For 10 seasons, the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County has been presenting the popular series Culture & Cocktails, featuring lively, often amusing, interviews with leading figures from the worlds of art, fashion, theatre and music. Just four days before headlining this season’s fifth and final Culture & Cocktails Conversation on April 6, Broadway legend Tommy Tune learned that he would receive his 10th Tony Award — for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, celebrating 50 years as a successful actor, dancer, director and choreographer.
A native Texan who won Tonys for such Broadway hits as “Seesaw,” “My One and Only,” “Grand Hotel,” “Nine,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and more, Tune also is a recipient of eight Drama Desk Awards, three Astaire Awards, The National Medal of Arts and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The elegant and lanky (he’s 6’6”) Tune dazzled nearly 170 Cultural Council members and supporters at The Colony Hotel’s Pavilion in Palm Beach, as he shared anecdotes in response to questions posed by Rob Russell, Entertainment Director of The Colony’s Royal Room Cabaret.
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So how does it feel to be a 10-time Tony Award winner?
It’s very hard to surprise me, but this was something I never even contemplated. I have nine Tony Awards, and the number nine has been very, very good to me in my life. Number 10 just came out of the blue, so it’s the best kind of award because I didn’t have to do anything except stay alive.
How did all this start for a boy in Texas? When you were young, did you know what you wanted to be?
My mother said that I danced before I was born. I would get very active in the “rehearsal womb” when she was listening to Irving Berlin, and my parents swear that I danced before I walked. I would be crawling through the house and get up on my hind legs and dance when music came on the radio. When the music would go off, I would get back on all fours and start crawling again.
How did you get to the Great White Way?
I arrived on St. Patrick’s Day in 1961 or ’62 and went to an audition – and got a job my first day in New York. My dream was to dance in the chorus of a Broadway show, and it came true for me three times over, so I was blessed. I felt like I could just do this for the rest of my life.
Dancing in a show is like a great team sport, but instead of a locker room you have a dressing room. Instead of uniforms, you have costumes. Instead of cleats, you have taps. You go out as a team and you have got to win every night. You can’t lose. The audience is there, they’re in their seats, they paid their money and you have to all go out and dance together. And I loved every minute of it.
Is it true that Broadway legend Carol Channing is one of your mentors?
She’s my spiritual mother. I’ve known her since I was 17, and before I make any decision about my show business life or my personal life, I consult with Carol. She taught me about the importance of touring. She said, “Tommy Tune, if it is your desire to pursue a career in the theatrical arts, you must tour your shows to the capitals of the world.” When I asked her to name one, she said, “Minneapolis.” She’s the funniest woman I know.
I later played 900 performances at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was an enormous $45 million spectacle and I was never off stage, except to quickly change costumes. When I signed the contract, I called Carol and asked her advice. She said to me, “Tommy Tune, to play Vegas you must start with the finale and go up from there.”
How did you make the transition from Broadway to Hollywood?
I got discovered in the chorus by a talent scout from 20th Century Fox, and I was flown out and tested for the movie of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau and directed by Gene Kelly. They tested 20 guys and I got the part.
They wanted Judy Garland to play Dolly in the movie, but she was not in good shape so they couldn’t take a chance. Then they went to Mae West, but she had passed the point of believability – so Barbra got it by default, even though she was really too young and totally unproven as a movie star, because “Funny Girl” hadn’t yet been released.
The relationship between Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand was not good. We were on set the morning after Barbra had appeared on the Academy Awards, where she wore a vintage dress and big frizzy hair, and Walter asked if her gown had come out of her grandmother’s attic and said the hairdo made her look like Harpo Marx. I didn’t make that up, I heard it with my own little right ear.
You co-starred with Twiggy twice – first, in the movie version of “The Boyfriend” and later on Broadway in “My One and Only.” What can you tell us about Twiggy?
The first time I saw her was when we were making the movie “The Boyfriend” in London with director Ken Russell. I recognized her name but didn’t know much about her because I wasn’t into the fashion thing yet. I was stunned the first time I saw her. She had a magic face and was absolutely beautiful.
When we did “The Boyfriend,” we were both with other people but we had crushes on each other. Ten years later, I had the idea to do a show with Twiggy on Broadway, but she was concerned that she had never danced on stage until this show, “My One and Only.” I talked her into doing it, and then we fell in love.
Speaking of “My One and Only,” another of your co-stars was Charles “Honi” Coles. Any memories you can share?
He was the best dancer I ever worked with, and I have worked with some great people. He was tall and slender and handsome – a gentleman of color who didn’t get the breaks that I got because it was more of a segregated world then. He was smooth as glass, and passed on a lot of wonderful steps to me.
We had a number together in the second act of “My One and Only” and we both won Tony Awards for that show. We danced that number more than a thousand times when, during a matinee performance in Grand Rapids, he was sitting on stage and missed his line. I said my line to him and he just sat there. I glanced down at the music director for help, who took it as a cue and began playing the vamp. Coles heard it and rose up very slowly, skipping the scene and the song entirely. He drifted downstage to the edge and went directly into the dance. He did not miss a beat, but when it was over he just gestured to me and sat down. I took that to mean no encore, because we always got an encore for that number, and they slid him off stage.
That was the last time Charles “Honi” Coles and I danced that duet together. In fact, it was the last time he danced at all. He had had a stroke on stage. He couldn’t speak and couldn’t sing, but when his dancer’s body heard the music, he rose up and he danced his last dance to perfection. What a guy!
Before we conclude the final Culture & Cocktails of our 10th anniversary season, any last thoughts about your amazing career?
The show – that’s the thing, and that’s why I love live theater. There’s no retake. You do it. If something goes wrong, you make it work. In movies, you can reshoot and recut and look like you’re doing a thousand things that you really can’t. I love movies, I love television, but for me live theatre is where I live. It’s home, it’s home.