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Frankie and Johnny [1976, Pittsburgh]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0460
Run Time
0h 23m 0s
Date Produced
"Frankie and Johnny" is a ballet in one act (divided into seven dances), based on the popular 1899 American ballad about Frankie, a prostitute in 1890s Chicago, and her pimp Johnny. It was choreographed by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone 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. It 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 video represents a dress rehearsal or performance from an even later revival of the famous ballet, presented by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1976 at Heinz Hall. 
The video begins with a shot of a stage, set to look like a town street, with a saloon prominent. A couple stands perched on the stairs leading up to a brothel, and a group of three men enters from stage left. The female from the couple (presumably a prostitute) ascends the staircase, and is soon followed up by one of the three men. His two companions wait at the bottom of the staircase as three more men enter and dance with the woman's original male companion. As they do so, yet another man enters and disappears behind the staircase. The third man from the original trio emerges from the brothel; a pair of women attracts attention as they walk down the street; groups of men continue dancing and meandering around; etc.

When the street commotion eventually subsides, a couple (presumably Frankie and Johnny) remains. The two neck at the foot of the staircase for a moment, before standing up and performing a risqué pas de deux, which they suspend briefly when a stranger peeks into the street. They then continue the pas de deux, eventually returning to their staircase; Frankie disappears behind the staircase and leaves Johnny there alone.  Johnny begins a jazzy solo in the street, and the saloon next door quite literally opens up. Two female patrons stream out to dance with him; others enter from both sides of the street and dance about as well. Soon, another woman (presumably Nellie Bly) emerges from the brothel, catches Johnny's eye, and dances a lively pas de deux with him while others continue their dancing around them.

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 initiates a pas de deux with her. They then separate again, both appearing quite intoxicated. He appears to have let slip the truth about Johnny and Nellie Bly, as Frankie then removes her hat and jacket and runs up the stairs to the brothel while the bartender closes down the saloon. 

Before she reaches the door, Frankie changes her mind and begins to stagger back down the stairs. Overcome by her discovery, she dances a dismayed solo in the street (at one point rolling around on the ground) before once again ascending the stairs to the brothel. This time, she knocks insistently and achieves results: Johnny and Nellie poke their heads out a window and then appear in a doorway as Frankie, beside herself, slumps 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. She descends to the street and tries to pull Johnny up, but to no avail. She dances a few circles around him in the street before he collapses and dies. 

At this point, several men enter stage carrying a coffin for Johnny. They kneel off to the side while Frankie mourns over his body, but eventually march over to her as other mourners enter behind them. When they reach Frankie and the corpse, she at first refuses to relinquish his body. Eventually, she covers him with his shroud, but while the others go to the saloon for a drink, Frankie tries to hang herself from a nearby lamppost using the shroud. None other than Nellie Bly saves her, hugs her, and mourns together with her. The group then begins an ensemble dance, circling the body before placing it in the coffin. Eventually, their celebration of Johnny's life moves into the saloon; when it closes down, the group exits and Nellie reenters the brothel. Frankie remains, rocking back and forth atop the coffin while three more remaining women stand behind her and throw back a final drink in his honor. After holding a final pose there, all break character (indicating that this is a dress rehearsal rather than a public performance) and the video ends.
Additional Credit
Moross, Jerome (is composer)
Page, Ruth (is choreographer)
Stone, Bentley (is choreographer)
Actors, Performers and Participants
McCarthy, JoAnn (is performer)
Dorado, Thierry (is performer)
Related Place
Pittsburgh (production location of)