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Director-Choreographer-Performer Tommy Tune Talks About the Start of His Stage Career

Actor, dancer, singer, theater director, producer and choreographer Tommy Tune has collected 10 Tonys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. The 6’6” (and every inch irrepressible) Tune was first honored more than 40 years ago for “Seesaw,” and his gifts helped power such stage works as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “My One and Only,” “Nine,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and “Cloud 9.”

Now in the sixth decade of his career, Tune returns to the road with another stage legend, Chita Rivera, as their “Chita & Tune: Just in Time” tour makes stops in Florida, California and elsewhere this month.

Variety first noticed Tune on Feb. 20, 1963, as he earned his first paycheck (or should have) as a director of a musical-variety show at Houston’s Rice Hotel.

Most bios start your professional career in New York City, but before you ever left Texas, Variety credited you as director of a variety show featuring The Ames Brothers.

It wasn’t my first job, but it was the first paying job.

When did you start producing shows?

My parents told me I was choreographing before I could walk. In elementary school, when we’d go to one kid’s house to play cops and robbers and another kid’s house to play cowboys and Indians, they’d come to my house to put on a show. We had a corner house with a courtyard, and the folks would put out blankets on the ground and watch. I remember producing shows there for three or four seasons. And of course later there were many big college productions.

The headliner on this show was the Ames Brothers.

My daddy was concerned about my career, and so he ran a Dun & Bradstreet report on them, and they looked OK. All of the rest of the acts were local. I think the Ames Brothers were trying to find themselves after their star, Ed Ames, left to go solo. But we had great local acts. Paul Schmitt was musical director, and he was incredible. Mildred Jones was divine. She was a beautiful, great black singer who was very versatile. I used her in almost every scene. Mary Helen Kuhne was a great singer with great range. Sidney Rojo was wonderful and starred in a local production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” And there was a terrific young Mexican singer, Johnny Ballad, who just came out and sang and played guitar. But there’s a finish to this story. I don’t remember full houses. And I never got paid.

So this helped prepare you for the realities of showbiz when you left for New York?

My father told me he couldn’t understand why I would want to leave Texas, because Texas had everything. I told him he was right except for one thing. Texas didn’t have Broadway. So he sent me off with a bag of sandwiches and a checkbook.

Did the sandwiches keep you from the starvation most young actors and dancers face in the Big Apple?

On my first day, my pal told me to go down and get a Variety and look in the back at the auditions. I saw they needed a boy dancer-singer for the touring company of “Irma La Douce,” which was starring Genevieve. So I auditioned and got the job. The show was closing on Broadway, and it was going out for 22 weeks on the road. It was 17 boys and Genevieve. She was wonderful. She cut her own hair, and she wound up cutting my hair for me.

That sounds like a crash course in show business.

I learned everything and not just about show business! And I’m still learning.

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