The Child is Father of the Man
When I began Blogging here on Patch, it was my thought to write about my chamber choir--the Midwest Motet Society--the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, living with someone with autism and other odds and ends in the arts community here in the south suburbs. And I have—mostly.
But there is another part of my life I haven’t shared—my life as a dancer and as the daughter of a dancer. Because of that dance connection, I love dance history and how it fits with music history--and regular history too--and have taken my understanding for granted. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent in a ballet studio, one way or another. I actually became a conductor because I knew my dance career would not be long-- they never are. I decided at thirteen to become a ballet conductor and was told “girls didn’t conduct orchestras” but I could conduct choirs. An interesting way to start on a career path, but that’s what happened.
I have taught children for most of my career. Children’s choirs and Baby Ballerinas—in my ballet teacher days—so many children! Occasionally, I run into a former student and am often delighted to see I have had a positive influence. Several have gone into music and a former ballet student of mine became a Flamingo dancer. It’s interesting to see how they have turned out. I like to think I made a difference, made an impression, did something to help them become who they are now, that I had some insight. The truth is, they were just the children in my classes and choirs, with parents dropping them off and coming to recitals and I had no clue. Some seemed to have talent and some just loved singing or dancing with me. It is only after children become who they become we have any real insight.
I am in the unusual position to know quite a bit about the childhood and formative years of one our country’s finest choreographers and directors, Bob Fosse. I can truthfully say I didn’t go out of my way to study him or that I had some burning desire to learn everything about him or anything quite so exotic. I have always known his roots—Chicago roots—and his early life has been a part of my life in a very roundabout way. I understand why he did things because I know where he came from and how he arrived.
Bob Fosse was one half of the vaudeville act, “The Riff Brothers: Tops in Taps,” which played the circuit in Chicago and surrounding states during the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. Getting together at the age of 8, “Bobby and Charlie Riff,” were chosen by their dance studio director because they were similar in age and size and complimented each other as far as dance skills were concerned. They were personable and hardworking and had parents who were supportive. Bobby was the youngest of six children so it was Charlie’s mother who took them to their gigs, supervised their Latin homework in the backseat of her Ford while the, um, dancers in the burlesque houses were, um, dancing. She made them write letters to their teacher while they were on the road and thank you notes to the conductors they worked with. They grew up together, closer than real brothers and were each other’s dearest friends.
Nearing 85 years, my father, Charles Grass, was “Charlie Riff.” Daddy is often approached when a new biography of Uncle Bob is being written or a documentary is being made. Usually, he is interviewed and then asked for copies of pictures. The last few times, he has offered the use of some of his memorabilia and personal papers. Bob’s daughter has even asked for copies of some of his papers (both kept the same scrap books and had the same studio pictures) because Uncle Bob’s step-mother had thrown his set away!
Last month, the writer of a new biography of Bob Fosse approached me, not knowing Dad is still very much alive. I put the two together and they talked for quite a while. After the interview, Dad called me to ask a favor; would I copy all his papers and photos for this gentleman? I was starting my own rehearsals for the year and there were lots of good reasons to refuse but I agreed. I secretly grumbled because I knew it would take hours and hours to do and, of course, there was a time crunch. I have a wonderful home office, with copy machines and scanners—at least I could do it at home.
My brother, Claude, showed up on a Friday afternoon with a large shopping bag of photo albums and scrapbooks—Lordy, Lordy! He told me I should just take the whole mess to Kinkos and have them copy it all, and then sort it after. I started to look through it and realized I couldn’t do that because some of the things were just too fragile.
Programs, photos, dance notes and music scores, some brown with age, all giving a glimpse into Bob’s and my Dad’s formative years. There were contracts—horrifying to read for young kids—and letters from Fort Sheridan and Great Lakes Naval Station and the USO and a Vet’s hospital thanking them for performing for the troops during the Second World War. There are several letters my father wrote to thank various people—Dad said Grammie made them write letters and then copy it in perfect cursive while they were on the road to keep them out of trouble—and there would have been a similar set from Bob as well. There were copies of their dance school newspaper, with them as regular contributors to the joke column. There were pictures of them on their agent’s letterhead. There was Bob’s own copy—with his signature at the top—of sheet music from the first Broadway show he was in, “Call Me Mister.”
Their various routines music, marked with cuts and repeats in blue pen, would have been given to the pianist or conductor as they walked in to their gig. The musicians would be excellent sight readers or would have played the music before. This part really interested me--Dad can read music but to my knowledge, does not play any other instrument but a smattering of piano, yet he can read a full score very well. It is my understanding Bob could as well because of their training. If you watch Bob’s choreography, you can see how he fully grasps the instrumentations of his dances.
The recital programs are fascinating—from 1937 to 1945—and really are a glimpse into the future. Bob was more of the athletic tap dancer and Dad the more classically oriented ballet dancer (Dad was Ruth Page’s assistant and a fine ballet dancer and master teacher as an adult). The solos on these recitals reflect who they would become, while the Riff Brothers act gained more prominence on the program.
I called Dad after I went through the material to make sure I had copied everything he wanted me to include. He was a bit misty about the whole thing, something he has never been before. He doesn’t want Bob forgotten and the Riff Brother’s routines lost, so I have contacted a tap dance historian in Chicago to learn the routines from Dad. I’ve asked him questions I never have about what I found in those scrapbooks and it’s given me some insight into my Dad and to Bob Fosse. And I am amazed.
Daddy will continue to do interviews as long as he can but wants me to keep his material. I’ve promised to scan things in my computer so I just have to print it out the next time. Then it won’t take four and a half hours on a Sunday afternoon. He wants me to hold on to his papers because I know the importance of it all in the history of Broadway, movies, dance and music. And it is a legacy to treasure.