columbia, where she did a couple of World War II movies. She got married, got divorced, signed with MGM and did On The Town in 1949 and Kiss Me Kate in 1953. She married and divorced again, then again. Three times in all, but you couldnt stop her from dancing. In clubs and on stage, including Mame in 1969 (she was the last actress to play the Broadway role). In 1972 her autobiography, "Millers High Life, was published and in 1979 she starred, with Mickey Rooney, in her biggest hit of all, Sugar Babies. It ran nine years. She finally slowed down a little but in 1998 sang Im Still Here in Stephen Sondheims Follies.

And at 78 shes still going. Shes currently appearing in the movie, Mulholland Drive. If her mother had known how famous and how durable Lucille was going to be maybe she would have let her have another piece of candy on the Riverside Terrace bus.

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