MEET BROADWAY/HOLLYWOOD DANCER,
You’ve seen Fred Curt in a gazillion feature films, including Hello, Dolly!, Bye, Bye, Birdie; Gypsy, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pajama Game, Paint Your Wagon, Carousel, Mame and Lost Horizon, to name only a fraction of his movie creds. How ‘bout B’way and national tours: Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls and Pardon Our French. We can only begin to get into his television work because it’s so extensive, but we’ll mention The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mitzi Gaynor Hour
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So, let’s chat with Fred Curt.
A New England Yankee, transplanted at an early age from Massachusetts to Newark, New Jersey, Fred says he started dancing “After I made the fatal mistake of going with my mother to a cousin’s dance recital. I watched and thought, that might be fun. I could do all the gymnastic things on my own. So I said, instead of becoming a doctor, I’d like to try dance.”
All was well and good with Fred’s mom, but dad was a different pair of toe shoes. “I said to my mother that I’d like to go to dancing school. She said, ‘I don’t know about your father.'”
As expected the senior Mr. Curt had what we now call a meltdown. Fred says, “He screamed and ranted, ‘I don’t want any flame …’ In the ’20s and ’30s, when he was around, ‘flame’ meant a gay person. But my mother knew how to take care of it. She pointed out, ‘Is Fred Astaire a flame?’ My father lost that one.”
Our Fred began his formal studies by taking tap and acrobatic dance. After a few months of diligence and proving his talent and dedication, his teacher suggested that he also take ballet classes. Round two with Fred’s dad was again lost when the now tried and true, “Is Fred Astaire a flame?” retort was invoked.
“I took ballet one hour a week for like three months,” Fred says. “Then the teacher said to my mother that I should come to New York on Saturdays to take her class with professionals.” Fred went to NYC, and although he says it was tough, he kept up with the pros in class. Then, one day the dancers were talking about an open call audition for a Broadway show. Newbee to the theater, teenager Fred asked, “What’s an open call?” The so-called “kids” explained, then suggested he go with them, if only to hang out.
“I remember it was summer,” Fred says. “I was wearing a striped shirt, and we went to the theater. I stayed out of the way watching from backstage. Near the end of the day, the people I was with didn’t get picked, so they waved for me to leave with them. As I walked across the stage, a female voice from the audience said, ‘Does the young man in the striped shirt dance?’ Ninety people looked down at their chest and I was the only one with a striped shirt, so I pointed at myself and the voice said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, I dance a little.”
Fred reminds us that this was his first time on a theater stage and the light shining from the house made it impossible for him to see who was in the audience. “The voice said, ‘Would you dance for me?’ I didn’t want to be impolite so I said, ‘Okay.’ She told me what to do and I did a few jetés. Then she asked if I could do acrobatics. I said, ‘yes.’ And then she wanted to know if I could do a cartwheel. I said, ‘One hand or two?’ She asked, ‘Can you do them without hands?’ I said yes. I did the cartwheels and she said, ‘Thank you very much.’ Then I left the stage.
“As I was exiting with my friends the stage manager came over and said, ‘You. Striped shirt. Go stand at the end of that line.’ He pointed to where seven guys were on stage. I took my place and the woman’s voice asked, ‘The young man with the striped shirt. What’s your name?’ I said, Fred Curt. With a C. I stood back and waited a moment then raised my hand and lead forward. She said, ‘Yes?’ And asked, ‘What’s your name?’
“The whole line gasped! And without a beat or hesitation she said, ‘Agnes de Mille. With a D.’ She hired me.”
And thus began Fred Curt’s life as a professional dancer. The show was the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical, Allegro. After working in that production, Mr. Curt almost immediately went into another national touring company, the musical revue Inside U.S.A., by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, and starring the legendary Bea Lillie. With a weekly paycheck of $85.00, and having to pay for his own accommodations on the road, Curt and his austerity-conscious fellow dancers ghosted hotel rooms to save on their dough. As he explains, “Ghosting was when one person signed for a room, and four of us would live in the room to split the costs. It worked out just fine, as long as we were all out before the maid came in!”
EPW: MR. CURT. WE’D LIKE TO PLAY CELEBRITY NAME ASSOCIATION WITH YOU. WE’LL OFFER A FAMOUS NAME AND YOU GIVE US YOUR GUT RESPONSE BASED ON WORKING WITH THAT STAR. LET’S BEGIN WITH BARBRA STREISAND, WITH WHOM YOU WORKED ON THE FILM VERSION OF HELLO, DOLLY!
FC: Barbra. She was smaller than I thought she would be. Shorter. I couldn’t wait to work with her. She was wonderful to us on Hello, Dolly! She really was. I loved her, and had every album by then. I loved working with her and she was just so professional. So right on.
EPW: NATALIE WOOD
FC: Natalie Wood was the sweetest … she was just so real. She was the nicest person and she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. Gorgeous, sweet, so petite. I was afraid to pick her up for fear I’d break her. I cried for days after I found she had died.
EPW: ROSALIND RUSSELL
FC: Roz Russell was the only reason I wanted to do Gypsy. Jerry (Robbins) called and asked me to do the role of Caroline (the cow). I (jokingly) said, I don’t do animals. Then I said I’d do the front end. I remember standing on set one day and a voice said to me, ‘Isn’t it hot in there?’ I said, ‘Yes, Miss Russell.’ She was a lovely lady. I just fell in love with her. She was very arthritic and at the end of each take she had what looked like a little square silver box or bag that she’d put in between her hands, which were very crippled. It was a heater for her hands. But the minute they would say, ‘We’re ready,’ her hands would straighten out. Roz was a true professional, and so nice to everyone. A brilliant actress.
EPW: BOB FOSSE
FC: Strange man. I met Bob Fosse when I was dancing on The Jackie Gleason Show, before Bob was Bob Fosse. He was very nice to me. We did Pajama Game and Damn Yankees together. In fact, I was supposed to do six weeks of work on Sweet Charity with him. He found out that Michael Kidd had offered me a year of work on Hello, Dolly! But I’m the kind of guy who if I said yes to a shorter job and a longer one comes along, I’ll go with the first. Bob was really nice. He called Michael and said, ‘Freddy’s going to come to work for you.’ I didn’t know about that until an assistant told me the story. Bob was brilliant in what he did, but that comes from Jack Cole and from being with Gwen Verdon. If there was no Jack Cole, there’d be no Gwen Verdon, and if there wasn’t Gwen Verdon, there’d be no Bob Fosse. Bobby was good, but the Gwen Verdon touch on Bobby came from Jack Cole, all the hats and fingers, that’s Jack. Most choreographers are very nice. It’s the insecure ones that are terrible.
EPW: WAS JEROME ROBBINS INSECURE?
FC: No. I don’t think Jerome Robbins was insecure. I think he didn’t know what he wanted out of life. Being gay I think scared him a lot. I don’t know. One day on Peter Pan he yelled at us all day long. Then after it was over, he called out, ‘Hey Fred!’ I was afraid to answer. He asked what I was doing for dinner. I thought oh, my god I’m getting fired. So we went out to dinner and he was very charming. But he said, ‘You know what really turns me off? When people yell at other people so much.’ I nearly fell off my chair! But Jerome Robbins was brilliant. There was no one more brilliant as a choreographer. He could go from musical comedy to ballet to anything else. I think maybe his brilliance was the problem. But he could have yelled at me all day and I’d still work for him. It would be an honor to work for him.
EPW: CHITA RIVERA
FC: Oh Chita! She’s like my kid sister. We were both teenagers and first dance partners when we started. We can go for a long time without hearing from each other but then pick right up as if no time has passed. For example, I hadn’t seen her in a long time and she came to Pasadena to do Kiss of the Spider Woman. I was working wardrobe and she came walking in. I’m in the wings and she was coming in from the bright sun to the darkend theater, so she couldn’t see me. I didn’t move. Then, when she got near me I cleared my throat and said, ‘Oh, the famous diva!’ She adjusted her eyes, looked at me, and yelled, ‘Freddy!’ She grabbed me and pulled me on stage and began telling everyone that I was her first dance partner. She went on and on and told great stories about us.
EPW: TOMMY TUNE
FC: I love Tommy. He’s very nice. When he came in to do Hello, Dolly! the movie, that’s when I met him. Very talented and very sweet.
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When one spends time with Fred Curt, it becomes obvious why he’s adored not only by his wide coterie of friends, co-workers and of course, dancers. He exudes a love for people, as well as his life and his accomplishments in the arts.
We asked, What has been the highlight of your life? Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Residuals!”
However, after a quick laugh Mr. Curt added, “I got to do what made me happy. I got to meet so many wonderful people. Dancing came from my heart. It was fulfilling. It was freedom. Even when you fell down, you picked yourself up, you laughed about it and kept going. Sometimes I was on the most glamorous movie sets. Hello, Dolly! was certainly the most glamorous I’d ever been on.
Dancers who are dancers from the heart all have something in common: camaraderie. If you ever watch So You Think You Can Dance you’ll see it. The minute that someone gets picked the others are hugging them.”
Mr. Curt continued to work in the theater for many years, moving from being in front of an audience, to backstage where, in 1985 he became a costumer at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. When I indelicately asked the stupid question, “When did you decide to hang up your tap shoes?” Mr. Curt replied, “I haven’t, yet! I just don’t make my living as a dancer anymore.” He further explained, “One day I was somewhere with Chita, and someone asked me ‘What do you do?’ I said, Oh, I used to be a dancer. Chita said, ‘STOP!’ She looked at me and chewed me out. She said, ‘Don’t you ever say that again! Once a dancer, always a dancer!’
“Mentally you never stop. Physically, you have to. But I’ve been very lucky,” Mr. Curt concludes. “I’ve danced longer than anybody I know. Age is a state of mind. If you move to the wrong state, you’re dead,” he says with a sardonic grin.
THANK YOU, MR. CURT. It was enormous fun spending time with you.
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R.T. Jordan is the author of twelve books including “But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!” and the series of Polly Pepper mysteries. You can visit his website: www.Rt-jordan.com