Vivien Fay: A Vanishing Ballerina

Here’s one we know chiefly by her credits, which bring her plenty close to many of the folks we have written about. As for the woman behind the credits, we know next to nothing. Her birth name may have been Vivian Fields Fay or Fay Vivian Fields; her stage credits list her as Vivian Fay; her screen credits have it as Vivien Fay, with a slightly different spelling. She may have been Born January 16, 1912 in San Francisco or May 13, 1908 in Lubbock, Texas.

We are indebted to the Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, which provides details about her earliest years. They tell us she was trained at Theodore Kosloff’s Ballet Studio in San Francisco, and made her professional debut in a Gus Edwards kiddie act in vaudeville. She performed in the Los Angeles cast of Naughty Riquette (1926). It is said she danced in the original 1928 production of Rosalie on Broadway with Marilyn Miller, although she is not listed in the credits. She may have toured with the show, used a pseudonym or been an understudy. With her balletic training she wasn’t a mere member of the chorus, but often got turns doing specialty numbers. Her Broadway credits include Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1930 and George White’s Music Hall Varieties (1932) and Melody(1933); and Albertina Rasch’s The Great Waltz (1934-1935), where she danced the role of Katti Lanner.

Next came Hollywood. She had a small role in The Lottery Lover (1935) with Lew Ayres, Peggy Fears, Sterling Holloway and Reginald Denny. Then came perhaps her best known turn today: she danced the “On Blue Venetian Waters” number in the Marx Brothers’ film A Day at the Races (1937). Then came a Universal musical short called Rhumba Land (1939). 1940 may have been her busiest year: she appears in the films Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me; Dance, Girl, Dance; and Abbott and Costello’s One Night in the Tropics; she also toured with a travelling vaudeville show organized by Ed Sullivan called Stardust Cavalcade, along with Bela Lugosi, Arthur Treacher, Peg Leg Bates, and others. She next danced in the Universal shorts Once Upon a Summertime (1941) and Tune Time (1942). The last credit I can find for her is a 1945 Republic Studios musical called A Song for Miss Julie. 

After this, Fay became a ballet teacher. She passed away in 2007. A thoughtful reader wrote in to shed some light on her post-movie years:

She taught ballet classes in Westchester (LA suburb), where my mother met her.  She started us in “Miss Fay’s” class at a very young age, and we went every Saturday.  My love of ballet came from her class, and while I’m not the most coordinated person in the world, I am certain I am far less gangly and awkward than I otherwise would have been.  She was a fantastic ballet teacher, and an incredibly sweet woman.  She was devoted to her mother, who lived a very long life.  I’m not sure what personal life she had beyond that.  As an adult I reconnected with her via email in the last few years of her life.  She lived in Venice, CA.

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