A taste of Broadway in Ann Arbor
Performers tap dancing on drums or flying out over the audience on swings, women in fancy gowns and plumes floating onto the stage to the strains of "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." A Busby Berkeley musical on Broadway? No, it was right here in Ann Arbor at the Lydia Mendelssohn theater: "Juniors on Parade," a Ziegfeld-style production created by Broadway veteran Roy Hoyer to showcase the talents of his dance students and to raise money for worthy causes.
Hoyer came to Ann Arbor in 1930, at age forty-one. With his wrap-around camel hair coat, starched and pleated white duck trousers, open-necked shirts, and even a light touch of makeup, he cut a cosmopolitan figure in the Depression-era town. For almost twenty years, his Hoyer Studio initiated Ann Arbor students into the thrills of performance dancing as well as the more sedate steps and social graces of ballroom dancing.
Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Hoyer appeared in many hometown productions before a role as Aladdin in a musical called "Chin Chin" led him to a contract with New York's Ziegfeld organization. His fifteen-year Broadway career included leading roles in "Tip-Top," "Stepping Stones," "Criss Cross," "The Royal Family," and "Pleasure Bound." Movie musical star Jeanette MacDonald was discovered while playing opposite Hoyer in "Angela." But Hoyer himself by the end of the 1920's was getting too old to play juvenile leads. When the Depression devastated Broadway--in 1930, fifty fewer plays were produced than in 1929--Hoyer, like many other actor-dancers, was forced to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Hoyer came to Ann Arbor because he already had contacts here. In the 1920s he had choreographed the Michigan Union Opera, a very popular annual all-male show with script and score by students. His Roy Hoyer Studio taught every kind of dancing, even ballet (although the more advanced toe dancers usually transferred to Sylvia Hamer). On the strength of his stage career, he also taught acrobatics, body building, weight reducing classes, musical comedy, and acting.
His sales pitch played up his Broadway background: “There are many so-called dance instructors, but only a few who have even distinguished themselves in the art they profess to teach," he wrote in his program notes for "Juniors on Parade." "Mr. Hoyer's stage work and association with some of the most famous and highest paid artists in America reflects the type of training given in the Roy Hoyer School."
Pictures of Hoyer on the Broadway stage lined his waiting room, and former students remember that he casually dropped names like Fred and Adele, referring to the Astaire siblings. (Fred Astaire did know Hoyer, but evidently not well. When Hoyer dressed up his 1938 "Juniors on Parade" program with quotes from letters he'd received from friends and former students, the best he could come up with from Astaire was, "Nice to have heard from you.")
Hoyer's first Ann Arbor studio was in an abandoned fraternity house at 919 Oakland. He lived upstairs. Pat Bird Allen remembers taking lessons in the sparsely furnished first-floor living room. In 1933 the Hoyer Studio moved to 3 Nickels Arcade, above the then post office. Students would climb the stairs, turn right, and pass through a small reception area into a studio that ran all the way to Maynard. Joan Reilly Burke remembers that there were no chairs in the studio, making it hard for people taking social dancing not to participate. Across the hall was a practice room used for private lessons and smaller classes.
Back then, young people needed to know at least basic ballroom steps if they wanted to have any kind of social life. John McHale, who took lessons from Hoyer as a student at University High, says that for years afterward he could execute a fox trot or a waltz when the occasion demanded. Dick DeLong remembers that Hoyer kept up with the latest dances, for instance teaching the Lambeth Walk, an English import popular in the early years of World War II. (DeLong recalls Hoyer taking the boys aside and suggesting that they keep their left-hand thumbs against their palms when dancing so as not to leave sweaty hand prints on their partners' backs.)
Hoyer's assistants were Bill Collins and Betty Hewett, both excellent dancers. Burke remembers that when the two demonstrated social dancing, their students were "just enchanted." Several ballroom students remember the thrill of dancing with football star Tom Harmon. As a performer in the Union Opera, Harmon came up to the studio for help in learning his dance steps and while there obliged a few of the female ballroom students. "I'll never forget it," says Janet Schoendube.
While ballroom dancing was mostly for teens or preteens, tap and ballet students ranged from children who could barely walk to young adults in their twenties. (Helen Curtis Wolf remembers taking her younger brother Lauren to lessons when he was three or four.) Classes met all year round, but the high point of the year was the annual spring production, "Juniors on Parade."
The show was sponsored by the King's Daughters, a service group that paid the up-front costs and then used the profits for charity—medical causes in the early years and British war relief later. The three evening performances and one matinee were packed, and not just with the parents of the performers. During the drab Depression, people looked forward to Hoyer's extravaganzas all year long. Hoyer "jazzed us up when we needed it," recalls Angela Dobson Welch.
"Juniors on Parade" was a place to see and be seen. In 1933 the Ann Arbor News called it a "social event judging by the list of patrons and patronesses and the list of young actors and actresses whose parents are socially prominent." But the show's appeal wasn't limited to high society. Even in the midst of the Depression many less well-to-do families managed to save the money for lessons or worked out other arrangements in lieu of payment. Allen's mother helped make costumes; senior dance student Mary Meyers Schlecht helped teach ballroom dancing; Rosemary Malejan Pane, the acrobat who soloed in numbers that included cartwheels and splits, was recruited by Hoyer, who offered her free lessons when he learned she couldn't afford to pay.
The first act of the show featured younger children, wearing locally made costumes, while the second act showcased the more advanced students, who wore professional costumes. Every year Hoyer and Collins traveled to Chicago to select the dancers' outfits. For one 1935 number, the girls wore gowns that duplicated those worn by such famous stars as Ruby Keeler, Dolores Del Rio, and Carole Lombard. Live piano music was provided either by Georgia Bliss (on loan from Sylvia Hamer) or Paul Tompkins.
Sixty-some years later, students still remember such Hoyer-created numbers as "Winter Wonderland," a ballet featuring Hoyer and Betty Seitner, who stepped out of a snowball; "Floradora," six guys pushing baby buggies; "Sweethearts of Nations," eight girls in costumes from different countries, including red-haired Doris Schumacher Dixon as an Irish lass and Angela Dobson Welch as a Dutch girl. In "Toy Shop," dancers dressed like dolls; in another number, five girls, including Judy Gushing Newton and Nancy Hannah Cunningham, were done up in matching outfits and hairdos as the Dionne quintuplets.
"Juniors on Parade" ended with a high-kicking Rockettes-style chorus line of senior students. Then the stars returned home to their normal lives. Although some of them became very good dancers, none went on to careers in dance. (Doris Dixon later worked at Radio City Music Hall and was offered a job as a Rockette, but turned it down when she saw how hard it was.)
The last big show was in 1941. When the war started, Hoyer cut back on his studio schedule and went to work at Argus Camera, where they were running two shifts building military equipment. He worked in the lens centering area and is remembered by former Argus employee Jan Gala as "a lot of fun, full of jokes." Another employee, Catherine Starts, remembers that "he was so graceful. He took rags and danced around with them."
After the war Hoyer kept his studio open, but people who knew him remember he did very little teaching in those years. His health was failing, and his former cadre of students and stars had moved on to college and careers.
In 1949 ill health led him to move back to Altoona. He worked as assistant manager at a hotel there, then as a floor manager and cashier at a department store. He was still alive in 1965, when an Altoona newspaper reported that he was back home after a nine-month hospital stay.
Although it has been forty-five years since Hoyer left Ann Arbor, he is not forgotten. Hoyer Studio alumni say they still use their ballroom dancing on occasion, and even the tappers sometimes perform. Angela Welch remembers a party about ten years ago at which the Heath sisters, Harriet and Barbara, back in town for a visit, reprised their Hoyer tap dance number. And years after the studio closed, accompanist Paul Tompkins worked as a pianist at Weber's. Whenever he recognized a Hoyer alumna coming in, he started playing "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."