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JOHN RILEY

International Attraction : Marilyn Mayblum Just Wants to Dance--Even If It's in the Middle of the Iran-Iraq War

December 08, 1985|JOHN RILEY

In March, a week after she arrived with her dancers, a plane crashed in the night near Marilyn Mayblum's hotel. The air outside filled with frightened birds as the concussion of Iran bombing Iraq blew off the doors of her room. She awoke, afraid.

At the American Embassy the next day, she sat with all the managers of the tiny U.S. community of 100, conspicuously the only woman in a group of oilmen, all being shown a map of where to go and where not to, to avoid bombardment.

From then on, cars were stopped and searched for car bombs. She was told never to point from a car; she could draw fire from a nervous sentry. She and all the members of her troop, "Hollywood Harem Ballet," appearing each night at midnight and 2 a.m. as the main act at the Moulin Rouge Music Hall, were still the toast of Baghdad.

Accepting philosophically the dangers of wartime, the dancers she'd recruited in Los Angeles bet among themselves about when the next bombs would fall and performed in feathers their ballet from "Cats" and, in highly abbreviated uniforms, their American football jazz routine. One night, an NBC crew, there to report the war, filmed their performance.

At 40, impresario and lead dancer Mayblum, who was called "Chief" by her Iraqi employers, shared the applause, the champagne and the jitters.

She understood death. Its nearness had always excited her.

Alvin, the English aerialist she'd almost married 15 years before in America, had begged her to work with him in his motorcycle tight-wire act at Ringling Brothers. Having joined the circus to live with him in his trailer, she'd worked up high in an arena-circling web of rope-climbing girls. She'd seen how circus life had aged the face of his mother, once a dancer like herself. When fired out of a cannon, Alvin always landed in a net. But, as in his single trapeze act, he preferred to work without one. A few years after she'd left him, and she was back dancing overseas in Las Vegas-style revues, she wasn't surprised to read that the Bulgarian girl he'd recruited in her place had, during a performance, fallen to her death.

Gabriel, the bullfighter she'd met 10 years before in Bogota, while she was dancing with the Tony Masullo Co. and sniffing bottled oxygen backstage between numbers to counteract altitude sickness, had wanted to take her to Madrid and marry her. She'd appreciated the death ritual of the bullring, and she'd kept flying back to Gabriel in Colombia, but in the end she'd danced away from him too.

"It got a little naughty last night," she overheard someone say at Baghdad's British Club of the bombing. The stiff-upper-lip understatement of it made her laugh (the same full-voiced laughter that once caused Harold Minsky to pad her dancer's salary with an extra $25-a-scene as the showgirl in "The French Maid" and "Get Out of the Car!," classic comedy scenes with baggy-pantsed comedians).

She wanted away from the war. Her visa was due to expire. At the airport, she stood in standby lines, afraid she'd be trapped in Baghdad. She missed the Mayfair Market at home, full of fresh produce she couldn't find in a war. Instead of dancing here, she could take her two-hour daily exercise at Jane Fonda's on Robertson Boulevard and lift weights with her private trainer. She missed the swimming pool at her West Hollywood apartment house and the green cacti and pink walls of the apartment itself, and, hanging there, the painting that Umana, her Colombian mentor, had done of her in Greenwich Village when she was 15 and dancing at Performing Arts High and at Martha Graham's school. She had other shows to prepare, a revue for the sheikdom of Dubai, a whole circus to take overseas. She wanted to tour Japan again. All she'd learned were a few choice phrases of Japanese.

Another flight was canceled because it might be shot down. At home, she thought, everything would be wonderful. She could enjoy every moment there, getting what she wanted from life, as before knowing always that was possible. She'd feel good, in tune, waking up singing, wishing there were more hours in a day.

She wanted a house of her own, filled with paintings by Umana. She'd always avoided marriage. Might this be the time?

Would she ever get on a plane?

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