"The Dancing Minister"...
By: Regis Nicoll
Eleanor Powell was without peer among her dancing counterparts. For the better part of a decade, she was box-office gold, saving her studio, MGM, from bankruptcy with her winsome screen presence and show-stopping dance routines. Despite her film success, Powell had the shortest career of any major musical star, starring in only a dozen movies from 1935 to 1945. Nevertheless, she left a lasting legacy through her work onscreen and off. Primarily celebrated for her dazzling tap work, Powell was accomplished in ballet, acrobatics, ballroom, and jazz, combining elements of these into many of her routines. While her colleagues, including the great Fred Astaire, relied on choreographers for most, if not all, of their work, Powell choreographed her own dance numbers, which were always high in technical merit and creativity. As for Fred Astaire, among his many and storied partners, Eleanor Powell was the only one who could match his footwork. In fact, when the “Queen of Taps” was suggested as his leading lady in Broadway Melody of 1940, Astaire is said to have been unnerved at the thought of their pairing. Years, and many dancing partners, later, Astaire said that Powell “was in a class by herself.” But it was more than uncommon talent that set her apart.
Eleanor Powell was a woman of practiced faith whose Christian beliefs shaped her as an artist and a person. She acknowledged her talent as a God-given gift and her film career as a prelude to ministry. More on that later. As one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament, Powell could have easily drifted into the narcissism so common among celebrities then and now. But even at the height of fame, she remained the charming “girl next door” whose gentleness, generosity, and caring were legend among friends and fans alike; in fact, many of her fans became life-long friends and pen pals who knew her affectionately as “Ellie.”Throughout Ellie’s life, her faith was central. It kept her chaste in an off-screen culture that reflected on-screen “pre-Code” values; it led her to retire from film at the pinnacle of her career to become a devoted wife and mother; it helped her endure a difficult 16-year marriage that eventually ended in divorce; it strengthened her and anchored her after divorce; and it inspired her advocacy for at-risk children, children with disabilities, and racial equality long before the national conscience was awakened to racial injustice.
Born on November 21, 1912, to a teenage mother in a fatherless home, Eleanor Powell entered the world under anything but auspicious circumstances. With her young mother working several jobs to make ends meet, Eleanor was raised by her maternal grandparents. While it is not clear where Eleanor’s early faith was formed, it is known that her family had a Quaker heritage, and that she regularly attended church. In an interview she gave after her screen retirement, Powell mentioned a Bible she had won as a child for perfect church attendance. As a young girl, Eleanor was pathologically shy with no interest in or, according to her, any natural talent for, dancing—as hard as that is to imagine considering the body of her work. In hopes of helping her socialization, Eleanor’s mother enrolled her in ballet and acrobatic dance. She took to both and quickly excelled. One day on a family trip to the beach, Eleanor’s playful acrobatics caught the eye of Gus Edwards, an Atlantic City club owner. Edwards recruited the 12-year-old to open for his dinner show. That led to other dancing gigs over the next couple of summers.
Ironically, Eleanor had a strong distaste for tap. But with her sights set on Broadway, she eventually, and begrudgingly, enrolled in tap class. Nearly quitting after a shaky start, Eleanor finally caught on to hoofing and, with only 10 lessons under her belt, began dancing at social events with legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson became her mentor, life-long friend, and later, with Pearl Bailey, the god-parent of her son, Peter Ford. Her big break came when she was 22 years old. It was then that she was tagged to do a specialty number in the movie, George White’s 1935 Scandals. Her performance captured the attention of MGM mogul Louis Mayer, who gave her a lead part in Broadway Melody of 1936. That led to a succession of starring roles in Born to Dance (1936), Rosalie (1937), Broadway Melody of 1938, Honolulu (1939), and what many consider the zenith of her career, Broadway Melody of 1940, in which she starred with Fred Astaire in their one-and-only pairing. It was the first movie Astaire had made without Ginger. He was arguably the world’s best male hoofer, and Ellie the best female. Together they lit up the silver screen as no dance team had done before or since. The final dance sequence, “Begin the Beguine”—shot amazingly in one take!—has been called the finest moment in Hollywood musical history. Of it, the late Frank Sinatra said, in That’s Entertainment (1974), "You know, you can wait around and hope, but I tell you, you'll never see the likes of this again." One film critic remarked that if he were exiled to a desert island with but one movie clip to take, it would be “Begin the Beguine.”
Despite her star power, Eleanor Powell was unaffected by celebrity; hers or anyone else’s. In the golden era of Hollywood, the studios had an unwritten caste system. As crowned royalty on the lot, stars were not to associate, commiserate, or even been seen with their “lessers” on or off the set. It was a system that Ellie ignored throughout her career. Despite threats by the studio heads, Ellie ate at the commissary with friends, some who were stage hands (gasp!). She took a personal interest in the crews of her films. She knew them by name, met their wives and children. “I loved them,” she once said in interview. And they loved her, affectionately calling her “The Baby.” It is commonly reported that she was the most beloved person in pictures. And it is little wonder.
Although Ellie’s feet were always in time, her heart didn’t follow the rhythms of Hollywood. In the afterglow of the “pre-Code” era, she stood out as a modest girl who, by her own admission, was inexperienced in love and romance. It was a situation that many a leading man was eager to correct. Robert Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, and Al Jolson were among the A-list stars who wooed but never won her. Clark Gable went as far as giving her a white roadster on her birthday in hopes of getting to first base. He never did. Neither did Ellie’s innocence keep the tabloids from persistently linking her with would-be suitors. But contrary to rumors and press, her son told me in an interview that her first and only serious love was Glenn Ford, and her first sexual experience was on their wedding night. Off the lot, while members of the fast set were hanging out at local hotspots and celebrity parties, Ellie took to hiking, bird-watching, or entertaining at orphanages and prisons with her friend Bill Robinson. Even in that bygone era, Eleanor Powell was something of an anomaly—a person who lived an ennobling vision of what it means to be human, following her better angels.
Later in life Ellie was asked about a possible autobiography. Lacking any salacious exploits involving sex, drugs, and booze, she dismissed her story from having any commercial appeal: “It’s too clean. It’s just loving people and loving to perform.” To watch a Powell film is to be captivated by an artist whose arresting talent is only exceeded by her disarming charm, wholesomeness, and sweetness. She was a rare individual who, through her craft and character, stands in time as role model for us all, but especially young girls, as this mother and fan testifies: Eleanor Powell has been such an inspiration to my daughters (now ages 21 & 18) as they were growing up...My girls still read anything they can get their hands on about Eleanor Powell. What a classy Christian lady...truly an inspiration.
Among dance authorities, Eleanor Powell is considered the best female dancer to ever grace the silver screen. Not a few consider her the best dancer of either sex, like the late Fayard Nicholas, half of the famed Nicholas Brothers: “I don’t think of [Eleanor Powell] as the world’s greatest female tap dancer. I think of her as the world’s greatest dancer.” Fayard would find little argument from long-time choreographer and dance instructor Jim Taylor: “In my 50 years as a professional tap dancer around the globe, I have never seen anyone capable of accomplishing the feats that were exclusive to Eleanor Powell” (emphasis added). Even the iconic Fred Astaire had such respect for Powell that he deferred to her artistic decisions in Broadway Melody of 1940. It is a little known fact that it was Powell, not Astaire or his personal choreographer, Hermes Pan, who was the principle creative influence in that film.
For eight years, Eleanor Powell reigned as queen of the Hollywood musical. Then, in 1943, her life took a sharp turn after falling in love with Glenn Ford. At the time, Powell was a huge star and Ford a little known “B” actor, with a little known “B” actor salary. Nevertheless, Eleanor walked away from the fame and fortune of stardom to become a devoted wife and homemaker. In October that same year, Eleanor married Ford and, 15 months later, gave birth to their one and only child, Peter. When asked whether she would come out of retirement, she dismissed the notion. As a professed “old-fashioned mother,” Eleanor was adamant that the interests of children are best served when at least one parent is home to give love and nurture. She would be a stay-at-home mom. Soon she began volunteering in her church—first in the nursery and later teaching her son’s Sunday school class. That led to another role for the former Hollywood star turned-wife-and-mom—host of a first-of-its-kind television program for children, Faith of Our Children.
Faith of Our Children first aired in 1954. It was a weekly non-denominational, public service program aimed at the spiritual formation of children, complete with Bible stories, skits, and guest entertainers. Powell hosted and scripted each show, fashioned after her Beverly Hills Presbyterian Sunday school class. (In a studio still, Powell is shown teaching Matthew 22:37 to a group of young children.) When asked about her new role, Eleanor replied, “I’m surrounded by children whom I love...I feel that my work as a dancer in the past was just a prologue to the work I am now doing.” Faith of Our Children was groundbreaking, and not just for being the first children’s religious show on TV. During an era of growing racial tensions in the country, Faith of Our Children featured multi-racial guests and an audience of multi-racial children. And that didn’t set well with some viewers.
In Eleanor Powell: First Lady of Dance, author Alice Levin writes that after one show, “a well-known minister” called, complaining about “the number of dark-skinned youngsters” on the set. Eleanor politely responded to the minister, saying that she would make the necessary adjustments before the next airing. The following week viewers were treated to a program featuring an all black audience and a black guest star, to boot. The minister didn't bother calling back to say how he enjoyed the adjustments. From 1954 to 1956, Faith of Our Children garnered five regional Emmys for excellence in children’s programming, as well as numerous honors from various organizations for contributing to the spiritual growth of children and the advancement of Christian brotherhood—the latter a long-time passion of Powell. Ellie’s views on race were shaped by her Christian faith, as this verse from a tender poem she wrote about God’s kaleidoscopic creation indicates:
"But when He looks on man I think He sees but soul and mind;
And where HIS children are concerned, Our Father’s color-blind!"
Ellie lived that verse, giving of herself to others, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity. Against the prejudice that was rife in the studios throughout her film career, she became life-long friends with black entertainers like Bill Robinson and Ethel Waters, and she helped others, like choreographer WiIlie Covan, land jobs in the industry. Her burden for the disenfranchised was exceeded only by her love of children, especially the chronically sick and underprivileged. By bringing to bear the full force of her celebrity, skills, and energies, Ellie raised awareness and funds for disadvantaged children and those afflicted with asthma, blindness, polio, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. Throughout her life, she received dozens of awards and honors for her humanitarian work—a testament to her tireless devotion and effectiveness as an advocate for young people.
At home, Eleanor’s marriage was in trouble. Once Glenn’s movie career began skyrocketing, his frequent and extended absences put increasing stress on their relationship. Eleanor credited her faith with helping her through that difficult period. But by 1959, mounting reports of her husband’s infidelity led her to throw in the towel. She divorced Glenn that year, ending their 16-year marriage—a marital lifetime by Hollywood standards. She never married again, except in a deeply spiritual respect that she put this way: “Now I feel as though I'm married to God, and in the nicest, purest sense.”
As a single mom, Eleanor faced new difficulties. Her divorce settlement, which seemed generous by the standards of the day, turned out to be insufficient for the upkeep of her large Beverly Hills home. Peter told me that many an evening he and his mother sat down with nothing but Hamburger Helper and beans to eat. They grew a vegetable garden that the neighbors thought was for hobby, but was really for putting food on the table. Eventually, out of financial necessity, Eleanor returned to the stage, putting together a critically acclaimed dance act in Las Vegas. But as the act became more of a financial drain than a financial source, she was forced to leave the stage for good, selling the Beverly Hills house and moving into a smaller place. In my talk with Peter, he described his mother as a person of deep faith who believed mightily in the power of prayer. He went on to recount an expression of her faith that profoundly affected him. In his early 20s, Peter formed a rock group that quickly began making waves in the music scene. Shortly before their breakthrough moment, Peter was stricken with a crippling condition. Suddenly, without warning, he found himself bedridden, his body riddled with pain from a debilitating form of arthritis. The prognosis was bleak—according to the doctors, he would never walk again. In time, through the combination of medication, physical therapy, and dietary changes, Peter regained function sufficient for some of his normal activities, but not without frequent bouts of excruciating pain. One night the pain was so unbearable that he cried out to his mother for prayer. Eleanor kneeled at Peter’s bedside, laid her hands on his tortured legs, and lifted a prayer to heaven for his relief. The next morning, to the amazement of Peter and, later, his doctors, he was pain-free, and has remained so for over 30 years.
Later in life, Eleanor Powell entertained some unorthodox religious views, or so it would appear. Although it is commonly reported that she became a minister in the Unity church—a derivative of the New Thought movement—there is no record that she was ordained, or had any ministerial position, in that organization. Some sources claim that, despite her involvement in Unity, she never drifted far from her Quaker and Presbyterian roots. Others claim that her association with Unity was limited to partnering on shared faith-based initiatives. However her religious views may have changed in latter years, Eleanor Powell remained steadfast in her love for her Maker, both personal and ever-present, and for all His children. When asked the one question that all great dancers are asked, “Who was your favorite dancing partner?” Ellie’s answer was always the same: “God.” It was her way of acknowledging the Source of her gift and His calling upon her, as was the life-long philosophy she regularly shared with interviewers and audiences:
“What we are is God's gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.”
In 1981, Eleanor Powell was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She told a concerned press, “I’ve placed myself in the hands of God...It’s going to be fine.” The next year on February 11, at the age of 69, her favorite Partner called her home (I can imagine the joyful rhythms that began echoing throughout the heavenly halls), her earthly remains fittingly placed in a bronze replica of the Bible. Today, Eleanor Powell’s place in movie history may be largely forgotten—a fate to which all measures of worldly success succumb, sooner or later—but her place with her Maker, and in the hearts of all the people she touched who have come and gone, as well as those she continues to touch through her films, will endure forever.
(Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)