Cyd Charisse

Italian postcard by Bromostampa, Torino/Milano.


Cyd Charisse (1921-2008) was born to be a dancer. She became one of the top female dancers in the golden era of the musical. Her films include Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957). She was one of the few actresses to have danced with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.


Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in 1921 in Amarillo, Texas. Her Baptist jeweler father encouraged her to begin her ballet lessons for health reasons. She was frail and sickly at the time and had a bout with polio. During a family vacation in Los Angeles when she was 12, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes at a school in Hollywood. One of her teachers was Nico Charisse, whom she married in 1939. She joined the Ballet Russe at age 13 and became a member of the corps de ballet at age 14. With the Ballets Russe, she toured the United States and Europe. In Paris the company disbanded after World War II broke out, and the Charisse couple moved to Hollywood. She got her start in Hollywood when Ballet Russe star David Lichine was hired by Columbia for a ballet sequence in the musical film Something to Shout About (1943). She was billed as Lily Norwood. The same year, she played a Russian dancer in Mission to Moscow (1943), directed by Michael Curtiz. She took her name Cyd from a nickname originated from her little brother. Initially, he could not say sister and called her Sid. In 1945, she was hired to dance with Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), and that uncredited appearance got her a seven-year contract with MGM. Her first speaking part was supporting Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946). Her dark looks initially had her cast as ethnic beauties. She was cast as Ricardo Montalban’s fiancée in the film Fiesta (1947), and as a Polynesian in the Esther Williams’ musical Romance in de Zuidzee (1948).


Cyd Charisse appeared in a number of musicals over the next few years, but it was the celebrated Broadway Melody ballet finale with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) that made her a star. That was quickly followed by her great performance in The Band Wagon (1953), where she danced with Fred Astaire in the acclaimed Dancing in the Dark number. She co-starred with Kelly in the Scottish-themed musical Brigadoon (1954) and in It’s Always Fair Weather (1956). In 1957 she rejoined Astaire in the film version of Silk Stockings, a musical remake of Ninotchka (1939), with Charisse taking over Greta Garbo’s role. She had a slightly unusual serious acting role in Party Girl (1958), where she played a showgirl who became involved with gangsters and a crooked lawyer. As the 1960s dawned, musicals faded from the screen, as did her career. She made appearances on television and performed in a nightclub revue with her second husband, singer Tony Martin. At 70, she made her Broadway debut in Grand Hotel. Her last film appearance was in That’s Entertainment! III (1994) as one of the onscreen narrators of a tribute to the great MGM musical films. Cyd Charisse died at age 87 of a heart attack in 2008 in Los Angeles, California. She had two sons: Nicholas Charisse (1942) and Tony Martin Jr. (1950).


Sources: Tony Fontana (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.