Vera-Ellen (1926–1981)

views updated

Vera-Ellen (1926–1981)

American dancer and actress. Born Vera-Ellen Westmeyer Rohe on February 16, 1926, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died of cancer on August 30, 1981, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Martin F. Rohe (a piano tuner) and Alma (Westmeyer) Rohe; married Robert Hightower (a dancer; marriage ended); married Victor Rothschild (an oilman), on November 19, 1954 (divorced 1966).

Appeared as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall (1930s); made stage debut in Very Warm for May (1939); signed to MGM and made film debut in The Wonder Man (1945); danced opposite leading stars Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and others in series of musicals (1940s–1950s); retired from film (1957).

Selected filmography:

Wonder Man (1945); The Kid from Brooklyn (1946); Three Little Girls in Blue (1946); Carnival in Costa Rica (1947); Words and Music (1948); On the Town (1949); Love Happy (1950); Three Little Words (1950); Happy Go Lucky (1951); The Belle of New York (1952); Call Me Madam (1953); The Big Leaguer (1953); White Christmas (1954); Let's Be Happy (1957).

Appearing in leading roles over a 12-year film career as dance partner to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and other leading stars of musical film, Vera-Ellen received consistently high marks for her abilities. Adept in all the varied styles used in cinematic dance, including tap, toe, acrobatic, and dramatic dancing, she appeared in 14 screen musicals and a number of Broadway stage productions.

Vera-Ellen was born Vera-Ellen Rohe in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1926; her mother had dreamed of the name a few nights before her birth. Suffering from poor health, at age ten she began taking dance lessons to strengthen her constitution. She studied dance at a local studio and in high school in Cincinnati, and did so well that she was sent to a Dancing Teachers of America convention in New York City. While in New York, she tried out for a touring revue and was accepted. She talked her mother into moving to New York with her, and though she was still in her early teens, stage work began to come her way. One of her early jobs was as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.

Vera-Ellen made her stage musical debut in 1939 in a show called Very Warm for May and appeared in several more shows during the World War II years. A 1943 performance in a revival of the musical A Connecticut Yankee caught the eye of Samuel Goldwyn, the legendary movie executive and co-founder of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio. Goldwyn signed her to a movie contract, and Vera-Ellen's career was launched in 1945 with an appearance opposite Danny Kaye in The Wonder Man. Critics lauded the work of the young unknown.

Vera-Ellen had made four films for Goldwyn and for Twentieth Century-Fox by 1947, but that year, after the failure of the film Carnival in Costa Rica, she found herself without a contract, despite the positive reviews her own performance had received. Rededicating herself to her craft, she undertook new studies in dance, singing, and dramatics, and was planning to return to New York City when her studies paid off in 1948. She was signed to perform in the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet segment of the Gene Kelly film Words and Music, and her performance gained her a new seven-year contract with MGM.

The dancer appeared as a co-star with Kelly in 1949's On the Town, an ambitious undertaking that featured music by the young composer Leonard Bernstein. She was teamed with the three Marx Brothers in Love Happy the following year, and with Fred Astaire in Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952). Her 1950s films, several of them British, continued to receive stellar notices. In 1953, she appeared in the film version of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman and based on the life of Washington hostess and ambassador Perle Mesta , and in 1954 she was featured in the perennial holiday chestnut White Christmas, co-starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney . Vera-Ellen married and divorced twice. Her last film was the British-made Let's Be Happy, in 1957, although she occasionally appeared on television after that. Following her divorce from Victor Rothschild in 1966, she lived in seclusion until her death from cancer in 1981.


Current Biography 1959. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1959.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.

James M. Manheim , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan