Today’s Notable Texan – Cyd Charisse
(Texas State Historical Association)
Tula Ellice Finklea (better known as Cyd Charisse), dancer and actress, was born on March 8, 1922, in Amarillo, Texas, to Lela (Norwood) and Ernest Enos Finklea, Sr., owner of a jewelry store.
She grew up at the family’s 1616 Tyler Street home, receiving her later stage name from her younger brother who could not pronounce ‘sis’ and called her ‘Sid.’ As a frail six-year-old, she began dancing lessons to help her overcome a slight case of polio. Her father took an interest in Cyd’s developing ballet talent, and when she was fourteen, on the advice of her dance instructor, he sent her to a professional school in California. Soon after, she was touring with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Company under faux Russian names, including Felia Sidorova. Upon hearing of her father’s failing health, she returned to Texas to be with him until his death. She then joined back up with the company in Los Angeles and began training with Nico Charisse, a French ballet instructor she had met when she was twelve.
While on a European tour that was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II, Nico, age thirty-two, met up with Cyd and asked her to go with him to Paris. The couple spontaneously wed in France on August 12, 1939. Cyd attracted notoriety in conservative Amarillo when she brought her older husband home to visit. Her mother, upon receiving the news, insisted the couple remarry in a “proper ceremony” in New Mexico. The newlyweds then moved to Hollywood, where they taught dance at Nico’s school. As a favor to friends who choreographed for movies, Cyd began appearing in small films, including Mission to Moscow (1943) and Something to Shout About (1943), using the name Lily Norwood. She initially had little interest in movies, however, as her goal was to become a prima ballerina. Because of this aspiration, she had not planned on getting married as young as she did and attributed her sudden marriage to the loss of her father. Cyd’s life was further changed when she and Nico had a son, Nico (Nicky) Charisse, Jr., in 1942. Realizing she would not be able to tour easily with a child, she began to pursue a career in film, which would still offer her the opportunity to dance.
By 1946, due to her previous connections in the industry, Cyd had signed a contract with MGM Pictures for $150 a week and began taking vocal lessons to rid her of her Texas twang. Upon the suggestion of producer Arthur Freed, she adopted the stage name of “Cyd Charisse,” changing the spelling of Sid to Cyd. She first received roles in the period’s popular movie musicals, including Harvey Girls (1946) with Judy Garland and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), in which she found herself pirouetting around future dance partner Fred Astaire. By 1947 her marriage had grown bitter and she and Nico divorced. This was her chance to partake in the dating scene she had missed out on as a teenager. Garnering the attention of famous men, she ultimately found herself in serious relationships with both billionaire Howard Hughes, Jr., and singer Tony Martin. Martin won out, and the couple married on May 9, 1948, in Santa Barbara. That same year, she had disappointingly lost a role alongside Fred Astaire in Easter Parade(1948) due to an injured knee and was replaced by fellow Texas dancer Ann Miller. She recuperated in time to take a part in The Kissing Bandit (1948) with Frank Sinatra, and did a memorable dance number with Miller and Ricardo Montalban, but the film itself was unsuccessful. Then in 1950, she made the decision to pass on a lead role with Gene Kelly in the Academy Award-winning An American in Paris after discovering she was expecting a baby with Martin.
Finally in 1952 Cyd, at thirty-years-old, got another chance through a star-making part in Singin’ in the Rain. Her one dance scene, “The Broadway Melody Ballet,” had her playing both a vamp seductress and an innocent bride to Gene Kelly. She followed this with a starring role in The Band Wagon (1953) with Astaire. Their memorable final dance number “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” which found Charisse once again vamping it up, this time for Astaire’s private-eye character, has gone down as one of the most popular dances in the history of film. Cyd continued to partner with the two dancing greats in Brigadoon (1954) and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) with Kelly and Silk Stockings (1957) with Astaire. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as leading actress in Silk Stockings.
After the movie musical genre began to decline in the late 1950s, she continued her career in smaller films, including Twilight for the Gods (1958) with Rock Hudson, Party Girl (1958) with Robert Taylor, and Something’s Got to Give (1962), Marilyn Monroe’s last, unfinished film. Throughout the rest of her career, she made frequent appearances on television shows and commercials and went on a nightclub tour with husband Tony Martin. Later, she made her own exercise video for active seniors, worked with a chemist to create a product, Arctic Spray, to help with her mother’s arthritis, and made a cameo in Janet Jackson’s music video for the song “Alright” (1990). She always continued her ballet training, and in 1992, at the age of seventy, Cyd made her Broadway debut playing an aging ballerina in Grand Hotel, a musical directed and choreographed by Texas native Tommy Tune. In her eighties, she appeared in documentaries and specials chronicling old Hollywood.
Cyd was best-known for her dancing. Self-admittedly, she was never much of a singer or an actress, as most of her songs were dubbed and she always strived to improve her acting. She was, however, uniquely successful in a competitive field of tap-dancing actresses due to her background in traditional Russian ballet. This afforded her opportunities that she treasured. When asked which partner she preferred, Astaire or Kelly, she always said that her husband could tell which one she had been dancing with, noting in a New York Times interview, “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.” She would always add, “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.” Astaire had similar kind words for her in his memoirSteps in Time (1959), calling her “beautiful dynamite” and saying, “That Cyd! When you’ve danced with her you stay danced with.”
With sixty-five years in show business and a dance career that spanned even longer, Cyd received many awards over the years for her achievements. Some of the most notable include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, induction into the Texas Film Hall of Fame in Austin in 2002, and a National Medal of Arts presented by President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony in 2006. She also received the first Nijinsky Award from Princess Caroline in Monaco for her lifetime contributions to dance in 2000. In 2001 Cyd gained attention for one of her most famous assets, her long legs, which Guinness World Records conferred the title of “Most Valuable Legs.” This was based off of reports that an insurance policy had been taken out on them for anywhere from $1 to $5 million dollars in 1952, but the raven-haired actress often laughed this off as an exaggerated sum created for publicity.
On June 16, 2008, Cyd was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering a heart attack. She died the following day on June 17, 2008, at the age of eighty-six, and was buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. She was survived by her husband of just over sixty years, Tony Martin, and her two sons. In the joint biography she and Tony published in 1976 entitled, The Two of Us, Cyd frequently cited her Texas heritage as having had a big influence on her life. She was very happy to speak with an Austin American–Statesman reporter in 2002, reminding him, “Once a Texan always a Texan.”