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Betsy Ross Davis No. 06 [June 13, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0579
Run Time
0h 19m 24s
Date Produced
June 13 1985
Q: Life on the road, Betsy, morning to night, what was it like?
A: Traveling with Ruth and Bentley in the Page-Stone Company was great fun. I'm afraid I remember the fun first and the work later. I don't like to think that I didn't take it all that seriously. I did. I tried very hard, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Well, you're supposed to, after all. If you can't enjoy your work, why are you doing it? But we'd have fairly long bus hops between places, we'd travel all day in the bus and we had to be very careful, because even at that tender age your feet puff up if you're sitting too long. So, we'd have to get our feet up in the air, and we'd sing a lot. We sang all kinds of songs, and we would make them up. We also played the game, "What poem does she remind you of? What music does . . . ?" Did you ever play that? It's a wonderful personality game. "What music does she remind you of?" "What colors?" Then you get this whole thing together and then you pick the personality and you'd be surprised how often you're right, even picking one out of the blue. First you say, "Alive or dead," and then they'd get one "alive." "Someone we know, or someone we don't know?" So we did that for hours on end.
     And then when we got to the [place], we invariably went straight to the theater. And these were colleges, so the theaters were not . . . sometimes we'd be making up in the school rooms and sometimes in the gymnasiums. And sometimes we'd have one bag which was a theater bag and one bag which was clothes. And traveled in slacks or skirts, very informally. Then we'd scramble into the theater and do our makeup partially. Then get out on the stage and do our class, if Bentley had time to teach one, or a barre by ourselves. Because the first number was Giaconda, and that was all on pointe, and we had to dance properly.
     The changing was difficult. Effie traveled with Ruth. Effie was Ruth's marvelous maid, who was a good friend of all of us and the greatest character in the world. She was just wonderful. She always referred to Ruth as "Page." "Page is coming," she'd say. "Page is here . . . Page doesn't like it." And she took wonderful care of her. She did all of her changes in the theater and did it very well. We also had Mrs. Rosay, Valerie, who was Bettina's mother. Bettina [Rosay] was the prima ballerina. Valerie traveled with Bettina always and traveled with us. She was the mother hen. She wasn't on the first trip, come to think of it. She did that later. How we got changed then, I cannot recall.
     But we did Giaconda. which was the opening ballet, "The Dance of the Hours." Mary and I were "Day" in that, which we liked very much. We had yellow tutus, and we had jonquil wreaths, which we built up to mammoth proportions until corrected by the heads of the ballet. "What do you think you're doing with it?" you know, and that sort of thing. And then Love Song was  marvelous. I did the "Red" solo in that, which I adored. That I inherited from Sandy Davis, and it was very chic and a very smart solo, which I thought was just the last word. I just loved every second of it. It was a very short one, but it was beautiful. Love Song, of course, is a very chic, very beautiful ballet. Ruth never revived that one. She probably thinks it's too lightweight or something, but it's a real charmer, and the music is Schubert. It's lovely. Then Bentley and Ruth would do "Du Bist Die Ruh," together and apart. They did, which I loved to watch, the "Liebestod" during that time. They did, I think they did . . . no, that was too early for that. And then the finale, the grand finale was the platforms in Bolero with the fans. The giggling, of course, was something.
     Something marvelous happened on that tour, though, about three-quarters of the way through it we were in New Orleans, and we stopped over night. We didn't play New Orleans, but we all went out to inspect the town, as not many of us had seen it before. And Effie, Ruth's maid, had some friends there. So we're all lined up to get in the bus at 8:00 the next morning. We generally got in the dam thing at about 8:00 and drove until 7:00, stopping somewhere for lunch on the way. We all got on the bus in New Orleans -- we were staying at that nice hotel . . . .
Q: St. Francis?
A: Yes. No, that's San Fran . . . .
Q: I'm sorry.
A: There's one nice one in New Orleans. We were all in that hotel. We all filed down to the bus to get in. All except Effie, who was nowhere to be found. Well, our schedule was very tight, so we all had to get going in the bus, which we did, leaving Effie behind. She's the only one who got left behind. She was left behind in New Orleans. And off we went. Bentley and Ruth were then in the car and all the rest of us in the bus. We worried about Effie and of leaving anyone behind. Horrified. It seems to me we went through palm trees and everglades and forests, and we stopped at some restaurant for lunch, which was the edge of nowhere, really; completely nowhere. We were on our way to Gainsville, straight up the middle. We probably were in the jungle. Anyway, we stopped at this place for lunch, the whole company, and all of a sudden, somebody let out a shout, and there down the road comes this taxi cab, bouncing along, and it's Effie, who had taken a cab from New Orleans and came up to meet us for lunch. Lord knows how many miles or how many hours. The bill was astronomical. Even in those days it was absolutely awful because, of course, he had to go back empty. Well, that was it. Ruth . . . .
Q: Did she complain?
A: Probably loudly. But we didn't hear much about it. I think she was also very relieved to once again see Effie, who was a real treasure. Effie also delivered the great line, when Ruth had all the ballet over some years after this. Effie was still there, and she opened the door for everyone, and everyone was saying, "Oh, darling, isn't it marvelous. You haven't changed a bit." Effie said wearily to somebody, "Oh, everything's the same, only more so."
     But the life on the road was great fun. The audiences were college people. They were smaller towns. You can't get much smaller than Canyon, Texas. They adored the ballet. Ruth and Bentley would be feted very often, leaving the corps to eat their tomato and bacon, or whatever we had that evening, all by ourselves. We lived in a different hotel every night. It was absolutely marvelous, when we were in something, I think we were in one hotel in Texas or Oklahoma three nights and then we could wash our things properly, instead of hoping to heaven they weren't damp the next morning, when it was time for us to take off. You have to be young to do that; but believe me, it's fun.
Q: It sounds like fun.
A: It was marvelous. Wonderful friends, very entertaining people.
Q: How many of you were there?
A: I think there were twelve girls. Well, there had to be twelve girls, because there were twelve hours in La Giaconda. There were obviously twelve. Plus Bettina, the soloist. Plus Bentley and Ruth. That was it.
Q: And boys?
A: Two boys with us. And who the boys were on the first tour, I can't remember them. Oh, bless their hearts, they'll never forgive me.
Q: We've got it written down somewhere.
A: You've got it down somewhere. One of the boys, Ralph Bellis, was on that trip, and he married one of the girls in the company. He married Evy Chapman -- of course, the Gilbert & Sullivan "At Life she Failed Totally, and Married a Boy in the Corps de Ballet."
Q: Right. Let's talk about some of the ballets now. What about American Pattern?
A: American Pattern was the first long ballet, outside of the opera ballets, that I did for Ruth. That was all Ruth's choreography. I teased her later and told her she did the first ERA. It was about a frustrated housewife who wanted out. She didn't look for fulfilling herself in a job or in working or anything like that. But she either did it or fantasized, the ballet was never clear herself into the life of other men. After the businessman, her husband, that was done in a lovely scene -- lovely scene. "Lovely" isn't the word for it, but it's got the best backdrop. After I was in design, I saw the movie, saw that Remisoff backdrop for the opening of the American Pattern, and it's Art Deco, and it's splendid. The businessman and the stenographers are in front of that particular thing. But at any rate, she leaves her husband. At first, I think, she goes to a swami. And Mary and I did that. We did the same thing. We're pretty much the same height and did the same things. First, we did the secretaries, and then we change quickly, and we did, I think we did, the swami after that and put a black hood on over everything. Then we got into the bridesmaids. Oh, first we must have been in the bridesmaids outfits after we were secretaries. First we did that. Then we got out of that and did something else. I think we changed clothes about twelve times in the whole thing. They made it easy for us, but first there was a swami, then there was a gigolo, and then there was the political agitator, which was Bentley's role. Again, he came in from stage right. Huge. He was greatly given to coming on in a large leap from stage right. He did it again in that, a great big one. Really. He was impressive in that. And he did, I think he did the Gigolo in the opening performances. He didn't do it always. He doubled roles. After that, he just did the Agitator, which was strenuous enough, Lord knows. Ruth looked marvelous in that. She had a wonderful white dress, a white suburban halo-type hat on. It's an interesting ballet. It certainly is anything but her best, when you look back on it. But it's very interesting and, of course, the premise for that day was entirely unexpected. Nobody was doing anything like that. Ruth, you know. That happened all the time.
Q: How did the ballet end?
A: It ended tragically. It ended with . . . the Agitator, I think, got killed. Bentley was also getting killed a lot. He disappeared somehow, and I think she went back into suburbia. We were obviously off stage at this time, but I can't tell you precisely. Because it's funny, you remember things like that you'd done so long ago so much more vividly than something last week. But of course, it was a great first.
Q: How did the audiences respond to it?
A: Differently. The critics never knew quite what to make of her. Although the smarter ones certainly did. Claudia was perceptive about her work. Claudia Cassidy. Claudia, indeed. Ms. Cassidy was perceptive about her work. I don't remember the reception of American Pattern. I can't remember that well. I suppose it was puzzled. That was the reaction to a great deal of Ruth's work. She was so . . . she was always a hit. She was always new, and she never wanted to repeat. I'm surprised she's stayed with The Nutcracker as long as that without changing it. It's perfect the way it is. But she was always wishing for the next and the next and the next. Never satisfied with where it was.
     I recall Frankie and Johnny was the next long one that we did, which she worked more closely with Bentley on. That one was freer for her, and she had a company in the Federal Theatre that was so full of characters. That ballet was blessed with them. It really was. They weren't very good dancers, they weren't ballet dancers at all. Ruth had some of her company with her, a nucleus of hers, certainly, which she could take. But the rest of them were given, and they all weren't modern dancers from the Graff school, either. They were simply there. And the ones that couldn't dance, could dance some, and they had a great sense of characterization or were given it, and were told what to do and how to do it. As a consequence, Frankie and Johnny, in its first performance, included . . . the three old girls who banged the drum over on the side were hysterical. It was something else.
     I was, I think, the only person who saw the ballet and also was in it, because I did go out front. I was able to go out front one night to see it. And it was fantastic. It was not at all what I thought we were doing. It was a very strange thing, because we were working very hard and dancing very hard, but when you sat out front -- thank heaven I had sense to see it at this point -- the theater of it was so stern, much more important than the dance. The corps de ballet was done in neutrals, and we had wigs on. They were all like straw; they were neutral, too. Mine looked like the way Betty Grable used to wear her hair, you know, all those curls piled up front. Mary's looked sort of like Debbie Reynolds. There was another girl whose wig looked like Rita Hayworth. But all in neutral. But she's got these funny characters, you see, from the look of the costumes, but when they backed up occasionally out of the light, we would see movement, which sometimes looked almost sinister. Then the corps de ballet would come in, and we either looked bawdy or whatever we happened to be doing at the moment. "Bawdy" is a great word for the way we looked most of the time. The men were in neutrals, too. One was a sailor. There were businessmen running up and down Nellie Bly's stairs and all that. They were all neutral, too.
     The four leading characters were in color. Ruth's costume was shocking pink and black and so forth. Bentley had on a bright lavender shirt, I think. Nellie's was bright blue with a black fishnet thing over it. The bartender was in some kind of shirt and a big apron. They stood out. Then you could see them. Actual drama. And, of course, the three ladies on the side were not to be believed. They have never been duplicated and never will. They were ex-vaudeville actresses, and they were little round apples. One of them looked like a whole bunch of apples. She really did. She was just round all over this cute face. I think she was the one that had the drum. And they opened their mouths with these bawdy words coming out. They squawked. They absolutely squawked and, of course, the audience just absolutely reveled in it. Most amusing things you have ever seen. It was so funny. And effective -- very, very effective.
     It was a marvelous ballet. Ruth's performance in it, I've said, I think is the best thing she ever did. Bentley, of course, with his acrobatic background, had his final scene where he was
shot, went down the bannister and way over the thing, which was incredibly difficult to do. It must have been impossible. We used to watch that every night. We were all off stage at that
     The other thing about Frankie and Johnny was the astonishing use of color in it. I've just described part of it. I don't know who did that. But in the shooting scene, where things really get tense and serious and rough, Ruth is a hysterical woman at this point, and she waves a gun around over her head, exactly like anybody losing their mind and half out of their mind with jealousy would do it. That kind of woman. Frankie goes to her crib, puts on a long robe, a very brilliantly colored long robe, which swished around behind her and added immeasurably to the fright at that point. She runs up the ladder -- the ladder's conveniently placed -- runs up the ladder, and after she's peeked in the room, shoots. Then it switches. It's a real fright. That ballet had sort of a Brechtian quality to it, and in the revivals I've seen, I have never quite seen that again. Because I think of the people who did that, and the way they were, and the way they looked, and the way they responded, and the time that it was. It was the '30s and it was a fairly bad time all over. But the ballet itself was absolutely marvelous, and it's going to last longer than any of us, believe me.
Q: I think it will. I think you're right. Gold Standard. You also were involved in that?
A: No. They did Gold Standard before I saw it. When Ruth and Bentley performed it, they did a series of ballet performances before I was able to be in the company. It was a charmer. That was Jacques Ibert. She had wonderful composers. I also saw Hear Ye! Hear Ye!.
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