Ann Miller was the stage name of Johnnie Lucille Collier, born April 12, 1923 in Chireno, Nacogdoches County, Texas. Her father was John A. Collier, a criminal defense lawyer known for representing clients such as Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and the Barrow Gang. Her mother was the former Clara Emma Birdwell. As a young girl, Johnnie suffered from rickets and took dance classes to help strengthen her legs. She also studied piano and violin. The family moved to Houston, Texas where she lived until she was nine years old. Eventually her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Los Angeles.
She adopted the stage name Ann Miller when she began performing as a teenager, dancing in clubs like the Black Cat Club, when she was as young as thirteen. Many accounts say that she was discovered by Lucille Ball. When she was still underage but falsifying a birth certificate, she signed a contract with RKO Pictures. Her first uncredited part was in a 1934 production of Anne of Green Gables, followed by a number of low-budget studio films. Four years later, Miller appeared in 1938’s You Can’t Take it With You, Frank Capra’s production featuring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold and others. These early films began a long career that lasted until the middle 1950s. Ann was in position to replace fellow dancer and former Texan Cyd Charisse when Charisse broke her ankle and Miller was chosen to replace her in a 1948 film called Easter Parade. This led to more roles in films such as One the Town, Kiss Me Kate and Deep in My Heart during the prime years of the movie musical genre.
Miller co-starred with the best dancers of the era including Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger and Fred Astaire and is easily compared with Charisse, Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell. She had an appealing and outgoing personality, good looks and was one of the strongest dancers of the era. Her contracts were with Columbia, Republic and MGM after RKO.
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In most films during the that part of her career, she played parts that showcased her dancing ability, including her strong stacatto tap dancing. After her film career declined with the genre, also coinciding with the rise of television in the United States, Miller performed on stage in musicals including Can-Can, Mame, Hello Dolly, and Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney.
Ann married three times, to Reese Lewellyn Milner, William Moss and Arthur Cameron. None of her marriages lasted very long and two of them were reportedly abusive. Miller was to have dated various individuals including Howard Hughes, Conrad Hilton and Louis B. Meyer.
Miller died of lung cancer in 2004 and is buried in Culver City, California. Her honors include having a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A favorite pair of her tap shoes are displayed in the Smithsonian Institution. Her Los Angeles Times obituary includes this quote from John Bowab about Miller’s on stage presence, “She brought an aura of happiness with her to the stage. The audience knew it would have a good time. She was funny, bright, glamorous, and she loved every minute of it.”
Ann Miller and Fred Astaire – “It Only Happens When I Dance with You”
Ann Miller and Ray Bolger – “Puttin’ On the Ritz”
Ann Miller and Gene Kelly – from On The Town
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