Ann Miller, fast-tapping dancer, actress in musicals, dead at 81

Friday, January 23rd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Ann Miller was a childhood dance prodigy who fast-tapped her way to movie stardom that peaked in 1940s musicals like ``On the Town,'' ``Easter Parade'' and ``Kiss Me Kate.'' But she remained a dazzling tapper later in life, earning millions on Broadway.

The long-legged, raven-haired actress and dancer died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of lung cancer, said Esme Chandlee, her longtime friend and former publicist. She was 81.

Miller's film career peaked at MGM in the late 1940s and early '50s, but she honed her chops into her 60s, earning millions for ``Sugar Babies,'' a razzmatazz tribute to the era of burlesque featuring Mickey Rooney.

``At MGM, I always played the second feminine lead; I was never the star in films,'' she once recalled. ``I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen.

```Sugar Babies' gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.''

Rooney said Thursday that Miller ``was a great talent. She is a great talent. I'll never think of her as being gone.''

``She told me the last time I spoke to her she wasn't feeling too well, and I said, 'Keep your head up, kid.' I'm just very sad.''

Debbie Reynolds, who also danced in films, noted that Miller could sing as well as dance.

``She could knock 'em dead vocally as well as outdance everybody,'' Reynolds said.

Miller's legs, pretty face and fast tapping (she claimed the record of 500 taps a minute) earned her jobs in vaudeville and night clubs when she first came to Hollywood. Her early film career included working as a child extra in films and as a chorus girl in a minor musical, ``The Devil on Horseback.''

An appearance at the popular Bal Tabarin in San Francisco won a contract at RKO studio, where her name was shortened to Ann.

Her first film at RKO, ``New Faces of 1937,'' featured her dancing. She next played an acting hopeful in ``Stage Door,'' with Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden.

When Cyd Charisse broke a leg before starting ``Easter Parade'' at MGM with Fred Astaire, Miller replaced her. That led to an MGM contract and her most enduring work.

She was teamed with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in ``On the Town,'' Red Skelton in ``Watch the Birdie,'' and Bob Fosse in ``Kiss Me Kate.''

Other MGM films included: ``Texas Carnival,'' ``Lovely to Look At,'' ``Small Town Girl,'' ``Deep in My Heart,'' ``Hit the Deck'' and ``The Opposite Sex.''

The popularity of musicals declined in the 1950s, and her film career ended in 1956. Miller remained active in television and the theater, dancing and belting songs on Broadway in ``Hello, Dolly'' and ``Mame.''

In later years, she astounded audiences in New York, Las Vegas and on the road with her dynamic tapping in ``Sugar Babies.'' The show opened on Broadway in 1979 and toured for years. In 1990, she commented that ``Sugar Babies'' had made her financially independent.

Before each performance, she practiced for an hour.

``Honestly, I have had to live like a high priestess in this show,'' she remarked in a 1984 interview. ``It is a very, very lonely life. When you work the way I work _ that means hard _ there's no time for play.''

She was born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Chireno, Texas, the first name dictated by her father, who had wanted a boy. After her parents divorced, she was called Annie, for reasons she never knew.

Growing up in Houston, Annie suffered from rickets, and dancing lessons helped straighten her legs. Her mother was almost totally deaf and could not find work. By the age of 12, Annie was almost full grown at 5 feet 5, and she danced to support her mother and herself.

While her career in Hollywood prospered, Miller became a regular figure in the town's night life, and she caught the eye of Louis B. Mayer, all-powerful head of MGM. After dating, she declined to marry him because her mother would not allow it. She later married and divorced steel heir Reese Milner and oilmen William Moss and Arthur Cameron.