Snellville resident and former Rockette, Janice Ferguson, celebrated her ninetieth birthday in March. Ferguson remarked that she was almost considered an antique. “If the occasion arises, I present myself as an almost genuine antique Rockette. You have to be 100-years old to be called an antique.”
Ferguson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. “I had danced all my life, starting in kindergarten. I knew that was what I wanted to do.” Ferguson and her friend danced for a summer in Dallas at the Starlight Theater – an open air summer theater. The following summer, they danced together in St. Louis with the Muny Opera – America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater. “We decided it was time to move on and follow our dreams. We bought a train ticket to New York City and through our association in St. Louis, we knew a Rockette, and she arranged for us to have a private audition. Shortly thereafter, we both had a job. I joined the Rockettes just out of high school in 1944 and danced with them until 1945.”
Did you know? The Rockettes originated in 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri and were called the Missouri Rockets.
Russell Markert created the precision dance company. Ferguson recalled, “His dream at that time was to collect tall women who were exceptional dancers and high kickers and create a dance group. Russell brought the Missouri Rockets to New York City, and they appeared at the Roxy Theater and were known as the Roxyettes.”
On December 27, 1932, when Radio City Music Hall opened, the dance ensemble moved to their forever-home and was renamed the Rockettes. Ferguson chuckled and said, “Being a Rockette was my college education. We use to say that our director, Russell, gave the lectures and the rehearsal hall was the classroom. Russell was a perfectionist. He once stopped our rehearsal and commented that we looked like a centipede having a spasm!”
Ferguson described what it was like to work at Radio City Music Hall. “The format was that a G-rated movie was followed by a performance by the Rockettes. We did four shows a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.” The Rockettes had a demanding schedule. “We worked four weeks on with a week off and three weeks on with a week off.”
The Rockettes remained an integral part of the 365-day show until 1979 when the movie scene changed, and parental-guidance films were upstaging G-rated films. Ferguson said, “Radio City Music Hall closed, and the building was going to be turned into an office. There was such a public outcry, not only from people all over New York but from all over the country, that they changed their mind and refurbished the theater to host various shows. The main attraction is still the Christmas show. When I was there, the animals used in the nativity scene were exercised in the streets in the early morning hours when the city was asleep, but you know, New York never sleeps!”
Ferguson continued, “Seventy-two years ago, our costumes weren’t as glamorous as they are today. We wore pink anklets. Shoes were issued from the costume department. It was war time, and pink socks weren’t available to purchase. So, we had to devise a way to dye white socks pink supposedly to look like our skin.
We were stationary when we were at Radio City Music Hall. We had a cafeteria and a dormitory for those girls who lived far away and needed to spend the night to attend dress rehearsals early in the morning, like at 7:00 am, before the first movie began.
I lived in an apartment two blocks away on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue. When I was there, there was a full-time men’s glee club as well as a ballet company. There were three permanent performing troops.
Radio City was very protective of us. Our dressing rooms - there were two of them – were located on the third floor. No one was allowed on the third floor. Russell would sometimes call and make an appointment to come to see us there as opposed to seeing us in the rehearsal hall. We spent a lot of time between shows in the dressing rooms – reading, sewing, or napping. We had eight-cubic feet at our dressing table which meant we were almost hip to hip to the person next to us; so much so, that you had to be careful that you stepped into the leg of your own costume and not the girl’s next to you!
Being so close, one might wonder why it didn’t create a lot of resentment. But, it didn’t. We spent a lot of time between shows with each other. Sometimes, we went to the cafeteria together, and we went out to eat if we felt flush. We didn’t make much money. Between shows, activities were varied. In fact, one girl got married and came back in time for the next performance.
Between our two dressing rooms, there was a hall where the elevator was, and there was a pay phone on the wall. One day, a call came in between shows. A voice said, ‘Can I speak with Rockette number 099.’ It turned out that Al Jolson was on the phone. He had just returned from entertaining the troops overseas. One of the boyfriend’s had asked him to call his girlfriend, a Rockette; her name was Roberta Ogg. Al Jolson misread the lower case ‘g’s’ as Rockette 099. We finally figured out which Rockette it was after a while and got the message to her.”
Did you know? Today, Rockettes have to be between 5’ 6” and 5’ 10 1/2” tall.
“I was one of the short ones. Rockettes have always been required to do eye-high kicks but, as you would expect, mine is now only thigh-high!”
Ferguson reflected on how she met the love of her life. “I met my husband, Tom, when I was sixteen years old when I was part of an entertainment group performing a show at the Navy base in Memphis. There was a dance afterward, and the performers were guests. After we met, he was commissioned as a Navy pilot. When the war ended, he was honorably discharged, and we came to Georgia where we lived for a number of years in Albany. Later, we moved to Virginia Beach and made our home there for thirty years. During that time, I designed and built a dance studio that still is in operation. Through those years, it was my joy to share the love and discipline of dance with many students. In our Golden Years, we came to Snellville to make our home close to our daughter, Jan Hadden. My husband died two years ago after seventy wonderful years of marriage. We had two children, our daughter and a son, John, four granddaughters, and eight – soon-to-be nine great-grandchildren.”
There were many funny stories Ferguson shared to include being a hit with her granddaughter’s second-grade class at Show and Tell. “Many years ago, one of my granddaughters, Emily, called from Connecticut to say, ‘Gran Jan, you must get up here as soon as you can. Yesterday, a girl in my class went to New York City to see the Rockettes, and she talked about it today in Show and Tell. I stood up and said, well, that’s nothing. My grandmother was a Rockette! My teacher said you needed to come up here and talk to us.’ Shortly thereafter, I was on a plane to Connecticut. I was Show and Tell for the second-grade class. I even taught them a little dance routine. Their thank you card was a drawing of them dancing.”
Ferguson is an active member of the Rockette Alumnae. The philanthropic group meets regularly and contributes to various charities. Ferguson and her alumnae colleagues were invited back to Radio City Music Hall in 2000 for the opening night of the Christmas show. Ferguson said, “I can officially say I have stopped traffic in New York. To promote ticket sales for the Christmas show that year, several hundred members of the alumnae, along with Santa Claus and Rockettes from that year’s show, performed a short routine on 6th Avenue directly in front of Radio City. Later that evening, the alumnae joined the Rockettes on the stage, and the Mayor of New York City read a proclamation declaring that the Rockettes were a legacy. It’s a nice thought to know that I’m part of a legacy.”
In March 2017, Ferguson celebrated her ninetieth birthday. “I had two parties, and I am taking our family on an eleven-day cruise of the Great Lakes. Photos may turn gray and darken, but nothing can take experiences or memories away.” Ferguson loves to travel, having visited every continent except Antarctica. She plays bridge and card games a couple of times a week with friends and is an active member of Snellville United Methodist Church. “My family is wide-spread. I try to get together with them as often as possible. There are nineteen of us. Making time to spend with my family is one of my most important goals at this time in my life.”
What is her advice to the younger generation? “Follow your dreams.”