June’s Star of the Month: Cyd Charisse
By Dr. Annette Bochenek
Hometowns to Hollywood is an ongoing series exploring the roots and legacies of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars.
Among the many wonderful dancers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Cyd Charisse shines as a gifted actress and dancer who shared the screen with many other memorable talents.
She was born Tula Ellice Finklea on March 8, 1922, to Ernest and Lela Finklea in Amarillo, Texas Her father worked as a jeweler and the children grew up with a maid and a cook working in the home. Finklea would soon take on the nickname of “Sid,” as the result of her older brother’s mispronunciation of “Sis.” She would soon study dance after facing many illnesses, including a severe bout of polio. At age six, she began dance lessons to rebuild her strength, eventually studying ballet at age 12 in Los Angeles. Two years later, she auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo and secured a spot in their company, dancing under a variety of stage names, including Felia Siderova, Maria Istomina, Natacha Tulaeilis, and Celia Siderova. She would also study at the Hollywood Professional School.
During this time, she married fellow dancer Nico Charisse in 1939, with whom she had a son named Nicky. They would divorce in 1947.
Finklea would enter into films in uncredited roles before World War II caused the ballet company to disband. Upon her return to Los Angeles, she was offered a dancing role in Columbia’s Something to Shout About (1943), soon joining MGM’s Freed Unit, becoming the studio’s resident ballet dancer. While at MGM, her nickname of “Sid” was changed to Cyd, and her new stage name became Cyd Charisse.
After working in more uncredited roles, Charisse’s appearance in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) garnered positive reviews. She followed this performance with roles in The Harvey Girls (1946), Three Wise Fools (1946, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), an Fiesta (1947).
In 1948, Charisse would marry singer Tony Martin, with whom she would have a son named Tony Martin, Jr. The couple remained married until her passing in 2008.
After a series of box office disappointments, Charisse worked in some hit films including The Wild North (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
In the following years, Charisse would appear in some films that would be pivotal in her career but would ultimately lose money at the box office. These films included The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and Silk Stockings (1957).
As the popularity of musicals declined, Charisse retired from dancing but continued to make film and television appearances. She wrote a joint memoir with her husband called The Two of Us in 1976 and went on to produce exercise videos for seniors. She would also appear on Broadway in Grand Hotel and would make her last film appearances in That’s Entertainment! III (1994) as one of the narrators. Additionally, Charisse received the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities from President George W. Bush in 2006, in a private White House ceremony.
Charisse passed away on June 16, 2008, in Los Angeles at age 86.
Today, there are some tributes and locations of relevance to Charisse that remain. Charisse’s childhood home stands at 1616 Tyler St. in Amarillo, Texas. Her father’s jewelry store was located at 608 Polk St., though its original building no longer remains.
Charisse’s home with Nico also remains at 1210 (#6) N. Orange Grove Ave. in Los Angeles. The home she shared with Tony Martin stands at 1197 N. Via Monte Vista in Palm Springs, California. Charisse has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on the west side of the 1600 block of Vine St.
Charisse continues to be celebrated by her graceful dancing in many beloved classic Hollywood films.
Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a professor, film historian, and scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.