Johnny Caps 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s, Anita Mann, Choreographing, Choreography, Dance, dancing, Elvis Presley, fantasy, Foxy Brown, Here's Lucy, MDA Telethon, Shindig!, Solid Gold, Something Else, The Great Muppet Caper, The Jacksons, The Lemon Sisters, The Lucy Show, The T.A.M.I Show 0
My first exposure to the work of choreographer Anita Mann, my newest interview subject, came when I rented The Great Muppet Caper as a child. Before I even knew her name, I saw the Muppets and Anita’s dancers creating footwork fireworks with numbers like “Hey, A Movie!” and “The First Time It Happens”. As I grew older, I would come to see Anita Mann’s choreography and dancing in projects ranging from Foxy Brown to the classic 80s music series Solid Gold.
With the assistance of Lauren Cahlan and the team at Wicked Creative, I was able to do an interview with Anita earlier this month. I hope you all enjoy getting to know the work of this amazingly talented and versatile entertainer.
Say hello to Anita Mann!
Johnny: Hello, Anita.
Anita: Hello, Johnny Caps! How are you?
Johnny: I’m doing good. First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Anita: My pleasure. Thank you for your work that you do for so many.
Johnny: Well, I’m glad for the compliment, and I have my questions ready to go.
Anita: I’m ready to rock and roll!
Johnny: Alright. I’ll start off with this: Had you always wanted to be a dancer, or did you initially have a different career goal in mind as a child?
Anita: Oh, no, there was never any other. I always wanted to be a dancer. Actually, from the time I was born, I think I was dancing.
Johnny: Alright. As you grew up with Elvis Presley’s music, what was it like to dance alongside him in movies like Clambake and Spinout?
Anita: It was kind of a dream come true because you can’t believe you’re actually there and getting paid to dance, you know, in an Elvis Presley movie, so it was kind of a surreal experience.
Johnny: Alright. You danced on Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special, a special that truly impressed audiences, quite a few of whom has sort of written him off musically before it aired. Since you’ve talked in other interviews about advice Elvis had given you, did you have any advice for him when it came to the special?
Anita: Well, it’s kind of weird. Going back for a moment, you left off one film, which was Speedway. Spinout was actually the first time where I ever spoke to Elvis, and that experience stayed with me because he was so kind and gentle and generous,. When we were working on every other project after that, I always remembered that he always stayed who he was, which was kind, generous, humble.
I did give advice to him dance-wise, movement-wise, as that was my job, but as a personal experience, it was just always to be his friend, and to support his personal success as much as his professional success. I felt like brother and sister because we were very honest with each other. We could talk about things, which was really special for me, and I hope for him, too.
Johnny: It’s always great to develop a bond with a good friend like that. To go back a few years in the 60s, I have to ask about one of your earliest dance projects. You were one of the dancers in the seminal concert film The T.A.M.I Show. When you were dancing in that film, did you have any idea that it would become the classic it did?
Anita: Oh my gosh, you brought up The T.A.M.I Show! Well, first of all, that was one of the most incredible experiences to be surrounded by, I’m going to say, the legends of rock and roll. We knew that it was going to be important because of the year that we shot it in, and because it was a very integrated audience and group of performers. We knew that there was a historic element. We didn’t know, at that time, that it would later be considered one of the all-time great rock-and-roll concerts. I think George Lucas presented it once. We went to see a special screening of it that he presented.
I think that was a shock. I mean, you’re not thinking about it when you’re a dancer, but I always looked at things from a deeper vision of what we were doing. It was so classic to be standing next to Mick Jagger while he was watching James Brown. I’m standing with him while he’s reacting to James Brown, and in those moments, who knew, later on, the impact that the concert would have? It was very, very unique and very special. I was so honored and blessed to be a part of David Winters’ dance group. It was a very unusual concert, and Steve Binder, one of the greatest directors ever for that time, although Louis J. Horvitz would later film dancers in a similar manner, took so much care and time to support the dancers. We shot three different showings at the Santa Monica Civic. Everything about it was so unique that it would’ve been hard to take it all in in the moment.
Johnny: Well, it’s certainly one of the all-time great concert films, and you did amazing work in it.
Anita: Oh, thank you.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. You were also one of the original dancers on Shindig!, the classic 60s music program. What are your favorite memories of that show, whether they were musicians you danced with or hosts whose antics you found to be funny?
Anita: Well, Shindig was, I think, the precursor to when I later choreographed a show called Solid Gold. The fact was that the Shindig Dancers, we had identity, as I later hoped to do with the Solid Gold Dancers. At Shindig!, if you were a music fan, which it sounds like you were, we would sit and listen to the band at breaks. The Shindogs and our musicians, included Leon Russell on piano, Billy Preston on keyboards…Glen Campbell was our guitarist, and James Burton’s bass was beyond description. To have the musicians that we had was great. We’d hang out after work at a club. We had The Righteous Brothers and Sonny and Cher among our regulars. Ike and Tina were not part of our little circle, but we had The Blossoms, Darlene Love, who went on to be phenomenal, The Wellingtons…
I can’t even describe the music that was surrounding us, and the stars! Every single performer who had a song, whether it was a one-hit wonder or a string of hits, they were all on Shindig! over the three years that we shot at ABC. I think that we were living history, but we were living a dream to be able to perform. The only ones who weren’t on Shindig were The Beatles and, I think, The Rolling Stones. Other than that, we had everyone. Everyone was on Shindig!, so that was three years of complete joy. Once again, in relation to Elvis, getting paid to perform with all of these people was just beyond description. There’s nothing I can say except “what a blessing”.
The four Shindig! dancers, we were called The Front Row. I think it was because we were the shortest, but maybe the choreographer liked our work. It was me, Pam, Maria and Gina, and the four of us were on the floor in almost all the numbers downstage, as opposed to being up on the riser, and we’re all still completely close friends, all four of us. It’s a miracle.
Johnny: It certainly is. I really wish there was an official Shindig! YouTube channel. I know there’s lots of unofficial uploads by fans, but an official dedicated channel would really be something that Disney and ABC, if they still have the rights to it, should consider putting up.
Anita: I know that you’re too young to have lived through this time, but where did your initial interest in this period come from?
Johnny: Well, retro pop culture in general sort of served as a guiding light for me as I was having a very turbulent time in the late 90s. Between the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, extensive bullying, multiple school transfers and the decaying of my relationship with my mom after my dad died, I was just looking for escape in any form, and retro pop culture served as one of those escapes. I wasn’t really into a lot of what was going on in the 90s because of all the crap I was going through on a personal level, so I sought out older material, and I saw a maturity in a there, a uniqueness, something to aspire to.
Anita: Wow. You know what? Thank goodness that music was a path for your healing, and I send you my best wishes and support for the time you went through. I’m glad you were able to find something like this, so that’s an incredible story.
Johnny: Well, I thank you very much for that, but this interview’s not about me. It’s about you, and to get back to you, on your website, there’s pictures of you on a show called Something Else, dancing very high up on an oil derrick. Do you recall what song you were dancing to?
Anita: Oh my gosh. I was so scared the whole time that I don’t remember. I’d have to go back and look at it. It’s interesting. Bobby Banas was the choreographer, and we’re still good friends as well. I received the 50th anniversary DVD of the dance numbers from someone who made it and sent it to all the dancers, and I definitely relived that moment on the oil derrick as one of the scariest. We were up so high, and I remember Gail Davis and I had to strap ourselves in and lean out over the edge. I don’t know what the exact fear of heights is called, but that was certainly indicative (laughing) of a time when I was frightened. I think the 50th anniversary would’ve been about three years ago.
I’m still friends with John Byner, the host of it, by the way. It’s interesting you ask this question, because the 60s created such a wonderful group of family. We were all just into our music and into our work, our dancing, and the music is what drove those times. We all still remain friends, and it’s pretty crazy that we’ve had more than 50 years of friendship through these projects. I only did the first six weeks of Something Else. I was the assistant choreographer after a while, and I did the milk commercials, I think, but I couldn’t stay on. I had another contract, but they knew I had to leave after six weeks.
Johnny: Well, your courage certainly served you well on that show. Besides the dance on an oil derrick on Something Else, what would you say was the most adventurous dance move you ever did?
Anita: That is a hard one to top, but one time, also on Something Else, Bobby Banas had us dancing on a rooftop in Downtown Los Angeles, and the wind was blowing hard. It was reminiscent of that oil derrick!
Johnny: To go to my next question: You were a choreographer, albeit uncredited, according to the IMDB, for the classic 60s musical sitcom The Monkees. Of all the numbers you choreographed for that show, which were you most proud of having devised?
Anita: Well, actually, it was weird. I did one number on that show that I performed in, and it was called “Cuddly Toy”. I did it with Davy Jones. You can Google “Cuddly Toy” because that really wasnt choreography. It was like letting him play. I showed him some fun things before we shot, some fun steps, and then whatever order he chose to do it in, I followed. If you see me sometimes looking down, I’m trying to catch up, but he really did his own thing, and it was my job to make it look like we were doing it together.
It was kind of funny. I don’t mind saying that because I loved Davy Jones. I mean, that was a dream to me, being able to work with The Monkees and to perform on that show. There weren’t that many episodes. I helped out a little bit on some different ones, but I guess the one that stands out for me is “Cuddly Toy”.
Johnny: It certainly is quite a standout number. What I find interesting is if you listen to the lyrics, they were surprisingly risque for 60s television, but I guess that was part of the BBS ethos, getting that counterculture edge into the mainstream of the late 60s.
Anita: Very interesting. I didn’t even think about that. Yeah, that’s an interesting observation.
Johnny: Well, to go to a more conventional sitcom, you worked with Lucille Ball on her show Here’s Lucy, choreographing several episodes and acting alongside Lucille in several others. As you always learn something new from each talent you work with, what did you learn from Lucille Ball?
Anita: Oh my gosh. That’s like a novel unto itself because I did The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. It changed names, I think, during the course, but I assisted a man named Jack Baker. Actually, Jack Baker was the choreographer on Spinout, where I first met Elvis. It’s interesting. I have to backtrack one minute because of Jack Baker. Do you mind if I backtrack for a moment?
Johnny: Absolutely not. Go for it.
Anita …Because there is a link, and you’ll see why. In those days, you were just called an extra. There was the Screen Extras’ Guild, and you registered as a dancer, and you’d call in every day the night before to find out if there was work for you the next day. That’s where I was lucky to get a call to be in a party sequence on Spinout. The choreographer was only staging Elvis and whoever else was in the number. At that particular time, it was just Elvis in that number that I was in.
He wasn’t allowed to tell us what to do because then you get what’s called a “bump” or a “whammy”. It’s an extra eight dollars or so, but you’re not allowed to be choreographed, just an extra in the party scene, but I was watching the cameras. I was watching where Jack Baker was placing them with the director, and Elvis was always doing the same thing, crossing to the same table, the same work, but they’d shoot it from different angles. I thought to myself, “I’m going to choreograph my own routine”, which I thought would be fun because he’s doing the same thing. I don’t know why I thought I would do it.
It was, I think, a two-day job, and the next day, Jack Baker came over to me on the set and said, “Mr. Presley would like to talk to you”. I said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what this is going to be about”. I was petrified. I was young, and it was like the very beginning of my career. “I’m getting to talk to Elvis Presley, and I’m probably going to do something wrong”. I thought maybe I was in trouble because I choreographed my own routine. I didn’t know what it was about.
Anyway, I went over, and I had to wait because Elvis was doing a charitable donation at that moment to a group of nuns that were there. Of course, I couldn’t believe how kind he was, but at any rate, Jack Baker said to me, “We’ve been watching you dance, and the editor was very pleased that he could cut around you”. I thought I was cut out as I didn’t even know what that meant, but they said they were very pleased with my dancing. Jack Baker’s assistant, Maria, was leaving the state, and Elvis wanted to know if I could assist. They wanted to know how I had a routine, and I said, “Oh, I just made it up because I saw he was always doing the same walk, so I thought I could make up a routine”.
Jack Baker was very impressed, and Elvis said, “We’d like to know if you could assist the choreographer on the next film”, which wasn’t Jack Baker. Jack was coming back for the third film, but the choreographer for the second was Alex Romero, and I said, “Well, I’d be honored. I don’t know how to do it, but I’d be more than honored”, so I immediately went to the downtown library and read books about camera work and everything I could learn as we had no Internet or computers.
I studied everything, and that’s how I started, and Jack Baker later asked me to come with him to The Lucy Show because he was Lucille Ball’s choreographer for years…A brilliant man, just a wonderful man. I said, “It would be a dream to work with Lucille Ball”, so Jack went in and started me on The Lucy Show. I worked side-by-side with Lucy because she liked to watch the way I presented the numbers, the way I presented Jack’s choreography. She would watch my hands and my arms and everything I did, and then she’d later ask me to help her with the steps, which I did, but Jack Baker was the choreographer, definitely, of record for sure.
I said, every day, how grateful I was to Jack, and Lucy…Well, she owned the lot at the time, Desilu, before it became Paramount, and she gave me permission to learn how to edit, how to do sound striping, how to use the Glenn Glenn Studios. She just took me under her wing for years and taught me, basically, how to run a show, how to right a wrong…You had to be definite. You couldn’t be wishy-washy with her. You had to be clear in your answers. Even if you were wrong, you had to be clear, and then you had to accept responsibility if you were wrong, but she taught me how to be aware, and that’s what changed my career.
She was, I’m going to say, my mentor in my becoming confident as a woman in those days to become a producer and director and choreographer. I mean, she knew every camera shot. She knew the lighting. She knew every line. She would fix a script. She was just everything. She ran the studio. She ran her show, and was so brilliant with it. I worked with her not out of fear, which I’m sure that could’ve been with some people, but out of complete respect and admiration, and I owe her so much. I mean, obviously I owe Jack Baker for bringing me there, but Lucy really was a woman way before her time, being independent and strong and successful.
I also appeared on the show. I played little Desi’s girlfriend in segments. You know, we were all family, and there’s nothing I can say about her except I’m grateful.
Johnny: So I guess it’s safe to say you love Lucy.
Anita: (Laughing) I love Lucy! It’s very safe, yes.
Johnny: Alright. To move into the 70s, one of your most intriguing pieces of choreography came when you created Pam Grier’s dance moves for the opening sequence to Foxy Brown. Had you read the script before you came up with the choreography, and if so, how did the screenplay inspire your moves?
Anita: Oh my gosh. Well, that’s so interesting because that was kind of a fun, I don’t say that tongue-in-cheek, situation with the mystery of the opening. There were different movies that had so much of that kind of drama to them. I think the most important thing was she was so tall and able to move, and of course I read the script. Of course you had to be totally prepared in every aspect, and know what they were looking for, but I really worked closely with the director, and that was the key. I mean, they had an image in mind, and it was my job to bring that image to life. I did not create the concept for it. The concept for it was created by the director, and then we worked together on that.
Johnny: Alright. Well, it’s certainly a great piece of choreography you put together, and it definitely shows your unique sense of dancing.
Anita: You know, you are bringing up history that I hadn’t even thought about in so long, so I thank you for that.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. When it does come to the 70s, you choreographed the 47th Annual Academy Awards. That Oscar ceremony was truly a clash of Old Hollywood, with Bob Hope and members of The Rat Pack hosting, and New Hollywood, with Bert Schneider, your Monkees producer, delivering an acceptance speech for Hearts And Minds that caused upset among the older members of the crowd. As you had a foot each in the worlds of Old Hollywood and New Hollywood, did that tension help influence your choreography for the ceremony?
Anita: Very interesting. I was requested to do the Costume Design number, which was Old Hollywood. It was Lauren Bacall and Chinatown, and it was definitely Old Hollywood, which is my upbringing. I know that, in the 70s, we were moving forward, and I had actually danced at the Oscars when Isaac Hayes was nominated for Shaft. I had danced on so many of the awards shows as a dancer, and now to be choreographing it was obviously a dream, you can’t even imagine, for me. I was such a movie lover, but at any rate, I had to be very true to what the theme of the show was, the classic throwback.
Howard Koch was the president of Paramount, and it was a tribute to the studio. It was very exciting. I loved disco, and in 1975, we were making transitions in music. I became Cher’s choreographer on her TV show, which was a totally different thing, but the Academy Awards was that classic moment in my career where I drew upon what I needed to draw upon and make sure that I delivered.
They actually asked me to choreograph it the next year, in 1976, but I was into my third month of having my second child, and I couldn’t dance. I was not well enough to get out and dance at that moment so, sadly, I missed being the choreographer, but it was worth having my amazing children for it. It was one of those timing things, you know?
Johnny: Alright. Speaking of children’s entertainment, my first exposure to your work came through your choreography for The Great Muppet Caper. Having worked with Jim Henson during The Muppets’ appearances on variety shows in the 70s, what was it like to work on a movie with him?
Anita: Oh my gosh. Well, speaking of Old Hollywood, The Great Muppet Caper had the underwater ballet with Miss Piggy. We did the big ballroom fantasy tap number with Miss Piggy. It was an unbelievable throwback and a phenomenal experience because Jim didn’t talk down to the children. He made it a classic film for every age, and it was so exciting because he let me storyboard and work out the numbers with him.
I had met him in 1975 when I was choreographing Cher. I had just had a baby, and I knew every character on Sesame Street. He was on Cher, and not everybody knew who all the characters were, but I knew Sweetums, and I knew the people who were coming on. I always designed my numbers for television, which was really exciting for me. The producers and director would let me do that, so I worked on the concepts and the ideas with Jim. That’s where we met, and then he always said, “If there’s more things to do, would you be able to work with us again?”. I said, “Oh my goodness, it would be beyond an honor”.
I did go on to do The Fantastic Miss Piggy Special, the first two Sesame Street Live shows, The Muppets Go Hollywood, which I got an Emmy nomination for, and I did The Great Muppet Caper, obviously, in London. I did so many things with Jim, and it was just the most exciting time to collaborate with somebody of his incredible, incredible talent. Sadly, I was directing a show for him the week he died. I was waiting to record his voice in New York, and then they asked me to hold off and meet him in Florida. We were doing a show for the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Muppets On Location: Days Of Swine And Roses, and I can’t even describe the sadness, the tragedy…
Johnny: I can relate because I met Henson shortly before his passing. I was at Walt Disney World on a family vacation. My mom had pointed out that she saw Jim Henson sitting on a bench. He was filming The Muppets At Walt Disney World special. I got off The Mad Tea Party with my brother and my dad, so when mom pointed him out, we walked up to his security people and asked if we could take a picture with him. Jim gave the all-clear and we sat with him, got a picture with him, and he even did the voice of Kermit The Frog for me (Anita laughs), so I definitely felt the sadness when he passed away as well. I can definitely relate to where you’re coming from.
Anita: What an experience in life for what he has created, and how long it has lived, and how it relates not only to the educational aspect of children, but the social skills, opening up people’s minds, diversity…In so many ways, it was special.
Johnny: Oh, absolutely. One more question about The Great Muppet Caper: You kind of elaborated on this, but your choreography style was best showcased in “The First Time It Happens”, where you even dubbed in Miss Piggy’s tap dancing. What went into making that number the standout that it was?
Anita: Well, first of all, those were my feet. I was Miss Piggy’s feet doing the tapping, so that was fun. I always tell my grandkids, “Those are my feet!”. I think the concept of doing a big musical number with Miss Piggy and people, and tying the love story together and breaking into song and dance, was just a phenomenal experience. It was so much fun.
I didn’t know any of the dancers. I had to audition, obviously, all in England, and I was really lucky that they let me come over, but it was the timing. I really knew how to set shots for film, and the ratio, and how to work with them because I had been doing so much of it. My experience in that world had Jim’s company writing a letter saying that I would be moving it along without having to reteach someone. I was really lucky to get that work permit because it wasn’t easy.
When I went and met the dancers there, it was really exciting for me to be able to work with new dancers and find out what they could do and say, “Let’s go crazy! Let’s have people flipping at the end!”. It was really a very special, fun experience. To work with the actors and incorporate the story into it was so special. I loved it.
Johnny: It was definitely a standout number. That’s actually one of the examples I mentioned earlier of how retro pop culture promised something more unique and mature, and something to aspire to. The glamour of that number was definitely something I was hoping to have in my life someday, and I’d eventually get it. It just took a long time to get there.
Anita: It was glamorous, wasn’t it? It really was glamorous.
Johnny: That was where I really came to know your work, and it was more proof of your great talent.
Anita: Also, Frank Oz…You can’t imagine creating anything for Miss Piggy without Frank Oz. Do you know what I mean?
Johnny: Oh, absolutely.
Anita: I just wanted to compliment him because Frank and Jim and I worked so hand-in-hand on that, and everything that Frank would suggest or add to it made it brilliant. He’s amazing.
Johnny: Oh, I absolutely agree.
Anita: I didn’t want to eliminate what he has contributed, which is amazing.
Johnny: You did mention Solid Gold earlier, and of all the songs you choreographed for The Solid Gold Dancers to dance to, which song would you was the easiest, and which song would you say was the hardest?
Anita: I think the most challenging number to choreograph, week in and week out, was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”. I love Olivia-Newton John, but it was on the charts (laughing) forever and ever and ever, you know? It was like, “How many versions can you do of ‘Physical’?”. That was the challenge on Solid Gold. We had one set, and we didn’t have many props or things to really change it, so it was using the creative skill of the dancers, the few props we could use, and the amazing camera work Louis J. Horvitz would do. “Physical” was my biggest challenge.
It’s funny you asked me that. No one’s ever asked me that. “Physical” was challenging. I think my favorite, and most exciting to do, was The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. There’s something about those lyrics and that song that was inspirational for me. Do you know what I mean?
Johnny: Oh, absolutely. I can definitely see the many possibilities one could take with that song, and you certainly did a great job of it.
Anita: Thank you. That was fun, but I’m an 80s music fan, so there’s so many amazing songs of the 80s, but that just had such a strong undertone to what it said.
Johnny: Oh, I’m a big 80s music fan as well. The routines you choreographed for so many of the big hits of the decade were definitely impressive. Perhaps not for Solid Gold, but for a different project, since the song references The T.A.M.I Show, did you ever choreograph a routine for The Police’s song “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around”?
Anita: Oh my gosh. No, but it’s amazing you would ask about that. No, I don’t think I did. Wait a minute. What year did that song come out?
Johnny: It came out in 1980 off the Zenyatta Mondata album.
Anita: I was supposed to do the pilot of Solid Gold, but I couldn’t do it as, I think, I went to London, so I came back after a year-and-a-half and then did the next five years, so I missed out on that one if they did it.
Johnny: Alright. On the day we did our initial phone interview, Eddie Van Halen passed away. Did you ever cross paths with Eddie or choreograph any Van Halen songs for The Solid Gold Dancers?
Anita: Yes….That was such a sad day! “Jump” was one of my favorite songs to choreograph and dance to.
Johnny: Your dancers were part of the 1988 revival of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. You’re the second talent to work with The Smothers Brothers that I’ve interviewed, the first being Leigh French. Had you danced on the 60s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour before signing on for the 80s version?
Anita: The 80s version? I think I just did one special for them. I’m telling you, at gunpoint, I can’t remember everything I’ve done, which is good (laughing), but in another way, I’m embarassed. I did dance on The Smothers Brothers’ show, though. I danced in their first one, though not every one of them. The rehearsal halls of CBS were very, very busy. They were all lined up next to each other, and sometimes The Carol Burnett Show would run in and say, “I need you for a week, Anita. Can you run over?”.
I’d do it for two weeks, and then I’d get another series. There were The Smothers Brothers and Carol Burnett, and I was assisting the choreographer on the Glen Campbell series. Basically, though, when we had a week off, we would run and do other projects if they needed more dancers. Everyone was very open (laughing), saying, “Yes, I’ll run over there! I’ll do it, whatever it is”. That was the heyday of variety shows. Thank goodness there were so many on the air, and in the 60s, when I was a dancer, CBS was very busy in those hallways.
I did dance a little bit on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Carol Burnett Show, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. I was also assisting choreographers a lot, too, so I didn’t have to be on camera all the time. There were so many shows that I can’t remember them all, but the bottom line is yes, I probably danced on most all of them.
Johnny: I know I’ve said it before, but a good sentiment bears repeating: You did great dancing on each one.
Anita: Thank you, thank you.
Johnny: Your dancers were also regulars on Jerry Lewis’ MDA Telethon for many years. I’ve heard conflicting reports about what Jerry Lewis was like as a person, with many people calling him compassionate and hilarious, and just as many calling him callous and bitter. What were your experiences like working with Jerry Lewis?
Anita: Well, I’m going to say right now (laughing) that it ranged through all the adjectives you said. I was very involved with muscular dystrophy for personal reasons with one of my girlfriends and her children, so I was always very involved in the philanthropic side of it. I can only say we’re all there to do good. He was an incredibly brilliant man who did much more than people even know. He created Video Assist and different things. He was really a brilliant man. He was passionate, and I’m going to say there were good days and there were challenging days, but we were all doing what we could do to help, and that was what you had to keep in mind.
Johnny: Well, your work definitely did help out a good cause because, I mean, people would see the numbers you choreographed, and that would inspire them to call in and donate, so you have a lot to be proud of with that.
Anita: Thank you so much. What you just said meant a lot to me because, honestly, giving back is the most important thing for me, and that’s really kind that you said that, so thank you.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. You choreographed the 1989 musical dramedy The Lemon Sisters. An early production from Miramax, did you have the misfortune of crossing paths with Harvey Weinstein, the film’s co-executive producer, or did you manage to dodge that bullet?
Anita: (Laughing) That’s so funny. Actually, that was a really fun job. Diane Keaton and the whole team on that film were fabulous, fun and incredible women, and I never saw him. I never once saw him. I can’t remember where we were shooting, but it was so much fun, so I didn’t have one negative experience, and I never saw him, thank goodness, so that was dodging a bullet, wasn’t it?
Johnny: Absolutely. To go to my next question: In the past few decades, you’ve been very active producing stage shows, especially in Nevada. What has the stage provided for you that the screen has not?
Anita: Well, I think that they provide different things. I’ve always done stage work at the same time that I started dancing. I did a national tour of West Side Story as a dancer, playing Anybodys. I’ve always been involved in stage AND film so, luckily for me, I’ve had an equal opportunity to do both. I’ve choreographed a lot of touring arena shows and stage shows, and acts for stars like The Pointer Sisters and Nancy Sinatra. I’ve done a lot of stage presentations.
I started as a dancer in Sheila MacRae’s show in Las Vegas. Vegas has always been like a second kind of home. I would drive back and forth, and do jobs when I could in-between TV, so let’s say I worked 24/7 all my life. I doubled on a lot of jobs when I was a dancer and choreographer, so Vegas had always treated me well and I was very blessed to have a family feeling there. I’ve been going there probably since the 50s with my parents, and then in the 60s as a performer, so I was always at home there. I opened my first show as a producer there, not as a choreographer, because I did choreograph the Minsky’s Revues in the 70s and choreographed a lot of stage, burlesque as well as a lot of nightclub acts for stars.
My very first show as a producer, though, was in the late 80s. It was called A Blast From The Past, and it debuted in Los Angeles before it was bought by The Riviera. I did that, and that kind of launched my career as a producer. That went to Atlantic City as well, and then I started producing in Atlantic City, as well as on cruise ships. I think live and television always worked well together for me. One fed off the other.
Johnny: Alright. One of your noted stage productions is Tap Girls. Noted for its’ diverse selection of music, do you think tap dancing can be done to any kind of music if it’s well-choreographed enough?
Anita: Oh my gosh, what a good question. Yes. I mean, on So You Think You Can Dance, I’ve seen them do some UNBELIEVABLE tap, just brilliant, brilliant work, to music where you sometimes think, “Wow, how did he pick that song?”, but it was brilliant. That’s interesting. On the MDA Telethon, we did a tribute to Gregory Hines, and it was really a well-done number. I worked with Jason Samuel Smith on that, and I really collaborated with him, but I gave him full credit because he deserved it and I had already gotten several Emmy nominations. He won an Emmy for that, which really was so exciting for him. I’m so proud of him, but tap is one of my really favorite forms of dance, so I think you can do tap to anything if you feel it in your body. You just have to feel it.
Johnny: I can definitely see that. That really goes for any form of dance. You’ve just got to feel it. To go to my next question: Easily your biggest success as a stage producer and choreographer has been Fantasy, a show that’s been featured at The Luxor in Las Vegas for over two decades now. What makes that show hold such a place of pride in your career?
Anita: Well, I think the exciting thing about Fantasy is that we didn’t have a brand when we started. I loved going to see showgirls in the 50s and the 60s in Las Vegas, you know? I would sneak in in the 50s, in the back when they weren’t looking (laughing). My mom and dad would let me sneak in and watch the big shows. I think what I wanted to do was to create a showgirl show, but for dancers, because you didn’t have to be 5′ 9” to be in my show. I just wanted personalities, and I wanted to build a brand with fabulous dancers.
That was my initial goal, and it started as Midnight Fantasy in 1999 because we were a midnight show. The midnight show went away when the earlier show, an impressionist, left. We took over both the early and late slots until they brought in Carrot Top, and then we changed the name to Fantasy, but the concept has remained the same: Beautiful, talented women, and singing and comedy and variety for a different take on the classic Vegas experience.
We didn’t have a big stage, so I wrote the show for where we had it. We couldn’t have worn big costumes and gotten on stage as it was a small backstage area. We were just blessed to be able to rely on the concept of Vegas entertainment, and to be able to mix classic music with contemporary. I don’t know how to explain the success, other than we really love what we’re doing and we’re thrilled to create a show that people can enjoy. It’s very user-friendly, and we’re just blessed. We work hard, and we change the show, and we have great talent. You can’t complain about any of it.
Johnny: Fantastic. I have to ask: Once coronavirus passes, what are you hoping to do next?
Anita: Well, we all want to stay healthy, number one. I mean, I think the number one question we have throughout the world is, “How do we stay healthy, and how do you function?”. Right now, we just want to get back onstage when we can, and follow all of the governor’s guidelines and be safe, and get people in and entertain again. I don’t have a plan, other than working within the guidelines to make the show entertaining and safe. That’s all I can do, and wait until I get the orders to proceed, because they still have to work out so many details.
Johnny: Well, I have faith that better times are coming, and that you and your dancers will be back out and kicking soon enough.
Anita: (Laughing) Thank you. Yes.
Johnny: You’ve worked alongside Toni Basil, whom I also hope to interview someday, on quite a few projects. What are your favorite memories of working with her?
Anita: Toni and I are still good friends and I admire her talent, now and back in the day. A special project that we did was for the choreographer, David Winters. He took me and Toni to Monte Carlo for a Princess Grace special in either 1964 or ‘65. Toni and I shared a room and were beyond thrilled to be dancing there, and to meet the princess.
Johnny: I now come to my final question: If I may be so bold, you don’t look your age at all. What’s the secret to your youthful appearance?
Anita: Oh my gosh. That’s not bold. That’s just wonderful to hear. I think it’s being a dancer, just the energy and the joy in life. Laughing a lot helps, as well as staying physically active and fit. Obviously, I’m never going to dance the way I used to dance. I’m not going to be in West Side Story as Anybodys, the tomboy. I’m not going to slide on my knees down there, but I’ll never stop dancing. That’s the secret, I think, to being healthy. It’s to keep moving and to keep positive, and I loved your optimistic overview of what you think is going to happen. The glass is half full, and to be joyful, and to have gratitude every day is key.
Johnny: That’s really the best way to approach life. That does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me. It was an honor to talk to you. I go back a long way with your work, and to get to hear your stories of the many diverse things you’ve done has been wonderful to do.
Anita: Thank you so much. You know, there’s one little part that was very important to me also, and that was when I choreographed The Jacksons.
Johnny: Oh, I actually did have a question about that. Since Michael Jackson was well-known for his dancing talents even as a teenager, what was it like to work alongside him?
Anita: Well, you collaborated with him. You absolutely said it correctly. You worked alongside Michael Jackson. You learned from him, and he learned from you. He was an amazing student, and his favorite thing was to learn tap-dance, so we did some great tap routines. It was just inspirational. I know so much happened in his life, but I just want to say what a talent, and what a family. There was just an incredible talent in their life beyond words. Michael was just one of the best dancers ever, one of the best natural dancers on Earth. I just wanted to point that out because that was a very big, special time to choreograph Michael Jackson.
Johnny: Before I wrap up, I have to say that The Great Muppet Caper was one of the first projects that, like I said, really inspired me to think that someday I could have this sort of glamour in my life, and I do. I mean, I do get Social Security Disability as a result of my Asperger’s Syndrome, and I do work a retail job for money, but in my spare time, I do have the glamour of interviewing great talents. You’re certainly a great talent, and it was an honor to talk to you.
Anita: Oh, you know what? I thank you, and I congratulate you for everything that you have accomplished, so thank you from the bottom of my heart for this time
Johnny: Oh, no problem. I’ll definitely be in touch, and I hope you have a wonderful afternoon.
Anita: You as well. Stay safe and stay well!
Johnny: Likewise. We want you to be dancing for a long time.
Anita: (Laughing) Thank you, Johnny. Take care.
Johnny: No problem. Bye.
Anita: Bye bye.
I would again like to thank Anita Mann for taking the time to speak to me, as well as Lauren Cahlan and the team at Wicked Creative for putting this all together. For more about Anita Mann’s work, you can visit her official website.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview: Recorded from Pop Geeks, it’s Saturday Night Live star Gary Kroeger in my first ever interview with an SNL alumni!