sylvia-lewis.jpgI came across Sylvia Lewis quite by accident, I was researching the 1956 John Wayne box office disaster The Conqueror. The then twenty something Sylvia had landed a solo dancing scene in it.

I contacted Sylvia and she was kind enough to agree to an interview. Hollywood is a world of its own. While most people think of the stars, but there is actually an entire eco-system. Without all of the supporting people it could not exist. Many of these people receive little recognition outside of the community but they are vital to every single project.

Hollywood is what you make of it. Sylvia Lewis’s story is a case in point.

She was born in York, Pa, the family moved to Baltimore, MD, where her father was from. She called Baltimore home  until age 12.

I was interested in how she become involved in the world of Hollywood?

At twelve years of age, my parents decided to begin a “new life” and come to Los Angeles. Of course, getting Sylvia in the movies was the goal. (How many times have you heard that one?)  Well, my Mom managed to locate the finest teachers in Hollywood and saw to it that my on-going training was the highest caliber available.It paid off. I was sent to Long’s professional School for my regular schooling which was a school for kids who worked in the industry. Only 4 hour days, with total acceptance that when you worked…you would make up your grades and maintain a high academic level.By then I was in a concert dance company and working in the ensemble in productions at the Greek Theater, LA Light Opera etc.

Obviously her parents were motivated people. It was not long before Sylvia had her first film role.

The first film I did was when i was 16 (I lied about my age to get the job)…a little MGM bomb “Living In A big Way” with Gene Kelly and Marie MacDonald.  The big dance number was cut out of the film and it was the one picture Gene never mentioned when talking about his career.

While it can be argued that dance is an art form that comes naturally to some people, almost always there has to be some professional coaching.

Since I had begun performing by age 5..( singing plus simple kid stuff dancing) my serious training began very early.  In addition to the tap dancing, I had excellent classical ballet training first with a teacher named Marie Ford, and later was given a full scholarship at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music. That training included ballet, piano and voice training and provided the wonderful foundation of my performance ability for the rest of my life.

I had looked up Sylvia Lewis on iMDB, and was astounded by the movies that she appeared in, In 1952 she made an appearance in Singin In The Rain, and in 1956 in the rather contentious The Conqueror.

While I like iMDB, there is only so much research that they can do, so I asked Sylvia  approximately how many films she had been involved in?

 Somewhere between 20 and 25. Most of them are listed on iMDB, but there were many quickie, insignificant  jobs that I can’t even recall. We worked where there was work…particularly since by then I was supporting myself and my Mom…so I had to work… I couldn’t be too selective!

Hollywood as a career is not the nirvana that some might make it out to be. It is a job, and like any job you must put your best into it. Sylvia Lewis had her foot in the door of Hollywood, but dancing was not her goal.

Since I had so much experience performing as a child…I was never comfortable as a “chorus” dancer or performer.  My object was to transition to acting and expand my horizons so as soon as the small roles began to come my way….I was happy to move out of the chorus.

Sylvia Lewis had a solo dancing scene in The Conqueror. That scene has been preserved.

While it was not a huge box office hit, it remains a controversial film. It was filmed partially in St George, Utah and partially in Los Angeles. If you are unfamiliar with the story, I suggest that you read this article. I posed the question to Sylvia, I am assuming that your scenes were filmed in Hollywood rather than St George Utah?

Right!  I’m afraid that if I had been in Utah..I might not be alive to tell it.

Ouch, that sort of sums it up in a nutshell! For people not familiar with the story, The Conqueror set in Utah was on an A-bomb test ground, and 10 years later many of the people involved with the shooting of the film were either dead, or diagnosed with cancer.

I pried further and asked her what she remembers about the film?

It was a terrific job and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.  First…I loved the choreographer, Bob Sidney.  He was such a joy to work with and we became close friends form them on. I think we had 8 weeks to create the dance sequences, which were spent mostly in a rehearsal hall. That costume I wore had to be sewn onto my body. They determined I stood about 100 hours while they placed and stitched that red fringe up and down my body. The Temple shaped head dress weighed about 12 pounds. It was not the easiest costume in which to dance!

The Duke (John Wayne)  was only around during the shooting period for that sequence…about a week.  Of course he didn’t have much dialogue. He was mainly perched on his throne enjoying the dancing girls.  As I recall, Duke drank his way through most of that week.  I had the impression he was not a happy actor…he knew this was not going to be his finest role.  As time has proved…this was perhaps the worst case of mis-casting ever in Hollywood.  Duke was no fool, but he did his best and got through it.  I must say…he was quiet…cooperative as could be….sweet…and a gentleman all the way

Sylvia started to shift away from the silver screen to tv, was that pure chance, or was it a direction that she chose?

As i said…I went where the work was.  Somehow, it was pure happenstance…Television was offering the jobs, and I seemed to fit the requirements they were looking for.  By the time i was a regular on the Ray Bolger Show…I was, by virtue of my theater background, used to performing before an audience, so doing those shows each week, live on film, was a breeze for me.

You were in many memorable TV series, do you have a favorite?

Yes…my appearance on the Dick Van dyke Show.  It was a fabulous part…great writing and wonderfully performed by all!  I think that episode won the Emmy that season for Best Sit-com .

I could not pass up the opportunity to ask Sylvia a fun question, my wife is a huge fan of ‘Married With Children’, when she can’t sleep, she gets up at 4am and watches reruns for the 1000th time on some cable channel. How were the ‘Bundy family’ to work with?

 Zany, dear, totally professional, hard working and funny.

As an outsider looking in I think the Hollywood of today is a far cry from the Hollywood of yesterday. The response that I got to that question was short and to the point!

You must be joking……..

She followed that up with:

All I can say is , if I were young today..I’d either remain in NY and be a strictly theater performer or become a veterinarian.  The few people of my era who are still somehow in the biz, all hate what Hollywood has become.  I was lucky to have gotten in on the last really great years…

More tales from old Hollywood soon.

Simon Barrett

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