Oct 23, 2017
by Robert Feuer
Patti Lacey, a Sebastopol resident since1954, has danced in the films of artists such as the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Ray Bolger, and many more. Now, at age 95, she’s full of joy and laughter, especially when reminiscing about old Hollywood.
Born on Sunset Blvd. in L.A. in 1922, she began her career by dancing around her house as a four-year-old. Her mom enrolled her in dancing schools, gradually leading to performances on vaudeville stages. At age 12, she met Ray Hirsch, who had taught Judy Garland to dance at Hollywood High. Hirsch, a year older than Lacey, became her dance partner for years. She describes him in a recent interview as being “full of everything good.”
A victory with Hirsch over 100 couples in a 1938 National Jitterbug Contest really kicked off Lacey’s career. That year, a photo of them appeared inLife Magazine, depicting Hirsch flipping Lacey upside-down with her legs showing. Lacey calls it “risqué, but not raw or against principles.” “They liked to see legs. I was proud of it,” she says, excitedly.
Hirsch taught her to jitterbug, a non-traditional dance considered by many at the time to be “crazy,” she says, danced by kids looking for notoriety and something unique. “They were into mischief. We tried to be flashy because that’s the way you win.”
The duo signed with Columbia Pictures for a dance role in the 1939 Dagwood and Blondie film, Blondie Meets the Boss. “It worked out real nice,” she says, “Ray and I were like brother and sister.”
Jitterbug had become the style, and the area of Lacey and Hirsch’s greatest popularity. Mad Youth in 1940 gained the pair further attention. Lacey describes it as “just crazy dancing, with a lot of jumping, with Ray landing on his knee.” In Buck Private (1941) she met Abbot and Costello, who, she says, “joked and fooled around a lot.” The same year she did The Big Store with the Marx Brothers, including a scene playing cards with Groucho and Harpo (see photo).
Hollywood, at the time, had “motion picture studios all over the place,” Lacey says, but costs were high, which explains why many of the films were shorts, sometimes filmed in two hours. “We were working, it was fun, and the money was very good,” but she also emphasizes that “dancing was a job, especially in films.”
In 1945, Lacey married and had two children, causing her to back off from Hollywood. When her husband was killed five years later, she came with her family to live in a house in Sonoma County on land belonging to her dad.
She keeps in shape by going to the gym three times a week. Recently, she tap-danced on the dining room table, while being held by her son. “I could still do a routine but it would be corny,” she says.
“Dancing was my way of life – the way I was raised. Once it gets into your blood it’s wonderful.”
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