Filed Under Entertainment

Betty Felsen

A Ballet and Vaudeville Star's Cleveland Dancing School

For several years during the Great Depression, renowned Chicago-born ballerina and vaudeville performer Betty Felsen brought her talent to Cleveland, where she operated a dance school that was part of a vibrant performing arts scene that flourished in Playhouse Square.

Born Bertha Felsenthal on June 9, 1905, in Chicago, Betty Felsen took her first dance lesson at age 8. Three years later, in 1916, she enrolled in the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet School, named after Andreus Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky, who had been partners of the famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet became the official ballet of the Chicago Opera Association in 1919, and from 1920 to 1922 Felsen performed nationwide as a ballerina soloist with the Chicago Opera, notably in the Verdi opera Aida.

By the latter year, Felsen, now 17 years old, wanted to assert creative control over her dancing and expand her repertoire, so she left the Chicago Opera to take up vaudeville. Her first major performance, co-starring with singer Ruth Etting in the musical Rainbo Trail, ran over four months in Chicago’s Million Dollar Rainbo Room in 1922 and 1923. In 1923 she began performing with Jack Broderick on the B. F. Keith and Pantages vaudeville circuits throughout the U.S. and Canada. Over the next four years, their act evolved from a simple dance act to one with more than twenty dancers, an orchestra, and elaborate costumes and sets, garnering critical acclaim.

When Broderick quit the act at its pinnacle in late 1927, Felsen continued to perform with her own troupe, Betty Felen & Company, for several more months. Failing to find a new partner with whom she had the same rapport or possessing the brilliance of Jack Broderick, she left the vaudeville stage in late summer 1928, moving first to Worcester, Massachusetts, where she co-owned and operated a dance school with a local vaudeville dancer in addition to performing locally and on summer tours around New England with her students.

In 1932, Betty Felsen left Worcester for Cleveland, where she opened the Betty Felsen School of the Dance, first located in the Carnegie Hall Building on Huron Road and then moving east to 1706 Euclid Avenue. Offering affordable tuition for ballet, tap, and vocal lessons, Felsen’s school thrived with around 100 students. The school went through three name changes, first to Betty Felsen Studios, then Felsen & Burke Studios of Stage and Radio Arts (reflecting a brief partnership with David Burke), and finally the Betty Felsen Studios of Stage and Radio Arts.

Felsen and her advanced students performed an annual program called the Betty Felsen Revue at the Masonic Auditorium. Some of her students were active professionally, particularly in various Cleveland productions. These young professionals included Elaine Dion and the Lorenz sisters, Lois Jane, Virginia, and Lorna. Billy Shipman and Patricia McCormack auditioned for Eddie Cantor, a major figure in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures.

Felsen garnered appreciation for her selfless service to her profession. She judged singing and dancing performances for multiple amateur talent competitions, including one in 1936 sponsored by Cleveland News, and often gave free lessons at her school to the winners. The December 1936 issue of The American Dancer magazine also commended her for offering professionals appearing in Cleveland with free use of a studio in her school for rehearsal and practice.

Betty Felsen’s time as a dance instructor in Worcester and Cleveland proved but a short interlude between her days of ballet and vaudeville stardom and retirement. She closed her school soon after marrying Samuel Tonkin in 1937. Despite her short time shaping Cleveland’s performing arts community, the story of Betty Felsen’s dance school reveals a richness of talent that surrounded and transcended the grand stages and screens of Playhouse Square.

Images

Betty Felsen Solo
Betty Felsen Solo Betty Felsen performed her Dance of the Moorish Slaves solo in the Chicago Opera’s performances of Verdi’s opera Aida during its 1920-21 and 1921-22 seasons in the United States and Mexico.  Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: May 2, 1921
Rainbo Trail Program
Rainbo Trail Program Program for the December 1922 to March 1923 Rainbo Trail production starring Ruth Etting and Betty Felsen in Chicago’s Million Dollar Rainbo Room. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1922
Portrait of Betty Felsen
Portrait of Betty Felsen Betty Felsen in her starring role in the December 1922 to March 1923 Rainbo Trail production in Chicago’s Million Dollar Rainbo Room. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1922
Betty Felsen at Center Stage
Betty Felsen at Center Stage Betty Felsen in her starring role in the December 1922 to March 1923 Rainbo Trail Production in Chicago’s Million Dollar Rainbo Room. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1922
Shadow Dance
Shadow Dance Betty Felsen and Frank Lischeron in their Shadow Dance performed from June through September 1923 in the eastern and midwestern United States. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1923
Jud Hill's Chicago Blue Devils
Jud Hill's Chicago Blue Devils The Jud Hill band served as Broderick & Felsen’s orchestra in 1925. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1925
Butterfly Who Lived But A Day
Butterfly Who Lived But A Day Betty Felsen’s "Butterfly Who Lived But A Day" from Broderick & Felsen’s Original Dance Creations performed in the United States and Canada from 1924 to February 1926. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: ca. 1925
Street Scene from Mirage de Paris
Street Scene from Mirage de Paris "Street Scene" from Emil Boreo’s production of Mirage de Paris starring Betty Felsen and Jack Broderick during its February to May 1926 tour of the United States and Canada. This photo was taken in Chicago’s Palace Theater. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: February 21, 1926
Scene from Ballet Caprice
Scene from Ballet Caprice Scene from Broderick & Felsen’s production of Ballet Caprice during its October 1926 to July 1927 tour of the United States and Canada. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: ca. 1926
Rate Sheet
Rate Sheet A monthly rate sheet for the Betty Felsen Studios of Stage and Radio Arts in Cleveland. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1936
Notice for the Betty Felsen Revue
Notice for the Betty Felsen Revue The Betty Felsen Revue of 1936 was performed on June 21 at Cleveland’s Masonic Auditorium and featured Felsen and students of the Betty Felsen Studios of Stage and Radio Arts. Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1936
Betty Felsen Revue Program Cover
Betty Felsen Revue Program Cover Program cover for the Betty Felsen Revue of 1936, performed on June 21 at Cleveland’s Masonic Auditorium . Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1936
Advertisement in Betty Felsen Revue Program
Advertisement in Betty Felsen Revue Program This ad inside the 1936 Fetty Felsen Revue program promoted her Betty Felsen Studios. It reads: "Gay Little Feet of Dancing Children: After children's food and children's clothes, the most important thing you have to decide is their personality. How Your Children may gain Charm, Grace, Poise, and Personality is quickly and easily shown at the Betty Felsen Studios, under the personal direction of the remarkably successful Betty Felsen. Fill in and mail the coupon for complete information. Never a child came into the world lacking hidden grace and charm. The things you want your child to have abundantly. Correct instruction in the Dance by the Betty Felsen Studios develops and unfolds this Charm that Endures, latent in every child. Because your child is different, this instruction is individual as well as group. Sound fundamentals are carefully taught by a youthful teacher with an international reputation. Satisfied parents and happy children are the best testimonials. Send the coupon for information." Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1936
Description of Betty Felsen's Career
Description of Betty Felsen's Career The text on this page of the 1936 Betty Felsen Revue reads: "Betty Felsen, technically perfect artist, endowed with exceptional rhythm, is remarkably successful in bringing out hitherto hidden talent and charm in persons of all ages. Her attractive personality and sincere interest holds attention and interest through primary work until people have attained finished artistry. Distinguished teachers of Europe and America shaed in her guidance, training and study. Starting her career in the Chicago Grand Opera Company with the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet, and later heading Keith-Orpheum circult, she was a featured artist in many Broadway productions." Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1936
Children at Betty Felsen's School
Children at Betty Felsen's School The text that appears under this photo in the 1936 Betty Felsen Revue program reads: "Your child's latent talent is no more like that of your neighbor's child than a horse and buggy is like an airplane. So instruction at the Betty Felsen Studio is individual as well as in groups. This unfolds and develops the latent grace and charm that is hidden in every child. The highest ideal in education. Many never aspire to dance professionally yet would like to dance as amateurs in a professional manner. Pupils are carefully taught sound fundamentals of the Dance in a manner always interesting by youthful teachers with international reputations. Developed by Miss Betty Felsen through many years of association, is Miss Rita Carr, assistant dance instructress, most capable and efficient in teaching small children as well as adults." Source: Betty Felsen Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago Date: 1936

Location

1706 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH 44115

Metadata

David Tonkin, “Betty Felsen,” Cleveland Historical, accessed April 24, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/1016.