The Love of Dance: Part Two
An Interview with Maxine Barrat
By Christine Trask
With near tears of joy, I walked into Maxine Barrat's apartment, which overlooked the sky-blue ocean, white sandy shoreline, and emerald-green palm trees. Maxine and I embraced. Sitting down, I noticed that she surrounds herself with dancing frog statues placed by the entry door, a life-size cheetah (a duplicate of one she encountered on her African trip with George Orenstein), and photos of her late husband, Nick Carter, and friends like Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and more. Spending a glorious half day with Maxine and her assistant, Nancy, clinking our glasses to friendship, the following is the interview I had with Maxine:
You went through around twenty-two dance partners before you found the right fit. How did you know Don Loper was the perfect partner for you?
There was a spark. We both felt it. Don was a very talented, artistic person. We both came from a background of ballet and jazz, and together we had the right combination for creating our own innovative dance moves.
Was there ever a time you wanted to give up your dancing career?
Never! My parents wanted a different career for me until they saw me dance. My mother said, "Daddy, we've got to let her go; she is a natural." It was also during the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 when times were very hard for entertainers to get a job that Don wanted to quit, and I insisted that we keep trying, when a press agent, Mary Anita Loos (niece of Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), suggested to Monte Proser, owner of New York's top entertaining supper club Copacabana, that he hire us. It is where Don and I became world-famous.
What was your favorite costume that Don Loper designed for you? What was your favorite dance and song?
It was a Brazilian-style bright turquoise dress. The dance was a blend of US and Brazilian dance moves that Don and I created to the song "Tico-Tico."
You are a role model and a history of legion in modeling, TV, dance, and fashion. You worked as a model for Hanes and leading magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal, and so on. Which was the most fun?
I had fun equally with all of them. No matter what I was involved in, I came in with a happy, fun attitude which would be contagious. I started out in modeling, then dancing. Once Don and I reached the top, while performing in MGM movies, we decided to quit dancing together and transition ourselves into different areas. I ended up with my own TV show, and Don became an internationally famous clothes designer.
You were one of the first woman weather reporters when TV just came out. Do you think your talent in dance helped you get the job?
Yes, dancing every day kept me fit. On one show, I gave the weather report wearing a swimsuit.
Who was your dance idol?
My idol was Ginger Rogers. There were only eight years' difference between us. When I was in my teens, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., I would go to the movies to watch Ginger and Fred Astaire, and then I would come home to practice and develop my own routines, telling myself, "I can do this." It was at the Copacabana nightclub in New York when Don and I were asked to join Ginger and Fred at their table. Ginger and I became lifelong friends for over thirty years from that moment on.
What was the most memorable time you had with Ginger Rogers?
Spending time at Ginger Roger's Rogue River Ranch in Oregon was great fun. It was a place we could let our hair down, wear no makeup, ride horses, and catch fish. Her ranch gave us both time to slow down and even take time to savor chocolate ice cream.
Tell me about when you danced with Fred Astaire.
Fred asked me to do a movie with him in 1942. I was nervous the first week but then relaxed. We had about three months of filming when the filming industry couldn't agree on the storyline, so they scrapped the movie. I had a fabulous, memorable time dancing with Fred. Shortly thereafter, I took a job to have my own TV show, which consisted of a blend of beauty tips, fashion, politics, traveling, etc.
You are quoted in the book Dancing with a Star: "Use what talents God has given you—what your spirit is meant to share with others."
I have friends that have searched me out in life when they were lost or fearful. After praying for guidance, the right words of comfort would seem to come to me. Clark Gable came to me when his wife died. He was extremely distraught, and I was there for him. He was a very special friend in my life.
What volunteer service had the greatest impact in your life?
It was during World War II, and Katharine Hepburn asked me to come to the hospital with her to visit the young men who were badly injured. It was an audience that brought me to tears. Katharine took me outside and said, "Stop crying, Maxine. They need us". So I stopped crying and talked with them until I could bring a smile to their faces.
You have been through World Wars I and II. Explain how dance helped people through these hard times.
People were sad. They wanted something to up lift their spirits. After every show Don and I did together, we would have fans tell us how much they enjoyed the show and how happy they felt afterwards.
Tell me about your favorite birthday.
I was born February 28, 1915. Every birthday spent with my late husband, Nick Carter, at our home up in the mountains atop Flag Hill, overlooking the port of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. There were famous singers, comedians, and dancers from the entertainment business that retired in St Thomas. Nick and I turned our home into an entertainment nightclub where everyone would participate in putting together a fun show.
You are now one hundred years young. How do you spend your days?
I had a dance partner up until my ninety-ninth birthday. I am active with the Pelican Bay Women's League and the English-Speaking Union, visit friends and family, go to the theater when the shows are in season, read the spiritual reading at church, and respond to fan mail. I still wake up by exercising with dance, and to this day, I contribute dance as one of my secrets to longevity and good heath.
What words of wisdom would you like to say to the global dance community?
Don't ever let go of the traditional, graceful, romantic dance movements of the past.
Thank you, Gloria Gunville, for editing this story; Aunt Darlene, for arranging for me to meet your friend, Liz; Liz, for connecting me to Maxine's secretary, Nancy Shields; Nancy, for arranging for me to meet and share the story of another new friend and dance idol: Maxine Barrat.
Find out who I will connect with next in the upcoming issues of Sheer Dance.