The star was in her dressing room when her father, whom she had believed dead, appeared and congratulated her on a fine performance. Eleanor Torrey Powell was born Nov. 21, 1912 in Springfield, Mass. Her parents Clarence and Blanche divorced when she was two. Blanche felt this was a scandal, so she told Eleanor her father had died.
The family was poor, and Blanche worked as a chambermaid, waitress, and bank teller. Yet, she decided her shy daughter should begin studying ballet and acrobatic dance at age seven. During her 1924 vacation, Eleanor was doing acrobatics on the beach of Atlantic City. Entrepreneur Gus Edwards noticed her, and hired the 11-year-old to perform in his School Days Revue at the Ritz Grill in the Ambassador Hotel. There, she danced two nights a week for $7 a night. Eleanor was very good, and Gus hired her to return to Atlantic City the next summer, during which time she also made her first nightclub performance at the Silver Slipper Club. These shows led her to be hired the following summer as MC at the Martins Club, where she earned $75 a week.
Stars Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor saw her act, and encouraged the 14-year-old to try her luck in New York. At 15, Eleanor took her mother and the last of the family savings and moved to the big city. She found a job dancing at Ben Bernie's nightclub, worked private parties with the famous Bill Robinson, and landed a part in the ensemble of The Optimists, a revue in the Casino de Paris.
A talent agency advised her it was necessary to learn to tap dance. Powell had already been rejected from 10 other shows because she could not tap. Eleanor disliked the style, but learned it well while wearing an army surplus belt with sandbags attached to keep her more earthbound.
In 1929, 16-year-old Powell became a Broadway star in a small part tap dancing in Follow Through. In 1930 she made a brief dance appearance in Queen High, filmed in New York with Ginger Rogers and Frank Morgan. In 1932 she appeared on Broadway in Ziegfeld's Hot Cha! with Lupe Velez. Powell performed in George White's Music Hall Varieties, and the producer asked her to reprise her number in his Hollywood movie George White's Scandals (1935), in which it is said she covered four miles in her tap shoes.
Eleanor, surprisingly religious, disliked Hollywood. Appalled at its low morality, she rushed back to Broadway, advising her agent to turn down any future film offers. When Louis B. Mayer wanted her for the lead in the film Broadway Melody of 1936, she asked for an exorbitant salary and star billing, sure it would be rejected. He accepted, and Powell starred with Jack Benny. Mayer thought the girl was homely, and wanted her glamorized. He ordered cosmeticians to experiment on her face for days. Powell's teeth were brilliantly capped, and her brown hair was dyed red. She was billed as 'The World's Greatest Female Tap Dancer,' which was an actual 1930 citation from the Dancing Masters of America.
Then she starred in the Born To Dance (1936), with James Stewart. For the finale of the film, Cole Porter wrote a jazz-inspired song called 'Swingin' The Jinx Away.' MGM decided to pull out all the stops to make it the most lavish number of its kind. The result, as described by the production coordinator Roger Edens was, 'that really monstrous epitome of nonsense, that big half-million dollar battleship with several thousand dancers and singing sailors with sequined cannons and Eleanor Powell dancing on the decks. I don't know what to say, except that it haunts me as an embarrassment of bad taste. But the audiences loved it."
Powell's next film was Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). These were followed by two more musicals, Rosalie (1937), and Honolulu (1939). When she made Broadway Melody of 1940 (1939) with Fred Astaire, he admitted she was the better tap dancer. Their routine to Cole Porter's 'Begin The Beguine' is one of the best and most elegant filmed.
Eleanor married film star Glenn Ford in 1943, and they had a son, Peter, who became an actor. In 1949, Powell left her audience in awe when she appeared in a 40-minute non-stop tap routine in the London Palladium. In 1950, she made her final film Duchess of Idaho. In 1953, Eleanor turned to TV, teaching in a show called Faith Of Our Children. Her religious beliefs became the new focus of her life. She called herself the 'dancing preacher,' and the program earned five local Los Angeles Emmy Awards. Her marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1959.
Powell was financially strapped. In 1961, Peter persuaded his mother to make a comeback, and Eleanor made world headlines when she announced she would return to dance nightly at the Sahara in Las Vegas and the Latin Quarter in New York. Her spectacular show was a 55-minute act assisted by four male dancers. Then, Peter worried she might have a heart attack. Later, Powell danced in nightclubs throughout the country, and made numerous TV appearances. Her Vegas show had set an audience attendance record that remained for 30 years. In 1964, at 51, she quit her dancing career for good. Eleanor soon returned to her work with a church group.
That's Entertainment in 1974, and its sequel That's Entertainment Part 2 in 1976 brought Powell back into the spotlight. She went on the lecture circuit, made appearances, and received awards . Her last public venture was at the National Film Awards Ceremony in October 1981, where she received an award named the 'Ellie'—-named in her honor—for those people who gave outstanding contributions to the world of film musicals.
Powell wrote in Dance Magazine, 'I never had the slightest idea of becoming a professional dancer when I first went to dancing school. I went because mother thought it might be a good way to cure me of my bashfulness, and it was.'"
Powell died of ovarian cancer Feb. 11, 1982. In 1985, the film That's Dancin' brought her talent back to the screen.
Sources: They Had Faces Then by John Springer and Jack Hamilton; The Great Movie Stars-The Golden Years by David Shipman; The MGM Story by John Douglas Eames; The Illustrated Who's Who of the Cinema Edited by Ann Lloyd and Graham Fuller; Gotta Sing Gotta Dance—A Pictorial History of Film Musicals by John Kobal; Eleanor Powell Web sites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect—Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A designer and an artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings and jewelry, and celebrating its 36th anniversary in 2003.
Visit the studio at 2779 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago where adorning the walls is Steve Starr's personal collection of more than 950 gorgeous frames filled with photos of Hollywood's most glamorous stars.
Photo of Steve Starr March 4, 2003, by Doug Birkenheuer.
E-mail Steve at SSSCHICAGO@Ameritech.net