Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Potter County, Texas on March 8, 1921 to Ernest Enos and Lela Norwood Finklea. Ernest was a well known Amarillo jeweler of French descent, though he was born in Texas. Ernest was the proprietor of E. E. Finklea Jewelers at 410 South Polk Street in downtown Amarillo. Finklea’s billed itself as “The Jewelry Store of the Panhandle.” The name Cyd is a respelling of the nickname her brother gave her when he could not pronounce “sister” and she adopted it as her stage name. The last name Charisse was actually her married name.
Cyd showed an affinity for dance when she was young and began taking ballet lessons at the age of six. By the age of twelve, her parents allowed her to attend the Hollywood Professional School in California, only coming home to Texas on special occasions. Two years later, she was spotted by a director of the Ballet Russe and invited to tour with the company in Europe and the United States. She was given one of two Russian-sounding surnames in the billing. Her dance instructor in the company was Nico Charisse and at age seventeen, she eloped with and married Charisse (about fifteen years her senior) in Paris, France in August of 1939. She and Carisse had first become acquainted at the Hollywood dance school when she was twelve.
At the outset of World War II, the couple quit touring with the group and opened a dance studio in Hollywood. Their son Nicky was born in 1942. Cyd used her married name, started auditioning in Hollywood for acting roles and appeared in five productions in which she was uncredited and one in which she was listed as Lily Norwood, using her mother’s maiden name. After signing with MGM Studios, she was cast as a dancer and appeared in the film “The Ziegfeld Follies” in 1946, though she had no lines in the production. She had first dialogue in her second film, “The Harvey Girls,” in which she appeared with Judy Garland who had a starring role.
Over the next forty years, she would appear in over three dozen film projects including “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “Three Wise Fools,” “Unfinished Dance,” “Fiesta,” “The Kissing Bandit.” “Words and Music,” “East Side, West Side,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Gotta Dance,” “The Band Wagon” and “Brigadoon.” She was cast alongside Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and many other noted performers.
She was divorced from Nico Charisse in 1947 and married singer Tony Martin the following year. With Martin, she had her second child, Tony Martin, Jr. in 1950. She was pregnant with Tony, Jr. when auditions were held for “An American in Paris” or she likely would have been cast in this production. Headlines would say that she briefly retired from films in 1950, but Charisse resumed her career the following year, after which she made what were the most memorable of her appearances. Her career paralleled the “golden age” of the film dance/musical genre. After her film career slowed down in the mid 1960s, she made several television appearances.
She earned a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into Austin’s Texas Film Hall of Fame. When asked to compare Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, she remarked that each were great dancers but had different styles. She ended with a sly variation on a familiar expression by saying that they were like apples and oranges, “each was delicious.” When asked if she had to choose between dancing and acting, she would always choose to continue dancing.
(Image credit: NYTimes.com)
The following short clip linked below shows Ms. Charisse in her prime.
Cyd lived a long and productive life, passing away at age 86 in California and is interred at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California. She had once told Gene Kelly that people might not remember her face, but they would remember her “pins” (her beautiful legs). Her epitaph reads “Beloved Wife, Mother and Grandmother. She danced her way into our hearts.”
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