Not a few consider her the best dancer of either sex, like the late Fayard Nicholas, half of the famed Nicholas Brothers: “I don’t think of [Eleanor Powell] as the world’s greatest female tap dancer. I think of her as the world’s greatest dancer.”
Fayard would find little argument from long-time choreographer and dance instructor Jim Taylor: “In my 50 years as a professional tap dancer around the globe, I have never seen anyone capable of accomplishing the feats that were exclusive to Eleanor Powell” (emphasis added).
Even the iconic Fred Astaire had such respect for Powell that he deferred to her artistic decisions in Broadway Melody of 1940. It is a little known fact that it was Powell, not Astaire or his personal choreographer, Hermes Pan, who was the principle creative influence in that film.
Love and family
For eight years, Eleanor Powell reigned as queen of the Hollywood musical. Then, in 1943, her life took a sharp turn after falling in love with Glenn Ford. At the time, Powell was a huge star and Ford a little known “B” actor, with a little known “B” actor salary. Nevertheless, Eleanor walked away from the fame and fortune of stardom to become a devoted wife and homemaker.
In October that same year, Eleanor married Ford and, 15 months later, gave birth to their one and only child, Peter. When asked whether she would come out of retirement, she dismissed the notion. As a professed “old-fashioned mother,” Eleanor was adamant that the interests of children are best served when at least one parent is home to give love and nurture. She would be a stay-at-home mom.
Soon she began volunteering in her church—first in the nursery and later teaching her son’s Sunday school class. That led to another role for the former Hollywood star turned-wife-and-mom—host of a first-of-its-kind television program for children, Faith of Our Children.
Faith of Our Children first aired in 1954. It was a weekly non-denominational, public service program aimed at the spiritual formation of children, complete with Bible stories, skits, and guest entertainers.
Powell hosted and scripted each show, fashioned after her Beverly Hills Presbyterian Sunday school class. (In a studio still, Powell is shown teaching Matthew 22:37 to a group of young children.) When asked about her new role, Eleanor replied, “I’m surrounded by children whom I love...I feel that my work as a dancer in the past was just a prologue to the work I am now doing.”
Faith of Our Children was groundbreaking, and not just for being the first children’s religious show on TV. During an era of growing racial tensions in the country, Faith of Our Children featured multi-racial guests and an audience of multi-racial children. And that didn’t set well with some viewers.
In Eleanor Powell: First Lady of Dance, author Alice Levin writes that after one show, “a well-known minister” called, complaining about “the number of dark-skinned youngsters” on the set. Eleanor politely responded to the minister, saying that she would make the necessary adjustments before the next airing. The following week viewers were treated to a program featuring an all black audience and a black guest star, to boot. The minister didn't bother calling back to say how he enjoyed the adjustments.
From 1954 to 1956, Faith of Our Children garnered five regional Emmys for excellence in children’s programming, as well as numerous honors from various organizations for contributing to the spiritual growth of children and the advancement of Christian brotherhood—the latter a long-time passion of Powell.
Ellie’s views on race were shaped by her Christian faith, as this verse from a tender poem she wrote about God’s kaleidoscopic creation indicates:
But when He looks on man I think
He sees but soul and mind;
And where HIS children are concerned
Our Father’s color-blind!
Ellie lived that verse, giving of herself to others, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity. Against the prejudice that was rife in the studios throughout her film career, she became life-long friends with black entertainers like Bill Robinson and Ethel Waters, and she helped others, like choreographer WiIlie Covan, land jobs in the industry.
Her burden for the disenfranchised was exceeded only by her love of children, especially the chronically sick and underprivileged. By bringing to bear the full force of her celebrity, skills, and energies, Ellie raised awareness and funds for disadvantaged children and those afflicted with asthma, blindness, polio, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. Throughout her life, she received dozens of awards and honors for her humanitarian work—a testament to her tireless devotion and effectiveness as an advocate for young people.
Trouble at home
At home, Eleanor’s marriage was in trouble. Once Glenn’s movie career began skyrocketing, his frequent and extended absences put increasing stress on their relationship. Eleanor credited her faith with helping her through that difficult period.
But by 1959, mounting reports of her husband’s infidelity led her to throw in the towel. She divorced Glenn that year, ending their 16-year marriage—a marital lifetime by Hollywood standards. She never married again, except in a deeply spiritual respect that she put this way: “Now I feel as though I'm married to God, and in the nicest, purest sense.”
As a single mom, Eleanor faced new difficulties. Her divorce settlement, which seemed generous by the standards of the day, turned out to be insufficient for the upkeep of her large Beverly Hills home. Peter told me that many an evening he and his mother sat down with nothing but Hamburger Helperand beans to eat. They grew a vegetable garden that the neighbors thought was for hobby, but was really for putting food on the table.
Eventually, out of financial necessity, Eleanor returned to the stage, putting together a critically acclaimed dance act in Las Vegas. But as the act became more of a financial drain than a financial source, she was forced to leave the stage for good, selling the Beverly Hills house and moving into a smaller place.
Power in prayer
In my talk with Peter, he described his mother as a person of deep faith who believed mightily in the power of prayer. He went on to recount an expression of her faith that profoundly affected him.
In his early 20s, Peter formed a rock group that quickly began making waves in the music scene. Shortly before their breakthrough moment, Peter was stricken with a crippling condition. Suddenly, without warning, he found himself bedridden, his body riddled with pain from a debilitating form of arthritis. The prognosis was bleak—according to the doctors, he would never walk again.
In time, through the combination of medication, physical therapy, and dietary changes, Peter regained function sufficient for some of his normal activities, but not without frequent bouts of excruciating pain. One night the pain was so unbearable that he cried out to his mother for prayer.
Eleanor kneeled at Peter’s bedside, laid her hands on his tortured legs, and lifted a prayer to heaven for his relief. The next morning, to the amazement of Peter and, later, his doctors, he was pain-free, and has remained so for over 30 years.
Her enduring place
Later in life, Eleanor Powell entertained some unorthodox religious views, or so it would appear.
Although it is commonly reported that she became a minister in the Unity church—a derivative of the New Thought movement—there is no record that she was ordained, or had any ministerial position, in that organization. Some sources claim that, despite her involvement in Unity, she never drifted far from her Quaker and Presbyterian roots. Others claim that her association with Unity was limited to partnering on shared faith-based initiatives.
However her religious views may have changed in latter years, Eleanor Powell remained steadfast in her love for her Maker, both personal and ever-present, and for all His children.
When asked the one question that all great dancers are asked, “Who was your favorite dancing partner?” Ellie’s answer was always the same: “God.” It was her way of acknowledging the Source of her gift and His calling upon her, as was the life-long philosophy she regularly shared with interviewers and audiences: “What we are is God's gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.”
In 1981, Eleanor Powell was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She told a concerned press, “I’ve placed myself in the hands of God...It’s going to be fine.” The next year on February 11, at the age of 69, her favorite Partner called her home (I can imagine the joyful rhythms that began echoing throughout the heavenly halls), her earthly remains fittingly placed in a bronze replica of the Bible.
Today, Eleanor Powell’s place in movie history may be largely forgotten—a fate to which all measures of worldly success succumb, sooner or later—but her place with her Maker, and in the hearts of all the people she touched who have come and gone, as well as those she continues to touch through her films, will endure forever.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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