BY LAURIE TOTH
Editor’s note: Social historian and dancer Laurie Toth captures the story of these legendary Chicago dancers and tells us more about Ann Barzel and her collection donated to the Newberry Library.
Many years ago, while working at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, I had the honor of meeting Ann Barzel, the famous dance critic and writer known throughout the dance world. She donated her vast collection of programs, notes, artifacts (which included Anna Pavlova’s Pointe shoes), and other memorabilia to the Newberry Library. This collection is now available to researchers on the 4th floor of the Library.
One day Ann invited me to come down to the Newberry Library to have a personal tour of her collection and to have lunch with her—an experience I will treasure forever! While discussing the history of dance in Chicago and past dancers and companies, I asked her about her memories of what I called “the early Chicago Rockettes.” These were the line dancers that performed in the various dining rooms of the major hotels in Chicago in the 1930s through the mid-1950s. I asked her to tell me about Dorothy Hild, who had been the entertainment director and choreographer at the Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Marine Dining Room. Her response was quick and fierce: “No! I will not tell you about her—she was mean and nobody liked her, not even her dancers!” She added, “Furthermore, one day when I am gone, you will write an article or book about her, and she does not deserve that!”
She went on to say, “Sit down, let me tell you a story about Merriel Abbott—she was the entertainment director and choreographer of the dancers in the Palmer House’s Empire Room. If you are going to write something, it should be about her.” So, in deference to Ann Barzel, I will start by telling you about Merriel Abbott.
Merriel Abbott, pronounced “Mary-el” (as I was informed was the correct pronunciation of her name, a pronunciation she personally would insist on), was 84 years old when she passed away in 1977. Studying dance became an interest of hers when Anna Pavlova was all the rage and every young girl hoped and dreamed of dancing just like Anna.
Merriel began her dance studies with Andre Pavley and Serge Oukransky, two Russian-trained dancers who had left Russia in the early 1900s and opened a dance studio in Chicago. Soon Merriel began assisting and teaching in the Andre and Serge’s school, opening her own dance studio in 1922. Before her school closed 20 years later in 1942, she had trained 10,000 young dancers. Among her students were Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Miller, and June Taylor (of the June Taylor Dancers on the Jackie Gleason Show).
In 1933 she formed a dance troupe to perform in the Empire Room of the Palmer House Hotel. The Merriel Abbott Dancers performed for 24 years, ending in 1957. As the dancers would leave to marry or go on to grander jobs in show business, they would be replaced with new, young, talented dancers. Over the years Merriel held auditions and hired dancers who could perform a wide variety of dance genres. One audition she held in the 1940s was to hire 9 dancers, but 70 showed up to audition! The lucky nine dancers were all seventeen years old. One little girl showed up at this audition and Merriel asked her age, saying you must be sixteen to work. The little girl replied, “I am only twelve, but I love dance and do not consider it work.” Another was asked if she could do “walkovers” and “backovers,” to which the girl responded, “No, just tap.” Merriel’s response was: “Sorry, you have to be acrobatic to succeed here.”
Another huge emphasis was on weight: she made the comment that “weight is most important—we are more interested in weight than age.” This was proved true, as the dancers were weighed weekly and for each pound they gained, they had to pay $5. Apparently, this money went for a party every year. I remember meeting Merriel Abbott many years ago while working a summer job at the Palmer House. She did mention weighing her dancers every Monday and if they gained a pound, she made them run up the stairs from the 2nd basement to the 20th floor of the Palmer House. I was very young and taking ballet every day, so I tried running up the stairs—this is not easy as I only made it to the 7th floor before I could not go any further!
After the dance troupe dissolved in the mid-1950s, Merriel stayed on as the entertainment director for the Empire Room until her death in 1977. She booked big name talent such as Sonny and Cher, Bobby Vinton, and Phyllis Diller, to name but a few. She was married to a famous orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Philip Lewin. The story Ann told me about Merriel involved her son. Dr. Lewin had performed surgery on an orphaned baby boy, and they decided to adopt him. However, he was in a Catholic orphanage and Dr. Lewin and Merriel were Jewish. They could adopt him by agreeing to raise him as Catholic. So, Ann told me Merriel would sit with him and teach him his Catholic catechism every night. She was not just a very successful businessperson but a very caring soul, as well.
I first met Dorothy Hild when I was a teen studying ballet at the Ruth Page School of Dance. Dorothy needed extra dancers for her outdoor performance of La Giaconda one summer. She thought I would be perfect because my name was Laurie and the character I was to dance was named Laura. My memory of her was of a small, petite woman with sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around her head. At the time I never suspected the interesting life she had led.
I had been told she had been the entertainment director and choreographer of dancers who performed at the now demolished Edgewater Beach Hotel. It did not mean much to me at the time because I had grown up in the suburbs and had never heard of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. All I remember of the La Giaconda performance were the garish colors of the costumes, which later research I found to be her trademark. In one article one of her dancers from the 1940s was quoted as saying, “Dorothy had a nightmare and that became our next costume.”
When Dorothy passed away in 1984, she left 13 cardboard boxes filled with photos, notes, musical arrangements, news clippings, and other mementos of her life in the entertainment world of Chicago. Imagine my surprise when with gloved hands I held my photo from La Giaconda among all the dancers in her photo box!
Dorothy was born in 1909 and began her dance training early—many photos of her as a small child are in pointe shoes and tutus. By the 1930s Dorothy had joined and quickly became the premier dancer of the Ainsley Lambert Dancers, who performed in the Terrace Garden of the Morrison Hotel. Ainsley, a character that probably deserves his own article, became her first husband. He started as a vaudeville hoofer and became assistant director of the Ziegfeld Follies before coming to Chicago to direct the dancers at the Granada Theater.
Though recovering from a serious car accident, it did not stop him from teaching his dancers new routines. He did this with doll shoes attached to his fingers to show them the steps. I am not sure how long this marriage lasted, or really anything about this relationship, except that they remained close friends until his death.
Dorothy became the entertainment director and choreographer for the Marine Dining Room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel around 1943 until about 1955. Her dancers performed various dance acts that changed every month. During the summer months, there were circus acts that included live animals such as elephants and horses. These acts were performed on the boardwalk right outside the doors of the Marine Dining Room.
Alexander Konyot was one of the acts during the summer with show horses. He became her second husband. Again, there was no documentation in those thirteen boxes to indicate how long they were together.
During the Christmas holiday season, the holiday routine included “Jingle Bells” done with bells around their ankles! Every season brought a new performance. The dancers were paid $30 a week, plus room and board at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, or $40 if they chose to live elsewhere. Dorothy lived and worked at the Edgewater Beach Hotel until 1955 when the dancing troupe was no longer needed and the Marine Dining room became another venue. It was the beginning of the end for the hotel, as Lake Shore Drive had been extended and the boardwalk was no more. By 1970 the hotel itself was demolished to make way for three high rises.
So, why did this form of entertainment go out of vogue in the ‘50s? The television set became available in every home. Yes, TVs were small and only in black and white, but they opened a new form of entertainment that became the demise of the more expensive hotel dining rooms. This new form of entertainment did not require dressing up or spending additional money. Prior to the television, the main source of entertainment was to go to a place for dinner, dancing, and a show.
Both Merriel and Dorothy were ahead of their time, as women directors in hotels did not come into vogue until the 1980s. So, were they mean or difficult? Some say they were. I prefer to believe they were stern taskmasters, perfectionists in dance, and, to their credit, both had amazing teams of well-trained dancers. Both forbade their dancers from dating the musicians but many ended up marrying musicians. The story goes there was a back door that many young dancers went out to meet their future husbands, including Dorothy Hild. In the end, both were strong women running departments and responsible for entertaining the public in an era when women did not hold executive positions of power.