Tommy Tune showing off his world-class tap-dancing skills. (Lawrence White)
Champagne and raspberries, oodles of red roses and Western civilization’s brightest dance stars—Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, Shirley Temple, Tina Turner and many more—busting a move on five flashing video screens. And is that an autographed photo of Ann-Margret over the bar? Yes, please. It was quite the scene Friday night at the National Museum of Dance: a private party, red carpet event, for a special group of patrons.
The 79-year-old Tommy Tune, Broadway’s legendary song-and-dance man with 10 Tony Awards (acting, choreography, directing and lifetime achievement) was in Saratoga Springs to perform in the Mr. & Mrs. Ronald A. Riggi Theater at the museum. Tune’s show was a “thank you” for donors in the Please Take Your Seat campaign. For $2,000, your name was placed on one of the 45 bright-red seats in the black-box theater. Next to a larger-than-life tribute to Chita Rivera, I cornered Board President Michele Riggi. Asked for three words to describe Mr. Tune, she said, “Tall, tapping, Texan.”
I knew about Tune, but only from TV and the movies. He danced on The Dean Martin Show and in the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! with Barbra Streisand. In 1971, he and English super model Twiggy starred in the movie The Boy Friend. Back then, teen girls like me were crazy for Twiggy. When I quizzed two friends who really know Tune’s work, and told them that I was soon to see the six-foot six-inch entertainer, they were envious. “For someone so tall, it’s amazing he’s so light on his feet. And he’s the picture of gentlemanliness,” one friend said. “Wow…he’s charming,” said the other. “He’s got the greatest smile.”
At the dance museum, too, the guests were bubbling with anticipation. Many had seen him on Broadway. One recalled seeing her first Tune show years ago, when she was 18.
Michele, in a long, slim black lace dress, told me that the 1983 musical My One and Only, starring Tune and Twiggy, was her favorite show. She also revealed that on Friday morning, hours before the show, Tune was at her home on North Broadway, posing for a picture while holding two of her Chihuahuas, named Tommy and Tune. “The year he was inducted, in 2009, we named them after him, in his honor.”
After an hour of hobnobbing, the patrons filed into the theater and found their named seats. Then the lights dimmed, and the room fell silent. Walking on to the stage, more than half a century after his first performance, the willowy Tune was the embodiment of elegance and grace, a link to a golden and perhaps more gentile era of entertainment. And in a black tuxedo and sparkly vest, with silver tap shoes, flowing silver hair and perfect posture, he’s movie-star handsome. Tune sang, then tapped, with mike in one hand, to music from a grand piano commanded by the gifted Michael Biagi, Tune’s accompanist for 47 of his 50 years on stage. Effortless and smooth, Tune’s 30-minute medley featured the jazz standard “Let’s Get Lost”; “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”; the Gershwin brothers’ “You Can’t Take That Away From Me”; another Gershwin number, “I’ve Got Rhythm”; and “The Way You look Tonight,” a tune that Astaire sang to Ginger Rogers in 1936.
Tune’s tapping was expert but not too vigorous, as he didn’t venture far from the center of the stage. And for good reason. The stage, only 18.6 by 11.6 feet, was not designed for dancing. Since it was dreamed up by Michele and built in 2014 in an old storage space, the stage has been a venue for film, poetry and theater. “It’s another venue for children to act, sing, perform in front of a live audience,” Michele told the audience before the show.
“It’s a perfect theater. It’s a jewel,” Tune said, beaming that warm smile onto the audience.
At one point, Tune paused, leaned his body theatrically against a pillar, and paid homage to his female dance partners: Chita, Tina Turner, Carol Channing, Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Twiggy. “And Drew Barrymore, when she was 11 years old,” he said. Tune remembered how the theater critics were ready to pounce on My One and Only, because of Twiggy’s lack of acting experience, but the show turned out to be a huge hit. “We made a lot of people happy,” he said. And so it was on Friday night.
After the show, hungry for more Tune, I revisited the museum’s Hall of Fame. When he was inducted, he gifted more than a dozen pairs of his size 13 boots and shoes to the museum. In a large glass case, you can see the black tap shoes that Gregory Hines gave him and the white clogs he wore in Seesaw, his first Tony-winning show. My favorite pair? Tall red leather cowboy boots made in his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. The next time you’re in the Riggi Theater, check out those gold name plates on the armrests. In the first row, you’ll find Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson. Tommy Tune has a front row seat, too, between Michele and Ron.
Feel bad that you missed the talented Tune? No worries. “Tommy Tune is a great friend of the National Museum of Dance,” says Director Laura DiRado. “He attended our annual gala here at the museum last summer.” And Michele is absolutely certain that he’ll be visiting Saratoga Springs again soon. “He comes to town a lot,” she says. “He’s one of my besties.”
An award-winning writer, Contributing Editor Karen Bjornland has been contributing to saratoga living for 12 years. Her work has also appeared in Adirondack Life, the Albany Times Union and Schenectady's Daily Gazette, among many other publications. She lives outside of Saratoga Springs in Greenfield Center.