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By Terry Miller
We met with Kathleen Menzie Lesko Monday whose forthcoming biography She Ran Between the Raindrops: Jeanne Devereaux Perkins, Prima Ballerina of Vaudeville and Broadway recounts the extraordinary life of a precocious child ballet dancer from Saint Louis, Missouri, born on October 31, 1912.
Deveraux Perkins asserted that sheperformed before more European crowned heads of state than any other vaudevillian of her era and loved to re-create the triumph of her Royal Command Performance before King George V and Queen Mary at the London Palladium in 1935.
Deveraux Perkins noted that she was the first ballerina and the only American to succeed Anna Pavlova’s performance in 1912. 26 years later she would be chosen to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on a lake in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne. She vividly described her spine tingling thrill when performing in the 1940s on Radio City Music Hall’s massive stage, and when in 1946 she had led the first USO troupe of performers to Japan shortly after the war had ended.
Deveraux Perkins became an international star in variety entertainment as a professional toe dancer during the first half of the twentieth century. Some vaudevillians did not make the transition to radio or television. Post retirement in 1952 she fell into relative obscurity in the annals of show business, but “possessed the intelligence, curiosity, and creativity to reinvent herself for four more careers.” According to her official biographer, Menzie Lesko. “Jeanne was one of the last vaudevillians of her era, and her personal story illuminates in a special way a dramatic period of American popular entertainment and culture” she added.
Deveraux Perkins career as an international prima ballerina spanned nearly three decades when she married Thomas Perkins of Pasadena in 1952.
Deverauz Perkins, already performing at age eleven, accompanied her determined mother on her first vaudeville tour on the Orpheum circuit at age thirteen.
Needing to support her family financially, in late 1926 after turning fourteen she left Saint Louis and her mentally ill father and went to New York with her mother to begin a career in show business. Although classically trained, like other toe dancers of her era she did not have the luxury to join one of the few fledging élite ballet companies, but needed to make a living in the popular and lucrative venues of popular variety entertainment. To distinguish herself as a specialty act and to protect her artistic integrity, Jeanne promoted herself as a “prima ballerina,” and stipulated in her contracts that she would not perform any nude dances.
Over her career Jeanne gave over six thousand paid performances, as well as five hundred benefits. She played at least seven times on all the vaudeville circuits that combined stage shows and films in America’s cities.
She was also a regular performer in the popular summer operettas, in the early 1930s danced in a feature movie released by Fox and another by Warner Bros., and from the late 1930s through the 1940s was a soloist at Radio City Music Hall. She danced in shows at New York City’s famous Roxy Theatre, in a George White musical starring Ed Wynn, on a vaudeville tour “Jeanne Devereaux and the Russell Markert Dancers” (later the Radio City Rockettes),” in a Fanchon and Marco “Idea” show, in Earl Carroll’s Vanities,” and in Clifford Fisher’s Folies Bergere. In 1949 she performed on Milton Berle’s popular television show The Texaco Star Theatre impersonating the famous blonde singer and dancer Marilyn Miller, who had starred in the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920s.
Two highlights of Jeanne’s dancing career took place in Europe and Asia. Jeanne claimed to have danced before more members of royalty than any other American performer of her time. In 1935 while performing at the London Palladium she was selected to dance in a Royal Command Performance before King George V and Queen Mary. She was the first ballerina since Anna Pavlova in 1912 and the first American ballerina ever to be invited to perform in a Royal Command Performance, an annual philanthropic event to raise money for old-time British variety artists. In 1938 while performing at the Bal Taborin nightclub in Paris, she was again invited to dance before British royalty, the time for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the Bois de Boulogne during their first state trip abroad. Later, in 1946 she led the first USO troupe of performers on a landmark tour to Japan shortly after the bombs had decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and forced a surrender that ended the war. Her description of her experience in Japan via Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa, with performances also in those islands, is riveting and historical.
Deverauz Perkins biography includes both public records like newspaper reviews as well as feature articles and theatrical posters. Menzie Lesko went thought countless Playbills, as well as personal notes, held interviews, and read family letters. Her life’s story “depicts the exhilarating yet exhausting lifestyle of a vaudevillian—a trouper—both onstage and offstage, riding the trains to the next town on the vaudeville circuits to perform five live shows daily as a prelude to a feature film and the spine tingling thrill of performing in one of the palatial presentation theatres in New York like Radio City Music Hall.” Biographer Kathleen Menzie Lesko said.
After her marriage to Thomas Perkins in 1952, Deverauz Perkins started the Devereaux Ballet Arts School in Pasadena from 1952 where she taught until 1964.
In 1980 until her retirement in 2008 at age ninety-six Deverauz Perkins was a devoted researcher (Reader) and writer at the Huntington Library, where she worked on her lectures and a biography of her “historical soulmate” Grace Nicholson, a pioneering collector and entrepreneur whose home is now Pacific Asia Museum.
After a four-month convalescence Jeanne passed away in a Pasadena nursing home on July 28, 2011, at the age of ninety-eight with her husband Tom at her side.
JEANNE DEVEREAUX PERKINS
October 31, 1912 – July 28 2011