Articles

They’re the happiest couple in Show Business

London and New York acclaimed the devoted Lunds before Canada realized that these Toronto dancers—who refused to let polio or parenthood stop them — were about the best ballroom team since the fabulous Astaires

MARJORIE EARL March 15 1954
Articles

They’re the happiest couple in Show Business

London and New York acclaimed the devoted Lunds before Canada realized that these Toronto dancers—who refused to let polio or parenthood stop them — were about the best ballroom team since the fabulous Astaires

MARJORIE EARL March 15 1954

They’re the happiest couple in Show Business

London and New York acclaimed the devoted Lunds before Canada realized that these Toronto dancers—who refused to let polio or parenthood stop them — were about the best ballroom team since the fabulous Astaires

MARJORIE EARL

IT’S PART of the legend of show business that dance teams look like love’s young dream in public but that in private they act like a couple of boxers squaring off in a championship fight. Moreover, it’s part of the folklore that they’re homeless, childless, temperamental and boastful partners who war with band leaders, agents, other performers and themselves.

But none of this applies to Canadian dancers Blanche and Alan Lund who have been called the happiest couple in show business by backstage gossips in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. For the Lunds are no ordinary dance team.

No ordinary dancer, for example, could survive an attack of infantile paralysis and a fractured foot. Blanche has done both. Only an unusual woman can fit into one harmonious program a husband, a baby, a home and a career that consumes more physical energy in one day than a coal miner uses in three. Blanche does it as easily as she executes a breathtaking jeté on a polished dance floor.

No ordinary husband, whether he’s a dancer or not, deliberately chooses to live with his mother-in-law. But Alan, who can twirl his wife’s mother around his finger as easily as he swings his wife over his head, wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

Alan and Blanche began to dance together when they were thirteen years old. In those days they used to plaster their hair down and wear sophisticated costumes because they wanted to be like their favorite dancers, Veloz and Yolanda. Today after sixteen years of partnership, nine of marriage and nearly one of parenthood they couldn’t look sophisticated if they tried. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, both wear perpetually expectant smiles as though they were planning to slip into the movies to hold hands.

Their dancing is as bright and appealing as their appearance. It first attracted international attention when they starred in Meet, the Navy, the Canadian navy show which toured Canada in 1943-44, Great Britain in 1944-45, and parts of continental Europe after VE-Day. Their impact on England was such that six leading agents competed to handle them, and they became the subject of a private war between the Canadian Navy and Noel Coward, who tried in vain to get them released from the service because, he said, “I am determined to present them in my own show.” Since then they bave danced to clamorous audiences and enthusiastic critics in leading cabarets in the United States and have been acclaimed in four musical shows in Canada and three in London. Once they were invited to Hollywood to make a film and twice they have been presented to the Royal Family.

They have been judged as good as Fred and Adele Astaire (by Adele Astaire) and as famous as the American acting team, the Lunts (by Alfred bunt). In May 1952 they became the first Canadian entertainers to sign a television contract with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Lunds are so modest and unassuming they sometimes do themselves i disservice. For example, when they toured Canada in the winter of 1952 with Royal Command Variety, a musical show starring British comedian fommy Trinder, Jack Arthur, executive producer of the Canadian National

Off stage or on the Lunds are rarely separated. They admit one quarrel in ten married years

Exhibition, asked them if they had ever done any choreography. “A little,” they told him. “They’ve done plenty,” volunteered Tommy Trinder. “They were choreographers for two musical successes in London, Irene in 1945 and Together Again in 1946.” So Arthur invited them to perform and also to arrange some of the dances in the 1952 Exhibition. He was so pleased with the result that last year they arranged all but the two precision numbers staged by Arthur’s wife.

Husband-and-wife dance teams are usually childless because they cannot afford the time to have a family. Blanche had a son, Brian, in June 1953 air a cost of only eight working days. Although she did not dance during the latter part of her pregnancy she continued as choreographer and instructor for The Big Revue. Two days after the baby was born she was sitting up in bed sketching routines for the Exhibition. In six weeks she was dancing again.

They Call This An Argument

Blanche and Alan work continuously. When they are in a show they rehearse for several hours a day. If they are “resting,” as unemployment is called in show business, they practice from eight to twelve hours a day. They have no time for hobbies, recreations or vacations. This is the kind of program that makes ordinary dancers’ nerves wear out faster than their practice shoes. But in the sixteen years they’ve l>een dancing Blanche and Alan have had only one quarrel. It was over a boiled egg. Since then they occasionally have what they describe as an argument. It sounds like this: “It seems to me, darling, you should have come in on the second bar.” “But darling, I can’t do that because I’ll be facing the wrong way.”

“No you won’t, dear. If you do it like this (brief demonstration) you’ll move right in on beat.”

“But darling, I think it would look better if we did it the other way.” When they toured in Meet the Navy this honeyed sparring was a service joke. Last December, when they danced at the London Palladium, it provoked amazement and incredulity. “Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of it—husbands and wives together in this crazy business,” said Paddy Roach, an oldtimer who always dresses them when they appear on the London stage. “But I’ve never seen anything like this. An argument, they call it.”

The only serious arguments they have had with anyone were with their parents when they decided they wanted to be dancers. Blanche first got the idea when she was seven years old.

“Nobody knows what made me do it,” she says, “but I remember pestering my mother until finally she took me to a neighborhood teacher. She was sure I would get over it.” But Blanche didn’t get over it and when she was nine her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hedly Harris, had a conference in the living room of their modest home on Jones Avenue, Toronto. “It looks as though this is more than a craze,” said Mrs. Harris uncertainly. “I suppose we should get her a good teacher.” “1 suppose we should,” agreed Mr. Harris.

Blanche then began to take dancing lessons from Virginia Virge and to study piano, elocution and singing with Harold Rich, whose father trained Beatrice Lillie. Blanche’s mother refused to allow her to rehearse on Sundays or wear short costumes until one day Rich tackled her. “If Blanche is going to get anywhere in this business she’ll have to rehearse on Sunday,” he declared. “What’s more, she can’t go on wearing costumes down to her knees.”

“I knew it was over,” Mrs. Harris recalls. “Blanche was going to be a dancer and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.”

A similar struggle was taking place a few blocks away on Riverdple Avenue in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Lund. One day Mrs. Lund turned in exasperation to her eight-year-old son. “All right,” she said. “Here’s fifty cents. Take a dancing lesson and stop bothering me.” He never bothered her again—and he never stopped dancing.

Alan and Blanche were eleven when they met. A musical show called ’Fhumbs Up starring Eddie Dowling was about to open in Toronto and the producers announced that ten local dancers would be hired. Mrs. Harris with Blanche and Mrs. Lund with Alan were among some five thousand mothers and children who fought their way into the Royal Alexandra Theatre for trials. Alan and Blanche were selected. Two years later they met again at a semi-professional show in Sarnia. When Alan saw Blanche dance he knew he wanted her for a partner. “The instant he asked me I said yes,” Blanche recalls.

Their first professional engagement was a one-night stand at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, a date made for Alan before he acquired a partner. Loyally he telephoned William Hawkins, the banquet booking agent who had hired him. “I have a partner,” he announced. “I never go anywhere without her.” Instead of two dancers Hawkins found himself saddled with four parents, a dancing teacher, a pianist and two children so frightened their lips trembled. He never engaged them again.

Waldo Holden, manager of the old Silver Slipper in Toronto, had no objection to children or parents. He hired Blanche and Alan (“Not because we were good but because we were cheap,” says Alan), to give two shows a night to a handful of indifferent patrons and handsomely provided a cot for Mr. Harris to sleep on while he waited to chauffeur the dancers home, and a table for Mrs. Harris so she could supervise their homework between shows.

They were fifteen and through with school when they named themselves Lee and Sandra, took to wearing slinky costumes and involved their families in

a domestic crisis. One June night in 1940 an Ottawa agent telephoned the Harris home inviting Lee and Sandra to appear for one week at the Glenlea Country Club. An out-of-town trip appalled their parents but they finally relented.

All members of both families escorted them to the train. “You’d think we were children,” Alan, wearing his first fedora, complained bitterly. The club’s manager, Ralph Maybee, had arranged to meet them in Ottawa. But when they arrived there was no sign of Maybee. The station emptied leaving only one man who approached them finally. “Surely you’re not Lee and Sandra?” he said. His voice was limp, deflated. After an awkward silence he sighed, “Well, I suppose you might as well come along to the club.”

Maybee’s probity was suitably rewarded. Lee and Sandra were a sensation and at his insistence remained for three weeks. They might have stayed even longer but for the inter-

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All waitresses sprout butterflies On crocheted kerchiefs; private eyes And news reporters wouldn't dare To go trench-coatless anywhere;

The population in its teens Is clad exclusively in jeans;

There's bankers' grey, the clergy's blacks And movie stars’ hand-tailored slacks; Sopranos couldn’t fill their roles Without the help of filmy stoles;

Career-wise I have missed the boat,

But still feel I've a right to gloat,

For nondescript nonentities

Can wear whatever they darn please.

MARIE ANDREWS DAVIS

, , . >

vention of another agent who offered them a contract to appear at a Montreal night club.

Again their parents protested. After a series of family councils it was decided the children could go to the wicked city when Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Lund decided to go to Montreal too.

It was raining the night they arrived at the club where their children were performing and the entrance did not look inviting. Neither did one of the patrons who, at the moment of their arrival, landed sprawling on the sidewalk, helped on his drunken way by the vigorous boot of a muscle-bour.d bouncer. “Oh Mrs. Harris,” breathed Mrs. Lund. The manager, warned that the mothers of his dancers were arriving, was expansive and cordial. “Have a beer?” he shouted above the noise. “Oh Mrs. Harris,” breathed Mrs. Lund. Just then a fight broke out in one corner of the room and an empty bottle whizzed through the blue air. 'Oh Mrs. Harris,” breathed Mrs. Lund. “Our poor children.”

“You’re quitting,” announced Mrs. Harris when the show was over. She held up her hand to silence the protests. “Either you quit or we stay,” she declared. The next morning, hand in hand, Blanche and Alan told the club’s manager: “Our mothers have told us

we have to quit.” He roared with laughter. “Oh well,” he said, “in a year or so I won’t be able to afford your act anyway.”

In less than a year his prediction had come true. Blanche and Alan moved to more orderly surroundings and regular inspection trips convinced their mothers that the better Montreal night clubs wouldn’t ruin their morals. There was a certain tight-lipped parental objection to the lie, “we’re eighteen,” a line the sixteen-year-old dancers consistently plugged because a city bylaw prohibited the employment of cabaret entertainers under that age.

It was during this period that they began to develop their affecting, individual style—an adaptation of classical ballet for the ballroom floor. One night they decided to try out some new routines on the customers at the Chez Maurice. Blanche discarded her shorts and tap shoes and glided onto the floor in a frothy white ballet dress with red bows in her hair. In this costume she looked about twelve. When she came off the manager was seething. “For God’s sake, get back into your tap routine,” he fumed. “One more appearance in that get-up and the police will put me out of business.”

The next time they tried to be original they were appearing at the Club Esquire where their routine was ordinarily a snappy rhumba. The manager had no taste for the classical pos de deux. “Get back into your rhumba,” he ordered, “the customers don’t like that fancy stuff and neither do I.” “The trouble with you and your customers,” said Blanche icily, “is you just don’t appreciate art.” At the end of the week Lee and Sandra were unemployed. “You must learn not to tell off the man who pays the salary,” said Alan patiently.

They were nearly seventeen before they succeeded in selling their idea of ballet in a cabaret. On the night they became informally engaged the manager of the Samovar grudgingly allowed them to introduce a ballet number called Deep Purple. Much to his sur! prise the customers loved it. Mrs. Lund and Mrs. Harris, sipping festive glasses of ginger ale, exchanged looks of maternal satisfaction.

The formal engagement came nearly two years later after Alan and Blanche had enlisted in the RCNVR. Meet the Navy, which opened in Toronto in September 1943, demonstrated to a surprised Canada that a bright light of talent had been hiding under a bushel of national inferiority. Not the least of Meet the Navy’s happy surprises were two eighteen-year-old dancers, Chief Petty Officers Blanche Harris and Alan Lund, who bought a wedding ring in Edmonton and were married in Toronto on May 13, 1944. The following October they sailed for Greenock, Scotland.

After a tour of the British Isles Meet the Navy opened at the Hippodrome Theatre in London in February 1945. The enormous theatre was packed for every performance of its twelve-week run. On opening night Noel Coward rushed backstage offering the Lunds star billing in his forthcoming musical comedy, Sigh No More. But they could not he released from the navy. During that eventful evening Blanche and Alan held court in their dressing room for such, celebrities as Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Lady Cavendish, who was Adele Astaire before her marriage. “You are the only dancers I have ever seen who are like Freddy and me,” she said. The next day six leading London agents asked to represent them, and among the almost fulsome kudos in the newspapers was a suggestion by Beverley Baxter, critic of the Evening Standard that, “The Lunds be refused an exit visa if that is the only way to keep them in this country.”

Before the run was over they had choreographed a leading musical comedy, Irene, for impresario Jack Hylton. They had been presented to the King and Queen and they had signed a contract to star in a musical comedy, High Time in the summer of 1946, on the understanding that by then they would be demobilized and free to accept.

In May 1945, after VE-Day, Meet the Navy played to troops in Paris and Brussels then, in September, moved to Oldenburg, Germany. The journey was made in open trucks over bomb-scarred roads. On the way Blanche complained that she had a headache. During rehearsals at Oldenburg it was so severe she could scarcely see. Twice she stumbled because, she explained to Alan, the floor seemed to be tilting and coming up to hit her. During the performance she fell. Alan carried her to their dressing room. Before the doctor

arrived she whispered incoherently about pains in her legs. The doctor took her away on a stretcher and that night he told Alan she had polio and might never walk again.

For several days she was delirious and in such agony that she could not endure the weight of a sheet on her legs. Then, when her fever subsided and her legs no longer hurt because they were paralyzed, no one had the courage to tell her what was the matter. One morning she insisted: “Doctor, I must know what is the matter with me,” she said.

“You have polio,” he replied.

“I thought it must be something like that,” said Blanche. “Everybody looks so glum and you all wear masks when you come near me.”

“Is that all you have to say?” asked the doctor.

“Yes,” said Blanche. Then as an afterthought she reached out and patted the doctor’s hand. “Don’t worry, doctor,” she said. “I’ll get better. You look after Alan.”

The Lunds were more affecting in tragedy than in happiness. Nearly everybody in No. 16 Canadian General

Hospital at Oldenburg was plunged into the gloom that enveloped the cast of Meet the Navy. A padre used to come each morning to pray at Blanche’s bedside. Occasionally he mentioned the profusion of flowers placed in her room by anxious hospital orderlies. From time to time he remarked that the flowers looked familiar. One morning he said: “Would you please tell the boys I don’t mind them stealing the flowers from my chapel but I wish they would return the vases.”

In October, after Meet the Navy had been ordered back to London, Blanche was transferred to No. 22 Canadian General Hospital, in the south of England where she made a quick initial recovery. In a few weeks she was speeding around the hospital corridors in a wheel chair and menacing the safety of the other patients. One day she asked the doctor when she could begin rehearsing her role for the film to be made in London of Meet the Navy. “If you are lucky and if you work hard you may be able to dance again,” he said gravely. “But it will be a long, long time. You must learn to be patient.” She wept and refused to listen when the doctor urged her to leave Alan and go home to Canada where she could get better treatment. But Alan convinced her that this was wise so she left London alone in December 1945. “We were going to miss our contract for High Time. The bottom seemed to have fallen out of everything,” she said.

An Astonishing Recovery

At the DVA hospital in Toronto, Blanche determinedly began an intensive physiotherapy program. For hours she lifted weights with her legs until they improved so that she could swim, ride a bicycle and walk interminably on a little treadmill. Alan had written from London to say that their contract with Moss Empires, the producers of High Time, had been extended for a later production. Blanche meant to be ready for it although nobody believed it possible. She had another ambition: Alan was due home and she was determined that when he first saw her she would be walking. Nobody expected her to make it, but the day before he was due the doctor said she could stand up provided she wore flat-heeled shoes. She wore high heels on the stormy morning in February 1946 when Alan came home and as he stepped through the passengers’ exit at Toronto’s Union Station she took four small slow steps toward him.

This triumph was followed by three months of continuous exercise and in June the doctor said she could dance for five minutes a day. By September, against everybody’s advice, the Lunds were on their way to London to star in Piccadilly Hayride with the late British comedian Sid F’ield. When they left Toronto Blanche was dancing for half an hour a day. In London she began rehearsing for five hours a day and just before the show opened she stepped it up to eight. “Even though we devised steps to make it easy for her sla cried every night after rehearsals,” said Alan. “I had to force myself to rehearse,” said Blanche. “If Piccadilly Hayride was a failure I was afraid we would be finished as a dance team.”

Piccadilly Hayride was a resounding success and the critics again rhapsodized over the Lunds. Jack Hylton asked them to do the choreography for another of his musical productions, Together Again, starring Britain’s beloved Crazy Gang.

When Piccadilly Hayride closed after a seventeen-months run the Lunds came home for a rest. In their language this means no work—just eight hours a day practicing. They then proceeded to acquire an American reputation by dancing in leading cabarets in the United States from New York to San Francisco and from Minneapolis to New Orleans. When they appeared at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood a representative of RKO studios offered them a one-picture contract. They turned it down because they had already promised to go back to London, j

Their third London appearance was j in Fancy Free, starring British comedian Tommy Trinder. Of this the News-Chronicle said: “So far as I am

concerned the show should be called Footloose and Fancy Free in honor of the Lunds for it begins when they come on stage and ends when they leave.” One night toward the end of this show’s nine-months run Blanche twisted her foot. During the intermission she asked the stage doctor if she could finish the show. “Yes, if you can stand the pain,” he said. “But tomorrow you must have it X-rayed.” The X-ray revealed that her foot was broken in three places.

“Blanche never gets trivial ailments,” said Alan, who danced the last seven weeks with a strange partner. It was the first time he liad danced with another girl in thirteen years.

Fear of illness is one worry Blanche and Alan share with all dance teams. The staggering cost of dressing the show for the road is another. Dancers at the top are usually paid about one thousand dollars a week but all those glittering zeros are not gold in the bank. At the end of a U.S. tour in 1950 their income-tax accountant shook his head sadly over their statement of profit and loss. “It hardly seems worth it,” he said..

For a tour of widely dispersed cities they must pay their own traveling expenses and their own living costs— usually in the expensive hotel where their act is booked. They prepare a program of eight numbers and for each of these Blanche must have an elaborate gown costing about five hundred dollars. Each gown has matching panties at five dollars a pair, matching shoes at fifteen dollars a pair and headdresses at about two dollars. Her wardrobe also contains one extra pair of shoes and four pair of elastic opera hose at six-fifty a pair. Alan needs two evening suits at one hundred and fifty dollars each. The gowns must be dry cleaned every two weeks at a cost of three-fifty in Toronto or seven-fifty in New York plus air-express charges to the experts in either of these cities. Before a tour is over replacements may he necessary. Alan often wears out the knees of his trousers sliding on the floor.

The problem of raising a family is one the Lunds share with very few dance teams. And thanks to Mrs. Harris their son Brian is not exactly a problem. Ever since Alan married Blanche “home” has been with her parents and that’s the way he intends to keep it. Two years ago the two families built a joint house in suburban Toronto. Last summer the Lunds took Brian -and Mr. and Mrs. Harris — with them when they went to England but, like most entertainers who aren’t quite sure where they’ll unload their trunks next season, they’re not certain what the future holds. Right now they’d like to spend six months in Canada and six months abroad. But that will depend on how successful future shows may be. Blanche feels the life would be a good one for Brian.

“He might as well learn to like the smell of grease pair.t and cleaning fluid,” she says. Alan concurs. “It isn’t every young man,” he grins, “who gets rocked to sleep by a girl in six-fifty elastic stockings.” in