Jeanne Randall: Dancing with the Stars
Jun 28, 2014 01:31PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
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Jeanne Randall: Dancing with the Stars
by Monica Prinzing
There’s nothing like a little bling to attract a young girl’s attention. For professional dance instructor Jeanne Randall, whose illustrious career spans an impressive 66 years, it was a pair of gold, sparkly tap shoes that captured her heart and changed her course forever.
“I was 8 years old and never saw anything like that in my life,” said Randall, 76, as she recalled setting eyes on her neighborhood friend’s magical shoes. “It was like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Those shoes opened up a whole new world for me.”
In that moment, Randall knew dance was her calling. She began studying all forms of the craft, eventually taking classes and dancing with many of the industry’s greats, as well as opening her own dance studio.
“Life has literally been one step at a time,” Randall said. “It’s a process.”
Creating a dream
Born in Paris, Ark., to James and Robin Redding, Randall came from less-than-modest means.
“This is why I never thought I’d make it as a dancer,” Randall said, flipping through old photos of herself as a toddler and her family’s run-down home with outdoor plumbing. The little girl was fortunate, however, to take piano lessons.
“Both sides of my family had a lot of musical ability and talent; we didn’t have a cooking pot but we always had a piano,” Randall said with a chuckle.
Her family eventually moved across the country and settled in Fresno when her father completed his service with the U.S. Navy and accepted a job at the Port Hueneme shipyard. Her mother worked as a secretary at Jefferson Elementary School where Randall attended.
At 10 years old, Randall began taking lessons downtown at the Jimmy Powell Dance Studio. Powell, Randall’s uncle, was a natural teacher who had danced with stars such as musical film sensation Vera-Ellen, known for her pairings with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and other legendary performers.
“I loved everything to do with dance–acrobatics, hula, tap, ballet,” Randall said.
The quick study with a lean, flexible body conducted her first professional performance that same year at the former White Theatre in Fresno. Randall did a solo acrobatic number and then an adagio routine with her 12-year-old partner, Lewis Schulte. The two youngsters gained the title “Fresno dancing marvels” in the media.
Two years later, the preteen began teaching at Powell’s studio, earning 25 cents a half hour. “I thought that was pretty good!” she said.
As a Fresno High School student, Randall continued teaching and honing her skills by participating in various youth theater and dance clubs, the state fair and talent shows. While dance remained her passion, the class of 1955 graduate planned to attend college and become a school teacher.
But Randall’s path, initially inspired by a pair of glittery shoes, took a different turn.
Randall befriended a student at a Los Angeles dance convention who convinced her to stay in the city that summer after graduation. “And I didn’t go back,” Randall said. “I was skinny and tall, and often felt out of place. When I went to L.A., I found my people.”
Dancing with the stars
Eugene Loring, a world-renowned choreographer, founded the American School of Dance in 1948 in Hollywood. The school was housed in the basement of the Garden Court Apartments, a historic building built in 1919 that early on became home to many celebrities, including starlet Clara Bow, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and actor/director Mack Sennett.
“Mack took my girlfriend and me under his wing,” Randall said of the man who discovered Charlie Chaplin. “He always wore a suit and a fedora hat, and watched us dance from the windows outside.”
“All of us hung out in the lobby around the TV and got to know people in the building,” she continued. “We became like family.”
Randall blossomed. She studied ballet, freestyle, modern, jazz and tap dance with Loring for hours each day, sometimes well into the night. “Mr. Loring,” as his students called him, choreographed and danced in “Billy the Kid,” credited as the first American ballet.
“I knew two Mr. Lorings,” Randall said. “He was a funny man; he had a lot of contacts and helped a lot of people. He was also a focused man; when he came into the room you couldn’t hear a pin drop. Everyone respected him.”
Randall had access to other well-known teachers, from George Balanchine (“father of American ballet”), Charles Weidman (a pioneer of modern dance) and Merce Cunningham (innovator of abstract dance movement), to box-office star Mitzi Gaynor, acclaimed ballerina Madame Kathryn Etienne, and renowned dancers/choreographers/directors Ernie Flatt and Todd Bolender.
“I especially admired Mitzi Gaynor. She was such an enormous influence on me,” Randall said of the superstar who continues to perform, including most recently in her live, one-woman show, “Razzle Dazzle! My Life Behind the Sequins.”
As the students strived to perfect their technique, famous actresses and dancers in their prime such as Cyd Charisse, Carmen de Lavallade, Juliet Prowse, Debbie Reynolds and Ginger Rogers dropped in periodically to take a class or receive private tutoring.
“I could watch Juliet Prowse all day,” Randall said. “Her ballet training in South Africa was impeccable.”
During this time, Randall also met actresses/dancers Maria Jimenez Henley and Yvonne Craig, two of her closest friends still today. Later, Henley was handpicked to play the role of “Shark” dancer Teresita in the motion picture “West Side Story,” and Craig portrayed Batgirl in the hit TV series “Batman.”
“I was having the time of my life,” Randall said. “We were muscle and bone. All we did was dance. Our goal in life was just to dance.”
In addition to dance classes, Randall studied dance history, character theory, choreography, music theory and more. “Mr. Loring was really ahead of his time. His school was like a college,” she said.
The more Randall learned, the more Loring sent her to auditions–and the jobs rolled in. The long-legged, 5-foot-8-inch Randall with a 19-inch waist appeared as the lead dancer at premier hotel casinos, including with the Dorothy Dorbin Dancers at The Mapes in Reno–where she celebrated her 18th birthday–and later at The Sands in Las Vegas.
“I used the back of my dressing room chair to do pliés to keep up my skills. The other girls laughed at me–they were showgirls, I was a dancer,” Randall emphasized with a smile.
Randall toured with Bob Hope’s Mid-Pacific United Service Organization’s Christmas shows unit to entertain U.S. troops, as well as the Eugene Loring Dance Players, which included the production of the popular musical comedy “Show Boat” in Dubuque, Iowa.
“Bob Hope was such a nice guy,” Randall said. “He walked up and down the airplane just thanking us. I didn’t tell him I would’ve done it for free.”
Randall also performed in Los Angeles and San Francisco productions of Broadway musicals through the Civic Light Opera. After a grueling audition process for “At the Grand,” she landed a coveted dancer spot and her first professional acting role during the show’s lobby scenes.
About 300 young women auditioned for the play’s four remaining dancer positions. When 14 prospects were left standing, the requirements intensified. “They made us do one pirouette in so many seconds, then two, three, four, as a way to weed us out,” Randall said of one of the most classic ballet moves. “I did it. I got lucky that day.”
The lavish adaptation of Vicki Baum’s novel, “Grand Hotel,” featuring opera star Joan Diene, famed actor Paul Muni, baritone/actor David Atkinson and actress/singer/dancer Neile Adams (wife of Steve McQueen), premiered in Los Angeles followed by San Francisco.
“Dancing is freedom and pure joy, the ability to physically express what’s in your heart,” Randall said, pausing on a glossy image of herself waltzing in “At the Grand” with Bob Turk, who later created and directed the Ice Capades. “There’s nothing like it.”
“At the Grand” would be the carefree Randall’s last big gig on the professional circuit. She decided to go back to school to become a physical therapist, perhaps for a ballet company, and settle down. While she traveled between taking college courses in Fresno and performing with Loring’s dance group, she eventually returned to Fresno for good when she married a local dentist.
The new bride’s dancing shoes didn’t rest for long.
Taking the next step
Soon Randall’s family grew to include three daughters, all gifted in their own way in the performing arts. Randall kept her foot in the business by teaching part time at the Powell Dance Studio.
When Randall’s marriage ended in the mid-‘70s, she found herself at another crossroads. She fell back on what she knew best to support her young children. Long before Facebook and Twitter, the determined mother distributed flyers advertising her new Fig Garden Dance Studio to gauge interest.
“After three days, I had 250 replies,” Randall said, recalling the flood of phone calls and inquiries. “The response was incredible.”
Randall’s successful venture, open to anyone age 3 and up, expanded to 1,200 students and multiple locations. She brought the first “turns-only” class to Fresno; taught ballet, tap and jazz at California State University, Fresno; and enjoyed carting van loads of her students to Los Angeles dance events “so they could experience what I did,” she said.
A decade later, the lights of L.A. called Randall’s name again. She sold her business and took a job directing a dance center for children run by Roland Dupree, the accomplished dancer/choreographer/teacher. She taught the kids of numerous celebrities such as Vanessa Williams, Jeff Bridges, Ruth Pointer, Paul Michael Glaser, William Sadler, Ted Bessell and Fred Segal.
“It was such an exciting time,” Randall said.
Life circumstances altered Randall’s path when her mother became ill. Like Dorothy, Randall clicked her enchanted shoes one more time and found herself back home in Fresno.
Keeping the dream alive
“I have so much admiration and respect for Jeanne,” said Sue Sampson-Dalena, owner of The Dance Studio of Fresno. “I’ve known her all of my life.”
Sampson-Dalena met Randall when she began learning ballet and tap at 8 years old at the Powell Dance Studio. “I felt like a giraffe but Jeanne made me feel amazing,” she said. “She was the first teacher to get me on point and show me L.A.”
The two reconnected and Randall has been teaching at her former student’s dance studio for nearly 20 years. Throughout Randall’s teaching career, many of her students have also gone on to Broadway and The Julliard School and received college scholarships.
“What’s unique about Jeanne is that she’ll always come get me during class to show me something wonderful about a child – the light in their eyes, pretty feet, a new accomplishment. She truly cares about each student,” Sampson-Dalena said.
Now a grandmother, Randall admits she has more physical limitations these days but that doesn’t stop her.
“At my age, I still love it,” Randall, who has retained her remarkable ability to choreograph steps and routines in her mind’s eye, said. “The Valley is a hotbed of talent. I’m doing something I love with people I love. Most teachers here will agree, this is our happy place.”
In the era of reality TV, when competitive dance has become more like a spectator sport, Randall strives to keep the essence of dance front and center.
“First and foremost, dance is an art that needs to be respected, that generations before us created. We try to instill that,” Sampson-Dalena said. “Jeanne’s classical training and influence pass that on. She’s inspired generations of students not only in dance but also in life skills.”
During a recent Wednesday class, as youngsters in one of Randall’s ballet classes practiced their leaps and turns, Randall called out, “Keep your heels together!” followed by, “That’s very, very messy. Let’s do that again!”
“I like Teacher Jeanne because she pushes us to be better,” Valerie Jimenez, 8, said.
“She encourages us and tells us how to correct things,” Mande Puente, 9, added.
When the session ended, several girls gathered around Randall, sweetly telling her, “I love you,” as they hugged her goodbye.
“I love you, too,” Randall echoed, her eyes glistening. “See you next time.”
And so Randall’s gold, sparkly tap shoes keep dancing. And the dance goes on.
Monica Prinzing is a full-time writer in the medical field. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she enjoys freelancing on various topics.