From dancing in nightclubs at just 13yrs old to support her mother and herself, to starring in Broadway musicals, to a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Sometimes you come across someone’s life story that is so remarkable and unexpected that you just can’t stop reading more about them. The more I read about Ann Miller the more I just had to keep reading.
I’ve known of her from my love of movies form the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially the Pre-code movies – which if you’re unfamiliar was;
“the brief era in the American film industry between the widespread adoption of sound in pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines, popularly known as the “Hays Code”, in mid-1934.”
Her life was a strange blend of hardship and success filled with experiences that most people will never go through.
At a young age she had more responsibility than most adults. Her own life sounds like something out of a movie.
Even if you’re not interested in tap dancing or movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, I’m sure that you’ll still find her life story intriguing.
“I have worked like a dog all my life, honey…” – Ann Miller
Ann Miller began tap dancing at the age of 5 to strengthen her bones after having rickets. While still being homeschooled, she worked as a dancer in nightclubs while just 13 years old, to support her mother who was hearing impaired and struggled to hold down a job.
As a teenager she was playing the roles of women and wives, against men many years her senior.
Over the following 20 years, she appeared in approximately 40 films. Ann became one of the greatest dancers in Hollywood, known for her long shapely legs and unmatched speedy taps.
Overcoming Obstacles to Success
Ann Miller was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier, April 12th of 1923 in Chireno, Texas. Named so because her father wanted a son instead of a girl. She later went by Lucille.
As a child Ann suffered from a case of rickets – a condition that results in weak brittle bones, bowed legs, stunted growth and complications such as bone fractures and abnormal spine curvature.
At the age of 5, Ann’s mother suggested that she go for tap dance lessons to strengthen her legs. She was homeschooled by her mother, and they moved to California after her parents separated when she was 9.
At the age of 13, she lied about her age and secured a position dancing first at the Bal Tabarin speakeasy, and then at the Black Cat bar, in San Francisco, California. It was during this period that she adopted the stage name Ann Miller, which she kept throughout her career.
It was here that she was discovered by Hollywood sensation Lucille Ball, which led to her being offered a contract with Hollywood studio RKO at the age of just 14 – but only if she could prove she was 18. She managed to get a fake birth certificate and that started her movie career that spanned 20 years before she left Hollywood.
It is difficult to believe that she got away with playing grown women at just 15 years of age. She apparently looked older than her age, and was also quite tall (1.7m) so it is possible that with lots of makeup, her build, her confidence, and her dancing prowess that she really was taken as older than she was.
She was regarded as having some of the best legs in Hollywood and was referred to as Ann ‘Legs’ Miller. She became so skilled that she was one of the only dancers that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were intimidated by.
She was known for her extraordinary speed of her taps and while it’s hard to verify, it was claimed in newspapers of the time that she could tap several hundred beats per minute.
Regardless, she was out-dancing dancers with a decade of experience ahead of her.
Besides being one the the greatest dancers of Hollywood, she was a talented singer and actress and while she never really got put in the roles that would put her at the very top of Hollywood stardom like Eleanor Powell and my personal favorite Ginger Rogers – she did get her great break in Broadway theatre musicals, later on.
“At MGM, I always played the second feminine lead. I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen. Broadway gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.”
– Ann Miller
Despite being a Hollywood star she didn’t have an easy adult life.
Ann married three times and each marriage lasted less than three years.
Despite warnings that he was an alcoholic who had previously abused women, Miller married millionaire industrialist Reese Milner. After he threw her down a flight of stairs while 9 months pregnant, during a fight, she broke her back. The fall brought on early labour but she lost the baby 3 hours later. (Still with a broken back she auditioned for Easter Parade (1948) with a steel brace, and got the role.)
Around 1955, Miller was also one of the first Hollywood stars to tour Australia and she became MGM’s unofficial ambassador, travelling to a number of foreign countries. This led to unusual incidents in Israel, where she was temporarily kidnapped by a group of Arabs, who were convinced she was a spy, and Argentina, where Miller had to fend off the advances of leader Juan Perón, who tried to keep her in the country by withholding her passport.
From speakeasies to Hollywood – Ann Miller’s Career
At just 13 years old, in 1936, Miller became a showgirl at the Bal Tabarin speakeasy. Shortly thereafter she was hired as a dancer in The Black Cat club in San Francisco.
“The Black Cat was by far the best place for a wild drunk that an adventurer could hope for…”
— Henry Evans in Bohemian San Francisco (1955)
After being discovered by Lucille Ball, she was offered a contract with Hollywood studio RKO, which was a major pivot in her life and led to her starring in musicals which would propel her to fame and riches, doing what she loved.
Her first speaking role in a movie was for “New Faces of 1937” starring Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
After the success of this film, and her work in the Marx Brothers romp-com “Room Service” (1938), Miller became unhappy with her $150-a-week salary. She released from her contract with RKO early and travelled to New York City to join the Broadway musical comedy revue “George White’s Scandals” (1939), in which she performed two numbers.
The production was a major success and Miller was able to negotiate a new contract with the studio at the much higher rate of $3,000 a week.
“Ann Miller was only 15 years old when this movie was made. It’s hard to believe that she was that good that young.”
-Unknown commentator, when talking about Radio City Revels (1938)
She ended her contract in 1946 with one “A” film, The Thrill of Brazil. The ad for the movie in Life magazine featured Miller’s leg in a stocking, tied with a large red bow – the bow taking the place of the “T” in “Thrill”.
During part of her tenure with Columbia, Miller was dating L.B. Mayer – the head of MGM. It is alleged that Mayer’s attempted suicide via sleeping pills was due to Miller rejecting his proposal of marriage.
Wanting to restart her movie career, Miller auditioned for MGM and won a role in the Judy Garland/Fred Astaire musical Easter Parade (1948) and impressed audiences who did not know that she performed her number “Shakin’ the Blues Away” while wearing a steel brace.
At Astaire’s request, Miller performed with him while wearing ballet slippers, so that she would not appear to be taller. The film was a big success and Miller mentioned in later years that it was her favourite role.
After the success of Easter Parade, MGM put her under contract and “The Kissing Bandit” (1948), “On the Town“ (1949), “Watch the Birdie” (1950), and “Texas Carnival” (1951) followed in quick succession.
One of her favorite roles was that of Bianca/Lois Lane in Kiss Me Kate (1953).
“Hit the Deck” (1955) provided a first for Miller, when she was asked to dance barefoot for the number “The Lady from the Bayou.”
By the mid-1950s, MGM’s big musical spectaculars were no longer as popular with audiences and the studio began to move toward grittier, more realistic features.
Her film career effectively ended in 1956, but she remained active in the theater and on television.
When it comes to her theater roles,Miller was probably best known for the vaudeville “Sugar Babies,”. She co-starred in the role with Mickey Rooney on Broadway and on tour, and received a 1980 Tony Award nomination.
In 1989, at the age of 63, Miller sang and tap danced to “42nd Street” at the opening of the Disney MGM Studios. This would be her last live dance performance
For her contribution to the motion-picture industry, Miller has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6914 Hollywood Boulevard. A Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to her in 1998. To honor Miller’s contribution to dance, the Smithsonian Institution displays her favorite pair of tap shoes (which she playfully nicknamed “Moe and Joe”).
Miller’s career spanned an astonishing 65 years – longer, even, than Audrey Hepburn’s.
Sadly, her legacy is largely forgotten. Many tap dance teachers don’t even know about her and while many continue to pour in millions of views and likes on TikTok with their dancing to crass songs such as WAP – the class and sensuality of Ann Miller is relegated to archives and those like me who are obsessed with the Golden Years of Hollywood.
The most popular tap dancers/instructors on Tiktok and other platforms frequently do ‘speed challenges’ to rap and other genres of modern pop catalogue but many can’t come close to her speed and skill in tap. If I could tap I would be trying to honor the legacy and contribution of the greats, rather than spending a lot of time getting easy likes.
In 1960, Miller received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2004 she was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame. And on August 5, 2020, Ann was honored with a day of her film-work during the Turner Classic Movies Summer Under the Stars.
Ann spent her last years in the rocky mountains away from the hustle and bustle of the city. She died, aged 80, from lung cancer on January 22, 2004. She was buried next to her miscarried daughter, which reads “Beloved Baby Daughter Mary Milner November 12, 1946”.
May her legacy live on.
I love reading real life stories where someone overcame obstacles and, despite them, achieved greatness doing something that they loved. I hope that more people will know about her and her dancing legacy, especially her early tap dancing.
It is interesting that someone who suffered a case of rickets, danced and became one of the greatest dancers during the Golden Years of Hollywood. Worked and supported her mother from a young age dancing in night clubs with adults. And despite this environment during her formative years, didn’t like the sexual natural of Hollywood and left the industry for a while but then only to come back in a highly sexual film with a lesbian scene in Mulholland Drive.
She had so much responsibility at such a young age. It’s interesting how she managed to hang onto her morals and not identify with the excessive sexuality of Hollywood which she didn’t like. I don’t think many 13 year-olds dancing in nightclubs for grown men would come out the same way that Ann did.
She was such a complete package, she had charisma, was bold and independent, and incredible at what she did.
As an aside, while I grew up binging over VHS tapes of the films from the Golden Era of Hollywood mainly from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, ultimately somehow, I ended up falling in love with and marrying someone who danced for over 20 years and who was a tap dance instructor.