Bob Fosse, the dancer/choreographer who revolutionized modern theatrical dancing, grew up in Chicago but left the Midwest before he turned 20 to make it big in New York and Hollywood, respectively. The renewed interest in this consummate showman’s life is due to a new big, widely-acclaimed biography that just hit the shelves: “Fosse,” by Sam Wasson, which was published in early November by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“He was the life of the party,” Wasson said of Fosse at an author event held Nov. 21 at the Landmark Century Theatre, 2828 N. Clark St. When a Fosse niece in the audience referred to her late uncle as “an amazing, amazing person,” Wasson replied, “All of the dancers I spoke to said basically the same thing.”
But all was not shine and sparkle in show biz land. Wasson also stressed that Fosse’s “inner demons” plagued him throughout his life, and are essential to understanding his career. “Bob never thought he was any good at anything,” Wasson said. “If they liked it, he figured he had fooled them.”
Robert Louis “Bob” Fosse grew up in his family’s two-story red brick home at 4428 N. Paulina St. The youngest and reportedly cutest of five children, Fosse went to grammar school a half-block south of his home at Ravenswood School, which even today is a thriving place. At the age of nine, he accompanied his sister Patsy to dance lessons at the corner of Montrose and Ashland, at the Chicago Academy of Theatre Arts. Patsy was not too interested in dance, but her brother had a crush on one of her friends, and said, “I’m not going to be left out of this.”
Amazingly, that first crush of Bob Fosse’s was at the Nov. 21 author event. She is a tall, silver-haired woman named Beth Vanderbloom, who smiled and waved to the packed theatre as she was introduced as one of the dancer’s early loves. (After Beth, Fosse’s life was filled with women. The last of his four wives was the acclaimed dancer Gwen Verdon.)
Another Fosse friend who was in attendance at the Century was Charlie Grass, who danced with Fosse professionally when both were nine or ten years old. Their act was known as the Riff Brothers, and after school and on weekends they would perform on the road in places like Elks and Kiwanis halls, earning money which Fosse gave to his parents, who were glad to have the extra cash during the Depression. (Fosse was born in 1927. He died sixty years later, in 1987.)
“We had to do the dumps first to get the better jobs,” said Grass, a tall, athletic gentleman of mature years sitting proudly in the front row. Of his dancing partner Fosse, Grass said, “He’d lock himself in the studio for three to four hours. Practice Practice Practice. And look where it got him.”
In 1945, the year Fosse turned 18, he found himself on a Navy ship, touring the Pacific, working as an entertainer. His captain and boss on that ship was none other than Joseph Papp, who went on to become a legend in show business, for, among other things, founding New York’s Public Theatre.
In 1946, that ship docked in New York. It was Fosse’s first time in the Big Apple. He ended his service, stayed in the city, and his career took off. He started touring Manhattan nightclubs with his first wife, Mary Ann Niles. They performed on network TV programs, such as the Colgate Comedy Hour. (Among the wealth of Fosse material on Youtube, is “Limehouse Blues,” a number the pair performed on this show in 1951.)
Soon Fosse was on the West Coast, dancing in movies, such as 1953’s “The Affairs of Dobie Gillis.” A pivotal moment in Fosse’s career came in 1953, when he danced in and choreographed a small number in the film “Kiss Me Kate” with the dancer Carol Haney. This led to the famous producer George Abbott hiring Fosse for his first real job as the choreographer of a Broadway show, 1954’s “The Pajama Game.”
Nonetheless, the dancer from Chicago had misgivings about it all. “Fosse wanted to be a star,” said the biographer Wasson, who is young-looking, with thick black hair and bright eyes. “When he started getting jobs as a choreographer, he thought, ‘I’m a failure.’”
Numerous high-profile shows from the 1960s and 1970s featured Fosse, now principally as the lead choreographer. And with the film version of the Broadway hit “Sweet Charity,” Fosse became a director.
A list of projects Fosse was involved with in these years reads like a roster of the best shows of the era, including “Damn Yankees,” “Pippin,” and “Chicago.” In 1972, Fosse did what no one had done before (or has done since): he won a Tony Award for “Pippin”; an Emmy for “Liza With a Z”; and an Academy Award for directing the movie version of “Cabaret.”
Fosse left Chicago at a young age to conquer the heights of show business. But it seems that he never forgot where he came from. Near the end of the author event at the Century Theatre, another niece of Fosse’s said a few words from the audience. According to this woman, Fosse was, of course, away from the family much of the time. But he would return sometimes. (She referred to him as “Uncle Bobby.”) And then, when he returned, according to his niece, “He gave us dance lessons on grandma’s banister.”
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