The Prowess of Juliet Prowse

It’s a virtual certainty, I think, that the first time I became aware of Juliet Prowse (1936-1996) was when she was the guest star on the first episode of the first season of The Muppet Show. I was about 11, and I’m sure I went who, what, who? I was about 11. Prowse was primarily a dancer, with legendary legs that went all the way up to her arse. Her big moment in the sun had been the years just before I was born, and ended when I was an infant. So she was one of those TV mysteries, though I’m sure I subsequently caught her on the occasional program, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Love Boat, things like that.

Prowse grew up in India and South Africa. Trained in dance from the age of four, she was performing in Paris night clubs when she was booked to appear in the 1960 screen version of Can-Can (so funny — we were writing about that just yesterday). 1960 has to have been her annus mirabilis. She appeared in Can-Can with Frank Sinatra and G.I. Blues with Elvis — and became romantically involved with both men! (Elvis was just an on-set fling; she broke up with Sinatra in 1962). She had an intense beauty not unlike Sophia Loren’s and a sort of European aura of class and sophistication that was hugely popular in the ’50s and ’60s. She probably seemed a shoe-in for stardom, but her acting skills were somewhat weaker than her singing and dancing, and the public seems not to have warmed up to her quite as much as her co-stars did.

In 1961 Prowse appeared in three films, all pretty much forgotten now: The Fiercest heart, The Right Approach, and The Second Time Around. In 1962 she choreographed and appeared in Eddie Fisher at the Winter Garden, her one Broadway credit. 1965 was her last big year in terms of a major national profile: she starred in the sitcom Mona McClusky, produced by George Burns, and appeared in three more forgotten films Run for Your Wife, Dingaka, and Who Killed Teddy Bear?

But during those peak years, she did do a lot of variety television, like Ed Sullivan, Kraft Music Hall, Dean Martin, Hollywood Palace, and specials by the likes of Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, Bob Hope, etc. A lot of her time seems to have been spent in live musical theatre, not on Broadway, but tours, productions of Irma La Douce, The Boy Friend, Sweet Charity, Mame, Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, Chicago, Follies, Sugar Baby, etc (in many of these, she seems to have been a sort of Gwen Verdon substitute).

Prowse’s last screen acting credit was a 1987 episode of Murder, She Wrote. That too proved a significant year for her, though not a good one, for she was mauled by big cats TWICE, once on Circus with the Stars and once on The Tonight Show. She literally had to have her ear reattached! Now that’s vaudeville!

But cancer was what eventually took her in 1996, when she was not quite 60 years old.

For more on the variety arts, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,