Treasured memories of the American Ballet Theatre
Volume 115, No. 11November, 2015
I enjoyed the Allegro article from earlier this summer covering the 75th anniversary of the American Ballet Theatre. It reminded me of the very first year of the company’s existence. Leading into that year was a big musical and social event, an opera season at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre) on Broadway. A well-to-do opera lover was convinced that if opera were presented like a Broadway show – in other words, six nights and two matinees each week – it would be successful. She was right.
There were three conductors, one of whom was Antal Doráti. He re-wrote and conducted an Offenbach opera score called “La Vie Parisienne” to enormous audiences and rave reviews. The orchestra was chosen by Leon Barzin and called the National Orchestral Association Alumni, and I was pleased to be a member. That season did so well that Maestro Doráti was asked to be the conductor of the brand-new American Ballet Theatre, and he decided to use the same orchestra that had played the opera. We began a tour that started in Boston and went on to Canada. One night, in Montreal, the only venue available for us to perform was the local hockey arena. Unfortunately, there had been a hockey game the night before, and there would be one the night after, which meant they could not melt the ice for us. Wooden boards were put down on the ice and most of us were allowed to wear overcoats and gloves with the fingers cut off. The poor dancers did the best they could.
Our tour took us eventually to Detroit then ultimately back to New York. The manager was Sol Hurok and since he still had one year of his contract with Ballet Russe, he ended the season with a joint company of the Ballet Russe and the American Ballet Theatre. It took place at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company had so many stars – including Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Jerome Robbins, Irina Baronova and all the so-called “baby ballerinas” – that it turned into a major social event as well as a dance performance. I remember Sergei Rachmaninoff being in the audience with the actress Merle Oberon. Also present were the Russian ambassador to the United States and the governor of New York. That was the end of that brilliant season. For most of us, our next job was a branch of the armed forces. For me, that meant three years and four months in the infantry and then the Air Force. The memories of the ballet sustained me until the war was over, when I returned to civilian life – again on Broadway, but this time in “Show Boat.”
The writer is a violinist and has been a member of Local 802 continuously since 1939.