A Dancer’s Life with Judith Jackson
I always look forward to spending time with Judith Jackson. An icon in the industry, and referred to as the “Mother of American Aromatherapy,” Judith wrote the first American book on aromatherapy, entitled Scentual Touch, A Personal Guide to Aromatherapy. She introduced the spa industry to the art of scent, and at 80+, Judith is as elegant as they come. A petite woman, who at one time graced the cover of Life magazine (May 5, 1947 issue), appearing in its pages on two separate occasions, Judith, born Judith Hall, studied acting and dancing and spent time in Hollywood in her late teens. At nineteen, Esquire photographed her in white leotard and stockings, “leaping and lunging with sword in hand.”
“They liked the shots so much, they made a booklet insert in the magazine, much to my surprise,” recalls Judith. She was around nineteen at the time, and had just returned from Hollywood and a contract with David Selznick studios. “I really hated Hollywood and having to outrun ‘interested’ producers,” says Judith. “I did make Selznick pay for every acting and dancing lesson I could think of,” she chuckles. Vera Ellen, who became a celebrated dancer and actress whose partners included Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Danny Kaye, was in Judith’s ballet class. The two lithe beauties “used to go leaping on the beach together,” reminisces Judith.
It is my absolute pleasure to share more of Judith’s fascinating life.
On Growing up in Garden City
My father was ill—he was an artist, and I was supporting my mother and five-year-old brother. We lived in Garden City on Long Island, in a very conservative community with a lot of people who were wealthier than we were. But my mother had great taste. My grandmother had come from Tennessee . . . nothing like poor Southern aristocrats, right?
I was living in Garden City, and I was commuting into the city in order to take dancing lessons when I was twelve. I went alone into the city after my mother had gone in with me the first time. I took dancing lessons from Louis Chalif, a famous coach in Radio City Music Hall.
Long Legs & A Future in Dance
He was a dear old Russian who had a stick that he’d pound down on the floor to count the time. I took private lessons from him pro bono because the studio decided I had some talent. I had long legs and a future, they thought! In any case, when Louis got me to the point where I had the right hand movement and stance, he put me into a class that was taught by Alexis Dolonof, the principle male dancer of the Metropolitan Opera. He was a great teacher. He also had a stick! I was in there with professional dancers, girls who were in The Rockettes and from Balanchine’s and in the New York Ballet. I was a little intimidated, but nevertheless kept going. Then Alexis stopped teaching, and I went over to Carnegie Hall in the days when it was filled with music and dancers and singers, it was a fantastic atmosphere—this was over 50 years ago.
“I’ll make another Lana Turner out of you,” Selznick said. But I didn’t want to be another Lana Turner . . .
Fifteen & Fearless
I was now about to be fifteen, and I was in a class that was watched by Lucia Chase, who co-founded the American Ballet Theatre. She singled me out and said she’d like to give me a scholarship and have me dance with the corps. All this time, I had been going to school in Garden City, and was doing my homework on the train. I got a letter from my doctor, excusing me from after-school gym class. I don’t quite remember how I got out of Lucia’s contract, but I got to be good enough that someone from the June Taylor Dancers who was a coach for the Jackie Gleason group, offered me a job that paid three times more than the American Ballet Theatre. The corps traveled all the time, and I was worried about being away from my family.
So, for about six months, I danced with the Jackie Gleason group. We worked six days a week and used to do 64 kicks at a time! It was great training for me because we did a lot of tap dancing. When it came time for the group to go to Florida, I didn’t want to. I had become used to being on television, so I started to do a little television dancing. For instance, I did a few shows with Roland Petit, the well-known choreographer and producer of French ballets and things in Paris. I was on a show called Stop the Music.
Okay, You’ll Do
Then I began to think that I should really continue acting lessons, I was now not quite fifteen. One day, I was walking around Broadway and saw Shubert Alley. I got the idea to go up to Lee Shubert’s office, which I did. I told his secretary that I would like to see Mr. Shubert, and she went in and asked him if he’d see me. He did.
I walked in, and he asked what I would like to do. I told him I had some show experience and was also taking a few acting lessons. I told him I would be perfectly happy to be in a chorus in one of his shows! He replied that unfortunately, he didn’t have that kind of show on Broadway at the moment, but he had an idea. Monte Proser, a friend of his was looking to put someone like me in a line—he was the owner of the Copacabana, at the time, it was on 60th between Madison and Fifth.
Shubert never asked me how old I was, neither did Monte Proser. I had never been in a nightclub, of course! It was very pretty inside and in a nice neighborhood. Monte put me in the middle of the very small floor. There were tables all around, a balustrade, and a bandstand . . . Tommy Dorsey played there . . . I had this long naturally blonde hair . . . Monte said, “Okay, you’ll do.”
The Youngest Chorus Girl in New York
I go home and tell my mother that I now have a great job that paid about $300 a week. My mother said, “Isn’t that a nightclub?” And I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Oh dear.”
Dan, the stage manager, was very protective of the girls, one of them was dating Frank Sinatra.The dialogue of the dancers in the dressing room was something else. They decided every time someone said a four-letter word, they’d take a collection for me—they soon had a large jar of coins!
Opening night, I was a little in shock. It was smoky and brightly lit with all these people and a full band! I thought, Okay kid, this is your test. You’ve got to do this. After a few months, Dan contacted Life magazine, telling them he had the youngest chorus girl in New York at the Copacabana—and I was!
Life magazine came in and took photos. Dan told me that there were some beautiful shots, and he suggested I should go get a few of them, so I went to the offices. I was sixteen then, and asked for this particular editor, Gene Cook was his name. I said, “I understand you have some photos of me, and I wonder if you could spare one because I also do some modeling.” Gene said, “Sit down and tell me a little about yourself.” So, I told him I lived in Garden City and commuted in. I was driving the family car now because I was sixteen. My mother had a lot of faith in me, getting home weekends at two to three in the morning.
Gene asked if I would mind if he did a story on me. I asked him what kind of a story and he said, “Trust me, it will be a nice story.” By the time the magazine came out, I was sixteen and I wasn’t at the Copacabana all that time. I worked there for another six or eight months, but got tired of commuting and my mother wasn’t really comfortable with it.
Post-Copacabana & Princess-like
I did some modeling and some television commercials. It was really interesting because you had to wear special makeup—yellowish pancake with purple lipstick. I did little bits and things and became comfortable with the television camera, and now all of a sudden, there’s Andre de Dienes—Marilyn Monroe’s personal photographer. He was famous for taking shots outside using natural light, and he loved photographing me. He photographed me for Life; there’s one photo of me in an evening gown and a caption that reads, “Princess-like, Judy wears this lace gown embroidered with pearls and sequins. As she glides over the Copacabana floor to Easy Going, Hard to Get.”
Because of that story in Life, film producer David Selznick signed me. I went to Hollywood and read for him and he said, “I’ll make another Lana Turner out of you.” But I didn’t want to be another Lana Turner . . . nevertheless, it was very well paid, and I brought my mother and brother to Hollywood.