Peggy Ryan

Dancing partner of Donald O'Connor
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The Independent Online

A peppy brunette with a breezy personality, Peggy Ryan will be best remembered as the dancing partner of Donald O'Connor in a series of lively "B" musicals made by Universal in the Forties.

Margaret O'Rene Ryan, dancer and actress: born Long Beach, California 28 August 1924; married first James Cross (one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1953 Ray McDonald (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1957), 1958 Eddie Sherman (one adopted son); died Las Vegas 30 October 2004.

A peppy brunette with a breezy personality, Peggy Ryan will be best remembered as the dancing partner of Donald O'Connor in a series of lively "B" musicals made by Universal in the Forties.

O'Connor and Ryan were often labelled "the Mickey and Judy of B pictures" and, like Garland, Ryan frequently played the chum of the hero who silently pines for him while he is captivated by the prettier charms of Gloria Jean, Susanna Foster or Ann Blyth.

Ryan's dancing style was more eccentric than Garland's, however, and she specialised in gangly high kicks, quickfire tapping and, in the duets, she was often on the receiving end of some comically rough treatment by her partner. Wry good nature suffused her performances, along with lots of energy and verve, and audiences warmed to her, as did a later generation who knew her as Jack Lord's secretary in the television series Hawaii Five-O. The dancing legend Ann Miller said of her: Ann Miller, "Peggy Ryan was very pert and very flip and cute as hell. She tapped, and she was good!"

Born Margaret O'Rene Ryan in California in 1924, she was the child of vaudevillians, but she later stated that stories of her joining them in their act, The Merry Dancing Ryans, were studio publicity:

My mother and daddy were a ballroom team, and when I came along I interrupted their career. My mother then put all of her hopes and dreams that her daughter would be what she wanted to be.

At the age of three she made her first professional appearance, and she made her screen début at the age of five in a Technicolor Vitaphone short, The Wedding of Jack and Jill (1929), playing Jill. A show-stopping impersonation of the era's greatest female tap star, Eleanor Powell, at an Actors Fund Benefit in 1937, led to a role in Universal's musical Top of the Town (1937), in which an heiress opens a night-club at the top of a Manhattan skyscraper:

It was a wonderful big musical, black and white and very Art Deco. Got marvellous reviews, "the little child prodigy and all that," but by then I was getting to an awkward age. My ears were always big - I had to grow into them!

Ryan then played some non-musical roles for various studios, her most notable being that of a Depression-era "Okie" in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). In order to showcase her dancing skills, which were being neglected, she took a role in a Broadway revue, Meet the People (1940).

Both the show and Ryan were hits, and she was offered a contract by Universal, who hired her to be one of a bunch of 12 teenage dancers that the studio called "The Jivin' Jacks and Jills". When the group's first film, What's Cookin'? (1942), was released, preview audiences singled out the comic rapport between O'Connor and Ryan: "We'd been encouraged to ad lib by our director, Edward Cline, who'd been a Keystone Kop and loved vaudeville and comedy."

The couple were then featured in Private Buckaroo, Get Hep to Love and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (all 1942), and Ryan was also in the Andrews Sisters vehicle Give Out, Sisters (1942). In Get Hep to Love, Ryan had one of her best solo numbers, "Let's Hitch a Horsie to an Automobile", but it was the dancing and clowning she did with O'Connor that won particular acclaim.

The following year a project titled "School for Jive" was re-fashioned to give the team more screen time. Retitled Mister Big (1943), it gave the couple star billing for the first time, and among its several lively routines was a memorable knockabout dance to the song, "Rude, Crude and Unattractive". In Top Man (1943) that followed, Ryan played the sister of college boy O'Connor who persuades fellow students to put on a show at a factory to aid the war effort.

Ryan's career was at its peak in 1944, when she had six films released. Chip Off the Old Block was one of the most popular films she made with O'Connor, a screwball comedy in which she ruefully watched as O'Connor wooed a young singer (Ann Blyth). In the all-star morale-booster, Follow the Boys, the duo was among an impressive roster of guest stars (including Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields and Sophie Tucker) entertaining troops, and they followed it with This is the Life, co-starring Susanna Foster.

Their next film, The Merry Monahans, was not only one of their most popular, but it was given a larger budget and longer running time (91 minutes) than their other films and was programmed as a top-featured "A" movie. A through-the-years tale of a vaudeville family, it featured Ryan and O'Connor as brother and sister, performing a batch of nostalgic favourites as well as a handful of new songs. They then did a guest spot in Bowery to Broadway, performing the number "He Took Her for a Sleighride in the Good Old Summertime". Unfortunately, at the height of the team's popularity O'Connor was drafted into the army, and Patrick the Great (released in 1945 but, like several others, filmed earlier) was their last screen appearance together.

Ryan was top-billed in Babes on Swing Street (1944), in which she had Universal's lead choreographer Louis DaPron as a dancing partner. She then supported the popular comedy team Abbott and Costello in Here Come the Co-eds (1945), in which she had a great solo tap routine, "Jumpin' on Saturday Night", and partnered Lou Costello in a charming number, "Let's Play House". On Stage Everybody (1945) paired her with the dancer Johnny Coy (in a role originally intended for O'Connor) and gave Ryan a hit tune to introduce, Livingston and Evans's "Stuff Like That There" (recorded by Betty Hutton).

That's the Spirit (1945) was a sprightly musical comedy co-starring Jack Oakie with a cameo performance by Buster Keaton; Ryan's last Universal film, Men in Her Diary (1945), was an amusing farce in which she played a scatterbrained secretary whose diary, containing fictional accounts of affairs with the men she knows, is read by her boss's wife, who sues for divorce. Ironically, though these last few Universal films were among her best, the studio then let her go. O'Connor, who returned to Universal in 1947 and remained a good friend, always spoke highly of her talent - he said that she could learn a complete dance routine in 15 minutes where he took at least a day - and they performed together again at a Los Angeles theatre in 1966 when Ryan joined his stage show.

In 1948 Ryan appeared in the premiere shows of two memorable television series, Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town and Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. She also undertook a vaudeville tour, which included a trip to London, where she appeared at the Palladium and at the Empress, Brixton, though critics and audiences were disappointed by her selection of tame jokes and minimal displays of dance.

She returned to the screen to co-star with Ray McDonald (formerly at MGM where he had danced with Garland and Rooney in Babes on Broadway), in a minor musical, Shamrock Hill (1949), followed by There's a Girl in My Heart (1949), after which the pair toured the country with a night-club act.

Ryan's last film was All Ashore (1953) co-starring Mickey Rooney, Dick Haymes and Ray McDonald, but its familiar sailors-on-leave framework invited comparison with earlier and better movies. In 1953 Ryan and McDonald were married, but they divorced in 1957. (McDonald killed himself in 1959.)

In 1958 Ryan married Eddie Sherman, a columnist on the Honolulu Advertiser, who legally adopted her two children - a son by her first husband, the actor James Cross, and a daughter by McDonald - and the Shermans adopted another boy. Moving to Honolulu, Ryan taught dancing at the University of Hawaii as well as conducting dance classes for emotionally and physically handicapped children. She also directed or choreographed local productions of musicals, including Funny Girl, The Music Man and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

When Hawaii Five-O was filming its first season in 1968, Ryan appeared in the first episode as Millie, secretary to the Governor (Richard Denning). When Maggi Parker, who was playing Jack Lord's secretary, quit, Ryan took over the role, which she played from 1969 to 1976. Her daughter Kerry and her adopted son Shawn played guest roles on the series, as did Eddie Sherman.

In the early 1980s, Ryan decided to start a dance studio in Las Vegas, and for the last few years taught tap and produced dance revues there. She was active until a few days before her death.

Tom Vallance

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