Sylvia Lewis Danced with the Stars

Staff Writer
Story City Herald
Sylvia Lewis Danced with the Stars

Tinseltown Talks

—by Nick Thomas

The stages of early Hollywood studios are littered with the broken hearts of chorus dancers who failed to professionally transition beyond the dance floor. But Sylvia Lewis, who turns 85 on April 22, was not one of them.

Although she describes her career as “modest,” she worked with film greats such as The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and John Wayne, accumulating over 60 film and TV credits during her 65 year career as a dancer, choreographer and actress, as well as numerous stage performances (see www.sylvialewis.net).

Lewis appeared as a dancer in John Wayne’s “The Conqueror,” released 60 years ago this year. Although modestly successful at the box office, it was largely panned in reviews for miscasting Wayne as Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan. Even Wayne found it a tough project to complete.

“My dance scene was shot towards the end with Duke watching me,” said Lewis from her home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “He was very sweet but, as I recall, was half-crocked while we did that sequence. It was probably the only way he could handle getting through the film.”

While the movie may have struck out with critics, Lewis’s outfit was striking.

“When costume designer Michael Woulfe showed me the sketch I thought ‘Wow, what an incredible outfit.’ It was a flesh-colored body suit of fine fishnet that stretched from the tip of my toes up to my neck and covered in red fringes. Two wardrobe women stitched every row of fringe by hand, while I stood for about 100 hours.”

The risqué costume also attracted the attention of censors.

“The body suit blended so well, it looked like I was naked and wearing just the fringes,” explained Lewis. “So we were required to have one close-up shot in the film so the audience could see I was actually wearing something. Nevertheless, the whole dance sequence was cut from the movie in many parts of the country.”

In “The Ladies Man” (1961) with Jerry Lewis, Jerry’s character takes a job at a boarding house for women. Warned not to enter one particular room, his curiosity naturally gets the better of him and he meets Sylvia.

“It’s the iconic ‘White Room’ scene,” said Sylvia. “The mail and comments I still get about it from around the world just flabbergasts me. Jerry had this vision in his mind and said to just follow him, so what you see is me literally chasing him around that set.”

As the name suggests, the entire room is white with the exception of Sylvia and Jerry’s clothes, “and my bright red lipstick” noted Sylvia.

“When I saw the set for the first time it was spectacular,” she recalled. “The floor, walls, furniture, curtains – every texture and shade of white you could imagine. I never knew there were so many!”

In addition to purely dancing roles, Sylvia was a regular cast member on Ray Bolger’s 1950’s comedy series “Where’s Raymond?” playing his Broadway leading lady and also choreographed the weekly dance numbers. She continued to act, choreograph, and dance into the 1990s on shows such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Married with Children.”

She also credits her long, active dance career for good health.

“Most of my girlfriends, if they haven’t passed away, have had knee or hip replacements. I kept dancing and working throughout my life without any problems,” she says. “I may curl up and wither away tomorrow, but so far so good!”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers.