Felisa Vanoff, Former Dancer and Choreographer, Dies at 89

Felisa Vanoff - P 2014
Courtesy Robert Gantzos

Felisa Vanoff - P 2014

A patron of the arts in Los Angeles, she was the widow of Nick Vanoff, co-creator of The Kennedy Center Honors.

Felisa Vanoff, a dancer, choreographer and theatrical producer, died May 29 of cancer at her Beverly Hills home. She was 89.

Vanoff was the widow of Nick Vanoff, the Emmy Award-winning co-creator (with George Stevens Jr.) of The Kennedy Center Honors. They met as young dancers in the company of the New York City Opera in the early 1950s. He died in 1991 at age 61.

Nick Vanoff also produced or executive produced variety shows featuring Steve Allen, The King Family, Julie Andrews and Sonny & Cher, and his wife often served as choreographer for those shows as well as for the Kennedy Center celebrations.

Born Phyllis Elizabeth Caputo in Ambridge, Pa., she was the daughter of Eugene Caputo, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and Velma Lindway, an artist and illustrator.

During World War II, she joined the Army, attained the rank of captain and entertained the troops in the Philippines, Korea and Japan as a member of the USO.

After graduating high school, Vanoff trained in New York with Vincenzo Celli, ballet master of the Ballets Russes, and in Mexico City with Jose Fernandez.

Back in New York, she joined Charles Weidman’s Theatre Dance Company as lead dancer, gave concerts with Peter Hamilton and appeared on TV variety shows hosted by Fred Waring and Billy Rose.

In 1949, Vanoff became assistant choreographer and lead dancer in the New York City Opera company, where she performed in Carmen, La Traviata and Don Giovanni.

From 1953-55, she served as principal dancer with the John Butler Dance Theatre and partnered with Glen Tetley in many significant roles. She went on to choreograph for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.

In 1987, Vanoff underwrote the Joffrey Ballet’s re-creation of the Diaghilev Ballet Sacre du Printemps and was a producer of the London West End production of the Broadway musical City of Angels, which received an Olivier Award in 1994.

After the death of her husband, Vanoff and Gordon Davidson, then artistic director of Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, created Salon at the Taper, an annual benefit hosted by Michael Feinstein that honored a lyricist each year. Proceeds funded Nick’s Tix – low-cost tickets for students, seniors and the disabled to attend Music Center performances.

Vanoff was on the board of directors of the Joffrey and influential in bringing the company to Los Angeles, and she was a longtime member of the board of directors of The Blue Ribbon of the Music Center.  

Survivors include her son Nick, daughter-in-law Kate, granddaughters Marina and Kathrine and sister Paula.

She was buried in Sun Valley, Idaho. A private memorial for her in Beverly Hills will be held this month.