Eleanor Powell (1912-1982)

Eleanor Powell
Eleanor Powell
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Eleanor Powell was an American film actress and a graceful and athletic dancer who became famous during the 1930's and 1940's,for her creative, quick-fire, solo tap dancing routines. She partnered many of the top male stars of the day and at one time she was known as "the world's greatest tap dancer" due to her rapid footwork. In 1943 she married actor Glenn Ford and retired from acting. On her divorce from Ford in 1959 she began a new, well received nightclub career.


Eleanor Powell was born on November 21, 1912 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her parents divorced when she was a baby and Eleanor was told by her mother that her father had died. It was not until she was 23 that he re-introduced himself to her.

Eleanor was a shy child and in an effort to bring her out of herself her mother sent her to dancing school where she learned ballet, but interestingly, not tap dancing.

Her discovery as a formidable dancing talent came about by accident when she was twelve. On a visit to relatives in Atlantic City she was seen dancing on the beach by Gus Edwards, a producer of children's shows, which led to her making an impressive stage debut in the 'Vaudeville Kiddie Review'. Still 12, she made her first professional engagement at Atlantic City's Ambassador Hotel. She continued dancing professionally in Atlantic City clubs, from where, at the age of sixteen, she moved into revue at New York's Ritz Grill and then she made her debut on Broadway in 'The Optimists' in 1928. The show's run was short and sent the young dancer to audition for more work on Broadway stage. At every audition she was asked about tap and she realized she needed to learn how to tap dance in order to be successful in the field.

She took a short series of lessons at the Jack Donahue Dance School in New York where she had to wear army surplus belts with sandbags attached to keep her feet close to the ground. It worked and defined her tap dancing style from then on. She later spent some time teaching tap as Donahue's Dance Assistant.

She returned to Broadway and featured in several revues for the next few years, honing and improving her technique. In January 1929, she appeared in 'Follow Thru', tapping to the acclaimed 'Button Up Your Overcoat', and with it, became a genuine Broadway star. In 1931 she appeared on Broadway with Anita Page and Fanny Brice in 'Crazy Quilt'. She also performed at Carnegie Hall with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra and in 1932 in the Florenz Ziegfeld production of 'Hot-Cha!'.

Because of Eleanor's increasing success and obvious talent, it was inevitable that Hollywood would woo her and in 1935 she made her first movie appearance in George White's 'Scandals of 1935'. With 'Broadway Melody of 1936', Eleanor began her long association with MGM, and became a major movie star in her own right. She followed this during the 1930's with other successful movies such as 'Born to Dance' in 1936, 'Rosalie' the following year, 'Broadway Melody of 1938' in 1937, and 'Honolulu' in 1939.

She cemented her position in the screen's top echelon of dancers in 1940 in 'Broadway Melody of 1940' when she danced with Fred Astaire, matching him step for step in grace, poise and artistry, in the 'Begin the Beguine' finale. Then in 'Lady Be Good' the following year, directed by Busby Berkeley, she danced the stunning 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' number in top hat and tails culminating with her being thrown head over heels along a corridor of male dancers.

Eleanor continued her high quality output into the following decade with 'Ship Ahoy' in 1942, and 'Thousands Cheer' in 1943, after which she left MGM and the same year married Canadian-born leading man Glenn Ford. After this she made the disappointing 'Sensations of 1945' in 1944 for United Artists, and then retired from film making to concentrate on raisng their son, Peter Ford, who was born that year and who later became an actor himself.

Eleanor only reappeared on the movie screen in two short documentaries as herself, in the late 1940's and then in a cameo appearance in 'Duchess of Idaho', starring Esther Williams, in which she dances a boogie-woogie style number, again as herself.

She then returned to her private life, emerging in May 1952, to appear as a guest star on an episode of 'Four Star Revue' with Danny Thomas and June Havoc. Around this time, she was ordained a minister of the Unity Church and was able to devote herself to charitable organizations and religious work including hosting a Sunday morning TV program for young people for 2 years from 1953 entitled 'The Faith of Our Children' which won an Emmy Award.

Eleanor and Glenn Ford divorced in 1959. It was not an amicable divorce and she alleged cruelty by her ex-husband. In order to earn money she began a new career as a nightclub entertainer, playing top spots in New York and Las Vegas. Her live performances continued well into the 1960's during which time she also made several guest appearances on television, including on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace.

In 1981, she received the Ellie Award to honor her outstanding contribution to the film musical.

Eleanor Powell died on February 11, 1982 from cancer. She was 69. As a church minister her remains were placed in a bronze replica of the bible at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood.

Eleanor Powell Academy Awards

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Eleanor Powell Filmography

Queen High (uncredited)
No Contest! (short) (uncredited)
George White's 1935 Scandals
Broadway Melody of 1936
Born to Dance
Broadway Melody of 1938
Broadway Melody of 1940
Lady Be Good
Ship Ahoy
By Hook or by Crook
Sensations of 1945