BY Ron La Point
“I started dancing at five,” were the first words that came rushing out. “I had a heart murmur when I was young and the doctor thought dancing lessons would be good therapy.”
“I liked dancing from the start but didn’t like to practice. My mother, who was the disciplinarian, made me practice. When I wanted to quit, she wouldn’t let me quit. Everything I’ve accomplished I owe to her.”
He was still a young kid when his mother, who saw something special in her youngest son, entered Richard in a contest at the Raulf Hotel in the neighboring city of Oshkosh.
“I remember taking second place. First place went to a gal playing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ on her accordion. My dad got mad at me because I didn’t take first.”
His mother seeing the budding of his unusual talent soon began entering her son in contests and shows of all kinds in their home town of Appleton and those in surrounding communities.
During his high school years he caught the attention of an older Jimmy Damon, a dancer and a show master from Oshkosh. The two hooked up and did their routines at war bond rallies, shows performed downstairs at the Raulf Hotel, and appearances in other venues in Oshkosh and around the state.
“We had a two-man act. Jimmy was the Master of Ceremonies and would open our act with tricks and magic – throw money in the air, make it disappear, that kind of thing. After his act he would say: ‘And now Ladies and Gentlemen, you’re in for a treat. Here is Richard Verhoeven, one of the top tap dancers in the country’.”
When he was asked to recall his part of the act he performed with Jimmy Damon, Richard, with the look of pure joy, quickly responded in his own immutable style by repeating word for word without batting an eye from those long-ago routines. He quickly recited Top Hat, Tap Dance and Ballet routines while looking at me from across the table with a triumphant smile.
Damon and Richard soon took their act to the Riverside Theater and the Schroeder and Pfister hotels in Milwaukee. They also performed at the Chicago Theater and the Plankinton and Sherman hotels in Chicago.
And once, without it being scheduled and without being forewarned, Richard performed his dance routine at the King Gateway in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin.
“We had just gotten married and we drove up to the King Gateway for our honeymoon. We were seated at a table watching the show when all of a sudden, the Master of Ceremonies announced: ‘And now Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a young dancer who might want to dance for us.’ He pointed at our table and introduced me to the audience. I replied, somewhat embarrassingly, that I would be glad to but I don’t have my dancing shoes with me. With that Jimmy Damon came on stage and said ‘I have them’ while holding them up for all to see.”
“We certainly didn’t expect to see Damon on our honeymoon.”
When I later paged through a scrapbook his wife Shirley asked me to take home, I discovered not only a dance instructor, a story teller, a loving husband and a caring father, but also a dance protégé who, over time, became an expert in the art of dancing, nothing short of a virtuoso performer in his trade.
He was known during his dancing career as an expressionist; imitation dancing he called it. He mimicked the stars of screen and stage; performers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.
“In my earlier years Bill Robinson came to Appleton to perform at the Reel Theater.”
Bill Robinson, for those of you too young to know, was a famous colored dancer – using the vernacular of the times – who performed on stage all over the word and in a number of movies including “The Little Colonel” with Shirley Temple. The two, side by side, tapped danced up the staircase of this southern mansion to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
“He would perform two or three shows a day and in between shows he often stopped in a nearby pool hall to shoot a game or two of pool.”
“It was there where he met my brother. They struck up a conversation and my brother told him he had a younger brother who danced. Mr. Robinson, kind as he was, told him to bring his brother down to the theater and said: “I’ll see what he can do.”
“My brother ran to the telephone and told me to get down to the Reel theater real quick. ‘Bojangles Robinson will be there’.”
“I came down as fast as I could muster. With his broad smile and helpful manner, Mr. Bojangles showed me the famous Robinson walk and a few other steps in his repertoire. He then took time to give me a private lesson, teaching me a couple of steps that I never forgot.”
“When I got out of the Army a few years after WWII ended, I knew I wanted to dance. I landed a job at the local post office and while I was working there, I was invited to be the guest artist at an Appleton High School concert. I did my old stuff; soft shoe and real quick movements. The audience gave me a standing ovation and that gave me the motivation to continue with my dream.”
During this time his friend Jimmy Damon knew Richard wanted to own a dance studio. After hearing about a place for rent in downtown Oshkosh he called Richard. Although Richard was somewhat reluctant to make the move, both his mother and Damon told him to give it a try.
The upstairs part of the building Richard would be using for dancing lessons was formerly the home of Richmond Cleaners on Waugoo Street. The downstairs occupant was Jimmy ‘The Hat’ whose business was steaming bowler hats and shining shoes. The rent was $75 a month that first year but Richard, having saved little money during his army tour, needed his mother to bankroll the rent for those first few months.
“I had about 75 students of all ages that first year. Entire families took lessons together.” The names of Merediths, Sohms, Mathewsons and Flanigans quickly rolled of his tongue. There was also a good-looking girl in class the first year. When he spotted her, he said: That’s the one for me.”
“I had a reputation as a good dancer and teacher and this evidently preceded me to Oshkosh. I didn’t advertise other than placing a picture and an ad in the local free press, The Shop O Gram.
“I drove down from Appleton each day with my mother who said she would do my secretary work to save money those first few months. Before those months were over I was in a car accident, a head-on collision, while driving back to Appleton.”
His car was demolished but Richard came out of it okay. His mother did not. She suffered a series of broken bones and was never able to walk again without using a walker.
“I was forced to take a bus to Oshkosh for the next month while the car was being repaired. The bus would make its drops at the Greyhound Bus Depot on Main Street, about a block from the studio. After work I would stop for a hamburger and beer at the Empire Bar next to the depot and then take the bus back home.”
“I had heard about the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, a renowned association that provided credentials for aspiring dance instructors. I realized I still needed to learn more about dancing and stage work. So I applied. The entrance exam was performing on stage in front of the faculty. That didn’t bother me at all as it apparently did for some. I loved performing in front of people.”
He commuted to Chicago on weekends to attend classes that first year while instructing students during the week.
During his time in Chicago he was introduced to a couple of well-known stars of the stage. He learned from faculty member, Irene Castle, the famous “Castle Walk”, a ballroom dance that he later taught in Oshkosh.
The other star was Fred Kelly, the older brother of Gene Kelly. Fred danced but also worked behind the scenes, choreographing stage productions and some of the movies his brother was in.
Fred Kelly would remain a life-long friend.
The Oshkosh Theater was the location for the opening revue for the dance studio with the honor of Master of Ceremonies given to his friend, Jimmy Damon. The annual revues for the Richard School of Dance continued at the Oshkosh for another three years. After the theater closed, the revues were held at the Raulf Theater. The Raulf later changed its name to the Plaza and in 1977 the Plaza Theater shut its doors. The revues were then staged at the Civic Auditorium and continue there to this day.
Jaye Alderson remembers the sense of belonging to a special group when she was a student at the studio. “Richard’s strictness was tempered by little grins and shouts of ‘Get the lead out.’ The excitement of the yearly revues where costumed students performed the dances they worked all year to perfect, was the crowning joy to the hard work and dedication each of us put in doing our weekly lessons.”
Richard choreographed the revues each year and his wife Shirley made the curtains. But it was not only his dance revues that Richard choreographed, it was all of the high school musical productions held at the Civic Auditorium from 1963 to the late ‘90s when Larry Klausch was the music director at West High School. He also choreographed the operettas held earlier at the Recreational Gym under the directorship of Fred Leist and did the same for the Miss Wisconsin Pageants.
Richard said he had met a number of celebrities during his dancing and teaching career. With that he got up from his chair, went to another room and a minute or two later he brought back signed photographs of Guy Kirbe and George Jessel, two well-known Master of Ceremony legends; actresses Gloria De haven and Brooke Shields, dancers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, heavyweight boxer Lou Nova, and one of Fred Kelly.
He mentioned that he and his wife were dining some years back at Raatsch’s a German restaurant in Milwaukee when Bob Hope approached his table, stopped momentarily and said: “I know you” and then walked away. When this well-known comedian and his wife finished dining that evening, he again passed the Verhoeven table and said “Goodnight Richard.”
When Richard retired in 1999, he was honored at the 50th anniversary of the studio and helped the celebration along by dancing a rendition of “Singing in the Rain” with Fred Kelly, who flew in from Tucson, Arizona to help celebrate with his friend.
When he reminisced about that night eleven years ago, he again got up from the table, went to another room and brought back pictures taken of Fred and himself dancing on the stage of the Civic Auditorium. His eyes lit up when he showed them to me.
Years later Richard began receiving awards for his lifetime dedication to the art of dance.
In 2007 at the Sheraton in Chicago, Richard received the Distinguished Service Award from the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters. In March of 2011, Richard was inducted into the Oshkosh Music Wall of Fame. It was an honor he and his wife Shirley shared recently with my wife, Carol, and I over a noon luncheon at the Roxy.
Later on a cool September morning at the Farmer’s Market, a smiling Richard sauntered over to my stand where I had my Oshkosh books for sale and asked if I had his story finished. I told him that I still needed to some final editing before sending the manuscript to the publisher. With a relieved look on his face he said, “Good.” I just found out that the “Dance Masters of Wisconsin will be inducting me into their Hall of Fame in November.”
We sat and talked for a while and after he left I thought back to the day of our first interview. I was getting up to leave after spending an hour or two with Richard and Shirley when he asked his wife if she would get that CD. When she came back Richard invited me to come out to his car so it could be played. ‘It will only take five minutes.”
Caught on tape that played for the next ten minutes was a performance preserved of Richard dancing as a young man. I listened to this old sixty-one year old recording and saw this man, sitting along-side, treasuring those memories of long ago and thought what a beautiful life he must have led.
The fourth and final number was Richard’s rendition of the 12th Street Rag danced in double and triple time.
He told me he was proudest of that.