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Publication: Globe and Mail, The
Issue: 17 October 2008, page R5
Title: JEANETTE HELLER (Obituary)
Web Link: link
JEANETTE HELLER, 97: DANCER
Canada's original Rockette 'did everything but the circus'
Showgirl from Paris, Ont., who longed to dance went to New York in 1930 and ended up in the chorus line at Radio City Music Hall. 'I always worked in the line. I was never a solo artist'
October 17, 2008
The population is aging - that's a fact not a complaint - but Jeanette Heller was somebody who refused to give in to sagging flesh or creaky joints. The oldest living Canadian Rockette, she was as supple as a woman one-third her age, as she did pliés in her kitchen while she was waiting for the bread in her toaster to brown in the mornings. "Time goes very fast," she said in The Limelighters, a documentary made by David Hansen and aired on Global TV earlier this year. "When I turned around and I realized I was 95, I didn't believe it myself."
Having danced with the original Rockettes in the thirties in New York, she made her final public performance as a dancer more than 75 years later when she joined a band of current Rockettes and more than 1,500 amateurs outside the Hummingbird Centre (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts) on a chilly morning in Toronto in November, 2006. The Toronto line, which linked arms and kicked right and then left for more than five minutes, beat the previous Guinness World Record (established in Germany in 2004 with 1,150 participants) by more than 500 high-stepping and enthusiastic amateurs.
"It was fun," insisted Ms. Heller, who was wearing a sweatshirt and black pants tucked into cowboy boots and showed no signs of breaking a sweat after her five-minute workout. Even her mascara was intact as she gave an interview to local media saying, "Toronto needed this."
A career woman who never married or had children, Ms. Heller lived her life "her way," with grease paint and curtain calls. "I always worked in the line. I was never a solo artist, but I enjoyed what I did and I travelled all over the world. I loved dancing," she told Mr. Hansen for his documentary. "I did everything but the circus."
Jeanette Heller was born in Paris, Ont., a year before the Titanic sank off Newfoundland. She was the only girl in a family of seven children born to Samuel Heller, an immigrant from Lithuania who worked in the scrap metal business, and his Canadian-born wife Lena (Davis) Heller.
By the time Jeanette was 10, her family had moved to Toronto and she was already dreaming of becoming a dancer. Four years later she was earning enough money at part-time jobs to pay for dancing lessons. She left school at 16 and found small parts in pantomime and vaudeville shows at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. She relished the excitement and attention. "My family never paid any interest in me, I was not a special person in the family," she told her great-nephew Aron Heller for an article he wrote last year in the quarterly Guilt and Pleasure. "Nobody ever said that they loved us or told us that we were pretty when we were kids."
When she was 19, she packed her suitcase and moved to New York. She quickly became a "Roxyette," a line of precision and synchronized dancers following the tradition that impresario Flo Ziegfeld had established with his Ziegfeld Follies before the First World War. Under the direction of Samuel Lionel (Roxy) Rothafel, the Roxyettes danced at the Roxy Theatre and then moved to Radio City Music Hall, where they made their debut on Dec. 27, 1932. Two years later, Mr. Rothafel changed their name to the Rockettes.
According to Ms. Heller, the line was arranged from the tallest in the middle to the shortest on the ends. At 5 feet 4 inches, she was three inches shorter than the tallest dancers - today the minimum height is 5 feet 6 inches. For the next eight years, she travelled with the Rockettes across North America, appearing on the same stage as celebrities such as Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong and Gene Autry. Everything changed after the Second World War erupted. Several of her brothers were overseas with the Canadian military and she was needed in Toronto to care for her mother.
From about 1941 until peace came in 1945, she worked in the circulation department and the mailing room at The Globe and Mail, restraining her show-business tendencies in those grey and treacherous times to organizing the annual Christmas show for her fellow employees.
She made it into the editorial pages of the newspaper in January, 1944, when she became the source for a column titled "Cruelty to Jews seen in Toronto" by J.V. McAree. "My father served in the last war; my brother is a navigator in the air force overseas. I am a dancer by profession, and am now doing office work because wartime restrictions prevent my continuing my work in the United States," a woman, who is identified only as J.H, says. She goes on to describe how she tried to take lessons at a local skating club, but was rejected when she revealed she was Jewish on her application. "Night after night, I have danced at canteens and entertainments for the boys in the service - without pay, of course - and worked all day at the office. Probably some of those boys are sons and brothers of members of this same skating club," she said in an interview for the article. Justifiably outraged on Ms. Heller's behalf, the editorialist argues that from "disliking the Jews to hating the Jews to murdering the Jews represents two short steps that were taken in Germany to the horror of the whole world. That is one of the reasons we are fighting this war. Are there citizens of Toronto who would betray this cause?"
After her brothers came back from overseas, she relinquished her mother's care and returned to the U.S., where she took out citizenship, according to her youngest brother, Mickey Heller, and resumed her career as a dancer. Working mostly on contracts, she performed around the U.S. and travelled extensively, especially when she went to Japan as part of a United Service Organizations (USO) troupe to entertain the occupation forces, and then to Korea during the Korean War in the early fifties. Later, she danced in Scandinavia, the Middle East, Cuba - before the revolution - and in various European capitals. "What other Yiddish girl met royalty back then?" she asked her nephew Aron rhetorically.
She stopped dancing professionally in the late fifties, but remained in New York and began a second career in wardrobe and show production. She worked for the American Ballet Theatre, fashion shows at the Waldorf-Astoria, and Broadway shows such as Guys and Dolls and The King and I. She eventually got into TV as well, working on soap operas such as All My Children and One Life To Live, as well as The Dick Cavett Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. She was even involved in the production of Sesame Street.
She finally moved back to Toronto in 1975, at 64, to be closer to her extended family. Winters were something else, so she spent them in Florida, working as a wardrobe manager on shows that probably catered to many of her fellow Canadians who had also fled the snow for sunshine. Ms. Heller finally retired at 82, after having worked behind the scenes in the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami Beach for close to 20 years.
About a decade ago, she moved into the Performing Arts Lodge in downtown Toronto where she enjoyed a lively retirement, socializing with other artists and performers, keeping fit with yoga and aerobics and reliving highlights of a wide-ranging career that included ballet, drama, musical comedy, fashion shows, movies and the early days of live television.
Jeanette Heller was born April 14, 1911, in Paris, Ont. She died yesterday, Oct. 16, 2008, of kidney failure in the palliative care unit of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. She was 97. Ms. Heller is survived by her youngest brother, Mickey Heller, four nephews, three nieces, and her extended family.