Kidd, Michael

Kidd, Michael
Aug. 15, 1915-Dec. 23, 2007
American choreographer


Although Michael Kidd once studied to become an engineer, he has made his mark in the entertainment world as a dancer, choreographer, and director. His gift for humor and for depicting types of American character has made him especially successful in musical comedies. On Broadway he was responsible for the dances in Finian's Rainbow, Can-Can, and Guys and Dolls and for the choreography and direction of Li'l Abner and Destry Rides Again. In Hollywood he has devised the dance sequences for several films, including Merry Andrew.

Kidd began his career as a ballet dancer with the American Ballet, the Dance Players, and Ballet Theatre, for which he created and danced the ballet On Stage! in 1945. He is the first person to receive four Antoinette Perry awards since the prizes were originated in 1947.

Michael Kidd was born in 1919 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an immigrant barber. He attended New Utrecht High School, where he joined the track team; he later majored in chemical engineering at the City College of the City of New York. To meet his living expenses, he worked nights as a copy boy for the New York Daily News.

Nothing in his early background helps explain why Michael Kidd became a dancer. One evening, while he was in high school, he attended a performance of the modern dance given by the New Dance League. Kidd, who was very impressed, was "careless enough to say so, and before he knew it he was a scholarship pupil in a modern dance class" (John Martin, New York Times Magazine, May 4, 1947). In the next few years he studied with such teachers as Blanche Evan, Anatole Vilzak, Ludmila Shollar, and Muriel Stuart. By the end of his third year at City College, he had decided that he was not interested in science. "I felt it was too impersonal," he said. "It didn't deal with human beings." Turning completely to the dance, he attended the School of American Ballet on a scholarship, and used his technical training to work with dance groups as an electrician and property man.

In 1937 he made his stage debut in the chorus of Max Reinhardt's production of The Eternal Road. In the same year he joined the American Ballet and Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan. Touring the United States with the latter troupe during the next three years, he danced many roles, including the lead in Billy the Kid. At the New York World's Fair, in 1939 and 1940, he danced in Railroads on Parade and American Jubilee. In 1941 he joined the Dance Players as assistant director and soloist, and appeared in such ballets as The Man from Midian, City Portrait, and Harlequin for President.

Kidd's work with the Dance Players favorably impressed Antal Dorati, musical director of the Ballet Theatre, who invited him to join the group in 1942. During his five years with the company, Kidd danced leading parts in Helen of Troy, Bluebeard, Aurora's Wedding, Interplay, and other ballets.

The Ballet Theatre gave Kidd the opportunity to direct his original ballet On Stage! Based on the story of a backstage handy man who befriends a shy young dancer, the ballet had its premiere on October 4, 1945, with Kidd and Janet Reed taking the leading roles. The dance was praised by many critics, including Edwin Denby (New York Herald Tribune, October 14, 1945) who predicted the ballet would take Kidd to Broadway before winter's end. "The gift it shows is congenial to Broadway, a gift for using dancing as agreeable efficient entertainment rather than for poetic expression," Denby wrote.

Kidd admits that he wants his ballets to appeal to popcorn-crunching young movie goers as well as to discriminating balletomanes. "Dancing," he has said, "should be completely understandable-every move, every turn should mean something, should be crystal-clear to the audience. And if you can make them laugh or cry, move them emotionally, make them respond to the dancer as a real person doing something believable within your theatrical framework-well-you've done a job."

Within a year and a half after the first performance of On Stage! Kidd accepted an assignment as choreographer of Finian's Rainbow, a musical fantasy about an outsized leprechaun who solves the race problem in Missitucky. When Finian's Rainbow opened on Broadway on January 10, 1947, Kidd's dance creations won the favor of the reviewers. Other New York productions for which Kidd did the choreography, were Hold It! (1948), Love Life (1948), Arms and the Girl (1950), and Can-Can (1953). In all of these shows, Kidd's dances were not just divertissements, but integral parts of the story.

Michael Kidd gave his "magic touch" to the dances of Guys and Dolls, the musical based on Damon Runyon's stories about Broadway characters, which began its New York run on November 24, 1950. His Havana sequence, dice game ballet, and two night club routines accompanying the hit songs, "Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink," were particularly commended. Kidd went to Hollywood to stage the dances and musical numbers for the motion-picture version of Guys and Dolls in 1955. He also choreographed and staged the dances for the movies The Band Wagon (1953), Knock on Wood (1954), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

Kidd acted and danced in the motion-picture musical It's Always Fair Weather (1955), which satirized the human interest shows on television. He was cast as Angie, the proprietor of a glorified hamburger stand called the Cordon Bleu, who is reunited with his World War II buddies on a TV program. Taking still another role in the production of movies, Kidd directed the Danny Kaye comedy Merry Andrew (1958), about an amateur archaeologist looking for a Roman statue buried in a meadow where a circus is encamped.

The Broadway stage has also provided Kidd with vehicles for his directorial talents. He choreographed, staged, and co-produced Li'l Abner, which began its long run on November 15, 1956. Based on the famous comic strip by Al Capp, the musical show was not regarded by critics as a three-dimensional version of the world of Dogpatch, Kentucky. Kidd's choreography in the Sadie Hawkins Day ballet, and the other frenzied acrobatics and harumscarum antics that he devised came closest in quality to the satiric comic strip, according to most critics.

When Destry Rides Again galloped into the Imperial Theatre in New York City on April 23, 1959, critics commented that director Michael Kidd was "firmly in the saddle." In this musical version of the story of Sheriff Tom Destry, who preaches pacifism in a rough frontier town, Kidd presented "razzle-dazzle, gun smoke, cracking bullwhips and some of the wildest, funniest and most high-spirited dancing in town" (Life, May 25, 1959).

Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune (May 3, 1959) took Kidd to task for his "electronic-brain musical, forever returning the right answer." Kidd "no longer dares pause for that odd, foolish, grinning little gesture that made a leprechaun neighborly in 'Finian's Rainbow.' Now that Mr. Kidd is in charge of the over-all direction, he seems ready to … keep the tractor roaring at whatever cost in incidental delight." Destry Rides Again continued on Broadway until July 18, 1960.

Black-haired, brown-eyed Michael Kidd stands five feet six inches and weighs 145 pounds. He enjoys photography, cabinetmaking, tinkering with sound-recording equipment and old car motors, and reading popular science magazines. Of his own work, he prefers the ballet "Green Up Time," a polka from Love Life. Since 1940 he has been married to Mary Heater, by whom he has two daughters, Kristine and Susan. When he was asked if he wanted them to become dancers, Kidd replied: "I'm certainly not going to push them, but it's wonderful for girls to study dancing. It gives them poise and grace."

Kidd departs from the popular conception of the director as a man who gives instructions from a chair. Jacques d'Amboise has said: "He's willing to do anything himself that he expects of his dancers. And he's a great dancer himself." When dancers do not pick up his direction on cue, he does not yell or throw a tantrum. Instead, he indicates his displeasure by giving a loud whistle.

Increasingly interested in the theater, he admits that he finds it more exciting than pure ballet. He even hopes to be given the opportunity to direct some dramas. He regards himself as a follower of Chaplin. "I have a strong attraction for pantomime," he has said. "And I use it all the time. I like the mixture of pathos and comedy, which nobody has ever done like Chaplin."

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