I was working with Fokine, and then I heard that they had open auditions for the Music Hall ballet corps. I went to the auditions, which were at 2:00 on every other Saturday afternoon. They said that I was good, but they had no place for me. I went back 5 times – the “captain” dancer held the auditions - and finally she said “Selma, I remember who you are, but I have no place to put you. We need an opening.” Nobody was being picked; there was no room. When you got into the Music Hall, you stayed, because it was the only permanent ballet company around. And you made 36 dollars a week. That was big money, and you worked 3 weeks and then you had 4 days off, but the next 3 days you were on call. And then you worked 4 weeks and then you got a week off. The captain—”Minion” I think her name was— called me finally to come in for the Thanksgiving Show.
At that time at the Radio City Music Hall, they had a new show and a new movie every week. They had 46 Rockettes, 36 performing every week, 36 ballet girls, of whom 28 danced every week – they had a chorus of men and women, and a symphony orchestra. And the movie! It was a whole production. The productions were fabulous. And the Music Hall was new. The show would change every week, but for Thanksgiving, it ran for 2 weeks. They were doing Bolero. It took 46 ballet girls, so they needed 10 extra girls. The Rockettes came in for the last 2 minutes, and it was a very exciting show, because of the full cast on stage, and the crescendo of Bolero. I worked there 2 weeks and then all of us extras left.
While I was doing Bolero, some the girls of the company changed after the first week, and I would remember the order of the line up, and would help, ”well she was over here, and that girl was over there”, and the management was very impressed that I knew what was going on in the numbers. After I left, Minion called me back and said to me “Florence Rogge wants to audition you because they need someone for Christmas and New Years.” I had a special audition with Florence Rogge, who was in her 50’s at that time.
This is the ballet company that brought ballet to the people of the world. It was ballet for the masses. It was great, because there was no other. There was some ballet in the movies; George Balanchine at the time was working in the movies.
Rogge took me. We did 4 different shows – 5 shows a day, 6 on Christmas Day and 6 on New Years Day. We were in rehearsing at 6 in the morning and we got home late, and I got the flu, and didn’t tell anyone. We were doing 4 different holiday shows – that means we were rehearsing one while doing another, and doing all these 6 and 7 shows. The work was unbelievable – and I got sick. By this time, I had left my aunt’s house. I got a room on the ground floor in the home of the family of a girl I knew—up in the Bronx, 170th Street; where the sidewalk was, that’s where it was. When my mother came to New York and saw where I lived, and that my windows opened on an alleyway, she said “that’s it, you’re out-a-here”, and made me go back to my aunt’s.
I was sick but I wouldn’t tell anyone. I worked the whole time and then I got a week off. They kept me working for about 3 months – we worked for 3 weeks and then got a week off, "unpaid." I was an extra, if I had been a steady girl, I would have gotten paid. During that time, she accepted one girl before she accepted me. It was Joan McCracken, who eventually made a big hit in the show OKLAHOMA on Broadway, she really was something very special. She had charisma that carried up to the top of the ceiling at the Music Hall.
Finally, I made an appointment with Florence Rogge, and I spoke to her. I said I’d been working the 3 weeks and then the week off and then the 3 weeks and then the week off, and wasn’t getting paid for it, and I said that I couldn’t continue that – it wasn’t fair to me – and I said “either I get on as a steady girl, or I have to leave and look elsewhere.” And she says: “You’ll be the next one for the next opening.” And within 3 months, there was an opening and I was made a permanent member. Made 36 dollars a week, sent 15 dollars home and after 2 yrs I got a raise to 52. I worked there four and a half years.
We performed many ballets, including “Victorianna”, and "Sylphides", and the “Dragon Fly”, and dozens of individual dance numbers, interspersed with the vocal numbers and the movie, of course. I remember one number by George Gershwin with a big white disk. That was a hard number to dance, and the the music…we had to count the whole thing, everything was counted, we were talking to each opther as we were dancing so we could be sure to do it correct. I also remember I was a Vegetable over Christmastime, and a nun – every Christmas…I was a nun. I can’t remember the names of all the ballets and individual numbers. There were so many!
Melissa Hayden was also with the Corp de Ballet. She was there when I was…during the war. She was a secretary in Montreal or Toronto, and she came down during the summer (she had to get a permit to come down because she was the secretary and was needed in Canada). I think she got 2 or 3 months vacation off, so she came down to New York because she wanted to be a dancer, took lessons in the morning and in-between the shows that we performed in the afternoon and evening. She sat next to me, and I used to cover for her, because she used to come in late, and I’d say “Give it up already”, I’d tell her to give it up and she wouldn’t give it up – she worked very hard, and she became a very famous ballet dancer. She finally had to go back to Canada – she only had a permit for a few months. I was 20 at that time, she was I think 17.
You can’t compare the ballet dancing that we did at the time to what’s going on today. It’s unbelievable. I barely would have made first corps in the ballet, if it were today. But, what we had was great – we did wonderful things. I did bourrées, and piquet turns across the Music Hall stage – 144 feet long…