In my time at the Imperial Room, I had the great pleasure of working with Ginger Rogers. She was one of only a few true iconic movie stars who appeared with us. We usually think of Ginger as one half of the celebrated dance pair, Astaire and Rogers. The two danced together on screen for 16 years (from 1933 to 1949) and made 10 films during that time.
It was now February of 1976, and she could still sing and dance amazingly well (even though she was in her mid-60s). Ginger was performing solo by this time, because Fred – who was 12 years her senior – had stopped dancing professionally and was devoting his time to acting.
Her show was well produced, and I could tell she had a good choreographer. Backed by eight dancers, it was an absolute class act. Though I don’t know the reason, early in the run she decided to add a number. She asked me to write an arrangement of an Irving Berlin tune from one of her old movies. I did so quickly, and she liked it so much I gave it to her as a gift.
Her show ran for two weeks, and I was very moved by the way she closed the show each night. After the final chart and after her final bow, she stepped up to the microphone, gazed out – as if peering off to a far away place – and sweetly said, “Good night, Fred.”
A partnership as close as theirs, did not fade.
Fred and Ginger in their movie, “Shall We Dance” (1937)
From 1974 to 1986, I was music director of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. I was mainly responsible for the Imperial Room, a 400-seat dining room featuring nightly dancing and a cabaret-style stage show. We were considered the last great cabaret in Canada (and the second last in North America, after San Francisco).
I fronted a nine-piece house band, to which we added players as needed. For example when Ella Fitzgerald performed, we needed eighteen musicians; Tony Bennett required an orchestra of twenty-four.
The house band consisted of:
Trumpets: Erich Traugott, Bobby Herriot
Trombone: Jerry Johnson
Saxophones: Harvey Kogen, Jim O’Driscoll
Piano: Bruce Harvey
Bass: George Kozub
Drums: Bruce Philp
Band Leader: Howard Cable
Additions to the house band (as required):
Trumpets: Sam Noto, Bram Smith Jr., Jeff Reynolds, Al Stanwyck
Trombones: Alastair Kay, Rob McConnell, Ron Hughes
Saxes: Moe Koffman, Bernie Piltch, Vern Dorge, Jerry Toth
Guitar: Andy Krehm, Bill Bridges
Percussion: Marty Morrell, Peter Appleyard
During my 13 year tenure, many stars were featured – a new one each week. Our performers included Broadway stars, movie stars, legendary singers of the Big Band\Swing era, television personalities, R&B acts, and more. Almost all of the big names of the 70s and 80s played during that period. Although the list is quite long, over the course of this blog, I will try to write at least something about each of them.
I often get asked the question, “Who was your favourite performer of all of these?” My reply without hesitation is: Ella Fitzgerald. So it is only fitting that my first Royal York performer post will be a fond memory of the great lady of song.
Pure Ella (Verve Records)