Hippodrome kept them on the move

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even as a young girl, Betty Grempler knew she had great legs - short, but trim and sturdy.

They were so shapely, she said, that her grandmother wouldn't allow her to play hopscotch or hide-and-go-seek for fear that she would scar them.

"She was so protective of my legs that the only thing I could play was jacks," said Grempler, 78, of Glen Burnie.

It might sound absurd, but it so happened that Grempler's grandmother knew a good thing when she saw it. Instead of rowdy street games, the little girl danced, and danced - all the way from tap classes to the stage of the Hippodrome, where she became one of the 25 women selected for the Stardust Revue.

Which is why, when the theater reopens Tuesday evening after a $62-million renovation, the event will have special significance for Grempler and at least one other Stardust dancer, Ann M. Susie. The two took to the stage at a time when the Hippodrome was in its heyday - and are looking forward to seeing the old theater bathed in lights once again.

As Grempler tells it, her rise to the Hippodrome began at the age of 6, when her mother dressed her up and took her to audition for the Laureine Bac Studio of the Dance on Liberty Street. Although she'd done quite a bit of twirling around her Washington Boulevard apartment, Grempler had never really danced.

Fortunately, Bac was more interested in the size and shape of her students.

"She just asked me just to stand there in my underpants," chuckled Grempler, who was accepted on the spot.

Grempler danced at Bac's school through her early teens, walking to her lessons after classes let out at Southern High. "Dancing was my life," she said. "As a girl I had nothing else, so I got lost in it."

Her life changed one spring afternoon in 1940 when Bac asked her to audition for a show soon to open at the Hippodrome, then one of several theaters in West Baltimore. Grempler was only 15 years old. "I couldn't believe she chose me," she said.

Held in a local hotel, the audition attracted about 50 girls. The producer asked all of them to perform a shoulder kick. Grempler thrust her leg into the air, and smacked herself in the nose. "I was told not to kick so high," Grempler recalled. "But I wanted to show them what I could do."

Her performance was flawed, she was too young, and at 5 feet 2 inches, too short, but Grempler's enthusiasm won over the producer. "All I remember was the end of the audition when he pointed his finger at me and shouted 'you'!" she said.

She became the youngest, shortest dancer in the Stardust Revue, which ran for one week at the Hippodrome. After the audition, Grempler said she walked to the Savoia restaurant where her mother worked and shouted: "I'm gonna be on the stage!"

On July 19, 1940, Stardust opened to a full house at the Hippodrome. Grempler remembers the audience buzzing outside her dressing room, where she put on layers of makeup and a costume from New York City.

Grempler said she'll never forget stepping out onto the stage that night.

"I had to keep telling myself not to fall, and to smile," she recalled.

Grempler performed in an anniversary performance of Stardust a year later and was asked to audition for Best Foot Forward, a revue in New York. Because her mother disapproved of the idea, Grempler had to drop out of the auditions.

In an act of rebellion, Grempler - then just 16 - got married. Her groom was Uhland "Ed" Hofmann, owner of the Clark Street Garage, a lounge on St. Paul St. The two wed in July of 1941, and stayed together until his death 53 years later.

The couple often attended shows at the Hippodrome, dressing in their Sunday best to see big-name acts like Frank Sinatra. Although she never again performed at the theater, Grempler continued to dance professionally at supper clubs and out-of-town bars. until the second of her four children was born.

To this day, she's never lost the urge to dance. "I've got the legs of a 30-year-old and the balance of a 100-year-old, so it's hard for me," she said. "But even in the doctor's office, I do steps."

Excitement builds

Tuesday night will be the first time in years that Annie Susie - a former tap dancer - has visited the theater where she once performed in musical revues. Undoubtedly, memories of the days when the Hippodrome was like a second home will come flooding back.

"I love to dance, and even after all these years, I still feel the urge to dance," said Susie, 83, a former Towson resident who now lives at St. Martin's Home in Catonsville.

The youngest of seven, Susie, then Ann Witt, was born and raised on Eastern Avenue near Patterson Park. Her father, a German immigrant, left her mother (the former Mary Novak) widowed when Susie was just 4 years old. At nine, she left school to help support her family, taking a job as a seamstress at I.C. Isaacs, a Baltimore garment factory.

Susie, who won a ballroom dancing contest in the mid-1930s at Patterson Park, eventually landed on the stage of the Hippodrome. In 1937, the 5-foot-5-inch, 118-pound dancer landed a role in The Baltimore Follies of 1937 at Lowes Century Theater. Her next engagement was tap dancing and performing Busby Berkeley-inspired routines at the Hippodrome as a member of the cast of the 1938 Stardust Revue.

Memories of that opening night still bring a warm smile to Susie's face.

"It was exciting in capital letters," she said, recalling that all of her siblings were in the audience that night.

Susie continued dancing at the Hippodrome, where she performed in the three-a-day vaudeville shows that the theater presented daily. The live performances were followed by the showing of a feature film. "After the last show, I'd go home and soak my feet while listening to the radio," she said.

She wanted to try her luck in New York, but her family discouraged her, so she remained in East Baltimore.

It was while working at the Hippodrome that she fell in love with and married Francis J. Susie Jr. A bright, handsome, young man, he had risen from usher to manager at the Hippodrome. "When we were courting, we'd walk home from the theater after the last show," she said. "We never took the streetcar. He'd take me to my door, give me a peck on the cheek, and then walk to his home on Streeper Street."

A young comic named Richard "Red" Skelton also had eyes for Susie. "He'd try to get into my dressing room," she recalled with a laugh.

Another performer who momentarily swept her off her feet was a young crooner from Hoboken, N.J. - Frank Sinatra. "When I touched Frank Sinatra, I swore I'd never wash my hand again," she said.

With the coming of World War II, Susie's husband left the Hippodrome and joined the war effort. Susie gave up her career to raise her two sons and a daughter. But she kept busy - modeling for print advertisements and department stores, appearing on television and working as a bank teller.

Now she's looking forward to revisiting the Hippodrome - and reliving her time in the spotlight. "Going back to the Hippodrome Tuesday night will be so exciting. Exciting in capital letters," she said.

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