Dad (Charles Grass) on left, Bob Fosse on right, age 12 as “The Riff Brothers”
“If you think you can do better, then do better. Don’t compete with anyone; just yourself.” Bob Fosse
Today is my father’s 90th birthday. He is still with us, still sharp as a tack, still very independent and still telling us what to do. On Saturday, we will all gather together at our family home—most of his children and a few of his grandchildren—order from his favorite Chinese Take-Out place and have birthday cake from our Family Bakery. One of his grandsons, a professional keyboardist, will play some Scott Joplin for Grandpa and something in memory of Grandma. We will visit and talk and bring out some pictures, remembering those no longer with us. And we will laugh!
I’ve learned a lot about this whole “artistic business”—morality and even the basis for some of my Choral Ethics project—from my Dad, Charles Grass. A dancer of some note; Dad did it all. He played Vaudeville and Broadway, danced and taught and choreographed. He was also an opera stage director. In fact, Dad met Mom during a run of the operetta, “The Bohemian Girl;” Dad was the stage director and Mom played the lead, Arline. Mom had the most beautiful coloratura soprano voice and Dad said there was something special about her. They were together until a few weeks before their 60th wedding anniversary; we lost her after a valiant 13 year battle with colon cancer. He misses his friends and Mom very much but he is healthy (or as healthy as someone 90 can be) and loves to reminisce about his life in dance.
Dad is the last of his generation of dancers and is, quite literally, the Last Man Standing. Chicago Dance Royalty, he has known or has worked with every dancer of note coming from Our Town, starting with his own Vaudeville partner, Bob Fosse (they were known as “The Riff Brothers”). Bob Fosse and Dad were as close as brothers—and billed as such—beginning their act together when they were about eight years old. Bob was more athletic and Dad was more balletic; together they were something special. Dad is regularly interviewed for books and specials about Bob. He tries to make sure they know he was really just a nice boy from Chicago, despite what they might have been led to believe. Bob would have also been 90 this year; they were six months apart, Bob’s birthday being in June
Dad was Ruth Page’s (a big deal, innovative choreographer of the mid-20th century) assistant and went to Broadway with her bio-musical of Tchaikovsky, “Music in My Heart.” His Chicago dancer friends were eclectic; from Jazz great Gus Giordano, smooth Tommy Sutton (the Tap Expert from the South Side) and “that young kid” Lou Conte (the founder of Hubbard Street, who is still with us). He knew Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska , and danced on an episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour. One of his teachers, Jon Petrie, was a student of Petipa, the original choreographer of “The Nutcracker;” Dad danced it many times, the Trepak being his specialty. He had friends in all the major ballet companies in the United States, as well as on Broadway. The daughter of one of his friends (Lorraine Henner) was in the original production of “Grease;” Dad knew everybody.
Growing up, wisdom from his Show Biz experiences was passed on to his six kids, whether we liked it or not, in all aspects—even the non-show biz parts—of our lives. Our family was steeped in these traditions but, being kids, we didn’t know where they came from. He told us to always be on time, which meant ten minutes early or he would consider you late—this was especially important to know during those teenage curfew years! He would cajole us to do something different, something no one else was doing or to put our own personal stamp on something ordinary. We were expected to practice, and always be prepared for our music, dance and school lessons. He told us we had to be clean and well-groomed when we left the house, since how we presented ourselves would reflect on him and our mother. And mini-skirts? Dad was not a fan; I can still hear him yelling, “You’re not leaving the house in that!” to my sisters and me as we tried to sneak out of the house. Dad believed in dressing the part, so while our friends may have been allowed to wear blue jeans to church, we were not.
Dad was a big believer in the “Show Must Go On” philosophy; he would tell us he didn’t care if we broke a nail or our dog died or we weren’t feeling it, we had to suck it up and go on. He wanted us to be real Troopers; there was no higher compliment than “she was a real Trooper” when we persevered through adversity. While he certainly had artistic integrity, he would remind us, if we did the work, we should cash the check.
Dad was considered a “teacher’s teacher” and master pedagogue, teaching master classes and adjudicating around the country until the year 2000. He always considered himself to be a tap dancer first, but was a wonderful Ballet dancer, specializing in Character dance (as did I). Believe or not, he told me just this week he’s been asked to teach a few classes this coming spring. Way to go, Daddy!
Whatever I do, I know Dad’s influence on my attitudes about my art and own artistry began before I was born and I am so proud to be his daughter. Happy birthday, Daddy…WE LOVE YOU!