Miriam Nelson, Dancer and Choreographer for 7 Decades, Dies at 98

Courtesy of James Gray
Miriam Nelson and husband Gene Nelson in the 1950s

She staged scenes for 'Picnic' and 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' worked with husband Gene Nelson and staged Super Bowl halftime shows and Oscar telecasts.

Miriam Nelson, the famed Hollywood choreographer and dancer who collaborated with the likes of Cole Porter, Blake Edwards and Judy Garland on delightful dance numbers for Broadway, the movies and television, has died. She was 98.

Nelson died Aug. 12 at her home in Beverly Hills, her friend James Gray, a board member of the Professional Dancers Society, told The Hollywood Reporter.

During her seven-decade career, Nelson also served as Disneyland's first choreographer, staged arena shows for Jim Henson and worked out the dance moves for Super Bowl halftime shows and Academy Awards telecasts.

Nelson choreographed William Holden and Kim Novak's smoldering slow dance to "Moonglow" in Josh Logan's Picnic (1956) and worked out the wacky party scene inside Holly Golightly's packed New York apartment in Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), where she is briefly seen arguing with a guy in an eye patch.

Her first husband was actor-dancer Gene Nelson, and she co-choreographed his dance numbers — and those of Doris Day and his other female co-stars — in films like Tea for Two (1950), Lullaby of Broadway (1951), The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady (1950) and She's Working Her Way Through College (1952).

Nelson was nicknamed the "Marni Nixon of Tap" (a reference to the woman known for "ghost singing" for famous actresses on films) for providing the tap sounds in movies starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ginger Rogers and others.

At a time when male choreographers dominated Hollywood, Nelson was a rare female force.

When asked if she would ever retire, she replied, "Not as long as the phone keeps ringing." Gray noted that she was tap dancing a week before her death.

Miriam Lois Frankel was born in Chicago on Sept. 21, 1919, and began tap dancing at a young age. When she was 14, she and her family moved to New York, and she performed in dinner theater in Billy Rose's Casa Manana with dance partner Van Johnson.

She made her Broadway debut as Miriam Franklin in 1939 in Sing Out the News, and during the next four years, she went on to dance in Yokel BoyVery Warm for MayHigher and HigherPanama Hattie and Let's Face It!, working alongside Porter, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Vincent Minnelli and others.

In 1941, she married Gene Nelson, and they moved to California, where she quickly landed a seven-year contract at Paramount following a chance encounter with a friend from New York in the studio commissary. She played Edward G. Robinson's secretary in Double Indemnity (1944) and later appeared in Cover Girl (1944), The Jolson Story (1946) and Pillow Talk (1959).

Nelson also worked with Edwards on Bring Your Smile Along (1955), He Laughed Last (1956), High Time (1960) and Sunset (1988) and on Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), Cat Ballou (1965), I'll Take Sweden (1965), Hawaii (1966) and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).

Nelson choreographed Garland's first TV special in 1955 and did The Red Skeleton Show; The Colgate Comedy Hour; Father Knows Best; The Lucy Show; The Love Boat; Murder, She Wrote; Designing Women; and Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 1978.

Walt Disney hired Nelson to choreograph dance numbers around his new Disneyland park, including the "Golden Horseshoe Revue," and she staged the first "Disney on Parade" shows for Radio City Music Hall in New York.

She also did choreography for nightclub acts Carol Channing, Anne Miller, Barbara Eden, Howard Keel, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, Donald O'Connor, Jane Russell and Gordon & Sheila MacRae.

In 1953, Nelson became a founding member of SHARE (Share Happily and Reap Endlessly), a nonprofit comprised of women dedicated to raising funds for developmentally disabled, abused and neglected children. She was recently honored at the organization's 65th event.

She published her autobiography, My Life Dancing With the Stars, in 2009.

She and Nelson divorced in 1956. She then was married to producer Jack Myers from 1965 until his death in 1988.

Survivors include her son Chris, grandsons Christopher, Josh and Matt and great-granddaughter Emma.

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