Tamara Geva: On Her Toes

And now a brief encounter with Russian-American dancer, actress and choreographer Tamara Geva (1906-1997).

Geva was the first wife of George Balanchine and a principal member of his first ballet company. She was the daughter of a wealthy St. Petersburg arts patron; her mother had been an actress. Her early life was upended by the Russian Revolution, when her father’s property was seized, but she still was able to make her way in dance in the official state institutions. She and Balanchine married and escaped to the west in the early ’20s, and were hired by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes. In 1926, Geva split with both Ballanchine and the Diaghilev company, joining Nikita Balieff’s La Chauve-Souris, which is how she got to the U.S. and Broadway.

And now she begins to figure her in pop culture! She basically went back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood films for a quarter of century. On stage she was in Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! (1928-29) and the revue Three’s a Crowd (1930-31) with Fred Allen, Clifton Webb, Libby Holman, Portland Hoffa, and Fred MacMurray. Then the Eddie Cline film The Girl Habit (1931) in which she co-starred with Charlie Ruggles, supported by Margaret Dumont, Allen Jenkins, and Donald Meek. Then back to Broadway to co-star Flying Colors (1932) with Webb, Charles Butterworth, Patsy Kelly, Imogene Coca, and Buddy and Vilma Ebsen, followed by The Divine Drudge (1933) and The Red Cat (1934). Back to Hollywood for a supporting role in Their Big Moment (1934) with Zasu Pitts and Slim Summerville. Then back to Broadway for Alma Mater (1935), followed perhaps her notable Broadway performance in On Your Toes (1936) in which she danced opposite Ray Bolger in Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet. This was followed by her best remembered movie Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937), on an all-star bill that included Phil Regan, Leo Carrillo, Ann Dvorak, James Gleason, Ted Lewis, Cab Calloway, Kay Thompson, Luis Alberni, Max Terhune, Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, and Louie Prima!

In 1938 Geva traveled to London to appear in the West End production of Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight. Laura Hope Crews played her role in the Hollywood screen version the following year. At this stage, Geva seems to have pretty devoted to developing a reputation as a serious stage actress. Her next Broadway appearance in 1941, was in a production of Euripides The Trojan Women, as Helen of Troy. She then returned to Hollywood for Orchestra Wives (1942) and Night Plane from Chunking (1943). In 1942 she married Tallulah Bankhead’s ex-husband John Emery, and the pair costarred on Broadway in Peepshow (1944) with David Wayne, and in the film The Gay Intruders (1948), written, directed and produced by Ray McCarey, Leo McCarey’s brother. In between those projects she choreographed the dances in the Njinsky inspired film Spectre of the Rose (1946), written, directed and produced by Ben Hecht, and featuring Judith Anderson, Michael Chekhov, and Lionel Stander; and acted in the Los Angeles premiere of Sartre’s No Exit (1947).

In the ’50s Geva dabbled in television a little and headlined a 1953 revival of Shaw’s Misalliance with Richard Kiley, Roddy McDowell, and William Redfield, her last Broadway performance. In 1959 she co-created an off-Broadway show called Come Play With Me with soap opera star Haida Stoddard and composer/songwriter Dan Suesse (best known for the 1934 tune “You Oughtta Be in Pictures”). Geva and Emery divorced in 1963. (They should have waited it out — he died just a few months later.) Her autobiography Split Seconds was published by Limelight in 1972. Her last screen appearance was in the 1983 German thriller Fevel.

By the way, I’ve also written about Balanchine’s second wife Vera Zorina. I’ll be doing posts about the other two wives (Maria Tallchief and Tanaquiel Le Clercq) in future — he married a bunch of interesting women!

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.