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Ken Nordine interview with Ruth Page [1957, Chicago] - Frankie & Johnny [1938, Chicago, Great Northern Theatre]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0498
Run Time
0h 50m 47s
color and B&W
Date Produced
1938 - 1957
The first three-quarters of this video represent an interview with Ruth Page by Ken Nordine, a voice-over and recording artist based in Chicago, IL. The interview was recorded for television in Chicago in 1957. The name of the program is unknown.

The final sixteen minutes of this video are a copy of a 1938 performance of "Frankie and Johnny," a ballet choreographed by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone. It is a one-act ballet (divided into seven dances), based on the popular 1899 American ballad about Frankie, a prostitute in 1890s Chicago, and her pimp Johnny. Page and Stone choreographed it in 1938 for the Works Project Administration Federal Dance Project, with music by Jerome Moross, libretto by Michael Blandford & Jerome Moross, and scenery and costumes by Paul Du Pont. The ballet was premiered at Chicago's Great Northern Theatre on June 19, 1938, performed by Page and Stone as the "Federal Ballet;" it ran for an unprecedented six weeks. The copy in this video appears to represent a dress rehearsal from around that time, originally recorded on 16mm film (see item F.2011-05-0116 from Series I of this collection).

Frankie and Johnny was later revived in New York at the City Center on February 28, 1945 by Ruth Page, Frederic Franklin, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The ballet was controversial due to "extremes" in the choreography; it was banned in Boston. It was revived again in Paris, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, on May 8, 1950 by Page's Les Ballets Américains. This version caused something of a scandal; audiences were divided in their response but Le Corbusier called Frankie and Johnny “Homeric” and “Rabelaisian." The ballet was then revived twice more in 1975 and 1978, in Pittsburgh. 
The video opens with an SMPTE color bar test pattern and a beep, which remain for over a minute at the beginning of the video; it then cuts to black for about ten seconds.

The video then cuts to a shot of Ken Nordine, seated in front of costume designs and photos of ballerinas. He introduces himself and invites viewers into a world of fantasy and imagination, encouraging them to look into his eye and find a dancing eye. As he does so, the camera zooms in on his eye until cutting to an eye on the belly of a costume. It then zooms out to reveal Ruth Page dancing in that costume, with a picture frame attached to her head and an overlong skirt (attached only at the front) flowing beneath the eye. She soon removes the frame and begins to dance while it is pulled offstage by an invisible wire. 

The strange dance mixes modern dance with ballet (including ronds de jambe en l'air, for example). Page often points at the camera/audience, and halfway through is handed a mannequin's hand which she includes in the silly dance. To complete the piece, she removes what appears to be a bouquet of flowers from her costume and places them in the hand before smiling at the camera and exiting behind a curtain.

The camera then cuts to darkness for a few moments before returning to Ken Nordine. He describes Page's ballet as "surrealistic" and introduces her as having "contributed tremendously to not only American ballet but international ballet." He provides biographical details while she changes, and then Page arrives at the other side of the table. Nordine asks about her childhood with ballet and Page explains that her first introduction to ballet was seeing Anna Pavlova, which inspired her to pursue the art as well. She adds that there were very few good ballet teachers available at the time so she trained herself using pictures from dance magazines and began choreographing for herself before she even knew much about dance. 

Nordine then asks Page about the practice of choreography; she explains that the main job is to make up all the steps. Nordine understands the role as akin to that of "artistic producer."

Page relates more of her biography, touring abroad and dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, up through her move to Chicago after "meeting [her] prince." While she is often away from the midwest, Page describes Chicago as the place where she experiments. She gives the example of her first ballet, "The Flapper and the Quarterback," and shows an image of it; she explains that her experiences in Europe made her more aware of her Americanness and noted that her inclusion of jazz in the ballet was a very unusual decision. She continues on to discuss her "first really big ballet," "La Guiablesse," based on a legend from Martinique. She "used fifty negroes from the South Side" and adds, "Katherine Dunham and I starred together in it." 

Page continues in giving highlights from her career. "I did a lot of jazz, I did a ballet called 'Hear Ye, Hear Ye.'" Told from the points of view of three different witnesses, the ballet was meant as a bit of social commentary regarding how difficult it can be to secure justice. Page adds, "I was great on social content in those days," also mentioning "An American Pattern," about the problems of the American housewife. She concludes that perhaps her most famous work is that which she choreographed with Bentley Stone for the WPA: "Frankie and Johnny." She produces a photograph of the moment where she, as Frankie, has shot him, as Johnny, for being unfaithful. Page then tells the story of their performance of the ballet in Paris, where audiences were scandalized by the presence of a corpse and coffin onstage (whereas the tap-dancing pallbearers were well-received in the U.S.). The audience booed and hissed and "they said there hadn't been such a riot in a Parisian theatre since Stravinsky played his Sacre du Printemps there."

Next, Page offers a photo of "The Bells," based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name--Nordine recalls "the tininnabulation" from it. Nordine and Page agree that they enjoy Poe and his "sad endings." Page then moves on to her last jazz ballet, "Billy Sunday," in which the devil was a baseball player. Page explains that she then went into an "abstract perod," when she was influenced by modern art. The first is "Expanding Universe," and she follows with an image of her in a Balinese mask (which she believes to be influenced by Gaugin) for a dance called "Tropic," based on "an impression" of the "essence" of the Balinese dances but not using their actual steps. "And that's the way to do it, of course."  She then offers an image of herself trying to capture "toil," which she considered unsuccessful, and explains that she got through her abstract period fairly quickly (in about five years).

Nordine and Page then review their progress so far: from jazzy Americana "backyard" ballets to abstract works and then to the present: operas-into-ballets. "I don't know how I ever got started on it but I think I got started because I've always been associated with opera companies." Page explains that she didn't like the way that operas looked, and came up with ways to dance the music of them. (Nordine interrupts to ask about the statue behind Page, which is a Noguchi statue of her from the "Expanding Universe" period). Page begins going through her opera ballets, from Carmen/"Guns and Castanets" to "Il Trovatore."

Finally, Page brings out a sketch by Boardman (?) O'Connor of Channel 11 for a pas de deux from Beethoven's "Sonata Pathetique." Page introduces dancers Barbara Steele and Charles Schick (both soloists at the Chicago Lyric Opera), plus pianist Neal Kayan. As she does so, the camera zooms in on the sketch and then cuts to the actual set itself, where Steele and Schick dance the pas de deux. Once they reach their final pose, the video cuts to black before returning to Ken Nordine, who signs off with "We hope you've enjoyed this short visit with Ruth Page into the imaginative world of ballet," explaining that Page is set to tour the country again. He points to a signature sheet where the people involved with the program have signed their names; after reviewing them, he writes FINIS and the video cuts to black. After a few beeps, the video then cuts to static.

After a little over two minutes of static, the video returns to an SMPTE color bar test pattern; about a minute later it cuts to black before cutting to the opening of a dress rehearsal of "Frankie and Johnny." It begins with a view of a stage, set to look like a town street, with a saloon prominent. A group of three women enters and stands by a street lamp; a group of three men then enters and prances down the street, passing various other citizens along the way. The building next to the saloon appears to be a brothel, featuring a prostitute in the window; one of the men hurries up the stairs to call on her; as she closes the blinds, more men come dancing into the street. When the prostitute's customer emerges, another runs up for his turn. The men dancing in the street begin to form small ensembles, one joined by women, and this continues with brawls and general street confusion.

Eventually, the crowd disperses, leaving what appear to be Frankie and Johnny alone at the foot of the brothel staircase. The two neck there for a moment, before standing up and performing a risqué pas de deux, which they suspend when a stranger peeks into the street, eventually returning to their staircase. Frankie then disappears into the building, closing the blinds. Johnny begins a jazzy solo in the street, as the saloon quite literally opens up and patrons stream out; the street then fills up again, with small duets here and there, and several scantily clad women joining Johnny for a bar or two of dancing together.

Soon, another woman (presumably Nellie Bly) emerges from the brothel to dance a lively pas de deux with Johnny. Other couples also dance in the background. Frankie reappears and goes to order herself a drink at the saloon; the other couples rush to hide Johnny and Nellie from her. When she turns away from the bar, they form a veritable chorus line-like human shield in their dancing. Frankie dances alone as the shield circles around Johnny and Nellie, allowing them to escape into the brothel unseen. As the crowd once again disperses, Frankie, perhaps becoming suspicious, is left with the bartender.

After stalling for a bit by initiating a sort of dance-off with Frankie, he whispers into her ear the truth of what's transpired, then demonstrating it for her with elaborate pantomime. In response, Frankie removes her hat and jacket and tries to scale the stairs to the brothel but, in anguish, she cannot. She then performs a dismayed solo in the street, which includes rolling around on the ground. Finally, she makes it up the stairs to the brothel and pounds on the door; Johnny and Nellie poke their heads out, confirming the bartender's allegation. They then appear in the doorway, making out ostentatiously, and Frankie, beside herself, runs away.

She returns with a pistol and climbs a ladder up to one of the brothel windows, determined to have her revenge. The couple begs her not to, but Frankie then shoots Johnny at the top of the staircase. Nellie runs back inside, presumably to call an ambulance, and Johnny tumbles down the stairs. As he dies in the street, Frankie realizes with horror what she's done.

The camera then cuts to a group of men carrying his coffin down the street; when they reach Frankie and the corpse, she at first refuses to relinquish his body. While the rest are buying drinks at the saloon, Frankie tries to hang herself from a nearby lamppost using Johnny's shroud, but none other than Nellie Bly saves her and mourns together with her. The group then begins an ensemble dance, once again taking their human shield formation and circling the body before placing it in the coffin. As their celebration of Johnny's life moves into the saloon, which closes down, and Nellie wanders away, Frankie remains, rocking back and forth atop the coffin. The video ends there.
Main Credits
Mansfield, Richard (is director)
Additional Credits
Page, Ruth (is choreographer)
Actors, Performers and Participants
Nordine, Ken (is interviewer)
Kayan, Neal (is musician)
Page, Ruth (is interviewee)
Page, Ruth (is performer)
Steele, Barbara (is performer)
Schick, Charles (is performer)
Stone, Bentley (is performer)
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)