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Agnes de Mille Dies; Her Dances Remade Broadway : Theater: Innovative choreographer enlivened 'Oklahoma!' 'Brigadoon' and other musicals.

October 08, 1993|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Agnes de Mille, the feisty doyenne of American dance who with the landmark "Oklahoma!" was the first to integrate dance and story, forever changing the direction of the Broadway musical, died Thursday. She was 88.

Miss de Mille, who had suffered effects of a massive stroke in 1975 and a heart attack a year later, died in her Manhattan home, said Dr. Fred Plum of New York Hospital.

She came under the spell of dance as a girl after seeing the legendary prima ballerina Anna Pavlova perform. She said she wanted to be a choreographer before she knew the word. But her phenomenal Broadway successes, among them the Tony-award-winning "Brigadoon" and "Kwamina," which led to the Kennedy Center Career Achievement Award in 1980 and the White House National Medal of Arts in 1986, came to her serendipitously in the 1940s after what she described as "15 years of unbroken failure."

Born into a family destined to make history in Hollywood, she struggled with little help from her famous filmmaker uncle Cecil B. and director-writer father, William, to put her own luster on the de Mille family name.

In 1941, at age 36, she had gloomily assessed her life:

"Youth gone. No husband. No child. No achievement in working. . . . Time was passing. . . . Prospects ceased to be bright."

But virtually overnight, her prospects became fiery bright. On Oct. 16, 1942, she premiered her innovative ballet "Rodeo," dancing the role of the cowgirl heroine. In one of her many ingenious innovations, she taught her cowboy dancers to use tennis strokes to simulate riding imaginary horses on stage.

Critics called the production, scored by Aaron Copland, the first great American ballet.

The performance at the Metropolitan Opera House prompted 22 curtain calls.

And two members of the rapturous audience wired her that night: "We think your work is enchanting. Come talk to us on Monday."

They were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the Broadway composer and lyricist, and they hired her to choreograph their historic musical, "Oklahoma!"

The show, first titled "Away We Go," was panned by the critics at its New Haven, Conn., opening on June 14, 1943, and was far from sold out when it opened on Broadway. Miss de Mille said later she couldn't even give away first-row balcony tickets.

But the first show was so beloved by the audience that the house sold out nightly thereafter, and Miss de Mille became firmly established as the Broadway choreographer for decades.

She was paid $1,500 plus $50 a week during the run and was refused a $25 raise by the show's producer. She had to wait until her next hit, "A Touch of Class" starring Mary Martin, to achieve financial security.

Miss de Mille's personal life turned around just as quickly. She married theatrical agent Walter F. Prude, whom she had met through her friend and colleague Martha Graham.

"He was a real charmer and witty, and we had a grand time for 47 years," she told an interviewer in 1992 after his death.

Prude went off to fight in World War II and his new wife returned to Broadway.

When her two hits were joined by a third, "Bloomer Girl" in 1944, she became the first woman to equal the triumphs of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter with three hit musicals playing on Broadway simultaneously.

After "Carousel" opened in 1945, she felt secure enough to furnish the couple's Greenwich Village apartment and buy a mink coat.

In 1946, Miss de Mille gave birth to her only child, Jonathan, who became a college professor.

She choreographed "Allegro" in 1947 and that same year tried her hand at directing as well as designing the dances for the immortal "Brigadoon," earning a Tony award for the choreography.

She created a memorable ballet about ax murderer Lizzie Borden, "Fall River Legend," in 1948, tried her hand at staging an opera, with little success, and returned to Broadway with "Gentleman Prefer Blondes," a 1949 hit.

To come were "Out of This World" in 1950; her personal favorite, "Paint Your Wagon," in 1951; "The Girl in Pink Tights" in 1954; "Goldilocks" in 1958; "Juno" in 1959; "Kwamina," which won her a second Tony in 1962, and "110 in the Shade" in 1963.

And she discovered that she liked to write books--about herself.

Agnes George de Mille was born in Harlem, the first child of playwright-cum-screenwriter and director William Churchill de Mille and Anna Angela George. Her paternal grandfather was playwright Henry C. de Mille, her maternal grandfather was the political economist Henry George, and her father's younger brother, Cecil B. DeMille (some of the family used an uppercase D), was the hugely successful filmmaker.

Although she grew up in what she termed "a family of compulsive achievers," she candidly described herself as "a spoiled, egocentric, wealthy girl."

Her father moved to Hollywood to join brother Cecil in 1915 when Agnes was 9 and her younger sister, Margaret, was 6.

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