Sondra Lee

Dancer, actress, director, consultant, teacher, and acting coach Sondra Lee (b. Newark, NJ, 30 September 1930) has been a fixture in American and European theatre for over fifty years. Especially remembered for her intensity and unwavering focus as a performer, she made a splash as Tiger Lily on Broadway in 1954 in Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, and nationwide in the color television broadcast of the same in 1960. She played Minnie Fay in the original production of Hello, Dolly! (1964) and toured widely in that role. After her dancing days, she taught at Stella Adler’s Conservatory and the NYU Drama School, and has coached filmmakers on three continents.

Sondra grew up – up to four foot ten and a half but never taller – in Newark. Her father David Gash was “one-quarter albino” (or so she and her little brother Saul were told). In her memoir, I’ve Slept with Everybody (2009), she characterizes her mother Belle as “a walking time bomb.” Sondra was sickly as a child, coming down regularly with pneumonia, and given growth hormone shots because she was so tiny. She lived in a dream world of “tutus and glitter,” studying ballet on scholarship with Miss Hortense Greenwald and performing locally in seasonal recitals. She never paid much attention to school.

Sondra’s Aunt Dinah took her, at the age of ten, to see the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, starring the great Alexandra Danilova, and Sondra’s “life changed forever.” Somehow she got backstage and got the star’s address. She wrote to Madame Danilova that, although she enjoyed her ballet classes, she realized that she was not getting the training she really needed. In reply she received an invitation to visit the New York studio of the Ballets Russes and show what she could do. Sondra Lee came away from what was, by her own description, a comical audition with a scholarship to the Swoboda School of Ballet, and when her mother refused to allow her to accept it (“That would be taking charity!”), Madame Danilova arranged for her to attend classes at Studio 61 in Carnegie Hall instead. Sondra found herself at the barre between André Eglevsky and Igor Youskevitch, blissfully unaware that they were two of the most celebrated dancers of the twentieth century. On Madame Danilova’s recommendation she had been placed in the professional class.

The teacher at Studio 61 to whom she always felt she owed the most was Eddy Caton, the Russian-born and -trained American dancer (his parents had been in the American diplomatic corps before the Russian Revolution) who always wore a sailor hat, knew everybody’s dirty secrets, and swore like a stevedore. On the day his mother died, after teaching his class, he went to the piano and played “The Saint James Infirmary” mournfully to himself (“Let her go, let her go, God bless her”). Sondra happened to be hiding under the piano at that moment, and the song had an indelible effect on her.

Meanwhile Sondra had “waltzed right in to the YMHA Players” in Newark, and a few summers later “waltzed right to the Catskills” in the “Hi Neighbor Revue” at Mrs. Ader’s Walnut House on the Hill. The Catskills proved fertile ground for her theatrical training, as she had opportunity to meet and observe great comics like Buddy Hackett, Jack Carter, Julie Oceans, Joey Adams, and Red Buttons. But near the end of the summer season Mrs. Ader fired her for improvising a passionate dance to “Saint James Infirmary.” (The band, Lee recalls, consisted of an upright piano, sax, drums, “and behold a clarinet and six 100-watt bulbs.”)

One day in New York Marlon Brando dropped in to Olga Tarassova’s ballet class to observe; he had a friend among the star pupils. Sondra Lee danced well that day, and he smiled at her when class was over. She noticed his good looks, but she didn’t know who he was, for he was not yet the star he would become. A little later, she was hired to dance and do sketches (in Russian) in a Russian restaurant in Washington, DC, and happened to see Brando’s face in a newspaper – he was appearing there with Tallulah Bankhead in The Eagle Has Two Heads. Sondra looked him up at his hotel and they became good friends and, in time, lovers. It took the charm of Marlon Brando to cajole Sondra’s mother into letting her leave home and live in New York City. She moved into the boarding house on 58th Street where Brando and several of his friends also lived, and kept frequent company with his set: Wally Cox, Maureen Stapleton, Billy Redfield, Janice Mars, and other notables.

At age sixteen in 1947, Sondra relates, she auditioned for Agnes de Mille, choreographer for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, but was turned down because of her stature. “Dejected and confused, I wandered down the street and started up Shubert Alley. I saw a group coming out of the stage door at the Shubert Theatre. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked.” They answered that they had just auditioned for Robbins for High Button Shoes. “Oh yeah?’’ replied the kid from Newark. “I entered the stage door. It was empty and dark. ‘Who’s Robbins?’

“Out of nowhere this guy comes forward. ‘I’m Robbins. Who are you?’

“‘I’m Sondra, and I’d like to audition for this.’

“‘The audition is over.’

“ ‘Oh,’ I said, a bit humorously. ‘I just auditioned for Allegro and they found I was too short so they let me go. So I’m going home to commit suicide.’ …

“‘Don’t go home and commit suicide, come over here and dance for me.’”

Thus began Lee’s professional career and a lifelong friendship with twentieth-century America’s greatest genius of the dance. Jerome Robbins first cast her in two comic roles in High Button Shoes: Baby Crook in the “Keystone Cop Ballet” – a madcap chase inspired by the movies of Mack Sennett – and the Younger Girl in the poignant “Picnic Ballet.” Robbins gave her a nickname: “Peanuts,” from the Charles Shultz cartoon strip.

“I had been given a gift and I ran with it,” she writes.

After 727 performances on Broadway, she toured in the “subway circuit version” – High Button Shoes condensed to a single hour, but performed five or six times a day – in vaudeville houses all over the country. Over the next few years she also danced and acted in summer stock, traveling to Chicago, Dallas, the enormous outdoor “Muni” in St. Louis, and many other venues.

In 1954, newly married to actor Sidney (“Shimmy”) Armus, Sondra Lee went to California to join the cast of Broadway-bound Peter Pan with Mary Martin. The show was to try out in San Francisco, and Jerry Robbins, its director and choreographer, had insisted that Lee be part of it, though he was uncertain at first what role she would play. Tiger Lily developed over the course of the rehearsal period, but lines, songs, dances, and choral numbers were constantly being cut or replaced.

Lee insists that she “was never aware of or understood the politics of show business.” The reviews that came out after opening night gave raves to Sondra and Cyril Ritchard, but left Mary Martin “‘in the rather curious position of functioning as a subordinate player.’”

“The very next day,” writes Lee, “I arrived at the theatre and was told by Jerry that my song was cut. Here I was so happy and ready to be rewarded for good work. I was devastated.” She never comprehended the reason for what had happened until Marlon Brando came up from L.A. to see the show and asked her why she had pushed Mary Martin off the stage. Eventually another number for Tiger Lily, Peter Pan, and the ensemble of Indians was added, “Ugga-Wug”; it was a big hit, and stayed in all subsequent versions of the show, winning Lee the adoration of millions, first on Broadway in 1954, in a couple of television spots in following years, and when it was broadcast as a TV movie in 1960.

In 1956 Sondra Lee went to Paris to co-star in Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris. It was her first visit to France, the country that would eventually become her second home and her refuge.

Sondra apparently never got over her habit of giving her performances everything she had. When in 1957 she was supporting Bert Lahr and Angela Lansbury on Broadway in the Feydeau farce Hotel Paradiso, she played Victoire, “the saucy maid, the soubrette of all soubrettes. … One day, [director] Peter Glenville came back and told me he thought I was working very well in Hotel Paradiso, but he also strongly said, ‘Unfortunately, the show was not about a young maid whose name is Victoire!’”

After West Side Story was launched on Broadway in the fall of 1957, Jerome Robbins received an invitation from Gian Carlo Menotti to form a company of dancers to participate in his new summer Festival of Two Worlds (Festival dei Due Mondi) in Spoleto, Italy. Robbins pulled together a group of sixteen or seventeen young people, relative unknowns, of all races, creeds, colors, and sizes, from the City Ballet and the casts of his Broadway shows, Sondra Lee included. The repertoire of the newly formed Ballets: U.S.A. consisted of four ballets, and Lee was to star in the first, “The Concert,” but she ruptured her Achilles tendon in a performance and had to be replaced. She did, however, appear in “The Afternoon of a Faun,” though not en pointe. The troupe traveled from Spoleto to Florence, Trieste, the Brussels Worlds Fair, and thence to Broadway in September 1958.

Lee, having bound up her injury daily so that she could dance throughout the summer tour, spent a considerable time recuperating in a New York hospital. She healed sufficiently to allow her to return to dancing in 1959 at the Metropolitan Opera, as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden in John Butler’s In the Beginning, and at the City Center Opera in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. That summer she returned to Spoleto, but this time dancing with Butler’s company, and as an actress, playing Cassandra in a production of Euripides’s The Trojan Women, directed by Michael Cacoyannis.

After her brief appearances as Tiger Lily on television’s Producer’s Showcase in 1955 and 1956, Lee had performed in a couple of movies for television (with Mickey Rooney in Pinocchio, 1957, as Gepetto’s Cat, and Hansel and Gretel, 1958), but her first and only appearance on the large screen was in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). She met Fellini through a good friend of his who had admired her Cassandra in Spoleto. Her energetic, if uncredited, performance in the final orgy scene of the film (the host character states that he has “met her in Spoleto”) is unmistakable.

In 1961 Sondra Lee played 188 performances of Sunday in New York, a play that introduced Robert Redford to Broadway, and in 1964 she began the longest run of her career. Without an audition (she was in Rome at the time), director and choreographer Gower Champion asked her to play Minnie Fay in the original production of Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing. Two and a half years later, Ginger Rogers replaced Channing in the title role, but she was only the second of other Dollys (Betty Grable, Martha Raye) with whom Lee would share the boards on tour. Lee hit Detroit, Washington DC, and other national venues; with “Maggie” Raye, the honorary Green Beret and lieutenant colonel, she entertained troops in Vietnam.

At the invitation of her friend Stella Adler, Sondra Lee taught “style” at the Conservatory in New York for a little more than ten years: “I became the highest paid, underpaid teacher at Stella’s school.” Lee did not, however, accept an offered position with Adler at Yale. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (April 4, 1968), she fled in shock to her friends in the south of France, with a certain “guy” from New Haven in hot pursuit. He proposed; she accepted. His name does not appear in her memoir: “I never mention the name of my second husband, because he was a shit.” Apparently his whole purpose was to take advantage of all her contacts and friends in the theatre world.

Some decades later, in a new role, Lee would be serving as a consultant to the directors, cinematographers, and editors of various movies, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Those films she deems worthy of mention are Copkiller (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), Violets Are Blue (1986), Nadine (1987), Light of Day (1987), Vibes (1988), A Dry White Season (1989), Dimenticare Palermo (1990), Billy Bathgate (1991), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Nobody’s Fool (1994).

Sondra Lee is a member of the Actors’ Studio, both as an actress and a director; she currently teaches her own acting classes and coaches privately. She is on the Board of Directors of the Buglisi/Dance-Threshold Dance Projects and the John Butler Foundation. Capezio Awards has dubbed her one of the “Twenty Dancers out of Two Hundred the World Should Know.” She is an award-winning stage director, having recently produced Shanghai Moon, starring Charles Busch, and directed Hillbilly Women, The Sun Shines East, Go See by Norris Church Mailer, and Psyche by Jeff Baker.

Lee’s memoir (2009) is an entertaining and insightful peek into the life of a dancer, told in a dancer’s language. (She plans a sequel, to be titled As I Was Saying.) It contains many, many curious snapshots of her friends (some of them quite intimate): Ella Logan, Ben Hecht, Louis Calhern, Lee Grant, painter and designer Tom Keogh, Angela Lansbury, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Marge and Gower Champion, Jean-Claude Vignes, Larry Blyden, Gloria Swanson, Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom, French singer and actor Mouloudji, Billy Rose, Stella Adler, James Baldwin, Jane Fonda, and others. She pays profound homage to Jerome Robbins, for, as she wept at his deathbed in July 1998, and has repeated many times since, “He gave me my life.”

– Lucy E. Cross