This week in Columbia's history: Merriweather stage saves dance celebration
By Carolyn Kelemen
May 19, 2017 at 9:54 AM
Imagine my surprise when I answered a telephone call on a May evening in 1972 and heard the voice of Michael Spear, Howard Research and Development Corporation's general manager for Columbia.
Even less expected was his offer of the Merriweather Post Pavilion, "free of charge … with no strings attached" for the following Sunday afternoon. It was the solution to a problem that would have disappointed students from the Interfaith Ballet Program, their parents and many supporters, among them Elizabeth "Libby" Rouse, who founded the Housing Project and supported ballet.
For over a year, a group of children from Columbia's Interfaith Housing Project met once a week in Slayton House where I taught free dance lessons. But our family was moving back to California, and I feared the lessons would end unless some provisions for them were made quickly.
For over a month I had been organizing a "Celebration of Dance" to be held at Wilde Lake High School, and the "grand finale" was to be a performance by nearly 100 dancers.
Everything was arranged until the word came down from the Board of Education that the stage at Wilde Lake be condemned due to loose lights and dangerous cords. That began the first conversation with HRD, Mike Spear and eventually his wife, Judy.
He said he knew we had worked hard on the performance and he hated to see something like this happen in Columbia.
The big moment did arrive on Sunday, May 21 when 16 dancers joined The Maryland Ballet; Ann Allen's Columbia Multi-Media Theater Dance Company; the Peabody Conservatory (once based in the grand room of Oakland Manor) en pointe; the Columbia Folk dancers; and students from the Arabesque School, directed by Columbia's first dance teacher, Marcia Lachman.
The price of admission was $1 for adults and half-price for kids.
For the record, we made $900 that went in part to defray medical costs of a member of the troupe, June Thomas, who died a year or two later from complications of sickle cell anemia. She was a daughter of Sonny Thomas, a longtime employee at the Rouse Co. This was my first medical benefit, and the rest of the money went for scholarships with Sandy Wilson from the Joffrey Ballet and Debra Devoe who later founded Dance Kaleidoscope.
I'm an old softy for local productions, so armed with stacks of sheet music, I joined a group of giggling girls in my basement and was immediately elected director/producer/choreographer and chief promoter. Our little basement troupe developed into a full company of a dozen preteens by the following afternoon. We picked up a few more from a tap dance class; found a "ringer" who could sing in three different keys and had a father who had "been in the business; and added some neighborhood kids on condition that their mothers could sew.
We ran through a repertoire of Broadway hits – "Annie" was rejected early since it was practically an all-girl musical. I vetoed big production numbers from "The Wiz" and "A Chorus Line." When "Grease" was suggested there was overwhelming approval.
Intensive research had to be done, including a trip to Philadelphia, home of American Bandstand. By March we had gathered 25 Columbia kids (ranging in age from 10-14), one photocopy of the original script (from a library in New Jersey), sheet music (written in the wrong key), an old one-letter sweater and a big jar of Vaseline for the guys' "DA" hair styles.
I called saxophonist Marian Kaul to bring in her musicians and asked local TV kid celebrity Eugene Williams to tap in the prom scene.
Soon came another challenge. How was it possible to maneuver these kids, host parents and guests in my basement? Slayton House's community services solved this problem, and soon I had convinced Bob Sheers for tech help and his authentic 1950s sneakers.
I spent spring break writing the script and editing – words that would be okay today were taboo in the late 1970s. Together we cut songs, added an Elvis Presley imitation and threw in an old chorus routine in the middle of a "hand jive."
"A Little Bit of 'Grease' and a Lot of 'Rock 'n' Roll' " turned out to be a big hit, especially with those who remembered how to jitterbug (which we all did after the show).
Veteran dance writer Carolyn Kelemen, a 1999 Howie Award winner for her support of the arts, was inducted into the Howard County Women's Hall of Fame in 2006 for producing a series of local AIDS benefits.