Elaine's Memories

Most of Elaine's early dance steps took place in the same house where she was born at 344 South 14th Street in St. Helens, Oregon. Some of us may remember taking lessons there too, sidestepping puddles on the way to the corner basement studio with the chewing gum garden outside the only window that opened, or perhaps later in her downtown studio that she and Ron converted from an old bowling alley in 1959. However, the focus of this story is Elaine's personal memories as she related them to us in an interview with her and her husband Ron Lease in March 2013.

Born to Dance

Elaine knew she wanted to dance from an early age and despite her mother's attempts to have her play the saxophone and join her very musical family, she felt she had no gift for it. "The reason that my mom started me dancing was that I kept falling down all the time, skinning my knee so she thought I needed some coordination. Of course, after I started dancing there was no end to it. I just wanted to dance forever. That's all." And dance she did. First taking lessons in her home from Gertrude Marth and then performing on the Stars of Tomorrow where her sister sang and Elaine danced. "Now there was no TV so why they had us dance over the radio, I didn't know, except that it was at the George White Servicemen's Center and they had a lot of servicemen who came there for the weekends and events and they wanted them to be entertained. So that's the only reason I can think of why we were on there.

I started teaching when I was 12. Well what happened was there were a couple of dancing teachers that came in before me. Then this teacher started teaching in our basement, - that was during The Depression - and they would even sleep at our house because they didn't have any money to get a hotel. Thank goodness things started to pick up, so when they moved to Vancouver there was no one here at all. I was still taking all these lessons in Vancouver from Phyllis Charles and working on my own dancing. Every summer she took me to Hollywood to take lessons from various dance directors. They weren't just solely tied up with the movies, so you could go in and take a lesson from them. I had a couple of people come to me and say there's nobody here to teach the kids. Would you be willing to take my daughter, you know, and teach her some dancing? I thought, well, yeah, because there was no way they were going to get lessons any other way. The funny part was I started up and by the time I got through the 8th Grade, I had about 20 pupils. My mom said to me, 'now you know this isn't going to last. You've got to realize that this is just a temporary thing and it will never amount to a hill of beans.'"

Off to New York

At 16, Elaine traveled with her mother to New York City for dance lessons. "When we got to New York, it was just a blast, because they never had anybody from Oregon at that time. It is not like now where everybody goes to New York and takes dancing. When I went into the studio on Broadway all the girls would say are you afraid of the Indians? Do you think the Indians are going to attack you? I said no we're not really afraid of the Indians; so I sort of stood out from the group. I took lessons from this man, a black man, his name was Ernest Carlos, and he was just wonderful. I took three private lessons a day.

One day I was dancing in the studio and he said to me your mind's not on your business, you know, what's the matter with you? You usually pick up everything so quickly. I said, I thought I saw Johnny Coy walk by. Well they had all the stars up there, you know, but Johnny Coy was my favorite dancer. I just thought he was wonderful. He was in movies for just a short time. He was every bit as good as Gene Kelley and Gene Nelson.

So Ernest Carlos says, so you saw Johnny Coy walk by. It was nothing to him, see, and I said, oh, he's my favorite dancer. He said, I'm going to go out and you practice what I showed you and then I'll come back in and we'll finish up your lessons- so I said OK. I was practicing Mr. Carlos' lesson when Johnny Coy came in and asked, 'Are you the little girl from Oregon?' I said yes. 'Would you mind if I practiced with you for awhile?' OOOOOH BOY! I know that Mr. Carlos set that up.

I was really lucky because Mr Carlos came to me another day, and said he wanted me to take more classes. I said, oh Mr. Carlos that's just wonderful, but we just can't afford anymore lessons. My dad had just died and it was $10 an hour, which was an enormous amount when I was that age, you know. He said I didn't say for you to pay for them, I just want you to go in and take them, and if you don't go in and take those classes, then I'm going to give you that material in a private lesson. So you get in there and take those classes. I was just the belle of the ball. Now it wouldn't happen today if you went back there because they've got so many people from Oregon; but back then everybody was just thrilled that I was there.

The other students weren't impressed with anybody. Oscar Hammerstein came up there and they weren't impressed with him, but they said guess who's coming to the studio today? Georgie Tapps! I said, Georgie Tapps, I've never heard of him. Well we didn't have TV or anything. Then they said, oh my gosh, he's just the biggest star on Broadway. I asked how will I know him? They said you will know him because he is short, so he wears his pants way up to here to make his legs look longer. I said, OK I'll watch for him. So sure enough George Tapps came up there and my mom and I were sitting out in a room and all the girls were just gaga. He came up to me and asked, 'are you the little girl from Oregon?' I replied yes, and he said. 'I'm setting a new routine for my show, would you like to come in and watch me?' I said yes, if we wouldn't be in the way, you know. He didn't invite any of the other girls in to watch. I was the belle because I got to go in, you know. I was so lucky. I learned so much that summer, and that was really good."

Elaine returned to St. Helens to continue providing lessons and successful recitals, but with ambitions for Hollywood.

Hollywood Disappoints

"I had a chance to have an audition with Universal Pictures because I had taken lessons from the dance director Johnny Mattison. He told me to come down to Hollywood after I was out of school. I did, but he was gone on vacation so they sent me with this awful producer. He was a very vile man and he told me right off what I would have to do to get into the movies. He said if you don't do it I'll blackball you and see that you will never get into pictures. I cried. I was so humiliated that anybody was vile enough to talk to me like that." Saddened, she returned to St. Helens.

First Job

Elaine recovered quickly when she got a call from the Clover Club in Portland. "Just before I went to Hollywood, I had done a week up at the Clover Club and just had a ball. I had the best time and I loved it. That was the only thing that saved me - the fact that they called me and asked me if I wanted to dance another week up there, and I did. After that I was OK. The orchestra leader watched out for me, boy I'm telling you. One night the Governor of Alaska asked the management if he could take me out as his guest to tour some night clubs and things. The orchestra leader said no, absolutely not. He said if the Governor of Alaska was here we would know it. I said OK because I believed everything that orchestra leader said. The next day in the paper it came out: Governor of Alaska arrives. So we didn't know it, but it's just as well I didn't get to go.

The way I got that job was really funny. My mom and my aunts who were here from back east went up to the Clover Club. They wanted to go dancing or have a few drinks, you know. My mom, of course, was telling the manager what a wonderful dancer I was and he said to tell me to come up and audition at noon when the orchestra is playing. So I went up there and danced for the orchestra leader. He said do you how to take a bow? Luckily I had been taught by an agent how to take a bow, so the Orchestra leader said hire her. So that is how I got my first job. It was just too easy, you know. I always did a single. I think that's why I didn't stay in it longer, because I had to travel by myself and it was real lonely. You see I couldn't be in a group because I didn't dance like anybody else. I had my completely own style, and that wouldn't have worked, because when you dance in a group you have to turn your head a certain way at certain times and just can't let loose at all. That wasn't for me."

The Pageants

As a solo act Elaine found plenty to keep her busy. For example, she was Miss Flame in Vancouver, Washington. "I really had fun too. That Miss Flame picture was a one-shot taken by an Oregonian photographer. Look how perfect that picture is. They built drums out in the middle of Kiggin's Bowl, the athletic field over in Vancouver. They built this drum up there and it had layers way up to the top and I got up on that thing every night for seven days. I had to climb up the back, in the dark, clear to the top and then they would hit me with a black light spot, and I danced on the top and then I would spin all the way down on all those layers until I got to the ground. Every night! The wind would blow so hard- that skirt, you can tell it has yards and yards of material- that it's amazing I wasn't blown off the top; but it was still fun.

The year 1948 was a good one. I was Miss Flame and named Miss Columbia County at the Columbia Theatre.

More Prospects

I tried to dance with Sammy Davis Jr. I didn't get to, but let me tell you about that. We were looking for that deal and we couldn't find it. There was going to be this big show in Portland with Gordon and Sheila McCrae and Sammy Davis and I so wanted to be in that show, and I had an agent by that time. I wanted to dance, but they said no, Sammy Davis is doing all the dancing. They said if I would like to be a Jantzen swim suit model, then I could be in it. And I thought, well heck, why not? You remember Jerry Van Hoomisen? They had his orchestra playing for us. All these violins and everything and we walked to music like "You Go To My Head," and "Sweet And Lovely." I got to be in that show with Sammy Davis. I wanted to talk to Sammy because he is such a great dancer, but they told me don't talk to Sammy because you are a white girl. That's how it was then. They said you'll get Sammy in trouble. So of course, I didn't talk to him then. Gordon McCrae sang of course, and beautifully, but it was just when he made it big and he was just a ... I didn't like him at all ... he would sing for a little while and turn around to Jerry Van Hoomisen and say well, 'whoever told you guys you could play?' One of those types, you know. That orchestra could not have been better. John Herald, do you remember him? He was in all of John Wayne's movies and was the real tall dark guy that always was trying to get John Wayne's girl. He played just the dirtiest rats in all the movies. He was there too. (I didn't know he could sing 'til he got up there and out-sang Gordon McCrae), and he would turn around to the orchestra and say "gee thanks for that good note." Of course, to Gordon and Sheila McCrae we were nothing but the swim suit models. We sat down in the front row and John Herald would come in every day and he would sit with us. He was the nicest guy. I'll never forget him. He was just wonderful. Oh, they changed my name for that show. - if I had stayed in the business longer I would have used that name. They changed my name to Layne Hale. I thought, gosh, what a terrific stage name, so I got a new stage name out of it."


Listen to Elaine Describe her Melodrama written and performed for the 1959 Oregon Centennial in the Courthouse Plaza.

Share Copy Melodrama.mp3

Studios, Recitals & Performances

Elaine had several studios, first in her mother's basement, in Clatskanie , and finally in downtown St. Helens, where she and husband Ron converted an old four lane bowling alley where Ron had set pins when he was 12, into a space with two dance studios. They also added windows and dressing rooms. Very few people would notice or remember that it was first built as a JC Penney store.

Elaine put on her first recital with her students when she was just 12 and continued to have one or two big productions a year from then until her first retirement in 1992. Her recitals and performances were very well received. No one performance or recital stands out in her memory. "They are all pleasant memories." But Ron has his favorite: Avalon Lou, a routine performed to music written by Lucille (Lou) Frazier, her pianist. "The popcorn queen.” That was another song that Lou wrote that was so cute. We had Velma Lou Howard and I got Jimmy Rabinski to sing. He was quite a good singer. There was a part in that song where all the little girls in the back threw popcorn just like snow. We did that in the Miss Columbia County Pageant.

We did the Avalon Lou routine at many shows for entertainment. It was the cutest song. Lou wrote beautifully, and she could play anything. She was great. She never had a piano lesson in her life. It was just a God given talent. I was just surrounded by talent, I'll tell you. We had a drummer, Pete Kollemeir and for a while a whole orchestra, the Hal Cook Orchestra, for the recitals.

Packy the Elephant

Oh, and something that we did that I had forgotten about is that we did the dance number up at the Zoo for Packy's first birthday. Lou wrote the song, "Packy the Baby Elephant." I remember that Cheryl DeLashment was Belle and Randy Hall was Papa Thonglaw and baby Packy was, . . .oh criminy, I should have written this all down (Lonnie Hawkins-ed.). That was a lot of fun too and the kids got a big kick out of doing that. Heck Harper recorded Packy the Baby Elephant song.


We used to make all of our costumes, but that's before they had professional costumers and ready-made outfits. They don't have the glamour that the costumes the moms used to labor over. In our recitals, gee, that was half of it; people had such beautiful costumes. It was the fathers that got them done, you know. They would say? Oh, the costumes are done, now I'll get a dinner won't I?

Elmer the Horse

That horse is about 60 or 70 years old and he danced for governors, he has danced for everybody, our horse, Elmer. In fact, we did that number to Elvira. Well Elvira was perfect for that horse because they have that part where they go bump da de bump, and you turn the horse around and he'd do his rear end.

He is still performing. I don't know how many shows he's done and he's had several face lifts, but he's still just as darling when he comes out.

Dance Competitions

Did you know that we won two national championships, in dancing? I have to tell you this since it shocked me to death. I took my dancers to the MGM Grand in Reno and they had a dance convention there where the teachers all brought their very best pupils and they danced on the stage floor there. The first day that we arrived, they announced that they had a secret panel of teachers from all over the country and they would be watching all 150 kids. At the end they would announce the best dancer. So all of our kids were just scared to death. "We've never been anyplace," you know and I said oh, forget it they're not going to pay any attention to anybody from St. Helens. Just learn all you can and have a good time.

The night before they announced the winner, this teacher from Alabama came over to me, but spoke to Dana (Purkeson). Do you have any relatives in Alabama? I have a little girl who takes dancing from me who looks just like you. What is your name?" So she got her name. Just for a second I wondered if she's up for that award. Then I thought, no, not after looking at all 150 kids that were from bigger places than we were. The next night I was pretty nervous. On my way to the kids' show I stopped into the casino and put in a couple nickels and won $1,200, which was a good sign. We went into the competition and my girls just danced beautifully. I was so proud of them. When they came to the award they announced Dana's name. Dana said, I can't go up there, I'm not even the best dancer in our school. They announced her name again and finally I said to Dana you won the darn award get up there and accept that trophy. She did, but that was a shocker.

I've got to tell you about the other one. I had this beautiful tall blonde girl, Shelby Hulit. I have real long legs and the only time I felt like I had short legs was when I danced next to her. She was about 5' 8" and she had legs that came from her shoulder, I swear. She was a marvelous dancer and we went to a dance convention at the Nugget in Sparks, Nevada to perform. All of the teachers brought their best dancers. They didn't let the teachers judge. They had the dancers from the Hello Hollywood Hello show judge. By golly, Shelby won. The next day the fellow that was in charge of the whole convention came over to Shelby and asked her age. She said sixteen and he told her that he wanted her to come down after she graduated high school and he would get her an audition with the Hello Hollywood Hello show. That wasn't our cup of tea because they all danced topless. Oh, she was beautiful, just beautiful. I taught her little girl to dance too. That was a pleasure.

Keep your costumes on

It was so funny when I went to see Hello Hollywood Hello. I knew most of them were going to be topless, so I did OK with it, but I wanted go out and buy them 150 bras. It was a wonderful show, with a big complete jet, a real airplane on stage. It was Ok with me until they got to the Pas de deux ballet and this guy and this woman were dancing together and doing ballet of all things, the most classical, most cherished thing you could ever do, and to have his hands all over her - she was topless- and I didn't like that.


It was a really big job to do the choreography - oh the things I used to do. I did some recitals all in rhyme. I wrote all the rhyme for the whole thing. We did recitals that had all the holidays, oh, and we did one recital with commercials for every business in town. That was funny and really cute. I had Dr. Curnutt's daughter as a student and we made some glasses for her with the things that hung out, green things that jogged up and and down. She would go out and do the commercial and say "If you go see my daddy, you can look just like me."

I had a lot of recognition for choreography because there were several things that turned out really well. I choreographed a routine for another dancing school, and they competed in Portland and won.

I also choreographed a dance for Miss Portland, Leslie Weaver. She won her competition for the talent. I choreographed for MaryAnn Nordeen, Miss Longview, and I had a routine in a magazine published by the National Association of Dance and Affiliated Arts that was distributed to all of the dancing teachers in the United States.


St. Helens has been good to me. I was named woman of the year one year. I don't remember what year it was, but I thought it was very nice of them to do that. We won a trophy one year for best float.

Dancing for the Cows

My first retirement in 1992 was traumatic. I slipped on ice on my way to my car and couldn't get up. I laid in the rain for a long time until someone heard me calling out. A shattered hip ended my dancing and instruction. The school continued with my daughter for another year, but closed in 1993. I wasn't done yet. WynDee Wilson called to ask for help at her Oregon Performing Arts Studio (OPAS). She asked if I could could teach some classes. I wasn't sure, since I hadn't even tried to dance. I went onto the back patio and started dancing for the cows in the pasture, and sure enough I could still do it. I continued to teach until my vision got so poor it was just too difficult. I do miss it. I think I got along very well with the kids. I could get them to do anything, even at a young age. All of my three year old students did a four-step dance. Their rhythm wasn't developed yet, but they got on the stage and did all four steps. I think they liked me. When I look at some of the movies I think we really did do a good job. Their arms are up, they're moving to darling music; yes, it is good.


My mother Freda and my sisters Cora and Linda are all gone now, but I still have my family, Ron, and my wonderful daughters Lori and Shawn and grandkids. We're all connected by dancing one way or another. Even Ron. We used to go out dancing every Saturday night. Everybody thought we were just terrific because we would follow each other so well. And we were. I would count for him all the time we were on the dance floor.

Many wonderful memories

Those are all things that happened. When I think of one thing, then I think of something else that happened. It was just all wonderful."