International Tap Dance Hall of Fame

 

The International Tap Dance Hall of Fame is the only tap dance hall of fame exclusively focused on tap dancers. It features founding and innovative 20th and 21st century professional tap dancers.With a collection of photographs, biographies, and videos, the Hall of Fame is becoming a colorful and diverse retrospective of America's seminal tap dance personalities.

 

2004 - Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor (1925-2003), the comedic song-and-dance man who inherited and perpetuated a classic tradition of vaudeville tap dancing, was born in Chicago, Illinois into an Irish theatrical family. His father, John Edward “Chuck” O’Connor, was an acrobat with Ringling-Barnum and Bailey Circus; and his mother, Effie, was a circus bareback rider and dancer. When they graduated from circus into vaudeville, all their children (seven were born, three died in infancy) were initiated into “The O’Connor Family,” billed as “The Royal Family of Vaudeville.”

O’Connor made his first stage appearance at three days old, lying onstage across a piano bench beside his mother who, not yet ready to return to heavy dancing, played the piano. At thirteen months old, he began making $25 a week dancing the Black Bottom and faking acrobatic tricks. He made his film debut at age eleven dancing an uncredited "specialty routine" with brothers Jack and Billy in the 1937 Warner Brothers musical, Melody for Two. Like most child performers who grew up in show business, he learned to dance by watching the hundreds of musical acts on stage and screen, making tap comedy dance and acrobatic tricks his specialty.

He received no formal training in tap dance until he went to work for Universal Pictures and took tap dance classes with the studio’s choreographer Louis DaPron who, after a few weeks of classes exasperatedly pronounced him “un-teachable.” Unabashed, O’Connor developed his own style of tap dancing drawn from experience in vaudeville. He also developed as an actor, played a number of juvenile and super- polite boy roles such as Bing Crosby’s kid brother in Sing, You Sinners (1938), Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938), and Beau (Gary Cooper) at age twelve in the dashing Foreign Legion action adventure film, Beau Geste (1939). O’Connor is also seen briefly dancing a vaudeville-styled tap routine as one of the three Dancing Dolans in the 1939 Warner Brother’s musical On Your Toes, choreographed by George Balanchine.

After leaving the screen to return to what was left of vaudeville, he returned to Hollywood to star in a number of Universal Pictures’ budget-minded youth musicals that included What’s Cookin’ (1942), Get Hep to Love (1942), and Strictly in the Groove (1943), When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942), It Comes Up Love (1943), Mr. Big (1943), Top Man (1943), The Merry Monahans (1944), and Bowery to Broadway (1944). He was often cast as a brash and energetic young man during World War II, and paired with the equally energetic actress and tap dancer, Peggy Ryan. O’Connor’s postwar musicals include Are You With It? (1948), Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948), and Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby (1949); and these led to Francis (1949), a potboiler about an Army private who finds he is the only person who can carry on a conversation with an otherwise taciturn mule; the film proved to be a big hit with the kids and led to five sequels.

In the 1950s, O’Connor reestablished himself as a comedic actor and tap dancer. As Cosmo Brown, the sidekick chum of Gene Kelly in the classic musical (which spoofed the dawn of talking pictures), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), O’Connor’s gravity-defying, largely improvised rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh” is considered one of the funniest in the history of the movies. That number, along with the cheerily-strutted “Good Morning,” danced with Debbie Reynolds and Kelly, and the vaudeville-inspired “Fit As a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)” danced with Kelly, rewarded him with a Golden Globe Award (over Kelly) for his performance. After the success of Singin’ in the Rain, MGM fashioned a starring vehicle for O’Connor in I Love Melvin (1953), in which he danced on roller skates. In the Twentieth Century-Fox film, Call Me Madam (1953), O’Connor dances a lyrical duet (one of his all time favorites) with Vera Ellen; and in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), there is the infamous scene in which he kisses co-star Marilyn Monroe. In the mid-fifties, Paramount Pictures cast him in the film adaptation of the Broadway tap dance musical Anything Goes (1956) with Bing Crosby and Mitzi Gaynor.

With the decline of the studio system by the end of the decade, O’Connor launched himself into the television industry. He became one of the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour and starred in three different incarnations of The Donald O’Connor Show for NBC in 1951 and 1954-55, for which he was nominated for an Emmy (1952) and received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Personality (1953). One of O’Connor’s most memorable moments tap dancing on television is The Bell Telephone Hour’s “Song and Dance Man.” Broadcast on NBC-TV (January 16, 1966), this mini-musical history of tap dance in America opened with O’Connor as host dancing an Irish jig, Scottish reel, Spanish zapateada, and German spatlasse, followed by a softshoe dance and some sand dancing. And culminated with a challenge dance with O’Connor and the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) trading and one-upping on tap steps. In some of the best dance television camera work to date, O’Connor joined the brothers in “Cute,” a medium tempo swing tune by Neal Hefti in which he tapped out feather-light shuffles and heel-clicks. The vaudeville-inspired routine finished with the three dancers sitting on pedestals to fake Russian-styled kazotsky kicks, twirling through sets of barrel turns, and performing in-the-trenches, and double and triple turns; in the typical decelerated ending, they strode upstage, turned around, and sat back down on their pedestals with folded arms.

In 1971, after suffering a heart attack, O’Connor devoted considerably energy to composing music for the concert hall. He also performed a number of cameo roles on film, among them as the vaudevillian and dance instructor in the film Ragtime (1981 and the dreamy-eyed toy manufacturer in Robin Williams’ film, Toys (1992). In 1993, O’Connor released his own exercise-oriented video, Let’s Tap. In 1998, O’Connor signed on for The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, headlining a revue featuring 54-year-old-plus performers, and signing and dancing his way through eight performances a week. Through the end of his career, he lived, true to his word: “I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think is will bring me happiness. I hope so.”

O’Connor will be remembered as “The Last Song and Dance Man.” The title, once proposed for an autobiographical stage play he was preparing, is apropos for a man who so knew how to create magic and delight as an entertainer. “I’m an illusionist—a trickster who quick chances before your eyes,” he admitted in 1992. “I capture your attention without giving you time to think about it. I move fast, I keep changing my hats. And the more pleased an audience is, the more energy I give back to the audience.” He died in Calabasas, California on September 27, 2003.

Constance Valis Hill & Tony Waag