The dancer with million dollar legs

In the 1953 MGM movie Kiss Me Kate, Ann Miller (1923–2004) bursts into a production meeting between her actor boyfriend and composer Cole Porter, dazzling them with the number “Too Darn Hot.” Her machine-gun tap routine lets loose atop a coffee table; her mile-long legs are presented in all their glory as she towers over the men. Miller’s dancing resembles fireworks, visually and acoustically. Like her Broadway-bound character, the Texas-born dancer aimed high. Dancing with athleticism and determination, Miller was one of the first female Hollywood tappers to move beyond the chorus line and become a solo artist.

Originally known as Johnnie Lucille Collier (her father wanted a son), Miller took her first dance lessons to strengthen her legs weakened by rickets. She found ballet instruction stifling, but the rhythms of tap set her aflame. “I was always tapping like a whirlwind,” she wrote in her 1972 autobiography, Miller’s High Life.

When Miller was 9, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. At a Sunset Boulevard storefront where tap shoes were sold, Miller was given a board, shoes and practice time, to the delight of onlookers. Her big break came when Lucille Ball and actor/comedian Benny Rubin saw her dance at San Francisco’s Bal Tabarin nightclub. She formally changed her name to the all-American sounding Ann Miller and signed a seven-year RKO contract when she was 13 years old. (A fake birth certificate stated she was 18.)

Almost immediately, the critics compared her dancing to that of Eleanor Powell, who was 11 years her senior. But unlike Powell, Miller was marketed as a glamour girl, and directors—including Hermes Pan, Robert Alton, Busby Berkeley and Jack Cole—capitalized on her long, muscular legs. She enthralled audiences with her speed, producing a rumored 500 taps per minute. Even so, Powell was clinching many of the tap roles. So at 16, Miller left Hollywood and joined the cast of George White’s Scandals, a high-end burlesque show on Broadway. She devised a number called “The Mexiconga,” which adopted the call-and-response structure of jazz music. She writes in her 1972 autobiography: “To every beat of the drum, I gave an answer with my feet.” The producer realized they had a star on their hands, and to advertise the show, Miller’s image was plastered across Times Square.

A year later, RKO welcomed her back and her salary skyrocketed from $250 to $3,000 a week. Despite the paycheck, Miller never starred in a movie and she moved to Columbia Pictures in search of better parts. There, she wowed audiences in the film The Thrill of Brazil (1946) with a six-minute tap number that included 125 turns, choreographed by Hermes Pan.

Finally, in 1948, Miller landed a role across from Fred Astaire in MGM’s Easter Parade. MGM was where she expanded her artistic range (1949–55): In On the Town (also starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), she played a wisecracking, boy-crazy anthropologist; and in Hit the Deck, she danced barefoot with emotional abandon. And after her scintillating “Too Darn Hot” number in Kiss Me Kate, Lloyds of London insured her legs for a million dollars. But regardless of these successes, Miller dubbed herself “the Queen of the Bs” because she appeared in dozens of B movies, made quickly for mass consumption.

When the Golden Age of movie musicals came to a close, Miller made numerous TV and commercial appearances. In 1969, she starred on Broadway in Mame, replacing Angela Lansbury. A decade later, she co-starred with Mickey Rooney in a vaudeville-style revue, Sugar Babies, which then toured for nine years.

Honored with a Gypsy Award (1993) and the Flo-Bert Award (1994), Miller received acknowledgement that her devotion to show business was as strong as her million-dollar legs. Her career spanned seven decades, proving that her artistry ran deeper than her brassy sex appeal. In 1998, she made her last stage appearance in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, where she nightly affirmed her staying power, singing the ballad “I’m Still Here.” DT

Did You Know?

* Miller’s first Columbia film, You Can’t Take It With You, won the 1938 Academy Award for Best Picture.

* At 14, Miller was in the 1937 film Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball.

* Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is said to have given Miller a tap lesson backstage at the Houston Theatre.

* Miller has a Walk of Fame star on Hollywood Boulevard between producer Charles Fries and Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger).

* In 1996, “Saturday Night Live” actress Molly Shannon spoofed Ann Miller in a skit, “Leg Up,” that also featured Cheri Oteri as Debbie Reynolds and guest Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES 

Books and Articles

Conner, Jim. Ann Miller Tops in Taps, An Authorized Pictorial History. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981.

Frank, Rusty, E. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories: 1900-1955. New York: Da Capo Press, 1990, 1994.

Miller, Ann and Nora Lee Browning. Miller’s High Life. New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1972

Films

You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Columbia Pictures

The Thrill of Brazil (1946), Columbia Pictures

Easter Parade (1948), MGM

On The Town (1949), MGM

Kiss Me Kate (1953), MGM

Hit The Deck (1955), MGM

 

Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Photo courtesy of the American Tap Dance Foundation

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