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Life-long dancer shares tales from the front-lines of show business

by:  ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Elaine Leatham sat down with the Estacada News to discuss her years of dancing, her mother being a maid to Hollywood stars, running into Sammy Davis Jr., featuring local politicians in her variety shows and the time disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding sang in one of her shows.How many people do you know who have literally run into Sammy Davis Jr.?

Sitting down with Elaine Leatham, stories and wisecracks start flying left and right before you even hit the chair.

The time she ran into Sammy Davis Jr. is just one of them.

Once Leatham was rushing from a building when she ran right into a man, lost her footing, and fell “flat on her ass.”

“I looked up and said, ‘Oh God, Sammy Davis Jr.!’ “ Leatham said.

He was “the smallest man” according to Leatham, and gentlemanly too. He helped her to her feet.

Leatham, a life-long dancer, seems to have had many brushes with celebrity.

Leatham was born into a show business family.

Her mother was a dancer and singer and was a chorus girl for the Cotton Club in Harlem.

She taught her daughters how to dance from an early age.

Leatham’s father was a pianist.

“I learned how to dance to every instrument through him,” Leatham said.

Leatham’s mother retired to become a maid for celebrities like Elizabeth Montgomery and Bette Davis.

Leatham remembers picking up the phone one time to find Bette Davis on the other end of the line.

Davis was asking for Leatham’s mother, who had recently walked out as Davis’ maid. Davis wanted her back.

Leatham admits to eavesdropping on her mother’s end of the conversation. Her mother agreed to come back as long as things changed.

Later, Leatham got a gift from Davis: clothes, including some of Davis’ dresses from the 1930s and an autographed photograph.

Leatham kept the photograph and gave away the clothes.

The 1930s dresses went to the Salvation Army.

“I wasn’t going to wear them!” Leatham said.

Despite being forced to go to “Caroline’s School of Dance” at a young age, Leatham scoffs when asked what type of dance she “studied.”

“I didn’t study any type of dancing. I dance. I’m a dancer. I’m a hoofer,” Leatham said.

Nevertheless, Leatham was getting booked for shows at an early age.

By the time she was in high school, Leatham was dancing in hotels on the weekend.

When she wasn’t on stage, she had to sit near the kitchen away from the action since she was a minor.

When she was older, Leatham was hired to chorus lines (like “The Rockettes”) despite being 5 feet 1 inch tall.

Being small, Leatham didn’t think she’d be hired on, but she was.

All she had to do was wear stilettos and “keep the line straight” without turning her head to see what the other dancers were doing.

She danced in the Champagne Supper Club and other clubs in San Francisco.

She was soon producing her own shows.

Leatham danced in several places in California, Houston, Austin and on the “Bob Hope Show.”

A pal asked Leatham if she’d like to dance with him on the show.

She thought he was joking.

He wasn’t joking.

The rehearsal went great but once she got on stage during the live show, Leatham froze at the sight of “all those people.”

Luckily, Leatham saw Hope in the wings.

His presence was encouraging, and Leatham kept dancing.

Leatham is inspired by choreographers like Bob Fosse and Rob Marshall.

Cyd Charisse is her favorite dancer.

Leatham hesitates to label the type of dance she does.

“I don’t know what style I have, I just dance,” she said.

For a while, Leatham lived in a bus with “five kids and two German Shepherds.”

According to Leatham, there were a lot of “bus people” in Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Eventually, Leatham moved to Oregon to get out of “the fast lane” and started teaching and putting together fashion and variety shows.

She’s been in the Estacada area since 1979.

“I’ve been doing shows in this town for 30 years and I haven’t stopped,” Leatham said.

Leatham has taught dance to “every age group” and puts everyone, “even ones that can’t dance” in her variety shows.

“I’m a vaudeville type person,” she said.

Over the years, she has featured several local luminaries in her shows.

Bill James, former publisher of this paper, was in one of Leatham’s shows. As was former mayor Bob Austin and former City Manager Randy Ealy.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Elaine Leatham has been dancing all her life.Figure skater Tonya Harding donned an evening gown and sang with a friend in one of Leatham’s shows.

Yes, she sang.

“What was I going to do, get a block of ice?” Leatham joked.

Leatham is hardly the type to be star struck.

She compares some modern pop and rap stars to “instant mashed potatoes.”

Mayors get called by their first names while performing in Leatham’s shows.

Local politicians were sometimes reluctant to take part, but by the time Leatham was through with them, they were making appearances in multiple acts.

The proceeds from Leatham’s variety shows go to charitable organizations.

“I’ve been there, I know how it is not to have a meal in front of you,” Leatham said.

Her upcoming “A Touch of Class Experience” show is no different.

The show is at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Estacada Community Center, 200 Southwest Lakeshore Drive.

$10 gets you admission to the show and a turkey dinner.

“Where (else are) you going to find a dinner and show for $10?” Leatham asked.

Proceeds from the production will go to benefit the Meals on Wheels Program.

The show features 15 people including “singing chef” and Community Center Director Kelly Williams, Whispering Pines Administrator Lisa Homan and Peggy Hartwig.

Reservations are required. Call the Community Center at 503-630-7454 to save a seat.

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