|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JUNE 2012|
|Mary McCourt paid a visit to her long-time friend,
the legendary Sammy Davis Jr., when he visited Portland in 1990,
shortly before his death.
For Mary McCourt, it’s all in who you know. And who she knows is surprising. The longtime Oregon paralegal has danced with Fred Astaire, opened for Sammy Davis Jr., and (almost) partied with Frank Sinatra, but as a paralegal who’s looking for work, she feels her ace in the hole is serving as the administrative assistant to Oregon Gov. Bob Straub.
McCourt is a former Hollywood dancer who is also the 2011 recipient of the Oregon Paralegal Association’s Exceptional Service Award. She has been honored by Everest College, which named its law library after her last year, served for more than six years as a public member on the OSB Quality of Life and Fee Arbitration committees, and been nominated five times as OPA’s outstanding member of the year. She was recently laid off from the paralegal job she’d held for 10 years with a Portland sole practitioner.
McCourt views her dancing days during Hollywood’s halcyon ’50s from the perspective of a serious legal professional. “Dancing was exciting, but working for Gov. Straub means more,” she says. “My best asset (in the legal arena) is having worked in the governor’s office and being a court reporter.”
But how did a professionally recognized paralegal with a law library named after her start her career in Hollywood?
She credits her mother and an old boyfriend.
Getting the Girl Out of Town
Mary McCourt grew up taking dancing lessons in Portland and graduated from Lincoln High School when she was 15. At 17, her mother told her she looked like she was 25. Her 21-year-old boyfriend didn’t seem to mind. “My mother was afraid I was going to marry him and he’d be a drunk,” McCourt recalls.
So her mother did what any concerned parent might do: she got her daughter out of town. McCourt’s older brothers were performing at the time as the Ozark Mountaineers on Portland’s KWJJ radio station, owned then by Arthur Freed. Freed was also the dance director at MGM Studios. During one of his visits to Portland, Mary’s mother asked Freed if he could get Mary a job in Hollywood. He watched the teenager dance and signed her to a four-year contract. McCourt’s mother was happy. “She had no idea what Hollywood was like,” McCourt says.
Neither did Mary, who danced under the stage names Mary Barnett and Mary Morris. The chorus in musicals provided background for the stars. Dancers arrived at the studio at 5 o’clock in the morning for hours of costuming and make-up, then danced long days under lights in California temperatures without air conditioning. They also danced without music. In the days before cassette tape recorders and compact discs, the chorus danced to a metronome; the music and stars were dubbed in later.
McCourt remembers many of the costumes being “quite brief,” but she was bothered most by the hot, itchy wigs that were part of every costume. A picture of McCourt dancing in “The Mikado” shows her and the other members of the chorus costumed in identical, ornate kimonos and large black geisha wigs festooned with combs and ornaments that extend beyond their shoulders. The young women are indistinguishable from one another.
“The first movie I was in, my mother sat through three times,” McCourt says. “She couldn’t tell which dancer was me. I told her to look at the end of the row; we were lined up by height and I was always the shortest.”
The dancers were often interchangeable too. “We would be lent out to different studios,” McCourt remembers. “Half the time I didn’t even know what movie I was dancing in.”
She knew the MGM movies, but to learn which movies she appeared in that were produced by Paramount, Columbia and other studios, McCourt asked her agent, the William Morris Agency, for a list after she returned to Portland. Combined with the MGM movies, it tallied more than 50 musicals, including such classics as “South Pacific,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Singing in the Rain,” “Showboat,” “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “Oklahoma,” “Cabaret,” “Mary Poppins” and “On Moonlight Bay.”
Opening for Sammy Davis Jr.
Opportunity seemed to be everywhere in the ’50s. One evening McCourt and a friend from the chorus went to the famed Trianon Ballroom in Los Angeles. The two were unimpressed with the opening act and told the owner, popular band leader, radio broadcaster and talent show pioneer Horace Heidt, that they could do better. Heidt invited them on stage to prove it. McCourt and her friend conferred frantically in the back of the ballroom, then got up and performed some of the numbers they’d been dancing in the studio. The audience loved it.
So did Sammy Davis Jr., who was in the audience that night. He asked McCourt to be his opening act, a role she filled with pride for three years. She danced for Davis at night and continued dancing for MGM during the days.
“It was hard work. I earned my money, let me tell you,” McCourt says.
She and Davis got along famously. “We just clicked,” McCourt says of the special friendship they formed. “I was so innocent, but also friendly and outgoing. I think he felt proud that he taught me so many dance moves. He liked that I wasn’t trying to be a celebrity. A lot of people put on phony fronts and pretended they were something they weren’t. I wasn’t like that.”
McCourt admits she was naïve about the ways of Hollywood and came to rely on Davis almost as a big brother. He cautioned her to never accept a drink from anyone, but to pour it herself, and to never leave her drink uncovered. “They’ll mickey you up, then rape you,” she says he warned her.
“I didn’t have a clue”
Davis’ advice also deterred her from a party with Frank Sinatra, part of the original Rat Pack McCourt met through Davis. “Old Blue Eyes” had invited McCourt to a Pearl Party, so she asked Davis what she should wear.
She recalls the conversation. “‘You’re not going,’ he told me.”
“What do you mean, ‘I’m not going?’
“ ‘All you wear is a string of pearls.’ ”
Davis explained that women wear nothing but pearls, men wear only bow ties, and at the door each guest is given a spray bottle full of water to squirt at the other guests. Other activities ensue.
“I didn’t have a clue,” McCourt recalls ruefully. She and her pearls stayed home.
Over the four years of her contract with MGM, McCourt met Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and many of the other big names in Hollywood. She freely shares her opinions about most of them:
Of James Garner: “He was far better looking in person than on the screen. And the nicest guy. I think that made him better looking.”
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: “She was gorgeous. His skin was awful.”
Debbie Reynolds: “She had mood swings like you wouldn’t believe. She was a …”
Lana Turner: “I waited an hour to see her. She arrived in a convertible with her hair all pulled back hard, no eyebrows and smoking a pipe. They made her up to the max to look as good as she did.”
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball: “They argued constantly.”
One of her favorite opportunities was dancing with Fred Astaire, one of the few times she actually danced with the star of the show rather than providing only background. He was the best dancer she’s ever worked with, she says. But after dancing eight rounds with him, McCourt was disappointed with the final movie. “They cut the scene. I’m on the cutting room floor! How do you like that?”
Typing Skills Land Her First Legal Job
By the age of 23, McCourt felt her days in Hollywood were numbered. She returned to Portland where her oldest brother had become both a physician and an attorney. He remembered that McCourt could type 125 words per minute on a manual typewriter, so he put her to work.
She worked her way through Oregon State University by working for attorneys on nights and weekends and graduated with a B.S., in administration in 1957. She worked as a court reporter and obtained her paralegal certificate from Portland Community College, completing a two-year program in six months.
She got married and had a son and daughter, both of whom loved hearing her stories about the stars as they grew up. McCourt’s husband died two years ago.
McCourt was hired as a legal secretary by Keith Burns before he was elected to the Oregon State Senate in 1973. Burns was a liberal who, among other things, served as pro bono legal counsel for the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — a fact that didn’t escape McCourt, who had witnessed discrimination through her friendship with Davis. When Burns became chief of staff to Gov. Bob Straub in 1976, McCourt went with him to Salem, eventually becoming an administrative assistant to the governor.
For more than 20 years McCourt served on the advisory board of the Everest College Paralegal Program, serving as a classroom speaker, student mentor and internship sponsor. She’s fondly remembered for attending every Everest paralegal graduation for the past 20 years and presenting each graduate with a red rose.
Friendship Instead of Autographs
McCourt’s friendship with Sammy Davis Jr. continued long after she left Hollywood. On one of his first visits to Portland in the late ’50s, Davis tried to check in to a well-known local hotel. He was told the hotel was full. He left and asked his white manager to request a room. The manager was told there were plenty of rooms.
Davis called McCourt, who was living in town with her parents, and asked if she could put him up for the night. He didn’t hold a grudge against the hotel, she remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t understand the United States. Some cities open doors for me. Others don’t. I just wish it was consistent. I never know what to expect.’”
By his last visit to Portland shortly before he died, Davis had learned to expect warmer welcomes. He stayed at the Benson, where McCourt and her grown daughter spent the day with him.
Her friendship with Sammy Davis Jr. and her memories are the most cherished keepsakes McCourt has from her dancing days in Hollywood. She has a few photos and kept her geisha costume from “The Mikado” for Halloween, but she didn’t seek out autographs or other memorabilia.
“I was young. It was exciting. But it was hard work to learn all those moves and worry that I didn’t screw up. I was grateful to come back to Portland,” she says. “It prepared me to be kind to everyone and work hard.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen McGlone is a freelance writer and marketing and communications consultant. She can be reached at email@example.com
© 2012 Karen McGlone