April 12, 1923 – Ann Miller:
”I have worked like a dog all my life, honey. Dancing, as Fred Astaire said, is next to ditch-digging. You sweat and you slave and the audience doesn’t think you have a brain in your head.”
She lived in a big house in Beverly Hills on Alta Drive. When I was in college in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, I liked to drive around Beverly Hills and look for movie stars. I thought it was cool. Her house had big black and white awnings over the windows, and a big white 1968 Cadillac, in the driveway. Like her hair, everything just seemed frozen in time. I loved her!
In the 1940s and 1950s, she was America’s female tap dancing star, bigger than Ginger Rogers or Eleanor Powell. She took an especially vigorous approach to her dancing, and Miller’s agent claimed she could do 500 taps a minute. Nobody ever disputed him.
Film fans and critics were crazy for her performances in Easter Parade (1948), in which she danced gracefully with Astaire while trying to woo him away from Judy Garland; Kiss Me Kate (1953), as a nightclub hoofer in Cole Porter‘s musical version of Taming Of The Shrew; and On The Town (1949) paired with Jules Munshin, the sidekick of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, sailors desperately looking for girls on their 24-hour shore leave in NYC. She said these were her favorite movies.
As a young actor, Miller attracted attention when she played the fudge-making, ballet-dancing daughter in Frank Capra‘s classic You Can’t Take It With You (1938). And, 40 years later, after a long hiatus, she made an amazing comeback, starring with Mickey Rooney in the silly and sassy Sugar Babies, a musical salute to Vaudeville that ran for nearly three years on Broadway and then toured for two more. She seemed to really enjoy the stardom that she felt she had been denied earlier. Miller:
”At MGM I always played the second feminine lead. I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen. Sugar Babies gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.”
She was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Chireno, Texas. Her father was a successful criminal lawyer who counted Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker among his clients. He dreamed of having a son he could name John Jr.; instead, he named his daughter Johnnie. Her mother was a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Her family moved to Houston, where she took dance class to strengthen her legs affected by rickets, a condition caused by a Vitamin D deficiency that results in weak or soft bones in children, causing bowed legs and a curved spine.
Despite her condition, Miller proved to be an exceptional dancer. She met the best tap dancer in the world, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, at a local theatre and he gave her a short lesson. She liked his style of dance and decided to make it her specialty.
When Miller was 10-years-old, her parents split up and her mother took her to California. There she developed an act and performed at small clubs around Los Angeles. At five foot-seven inches, 11-year-old Miller pretended to be of legal age and was hired to dance for $25 a week at the Sunset Club.
At 13-years-old future Miller booked a four-month run at a nightclub in San Francisco. She was spotted by talent scout Benny Rubin, who was with Lucille Ball. They were impressed by Miller and arranged a screen-test for her at RKO. With a fake birth certificate, Miller passed for 18-years-old and landed a seven-year contract with the studio, which led to her first film job, a nonspeaking part in New Faces Of 1937. Her next role was better; she was featured along with Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, and Ball in Stage Door (1937). This was followed by You Can’t Take It With You with Jean Arthur and James Stewart, and Room Service (1938) with the Marx Brothers.
It was Miller who introduced Ball to Desi Arnaz, and years later, the couple bought RKO and re-named it DesiLu Studios. Miller’s final film at the RKO was Too Many Girls (1940) with Ball and Arnaz.
She longed to play the leading romantic roles like the other dancing stars, Rogers and Powell, but that simply never happened. Instead, in the 1940s, she appeared in a string of forgettable films.
In 1946, Miller married a millionaire steel heir, Reese Llewellyn Milner. They lived on the biggest ranch in California where they raised cattle. In a rage, her husband threw Miller down the stairs at their home. She broke her back, and she filed for divorce from her hospital bed. Miller was pregnant at the time and her baby girl died a few hours after birth.
In 1945, Miller dated the powerful head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. He was smitten and asked Miller to marry him. She turned him down. The distraught Mayer swallowed sleeping pills, and then sent his chauffeur to bring Miller to his death bed. The ambulance arrived first.
She had to go back to work. Returning to MGM looking for a job, Mayer told her: “If you’d married me, none of this would have happened”.
Luckily, she was cast in MGM’s Easter Parade, a role she won only when Cyd Charisse broke a leg. It was her best role yet, and MGM gave Miller a seven-year contract.
She appeared in Two Tickets To Broadway (1951) with Tony Martin and Janet Leigh, with songs by Jule Styne; Lovely To Look At (1952) with songs by Jerome Kern; the old fashioned Deep In My Heart (1954), a biopic about composer Sigmund Romberg; Hit The Deck (1955) with Vincent Youmans‘ score; and The Opposite Sex (1956), an unnecessary musical version of Clare Boothe Luce‘s The Women.
In 1958, Miller married another millionaire, Texas oilman Bill Moss. She later quipped: “He looked exactly like my first husband. Three months later, he broke my arm.” A third marriage, to another oilman, Arthur Cameron, was annulled within a year.
By the end of the 1950s, Miller had moved from movies to nightclubs and appearances on television variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
In 1969, she had a Broadway triumph when she took on the title role in the musical Mame originated by Angela Lansbury. She took an unusual route to the Broadway production of Mame. The rights to the show had been released even as it continued to limp along in NYC with Jane Morgan in the title role. Miller starred in a production in Florida and word got back to Broadway producers that she was the best Mame since Lansbury. The Broadway team flew to Florida to see the show and signed Miller up at once. Choreographer Onna White returned to the show and turned the jitterbug dancing in That’s How Young I Feel into a huge tap number for Miller and the chorus. The reviews were raves. Critics noted how well Miller sang. Miller kept Mame running on Broadway for months after it should have closed.
Yet, work dried up for Miller after that; until 1972, when she made that memorable commercial for Heinz’s Great American Soups, dressed in red, white and blue, tap dancing atop an eight-foot soup can.
Popular once more in the 1970s, Miller toured and did summer stock productions of Can-Can, Hello, Dolly! and Blithe Spirit. Then there was the biggest comeback of all comebacks came in 1979’s Sugar Babies.
In her prime, Miller’s flamboyantly glamorous appearance, especially her hair, which was often a bouffant, lacquered wig, made her the butt of jokes about falling-down and breaking her hair. But, she was in on the joke, reveling in making television appearances in her wig and Egyptian-style makeup. In her memoir Miller’s High Life (1972), she claimed to be the reincarnation of Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt. She also wrote:
”There’s a part of me that will always be Johnnie Lucille Collier, and she’s just waiting for this long-winded Hollywood love affair to end with the Ann Miller creature.”
She was a witty creature, that is for certain. She was once asked if she would be working on Passover. Her reply: ”Oh, honey, I never do game shows”. For ”occupation” on her tax forms she wrote ”Star Lady”.
In showbiz, Miller had a reputation for being kind-hearted and a loyal friend. She was popular with co-stars and crew. Despite a long and increasingly debilitating illness, she always made sure she looked like a million dollars: ”A star lady should look like a star”. She was a consummate pro, always grateful to be working.
When she was 79-years-old, she was still working, giving an astonishing performance in David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive (2001); Miller:
”I don’t understand one damn thing about that crazy movie but isn’t it a hoot that I’m in it?!?”
Suffering with osteoporosis, and regretting never having children or having found someone to share her last years, Miller said:
“No matter what you’ve achieved, honey, if you aren’t loved, you ain’t nothing but a hound dog. I can still tap, but who wants to pay an old lady to tap sitting down?”
In 1999, one of her friends located her baby’s grave. Miller took her final bow in January 2004, taken by of lung cancer. Her baby was exhumed, and her little coffin was laid on top of her mother’s. They are buried together at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, with a view of the MGM lot.