Archive for December, 2013

Bobby Banas (left) in "Let's Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

Bobby Banas (left) in “Let’s Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

A certain clip on YouTube recently went extremely viral on the Internet, showing a sextette of dancers in 1964 on Judy Garland’s weekly CBS Sunday night program engaging in an energetic routine to the novelty song “The Nitty Gritty,” as voiced by Shirley Ellis (also well-known for her recording of “The Name Game”). Featured front and center was a young male dancer, whose dark hair and black button eyes made him an immediate standout, aside from his impeccable rhythm and the fact that he was tearing into it like his last meal. His name turns out to be Bobby Banas, and besides how brilliant he was in that particular performance, before and after that he’d already made featured appearances in such films as West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and as one of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins, besides being known as the boy who kissed Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love and a plethora of television appearances, which included a famous episode of Get Smart! He’d also made his first initial click in Peter Pan on Broadway with Mary Martin and the subsequent television version on NBC. Banas later became a much-desired choreographer as well as dance teacher in the Los Angeles area, and counted numerous notable names among his students. He’s mostly retired now from the world of terpsichore, but occupies his time as a Rosarian (an expert on rose blossoms). And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more thrilled that the gentleman, now in his very early eighties, found the time to grant us an interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a dancer? Or was it simply that you started in dance classes in any way reluctantly and eventually people came to see that you had a genuine talent for it? Where did the passion for it really begin?

BOBBY BANAS:  I must say that I didn’t know I wanted to be a dancer at that time. It wasn’t until 1941, when the war broke out. Both my parents decided to take jobs, and since they were both from Pennsylvania, my dad became a Military Chief Inspector for the steel mills in McKeesport while mom became a propeller inspector for Curtis Wright in Erie. They were wondering about what was to become of my sister and I, of course. Well, it so happened that our grandmother, dad’s mother, was widowed and lived on a small farm in Windber. Dad thought he could help his mother financially and that it would be a great place for us to grow up, and he and mom visited twice a month. And there was a dancing school in town. So on one of dad’s visits, he went to look it over and to see if Sis and I could take dance lessons. Well, that was the beginning. The teacher’s name was Agnes Shontz, and she taught just about everything; ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics and ballroom. I guess she thought Sis and I would be a miniature version of Fred and Ginger. So Sis wore a beautiful pink gown, and I a black tuxedo, and we danced to Strauss waltzes at parties, weddings and recitals. It was fun. And as we got better at it, she taught us some lifts and spins. At the same time, my grandmother was a heavy churchgoer and she was Russian Orthodox, so we were obliged to go. I eventually became an altar boy for four years and thought of priesthood. But on Saturday evenings, the church had social gatherings at the church hall, and I was blown away when all of a sudden the music would get loud with accordions and violins and balalaikas. The crowd would start to chant when a couple of dancers headed for the room, flip-flopping, knee-spinning, jump-splits and coffee-grinders. I started jumping up and down and couldn’t stand still, because I wanted to join in. It seemed like every clan in Russia was there doing a ritual dance. When the last group finished, everyone in the room grabbed a partner and it was polka time. One Sunday on our way to church, as my Sis and I were walking through town, I heard this unbelievable sound of voices and hand-clapping. I stopped, and it was a storefront with painted windows, so you couldn’t see inside. Once again it was though I was struck by lightning. Here were these voices intoning, “Bless me, O Lord, Hallelujah!” in an infectious pounding rhythm, and my body responded as though someone had taken control of my limbs. I started to dance spontaneously. My sister was saying “Robert, we’re going to be late for church!” and I barely heard her. But I turned and reluctantly headed in her direction.

AM: I understand that your first real dance job on Broadway was in the chorus of Peter Pan at quite a young age. What was that experience like and what were the standout moments? Conversely, how did it differ from doing the television version later?

BB: Well, first you have to understand what led up to that. After the war ended, Dad headed to LA to search for a brother of his. He didn’t have luck tracking him down, but he fell in love with the weather and sent for all of us. Sis and I started dance lessons again, but she became interested in boys and completely lost interest in dance. I continued on, got a scholarship with the Michael Panaieff ballet school and also a scholarship to Hollywood Professional School. I was going to continue theater and dance at UCLA when I graduated, but I attended an audition for Carousel at the LA Civic Light Opera and got cast as Enoch Snow Jr. Then Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Plain and Fancy, and then Peter Pan. Which went to Broadway, and I loved being on Broadway. We played at the Winter Garden for six months, and then Mary Martin got tired, so we closed and did the TV version. But it could only be shown once, as NBC couldn’t get the rights to re-broadcast it at the time. They did eventually, though, and it still gets shown, which makes me happy.

AM: You did so many films as a dancer at the beginning of your career for which you were uncredited. Do you resent that at all? Or was it just sort of, “all in a day’s work?”

BB:  Well, I started in film and television in the 1950s, where first I did a lot of rock’n’roll movies for the producer Sam Katzman. As far as TV, I did Danny Kaye’s show, Dinah Shore’s show, Milton Berle’s show,  “Hollywood Palace,” and “Hullabaloo” later, and then even later I was on a special with Lindsay Wagner and a bunch of others. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I worked all the time. And yes, it was unfortunate to sometimes not be credited. But I will say, Steven Spielberg always went out of his way to credit everybody. I was in both “Hook” and “Always,” and he was very generous about giving credit. At the time I was starting out, getting credit didn’t really matter to me. All I wanted to do was dance. But looking back on it now? Sure, I should have been credited. We all deserved it.  

AM: Can you describe what the experience was like of making West Side Story? How did you feel when it won the Oscar that year?

BB: West Side Story was a big boost to the cast members. Having worked with Jerome Robbins twice before, in both Peter Pan and the film version of The King and I, I felt confident that I had a good chance of getting the job.  But when I saw a lot of unfamiliar faces at the casting call, I figured he’d brought all of his Broadway cast members and this was a publicity stunt. After getting five auditions and getting picked with some other local guys, I was proven wrong about that. Up until the awards came out, I thought it was just another musical. Boy, was I wrong. All the doors started to open when you said you’d been in West Side Story. I was getting jobs right and left, and that’s when I started to choreograph and teach.

AM:  What was it like to work with Marilyn Monroe on Let’s Make Love, and did her death have a profound effect on you?

BB: Working with Marilyn Monroe was a dream. But to be choreographed to kiss her, at the end of the dance number…oh, I thought my heart would explode. What was so funny was, during the end of the dance number, she grabbed me and Alex by the hair before she was to swing around one of the poles. Well, I had a lot of pomade in my hair, and after grabbing it she flew around the pole and lost her balance. She turned to the director and said, “I think someone has too much grease in his hair.” OOPS! So they sent me to makeup to wash my hair. I returned, and the number began again. Now the end was approaching, and I was supposed to kiss her, so I hit her lips with mine but slid across her face. So I turned to the director and said in a low voice, “I think someone has too much grease on her face.” To which they both laughed. Of course it was sad to learn of her death. I felt the same when I learned about Natalie Wood. Both had unusual circumstances and questionable facts about the truth.

AM: Can you describe what the process was like of making Mary Poppins?

BB: Mary Poppins was a delight to work on. All of us sweeps were hired on a higher rate for the stunt-like dancing we were to be doing. DeeDee Woods and Marc Breaux were so nice to everyone, it was more like a family and made everyone feel at ease. I also worked with DeeDee on Li’l Abner and she was a gem there also. It was a lot of fun, with a lot of very energetic dancing originally choreographed by Michael Kidd.

AM: Do you have any one film performance of yours that you’d consider your very favorite of all?

BB: I guess I’d have to say working with Marilyn Monroe. I became the envy of all the other male dancers because of the kiss. but it was a great experience to work with Jack Cole, who gave me a lot of strength and posture to better my dance technique.

AM: Is it at all surprising that the clip of “The Nitty Gritty” from the Judy Garland show has gone so viral recently? What do you remember most about doing that show? And was that your choreography?

BB: I can’t BELIEVE what has happened with the “Nitty Gritty” clip. Several years ago a friend said he had a copy that he found somewhere. He gave me one, I looked at it and put it away. I didn’t think it was anything to get that excited about, and that was that. Then I guess someone else found a copy, and posted it on YouTube. Then someone else posted it on Facebook and the sh*t hit the fan. I was getting e-mail and calls, and questions about who was which dancer besides me, and all types of remarks wanting to know what type of dance it was. Yes, it was my choreography and my own interpretation of the song. Peter Gennaro was the choreographer for Garland,  but he had to go to New York that week for some reason and his assistant didn’t have any idea what to do with the tune, so the director asked me to come up with a dance and that was the result.

AM: I’m told that when you were teaching, one of your students (who adores you) was my pal Tracy Nelson. What other notable students have you had, and what do or did you enjoy most about teaching?

BB: I just started to teach and I enjoyed it so much. I started the Bob Banas Musical Dance Company, with young kids and older ones. We performed at City of Hope, the World Martial Arts Competition at the Sports Arena,  Rug Concerts, the Hollywood Press Club, the opening of shopping centers, and so many other venues. I’ve done lectures at different universities, I taught at the Dick Grove School of Music, and I’ve done a lot of work with disabled children. Some other students I’ve had were Cher, Barbara Hershey, Susan Clark, John Travolta, BarBara Luna, Charmian Carr and Bruce Lee, to name a few. Teaching is like giving back, helping and encouraging those who wanted the thrill of performing on stage with music and lights before a live audience. Some had the talent to pursue further, but for some reason had other dreams. But they took with them the great experience of having done it. And there were a few that went on to become professionals.    

AM: Obviously the world of theater-dance had lost a lot of wonderful people in the last thirty years. Who of your contemporaries do you miss the most? And who do you still treasure most as friends?

BB:  It’s so hard to name those dancers I worshiped most. I always thought Gene Kelly was great, but never had the chance to work with him. I did get to work with Bob Fosse and loved his work, Jack Cole had a great style, and I loved studying ballet with Michael Panaieff.

AM: What is an average day like for the Bobby Banas of today?

BB:  Well, I’m a professional Rosarian now, taking care of people’s roses. One of my clients is Debbie Reynolds, with whom I’ve been privileged to work on the movies Say One for Me and How the West Was Won besides The Unskinable Molly Brown. Usually I’m up at 5 AM to start with a client in Malibu, then off to Westwood, Beverly Hills and Studio City. My busiest time is just after New Year’s, when I get to prune all the roses back and prepare them for dormancy. Then in spring I get to revive them and prepare for the first bloom. I’m always at a nursery buying supplies, and checking out the new rose additions for the coming year.

AM: What advice would you offer to the average young man of today, no matter how talented or not, who wanted to try to make it as a dancer?

BB: To become a dancer today, I must say, is totally different from when I started out. Hip-hop and acrobatic tumbling seems to dominate the dance scene now.  The show “Glee” kind of represents the old style along with some hip-hop, but they add vocals to make everybody a triple threat. It does represent Broadway and in musicals in film and television, but in my day I had to study ballet, tap, ballroom, primitive, modern, acting and jazz. Now, it seems, if you can throw a back-handspring or a few coffee-grinders, you can call yourself a specialty dancer. Granted, any precision group dancing can be as effective as well as someone who spins on his head. Break dancing and hip-hop qualify as effective, of course. But I’d rather see West Side Story, Carousel, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Mary Poppins.

And who wouldn’t? Bobby Banas is a national treasure. Please check out his rich legacy of dancing on film.

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