Jackie and Jack Philbin, the producer of the show, joined June Taylor at a long makeshift conference table. My gaze was fixed on June’s very slender, five-foot-seven body when she stood up from the table. She bent her head of shortly bobbed blond curls towards Jackie as she conferred with him over her notes, periodically casting her pale, piercing blue eyes in our direction. She began shuffling some of us around in the line and asked, “April would you please move down by two to the stage-left end of the line? Lee Anne, please stand on April’s right. Jamie would you move to the stage-right end of the line? Thank you. Now, go back to your original positions”. Then silence.
June held her many pages of notes contained on a yellow legal pad of paper and asked each of us to call out our names and as we did she made further notations. Jackie continued smoking his cigar and sipped from his teacup while looking intently at each of us as we spoke our names. When it was my turn to announce my name, I thought my voice sounded so small and weak that it was void of any signs of life. Certainly I had diminished all merit I might have gained over the course of the three-day audition in that singular moment. Then June, with pensive deliberation, slowly called out the name of a dancer and asked her to step forward. I grew cold and shaky from nervousness. As she called out three more names, I was certain the dancers now being assembled were, in fact, those that had been chosen for the show.
When she called out a fifth name, there was a suspended moment of silence when everyone’s breathing seemed to stop. June, with her eyes steadily focused on the group of five, walked up to each girl, shook her hand, and in her husky-cigarette voice, with only a scarce suggestion of acknowledgement and respect said, “thank you Jamie, thank you Sandy” and so on. Then she dismissed them.
Sixteen of us stood there with rampant emotions from happiness to relief that it was over and, already, a mounting anxiety about the real work ahead. However, it soon became apparent that we were not yet finished. June asked us to perform once again for Jackie and to do the dance combination we had learned earlier, which involved a protracted series of high kicks. We moved into what would become our permanent positions in the line and June gave the piano player and us a fast “five, six, seven, eight.” We pulled ourselves out of weariness into peak performance and kicked high for a seemingly endless period of time until the music stopped.
Jackie applauded while we, with our hands on our hips trying to look matter-of-fact in our demeanor, inhaled deeply to regain some semblance of normal breathing from what felt like bursting lungs. When I recaptured my equilibrium and was able to look up again, I saw June. Her eyes already reflected that she had made a mental assessment of what we had done right, what needed improvement, and who among us required more skill. I shifted my focus and looked directly at Jackie. His blue eyes beamed approval and with a last inhale of his cigar and a wave of his right hand, he said, “It’s going to be one hell of a ride girls, one hell of a ride. How sweet it is.”
We were to be known as The June Taylor Dancers and we opened “The Jackie Gleason Television Show” from New York City on CBS every Saturday night from 1962 to 1964. The sixteen dancers selected ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-six and in height from five-foot-two to five-foot-seven. I was one of the eighteen-year-olds chosen and amazed at my good fortune for I was fresh off the Greyhound bus from Cleveland, Ohio and had arrived in New York City only one week earlier. Coincidentally, three other dancers from Ohio were chosen as well: two sisters from Akron, one a petite blond named Buttons, the other a sweet-faced brunette with the sensible name of Donna, and April from Dayton who was five-foot-two with uncommonly long legs for someone her height. Her strawberry blond hair framed a small, Episcopalian nose and large, round blue eyes, all of which conspired to herald her Irish heritage. Due to the sameness in our height and the fact that we complimented each other in that she was blond and I was brunette, we were cast to flank the stage-left side of the chorus line: April at the very end and I next to her. We did not know then that a lasting friendship would flourish between us spanning more than forty-eight years.
Of course, our first official workday began with rehearsal. I can still see June as she walked with strength and purpose into the rehearsal hall to begin our work together. She wore a lavish sable coat casually draped over her shoulders, which only partially covered her black leotards and tights while she held a lit cigarette in her left hand. Like Bette Davis in “All About Eve,”she tossed her coat onto a chair but it fell to the floor as if it were merely an incidental old scarf. She didn’t bother to pick it up. Instead, still holding the cigarette, she gathered all of us to center floor to sit in a circle. June straddled a weathered oak stool and spoke to us in a voice pitched not unlike that of a drill sergeant.
“This is a team. There will be no individuals. No unique, special styles of dancing while you are in this chorus line. When I tell you that your arm and hand should be extended to your shoulder or at your waist, I mean just that. One half inch off and I get angry. You are here to work in perfect precision. There will be no arguments amongst you. When you arrive at the theater on videotaping day, I want you dressed as ladies, not looking like tired, over-the-hill and run-of-the-mill chorus dancers with messy hair, no make-up, and sloppy clothes. You will do nothing publicly to embarrass Jackie or me. In addition to the long hard days of rehearsal ahead, you will be expected to take your dance classes and work on your limitations as a dancer. Even if you make it through the first season, you are not guaranteed a position next season. You will audition again. Do not gain weight or you will be fired. Let’s get started.”