Dancing on Broadway
An Interview with Lee Wilson, author of REBEL ON POINTE
Dr. Baehr: It is a great honor, because it touches my heart so deeply, to be talking to a good friend of mine, Lee Wilson, who was on Broadway just at the end of the period when my father, Robert Allen (the stage name of Theodore Baehr) was on Broadway. I guess you overlapped a bit, because he started in the 1930s starring in Broadway plays and continued for many years until he co-starred in “Whoopee!” in 1982.
Lee Wilson: My first Broadway show was “Hello Dolly!” in ’67.
Dr. Baehr: You were a renowned ballerina and starred in Broadway in a lot of musicals. I read your book, REBEL ON POINTE, and I wept in scenes, because it reminded me of growing up on Broadway. You have this amazing quality of making it look very beautiful.
Lee Wilson: For me, Broadway was wonderful. I loved being on Broadway.
Dr. Baehr: So tell me a little bit about your wonderful career, since I don’t want to tell anybody what growing up as a child on Broadway was like.
Lee Wilson: It’s been very fulfilling, it has. I started off as a classical ballet dancer. My first performance was a command performance for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monte Carlo. I was 16. Then, for the next year, I toured Europe with the Hommage au Marquis de Cuevas. Then I was première danseuse with the Bordeaux Opera Ballet. Then, I danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet under the direction of Dame Alicia Markova, and then I defected to Broadway. I started off with “Hello Dolly!,” and then “Here’s Where I Belong”—which was the musical “East of Eden”—“How Now Dow Jones,” “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” the record-breaking performance of “A Chorus Line,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Dr. Baehr: You were the star in many of those.
Lee Wilson: I played Patty in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”—there were only two women in the show. In other ones, I had smaller parts. In some, I was in the chorus.
Dr. Baehr: Well it’s a fun business. So you were in that wonderful era called the golden age of Broadway, from the 1950s and ‘60s. Because that’s when I grew up, and my father was in “Auntie Mame.” And I think about the same time you were in “Charlie Brown,” my father was in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”—
Lee Wilson: That would have been about the same time, I think.
Lee Wilson: I saw the show, because I was always going from one to the other. One of the things I really liked about Broadway was the freedom.
Dr. Baehr: How did you end up on Broadway?
Lee Wilson: Well, ballet in America was going through a very difficult time. I graduated high school in 1962, and, at that time, I was Ballet Theatre trained, so I had expected to go into Ballet Theatre. I was in Intermediate II, which was the teenage class preparatory to going into the company, and I also took the professional class in the morning. So in the professional class, I saw people like Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Maria Tallchief. Then, in the intermediate class, I was working with the dancers who would be in Ballet Theatre the next year. At that same time, a few months before I graduated, my father was transferred to Switzerland by the DuPont company. He was going to Switzerland, which gave me a free ticket if I wanted it. So I looked around in New York, and I saw that Ballet Russe was dying, and in fact two years later there would be no Ballet Russe, and Ballet Theatre was actually moving out of New York to Washington, D.C. because of financial problems. The New York City Ballet didn’t have the repertoire I wanted to dance. I wanted to do the classics…
So, I decided to take that free trip to Europe, and that got me into dance, into ballet. When I came back after two years, I joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet under the direction of Dame Alicia Markova thinking this meant that it would become a world-class, classical company. That’s what I was told, but I quickly realized that that wasn’t really going to happen. The Met was for opera. Yes, we had some ballet performances, but not enough. And, Ballet Theatre was still having financial problems. My friends with the company were moving back with their parents, because they couldn’t afford apartments.
Well, my parents were in Switzerland—I couldn’t move in with them and dance with Ballet Theatre. So I walked through the theater district every day, going down to the Met at 38th Street, and I saw the great musicals. I saw “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Funny Girl.” They were telling the stories that I wanted to tell. So I decided I wanted to move there. Because for me, dance has always been about telling stories and communicating, and I felt that Broadway was doing it better at that time.
Dr. Baehr: You should do your story as a movie. Its’ a tremendous movie. I’ve got five little granddaughters, five and under, and the oldest wants to be a ballet dancer.
Lee Wilson: And dance is freedom. To me, dance represented freedom because as a young lady growing up in the 1950s, there were certain ways we were supposed to sit. I tend to find myself ankles crossed, hands in the lap even today. But, in the dance studio, I could do anything. I could stick my leg up above my head, I could turn upside down and do cartwheels.
Dr. Baehr: That’s a beautiful picture that you’ve got here [on the book cover].
Lee Wilson: Thank you.
Dr. Baehr: Who was this young lady?
Lee Wilson: That was I in 1970.
Dr. Baehr: How did you move from ballet to movies? Because you and I met with a TV program that we gave you the Epiphany Prize.
Lee Wilson: When I went back to do “Meet Me in St. Louis” on Broadway, I knew in my mind, “This is my last dance on Broadway.” I sort of decided that when I auditioned.
Right after that I got the opportunity to write a Christmas special, “The Elf Who Saved Christmas,” and it ran on USA Network and got terrific ratings and terrific reviews. The network wanted a sequel, so I wrote the sequel. Then, I was a writer. So I looked for something that I thought was a fascinating story, and I came across “The Miracle of the Cards,” which is the true story of an English 8-year-old boy, who develops a brain tumor and sets out to get the Guinness World Record for getting the most get well cards.
Dr. Baehr: I love that story. This is a wonderful story for anyone struggling with any physical difficulties. How has God moved into your life? Because that story is so inspired.
Lee Wilson: It’s a very inspiring story. And, it’s funny, because everybody said, “You’re nobody, you’ll never get it made.” When I wrote the screenplay, I didn’t even have the rights. I knew that it would be made. You talk about the epiphany in your life, when your life changed very much from finding God. I grew up in a family that was very religious. My grandfather was an Episcopal minister, my father was on the vestry, my brother was an acolyte, I sang in the church choir. So for me there was never a moment like you had; my family had a certain tradition in which I grew up.
Dr. Baehr: But God has kept His hand on you.
Lee Wilson: Very fortunately. I have to admit that I have no complaints.
Dr. Baehr: He’s kept you young, He’s kept you vibrant.
Lee Wilson: Well, maybe I do have a complaint there.
Dr. Baehr: Did you know that ballet was going to come to a physical end on Broadway. Did you know that ballet and Broadway was going to come as a season of your life? Did you understand these seasons? Did you predict them? Because many young people like my granddaughter think that it’s going to last forever, right?
Lee Wilson: Oh no. I always knew about the seasons, because as a dancer, you have to know that. You have to know that for a dancer, there comes a certain time, and luckily for me, it was in my late forties. I was playing a teenager on Broadway when I was 44. I went to the audition for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and I knew that they were looking for teenagers, dancers in their early twenties. So I did major surgery on my resume. I took off all but about six or eight credits. I walked into the principal call, ostensibly for the Judy Garland role. Now I know I don’t sing well enough to do that on Broadway, but I wanted to present myself in period costume so they would think, “She looks right.” The first person I met was the casting director. He looked at the resume, and he looked at me, and he looked at the resume, and he looked at me, and he said, “Lee, how old are you now?” I said, “Well, I’ve been 22 so long I’m seriously thinking of turning 23.” He said, “You’re 22. The director will ask, and he cares.” So I said, “Okay.” I told him I was 22, I sang. They must have liked something; I got a callback, I sang again. Then I went to the dancers’ call. Someone assisting the director called me at home that night and said, “Something very amusing happened, I thought I would share it with you.” At the end of the audition, they spread out all the pictures and resumes of the dancers they liked. And the director pointed to yours and said, “She’s very poised for 22. I bet she’s 25.” Which was exactly what I needed to hear, because I had passed the age. He didn’t say, “She doesn’t look 22.” He said, “She’s too poised.” So then at the final audition, I gave them my full resume. And, I got the job.
Dr. Baehr: It’s a great show.
Lee Wilson: It’s a wonderful show. And I knew all through it, it was my last one, so I enjoyed everything that came with it: performing in the Thanksgiving Day parade, cutting the album, dancing at St. Vincent’s hospital, all the perks.
Dr. Baehr: See what amazes me about your life, and you’ve incorporated it into the book, which I recommend highly— REBEL ON POINTE. I think it’s just a wonderful book, and certainly a person who knows who they are.
Lee Wilson: You’ve got to.
Dr. Baehr: And, you have a lot of wisdom. You have a lot of, not just poise, but you figured out the industry, you went in there clearly, you didn’t get seduced by all the dark side in the industry. You portray it as light and airy and wonderful—which it is. There’s a lot of good in the industry, which people don’t see. So somewhere along the line the brainpower was there that God had given you to focus on the good and true and beautiful.
Lee Wilson: I did have an ability to sidestep a lot of the holes that other people fell into. If I saw that there was someone that was working in a way that I didn’t think was appropriate, I didn’t go near that. A lot of people had a lot harder time than I did.
Dr. Baehr: Considering that as I’ve known you, you’ve been extraordinarily positive and upbeat, why did you call the book REBEL ON POINTE?
Lee Wilson: Well, the title evolved. I started out with Fleeing the Fifties in Pink Satin Toe Shoes.
Dr. Baehr: That’s cute.
Lee Wilson: It is cute, but the publisher felt that it was too lightweight. They said, “The book had more substance than that title.” So then I came up with A Dancer in Flight, because I have a wonderful picture of a grand jeté—but they thought that was too generic. The head of the marketing department said, “The girl in this book is brave, and audacious, and courageous, and that’s what the title has to say.” And once he gave me those key words, I came up with “REBEL ON POINTE, and they circulated it, and everybody at the publishers liked it.
Dr. Baehr: Well, it’s a beautiful book. It’s a book that will make you laugh and cry. REBEL ON POINTE is a book that everybody should read if they’re interested in ballet or the entertainment industry, and I’m going to have to give a copy to my granddaughter when she gets to that point that she can read it. Most of the people you worked with—the stars, the big name ballerinas, your instructors—what were they like?
Lee Wilson: Oh my. Rosella Hightower is not a huge name here, but in Europe, was a huge star.
Dr. Baehr: In Cannes.
Lee Wilson: Yes. In all of Europe. She is the oldest of the five great Native American ballerinas born in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Here, the best known is Maria Tallchief—in Europe, Rosella Hightower. I met her at the end of her performing career. She still performed for a few years, but she had opened the Centre de Danse Classique to mentor younger dancers. She was very smart and very direct. When I first met her, she sort of reminded me of a Midwestern schoolteacher, but very much committed to the next generation, which many dancers are, because dance is an art which is handed down, not through books, not through videos, but person to person. So it’s part of tradition that one generation helps the next, which is part of the reason I wanted to write the book. I think there’s a lot of information in there, practical information, but also information on just how to navigate a career. So Rosella was very mentoring to me, to Maina Gielgud, who became a principal dancer with the English National Ballet, then director of the Australian Ballet. Also trained at the Centre de Danse Classique is the now choreographer/artistic director of the Ballet de Monte Carlo. So there are a lot of people that she mentored. She was very giving. The other stars that I worked with [include] Michael Bennett. I know there are people who have plus and minus things to say about him, but with me, he was always wonderful. When I auditioned for him, I was in another show, but I wanted to do “A Chorus Line.” I told him I would need to know sooner than they were going to be giving out the contracts, I would need mine ahead so that I could give notice to my current show. And although he couldn’t tell me “you got the job,” because it was before the date, he said, “If you haven’t heard from us by Monday, come to the theater.” He also asked me to switch roles in rehearsals. He said, “I need your ballet technique here, and it’s a favor, and I’ll return the favor.” Then when I was in California and asked to do a screen test for “Three’s Company,” I had to sign a long contract with Michael Bennett’s letter saying, “If she gets this job, I will release her from the contract for ‘A Chorus Line’.” And he did, and he wrote that letter.
Dr. Baehr: You’ve done wonderful work. This is a beautiful way to live.
Lee Wilson: It’s a great way to live.
Dr. Baehr: It’s a family.
Lee Wilson: It is. Yes.
Dr. Baehr: What I’d say about Broadway and backstage, everybody from the usher on down is your family. They take care of you. You come in late to “Little Abner,” and they get you a seat. They’re all friends, they all know each other, they all go to the same places, it’s a caring community.
So I recommend REBEL ON POINTE highly. I know that we’re going to have to wrap up, but I recommend it. I would have changed the title to Wisdom on Pointe, but it probably wouldn’t sell as well. REBEL ON POINTE, Lee Wilson. Thank you, Lee.
Lee Wilson: Thank you.