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Obituaries

Peter Gennaro; Stage, TV Choreographer

October 03, 2000|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Gennaro, a dancer who choreographed television variety programs, occasional motion pictures and some of Broadway's biggest shows, earning a Tony Award for his work on the hit musical "Annie," has died.

Gennaro died Thursday at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. He was 80.

As a dancer, the compact, lithe Gennaro appeared in Broadway's "Kiss Me Kate," "Guys and Dolls," "The Pajama Game" and "Bells Are Ringing."

In addition to "Annie," he choreographed such musicals as "West Side Story," sharing credit with Jerome Robbins, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello!" and "Mr. President."

Successful on television as well as Broadway, Gennaro was familiar to a generation of viewers in the 1950s and 1960s for his dancing and choreography, often with his Peter Gennaro Dancers, on programs such as "Kraft Music Hall," "The Perry Como Show," "Your Hit Parade," "The Steve Allen Show," "The Andy Williams Show" and "The Judy Garland Show."

"A personal appearance by Gennaro is always a high point of the show," wrote one critic of the dancer's role on the Kraft show when Como hosted it in the early 1960s.

Part of Gennaro's duties included teaching non-dancing guests to match the steps of the star.

"He makes you catch on quickly," actress Rita Moreno told a reporter some years ago. "I'm an actress, not a dancer, but I learned two whole dances from him today."

Gennaro grew up dancing, earning tips in the New Orleans bar and restaurant owned by his Italian immigrant parents.

Enlisting in the Army at the outset of World War II, Gennaro was trained as a company clerk, but thanks to a quirk of fate and bad travel documents, ended up in India, where clerks were not in demand.

Fortuitously, he happened upon a dancer-desperate entertainment troupe led by the actor Melvyn Douglas. So Gennaro spent eight months dancing his way through the India-China-Burma theater of the war.

Later, he used the GI bill to study dance in New York with Jose Limon and Katherine Dunham.

Gennaro's first professional job after school was with the San Carlo Opera Company in Chicago, where he met dancer Jean Kinsell. They married in 1948. That same year, Gennaro debuted in New York in "Make Mine Manhattan."

But it wasn't until 1954 that he earned major critical attention for a dance number that he performed with Carol Haney in a production of "The Pajama Game." It was choreographed by Bob Fosse.

Gennaro left "Pajama Game" to choreograph his first big show, "Seventh Heaven." He got the job indirectly through Grace Kelly, one of his dance students, who knew the show's producer. Despite a fine score by Victor Young and strong critical notices for the choreography, "Seventh Heaven" was a flop.

It did, however, propel Gennaro to new levels in the dance world. Two years later, he collaborated with Robbins on "West Side Story."

In a career that always seemed busy, Gennaro choreographed the movie "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" starring Debbie Reynolds, worked on television specials with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, and led a dance troupe on the short-lived variety program hosted by Howard Cosell.

When asked how he planned his dance routines, Gennaro replied:

"I scribble on scripts to get what I want. I also draw patterns on a floor plan of the stage. It's like those football diagrams you see, with little arrows going every which way."

But, Gennaro said, the key to his success was pretty basic: "You can't stop the show unless you have great material to dance to."

He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Liza, also a choreographer; a son, Michael, executive director of the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago; a brother, Emile, of Metairie, La.; and two grandchildren.

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