My favorite costume though was the one we wore for our Christmas show. They were designed to replicate every detail found on little toy soldier dolls with their red, black, and white uniforms accented with gold trim. What made this so magical for me was our makeup. To ensure that we did indeed look like little dolls, each of us spent extra time in make-up applying perfectly round, red-rouged circles on our faces.
On the sixth and final day of our workweek, we did a dress rehearsal and the actual videotaping, logging fourteen to sixteen hours in one stretch. We taped our shows at the Ed Sullivan Theater, which encompassed almost an entire city block from West 53rd to West 54th Streets between Broadway and Eighth Avenues. Though our show was the first on CBS to use videotape, we nevertheless performed for a live studio audience. There was no canned applause and Jackie needed no canned laughter.
So, even after a long week of enduring strained muscles and a fatigue so intense that I went to bed many nights without eating, the rewards of this sixth day, from dress rehearsal to performance, were my sustenance. I was in love.
My eyes welled up with tears the first time, and every time, I heard Jackie’s theme song, “Melancholy Serenade,” played to signal the opening of the show. There was a do-or-die thrill, a combination of raw nerves and excitement, that spread throughout my body when the large, black rolling cameras focused their red lights on us as our dance music struck its first chords. I have been told over the years how fans gathered in their living rooms, certain not to miss our three-minute dance performance. Sammy Spear’s Orchestra, live in the studio, played our music, usually 40’s or 50’s big-band numbers like Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”.
The waves of cheers and applause from the audience that grew throughout our demanding routines provided us with even more, precious energy. I felt the audience’s mounting anticipation for the thirty seconds in our routine when we created our kaleidoscopic floor designs filmed with an overhead camera á la Busby Berkeley. And, their excitement was palpable to me as they waited for that final moment when we rose from the floor and rushed to center stage to form the kick line that presented a vision of unified precision in a fleeting moment of perceived perfection. Exhilaration and relief engulfed us when our music reached its climax: our lungs ached for air and sweat streamed down our bodies, soaking our costumes. Yet, one more action demanded completion: to create the well-known split in our formation — eight of us on the left and eight on the right with sixteen pairs of hands extended back towards a glittering red velvet curtain and a striped red and white cut-out portal where Jackie Gleason made his entrance. The studio audience went wild with applause, yelling when they finally saw this handsome, gentle giant of a man; a man who could make them laugh one second and cry the next.