PART 1 – ELEANOR POWELL’S CHILDHOOD AND DANCING FOR HER SUPPER

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In Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Peter Ford about his mother, Eleanor Powell we focus on Eleanor’s childhood and dancing career prior to gaining stardom in Hollywood. Peter was kind enough to share some photos with me of Eleanor and her parents and I am grateful for his generosity in allowing me to post them here. 

Note: This interview includes direct quotes from Peter, as well as summaries of our conversation and quotations from the biography he wrote about his father, “Glenn Ford: A Life.”.

Eleanor’s Childhood

Eleanor Powell is from an old Yankee family, in the New England area for many generations. “She was also descended from a passenger on the Mayflower, Richard Warren, who was one of the forty one signers of the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document in what was to become the United States of America.” quote from Glenn Ford, A Life,” published 2011.

Eleanor Powell’s mother “Blanche” (née Torrey) was born November 24, 1895, and when she was 15 became pregnant by her boyfriend at the time, Clarence Powell, nicknamed, “Sonny.” For the time, it was pretty racy stuff to be pregnant out of wedlock, so Blanche and Sonny decided to marry on August 29, 1912, in order to make Eleanor legitimate. The family was originally from Springfield, MA, but moved to Hartford, CT to escape the scandal, where the marriage ceremony took place.Two and a half months later, Eleanor Torrey Powell was born on November 21, 1912. The couple never lived together and the marriage lasted only a little more than a year when on November 8, 1913, they divorced. Blanche never remarried.

Photos of Eleanor’s Parents, courtesy of Peter Ford:

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Blanche  (née Torrey) Powell Clarence “Sonny” Powell

Blanche worked at two or more jobs as a chambermaid to support her and Eleanor. They were very poor, so when Eleanor had the opportunity to go out to work, it helped to pay the bills. In the summertime, they went to Atlantic City where Blanche worked cleaning rooms during the day. Eleanor was sent out on the beach where she did calisthenics. She was seen and got hired for her first job at the “Silver Slipper.” By age eleven she had left school, and at age twelve made her professional debut as a dancer in Atlantic City.

In her first month there she was invited to dance at a charity event and met the legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson., quote from “Glenn Ford, A Life.”Bill recognized her talent and they became friends. See our post about Eleanor and her friendship with Bill Robinson by clicking here.

Was Eleanor’s mother helping her at this point, or was Eleanor alone?

PETER: On, no, no, my grandmother was like a stage door mother, my mother was the bread winner.

The Day Eleanor Powell meets her father

PETER: September 11, 1935, (Eleanor was age 23) that was the day she met her father for the first time. My grandmother didn’t want her to meet him and had told my mother that her father, “Sonny” had died when my mom was an infant. So, my mother thought her father was dead, but on on that date, he comes to the show and now knows his daughter is a star on Broadway.

How young was Eleanor when she began dancing? And how much formal instruction did she have?

PETER: She was very shy, an only child and was socially awkward and her mother, Blanche, took her to some dancing classes to try and get her acclimated to other children. I think that she was probably about 8-10 or sub teen when she was exposed to dancing.

She had dancing lessons?

PETER: She only had a handful of tap lessons, which is kind of the interesting thing, but she did have some dancing lessons but it was local in Springfield, MA. She took to tap dancing right away and she actually only had about 10 tap lessons. He reads: Eleanor Powell, 8, is the third grade pupil at Liberty Street School and enrolls at the Ralph MacKlernan Dance School.

eleanor youngEleanor’s Early Career

Below is date information Peter shared about Eleanor’s early career.

  • 1923 – Eleanor made her professional career debut at the Ambassador Recreation Club as “Torrea Powell” and did a buck and wing dance. She and her mother were living at the Morrison Hotel in Springfield at the time.
  • 1925 – Eleanor was on the Ambassador float during a dance number in Atlantic City.
  • 1926 – Eleanor Powell’s first professional performance was the 24th District Knights Of Pythias Convention in the auditorium in Springfield, Ma.
  • 1926 – age 14 Eleanor appeared with Dorothy Warfield at the Ambassador Hotel as the Dot & L Sisters in the Pompeii Grill in Atlantic City.
  • 1929 – Eleanor is working at the Shubert Theater in New York and she makes her Broadway debut in “Follow Through” at the 46th St.Theater which ran for 406 performances. This is where dancing teacher Jack Donohue was to come, but he died after she had only taken 10 tap lessons from him. She then hired Billy Grey as her agent.
  • September 23, 1930  – Eleanor returns to Broadway in “Fine & Dandy” at the Erlanger Theater for 247 performances
  • March 8, 1932 – opens in “Hot Shot” at the Ziegfeld Theater for 130 performances. This was one of Ziegfeld’s Musicals that starred Burt Lahr and Lucy Valez. Subtitled “Laid in Mexico.” Gangsters Maxie Gordon and Gus Schultz backed the performance and it was not well received and ended Ziegfeld’s career and he died four months after the play opened.
  • November 22, 1932 – George White Musical Hall varieties opened and ran 48 performances.
  • September 23, 1933 – Eleanor joins a company in Milwaukee and gives free tap lessons to children before each performance.
  • In Spring 1934 – Eleanor played the “Casino Des Paris” for 17 weeks in the spring.
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Eleanor with mother Blanche, courtesy of Peter Ford

The Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City was a very important place in Eleanor Powell’s life. The hotel was located where the Tropicana Hotel stands now. Below is a photo of the hotel from the era:

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[icon style=”icon-hand-right” size=”small” borders=”no”] READ THE OTHER PARTS OF THIS INTERVIEW WITH PETER FORD BY CLICKING ON THE LINKS BELOW:

[icon style=”icon-link” size=”small” borders=”no”] Learn more about Eleanor Powell by visiting our section devoted to her here by clicking on the banner below:

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