Tommy Rall (b. Kansas City, MO, 27 December 1929) is an American ballet, tap, and acrobatic dancer who was featured in musical comedies of the 1950s (Kiss Me, Kate, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Invitation to the Dance). He also had an important career on Broadway, beginning with Jerome Robbins’s Look, Ma, I’m Dancing, and continuing with Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, Milk and Honey, and other musicals.
Although born in Kansas City, Thomas Edward Rall spent his earliest years in Seattle. One of his eyes was crossed, and his mother realized it was going to be difficult for him to read, so she enrolled him in dancing classes at the age of four, in hopes that it would lead him to a career that did not require book-study. His eyesight was later corrected through surgery, but by that time he had fallen in love with dancing and never stopped the lessons. As a child of eight he was already performing in an acrobatic vaudeville act and taking on small roles in Seattle theatres.
His family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s and he began to branch out into jitterbugging and tap. Universal Pictures, having just acquired seventeen-year-old Donald O’Connor, had plans for a series of low-budget “hep-cat” musicals, and signed up a whole corps of teenage performers. Tommy Rall was part of an amazing acrobatic tap-dance ensemble called the Jivin’ Jacks ’n’ Jills that appeared in seven almost plotless musical movies (What’s Cookin’?, Give Out, Sisters, Always a Bridesmaid, Get Hep to Love, etc., all 1942 or ’43) with the likes of O’Connor, Gloria Jean (teenage singer), Peggy Ryan, the Andrews Sisters, Woody Herman, and Harry James.
Rall made a few uncredited appearances in MGM wartime movies (The North Star, Song of Russia) while continuing to study dance with Adolf Bohm, David Lichine, and Bronislava Nijinska. At fourteen, he joined the touring ensemble of the Ballet Theater company (it became American Ballet Theatre in 1956) and spent the next three and a half years honing his skills as a professional ballet dancer, eventually performing principal roles. Ballet Theatre even brought him to Broadway for a couple of weeks in the fall of 1946, where he danced in Interplay and Fancy Free, both ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
Inspired by his association with Robbins, and perhaps with the promise of a spot in Robbins’s upcoming Broadway show Look, Ma, I’m Dancing, Tommy Rall decided in 1947 to leave the world of ballet for that of the musical theatre. He tested the waters in a West Coast revival of Irving Berlin’s Louisiana Purchase, then moved to New York where he would remain for the next five years. Look, Ma (1948), starring Nancy Walker and Harold Lang, lasted for six months and was followed by a revue called Small Wonder (1948), starring Jack Cassidy and Joan Diener, with choreography by Gower Champion. Rall was featured as a Principal Dancer in Miss Liberty (1949–1950; music by Irving Berlin, choreography by Robbins, direction by Moss Hart) and in Call Me Madam (1950–1952; Berlin, Robbins, George Abbott). For a short time, between these two Broadway hits, he served as choreographer for The Faye Emerson Show on TV.
The climax of Tommy Rall’s career was brought on by his return to Hollywood (probably at the bidding of Gene Kelly, who had admired him on Broadway), and a series of Golden Age musicals (three from MGM, one each from Columbia and Universal) in which he acted and sang as well as danced in some of the most spectacularly athletic choreographies ever seen on film. Kiss Me Kate (1953) – which was also Bob Fosse’s screen debut – is perhaps the most outstanding of these, with Rall in the roles of Bill Calhoun and Lucentio, partnering Ann Miller in a brilliant rooftop dance (“Why Can’t You Behave?”) and the acrobatic Elizabethan-costumed ensemble finale (“From This Moment On”). But Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), in which Rall plays the feisty brother to Howard Keel and Russ Tamblyn, is a worthy rival in spectacle to that film. Although My Sister Eileen (1955) and The Second Greatest Sex (1955) were not the blockbuster hits that Kate and Seven Brides were, their solidly delightful entertainment owed much to Rall’s talents.
Gene Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance, filmed in 1952 but not released until 1956, is unusual in that all the characters in its three separate stories express themselves and move the plots forward entirely through dance and pantomime. Kelly stars in all three scenarios, while Tommy Rall shares the lesser limelight with Igor Youskevitch, Tamara Toumanova, and Carol Haney. The movie was a box-office dud, but is valued today as a landmark experiment.
Rall went back to Broadway in 1959 to join Shirley Booth, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Stapleton, and Sada Thompson in Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein’s short-lived Juno (based on Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock). His role, as Juno’s brooding, traitorous rebel son Johnny, was almost entirely danced. In Jerry Herman’s debut musical Milk and Honey (1961), a far more successful vehicle, Tommy Rall played a young Israeli husband, singing and acting as well as dancing. His last two appearances on Broadway, Café Crown (1964) and Cry for Us All (1970) were flops.
Between these engagements, Rall went back to the big screen, most notably (but uncredited) as Barbra Streisand’s dance partner The Prince in the parody of Swan Lake in Funny Girl (1968). Much later, he appeared in Pennies From Heaven (1981), That’s Dancing (1985), and Dancers (1987).
Rall played a few straight roles in the movies as well: a boxing promoter in World in My Corner (1956) and a Native American in Walk the Proud Land (1956), both starring Audie Murphy; and a circus performer in Merry Andrew with Danny Kaye.
Rall was married for a short time to Monte Amundsen, who starred with him in Juno. He has now been married for over 40 years to former ballerina Karel Shimoff (she appeared at the age of fifteen in the movie of Bye Bye Birdie), whom he met while performing with American Ballet Theatre. They have two sons.
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection