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A great performer gives one more show

Lumiere Player cast member Don Sky dies at age 81
by: Submitted photo, A BRUSH WITH FAME — (At left) Don Sky, of Portland, was an accomplished dancer and choreographer. His resume included parts in “A Star is Born” with Judy Garland. Sky is to the right of Judy Garland in this photo.

TUALATIN - Don Sky's resume reads like it was taken right out of the sweaty hands of a young and eager dancer of the 1950s.

His list of movie musical credits includes 'A Star is Born' in 1954 starring Judy Garland, 'Singin' in the Rain' in 1952 starring Gene Kelly and 'There's No Business Like Show Business' in 1954 with Marilyn Monroe.

He prepared choreography and acts for legends like Groucho Marx, Audie Murphy, Liberace and Louis Armstrong. And for some reason, when he auditioned for the Tualatin-based Lumiere Players in 2002, Sky came off as a little nervous.

Sky, who as a spry kid had impressed Marilyn Monroe with 'the greatest legs in the world,' approached director and playwright Hal Long with a humble demeanor. At the age of 76, Sky just wanted another chance to perform.

'I couldn't believe he was asking me to give him a shot,' Long said. 'We were honored.'

And through five years of performances with the Lumiere Players, Sky became best known for one part: the old Marine in Long's 'The North Platte Canteen.'

Tualatin Heritage Center Director Larry McClure recalls watching Sky one night before a performance. Sky struggled to put on his costume in the center's parking lot, pulling his clothes from the trunk of a car. Then he painfully made his way into the center.

But once on stage, all hesitation and pain were gone. McClure remembered Sky's 'booming voice won a spontaneous applause from the crowd.'

Ever since a 2003 performance at the Beaverton Elks Club when the audience of 165 people jumped to their feet, Sky had always received a standing ovation for his 90-second performance.

Other performers would ask how he did it. How he could walk on stage for less than two minutes and win over a crowd?

'Easy,' Long said. 'He was a performer.'

As a child growing up in Portland, Sky had tap danced his way into vaudeville shows. At the age of 17 he joined the Navy during World War II. And in 1946 after two years, he got out and used the GI Bill to pay for classes at a dance school in Hollywood. Then he performed and toured with big band leader Horace Heidt.

For a short time, Don Sky was simply the skinny kid with Bob Hope's nose. In the early 1950s, however, Sky became a stock dancer for MGM and danced in movies with big-name stars.

'He told stories that none of us could be a part of,' Long said. 'It was like you were standing next to something that was greatness. He was there.'

He told stories of a 4-year-old Liza Minnelli sitting on his lap and reciting all of her mother's lines from 'A Star is Born.' And how Judy Garland would intentionally flub lines in order to get the crew extra pay for more time on set.

'His stories made all of the stars of the '50s and '60s real people,' Long said.

From Hollywood, Sky went to New York where he taught in several dance schools. Long recalls a story of one dance studio next to the Rockefeller Center where the Rockette dancers would go to warm up with Sky before performing. Sky also worked choreographing for musical theater.

It wasn't until Sky was in his late 60s that he and his wife Gwen, also a retired dancer, moved to Portland. During his time in Portland, he performed with the Musical Theatre Company, the Lakewood Theatre, the Portland World Theatre, Nutz and Boltz, and Call in Sick Productions.

On Dec. 27, Don Sky, 81, died. His family had a small gathering at an Irish wake. Long noted that when Sky wasn't on stage, he was a recluse.

'But for every great performer, every time you do a show, you're afraid it will be your last one. Don was always looking down the road. He was a showman right to the end of his life. He was always getting ready for the next show,' Long said.

Before he died, Sky called Long. The two had been working on a question-and-answer presentation for the Tualatin Heritage Center. Sky's stories of the old days with the peppering of famous people made his musings about life a guaranteed hit.

Sky made Long promise the show would still go on even if he died.

On Sunday, Jan. 20, at 2 p.m., the Lumiere Players will host a memorial show for Don Sky. The event is free and open to the public. Donations will be taken at the door. Friends from Sky's performing days in Hollywood and New York are expected to make appearances during the program and share stories about the dedicated dancer, choreographer and actor.

Long said while Sky had a lifetime of memories to keep him content, it was the camaraderie among actors that filled him with joy. The small and cozy camaraderie of the Lumiere Players reminded him of times past when performers met just to perform for each other. No audiences or reviews were needed. The company of good people was enough, Long said.

The last performance Sky ever gave was his 'The North Platte Canteen' monologue performed in North Platte, Neb., last May.

'It was just a piece, but he did the song and dance that went with it. He would shout it out, and people would jump up. That was his signature piece. I could never give that part to anyone else. He was that part. Those words don't belong to me anymore,' said Long.

And while Sky would change the scripted words around every other performance, the end usually stayed about the same, Long said.

The monologue would end with, 'To this day I don't understand why, out of the whole country, the people from this little town carved out a memory. But if you ever see any of them, and they wonder if what they did ever really mattered, you tell them from the bottom of my heart, 'Hell, yes, it mattered. It meant everything.''

And the crowd would erupt with applause.

At a Glance

What: A memorial show in honor of Don Sky

When: Sunday, Jan. 20, at 2 p.m.

Where: Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 S.W. Sweek Drive

The show is free, but donations will be accepted at the door.