Sunday, June 20, 2010
The Shimmy Queen
"One day, the entire pre-World War One map of eastern Europe got up, packed it's bags and moved to Wisconsin."
"First I moved the muscles up top. Then I moved the muscles below, with the top stationary. Then I moved the muscles on the right side, with everything stationary on the left. Then I moved the muscles on the left. Then I sort of rippled all the way up from my feet, with everything."
Gilda Gray on dancing "The Shimmy"
Marianna Michalska, a native of Krakow, was 8 years old when she arrived in Milwaukee. It was 1908. Like many other Polish immigrants, the Michalskas settled south of the city in Cudahy - a hard drinking blue collar town built around a major meat packing plant. According to some accounts, she was married at age 11 and a year later, gave birth to a child. As a teenager she sang and danced her way up and down Cuday's endless saloon row - soon to become the highest concentration of bars on a single street in the entire world...and also in Wisconsin. Her brazen, sexually charged dancing style was a hit. She specialized in voodoo dances - all borrowed from black performers. One dance in particular, the shimmy, she made her own. "I was shaking my chemise at Letzka's Tavern", she reminisced,"It felt right to move my body that way." All the men in Milwaukee County agreed, but Marianna was restless. By age 17, she was sick of motherhood, smoke filled bars, cheap gifts and clumsy advances. She left Cudahy, abandoned her husband and child, changed her name to "Mary Gray" and, for awhile, looked back only once - in 1923, to secure a legal divorce from the man who married her so long ago. Sophie Tucker, the Queen of Broadway, welcomed the dazzling newcomer to New York City and changed her name to "Gilda Gray". Gilda Gray became a sensation. She rose to the top of the pile at the Ziegfeld Follies, introduced the Shimmy to "the world" and was soon headlining her own vaudeville revue, grossing a reported $47,000 a week. Al Jolson crowned her "The Queen of the Shimmy Shakers" and her name became synonymous with sensual dancing. It's by no accident that Rita Hayworth's 1945 breakthrough film about a provocative dancer was named "Gilda". Gilda Grey thought so. She settled out of court with the film's producer.
The 1920's passed like a dream. The decade was her moment. From 1919 to 1929, she would earn well over $4,000,000 and leave a brief, dazzling impression in many memoirs of the era.
"At the Follies passes Gilda Grey, a performer of limited talents gifted with unutterable intensity. Against a flaring background in which all the signs of all of Broadway are crowded together, she sings a commentary on the negro invasion -- It's Getting Very Dark on Old Broadway -- the scene fades and radiolite picks out the white dresses of the chorus, the hands and faces recede into black. And while the chorus sings, Miss Greys voice rises in a deep and shuddering ecstasy to cry out the two words, "Getting darker!""
In 1924, Gilda went to Hollywood. She specialized in playing jazz babies and scantily clad exotic dancers and every film featured the shimmy. One such starring vehicle was Aloma of the South Seas. "...A simmering melodrama of the islands where all white men are no good has herewith arrived and given every evidence of appealing to the public taste. None of the cast was overladen with ability or clothing, but they all performed very energetically. Aloma is just about bad enough and just sufficiently exciting to be a success." And it was. Aloma of the South Seas became number one money making picture of 1926, the fourth all time highest grossing film of the silent era. It is also a lost film, and like many lost films from this era, I have a feeling it will eventually turn up in Milwaukee.
The fun and glitter of the jazz age, it's carefree speech, quaint dances and all of Gilda Gray's millions went south with the economy in 1929. In subsequent decades, she managed to limp along on her past fame but at a far lower pay scale than she was used to. She played herself in both Florenz Ziegfeld bio pics, and managed to get some work as a dancer on Broadway. During World War II she was heavily involved in raising money for the relief of Polish exiles. In the early 50's, a brief moment of 1920's nostalgia and a number of television appearances put Gilda Gray back in public view. She launched her comeback act in Milwaukee. The city welcomed her back with open arms and, for a short time, she was able to work the nightclub circuit. In 1959 she was broke, but happily married and living in Hollywood. Just before Christmas of that year, she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 58. In an interview published a year before her death she vented on the state of show business as it stood in the late 50's. "Legs," she complained, "seem to have gone out of fashion lately, with the emphasis on beauty centered above the waist." And she yearned for the era of short, spangled skirts when everything seemed livelier. "They might roar more today, honey, but we had more fun." Amen. Below is a clip from Piccadilly, a 1929 film starring Charles Laughton. Gilda is the dancer.