I don't remember if I liked [dancing] because I was good at it, or if I was good at it because I liked it. Maybe a little of both.
-- Vera Ellen
Vera Ellen went to the same Cincinnati ballroom dance studio as a child as Doris Day. Their parents used to carpool together to the dance studio.
Vera Ellen Westmeier Rohe
16 February 1921, Norwood, Ohio
30 August 1981, Los Angeles, California
One of musical film's most vivacious and vibrant dancing talents who glided effortlessly through Hollywood's "Golden Age" in the 40s and 50s was Vera-Ellen Westmeyer Rohe, better known to all her fans simply by her hyphenated first name. Whether performing solo or dueting with the best male partners of her generation, including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, Vera-Ellen gave life to some of the most extraordinary dance routines ever caught on film. Sadly, out-and-out stardom eluded her, and she never did quite earn the recognition or accolades that were bestowed upon many of her musical peers and co-stars.
Born of German descent in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 16, 1921 (some sources incorrectly indicate 1926), the only child of a piano tuner, she was painfully shy and frail as a youngster and had developed severe health issues by age 9. Using dance as both physical and emotional therapy, what was once recreational became a soulful and burning passion, and her talent became obvious nearly from the onset. As a teen she appeared in nightclub acts and became one of the Rockettes' youngest members, quickly graduating to a dancer on the "Great White Way." Vera-Ellen made her Broadway debut with "Very Warm for May" at age 18 in 1939, which also featured another young hopeful, June Allyson. She then segued into "Higher and Higher" (1940), which also had Allyson in the cast, "Panama Hattie" (1940) which starred Ethel Merman, "By Jupiter (1942) with Ray Bolger, and a revival of "A Connecticut Yankee" (1943).
Blessed with a sweet, apple blossom appeal and touching, elfin charm, her movie career began taking shape in 1945. Supposedly her mother thought that since Vera-Ellen looked much younger than she was, it might be wise to shave five years off of her age in order to build her up as a dancing teen sensation. Her first two films were musical vehicles for the up-and-coming Danny Kaye in Wonder Man (1945) and The Kid from Brooklyn (1946). They and the movies were both hits and people soon fell in love with her fresh-faced innocence. A hard-working, uncomplicated talent, she paired famously with Gene Kelly in MGM's Words and Music (1948) in which their "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" number was a critical highlight, and On the Town (1949) as "Miss Turnstiles," the apple of Kelly's eye. She also appeared twice with Fred Astaire in her heyday, though in the lesser known Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952), and shared dance steps with the equally agile Donald O'Connor in Call Me Madam (1953). Arguably, her best-known (and best-loved) film appearance is as part of the glamorous quartet in the Bing Crosby yuletide favorite White Christmas (1954) in which she reteamed with Danny Kaye and played sister to Rosemary Clooney.
Musicals went out of vogue by the late 50s and, as Vera-Ellen was practically synonymous with musicals, her career went into a sharp decline. But that was only one reason. A light acting talent, she might have continued in films in dramatic roles, as she had in the movie Big Leaguer (1953) with Edward G. Robinson, but dark, outside influences steered her away altogether. Personal unhappiness and ill health would quickly take their toll on her.
It was discovered that Vera-Ellen silently battled anorexia throughout much of the 50s before doctors had even coined the term or devised treatments. Moreover, she developed severe arthritis following her retirement and was forced to revert to dance lessons again in order to combat it. If that wasn't enough, she had to endure two failed marriages while losing her only daughter, Victoria Ellen Rothschild, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 1963. These tragic events turned her into a virtual recluse. Little was heard for decades until it was learned that she had died of cancer in Los Angeles, California, on August 30, 1981. Less remembered today compared to several of the big stars that shared the stage with her, Vera-Ellen was a lithe and lovely presence who deserved so much more. Nevertheless, she has provided film lovers a lasting legacy and deserves to be called one of Hollywood's true dancing legends.
Fred Astaire will never say, though he's always asked, which of his dancing ladies was his favorite partner. If you ask me, he preferred the solo turns.
I was called a bookish child. Mother sent me to a ballet teacher in Cincinnati when I was nine years old. I guess I was an awkward child and the family wanted me to be graceful. When I found out I liked to dance and people seemed to like to watch me, I was determined to go places.
The six boys who danced with me in this show escorted me to the depot and their farewell wish was to remember me dancing, so right there on the station platform we went into our routine as best we could under the circumstances. Naturally we attracted quite a crowd and we got so involved in our dancing, I almost missed the train but the boys managed to get me on just as the train pulled out.
I'm a dancer and I can never really get away from my career. On the days when I don't dance at the studio, I have to practice for at least an hour in the evening to keep in shape. Dancing is like breathing -- missing a day doing either is very bad.