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Dancing Queen

Deedee Wood

So what does Deedee Wood do all day in Cave Creek -- when she's not having lunch, that is?

"My friends in L.A. ask me that," says Wood as we wait for sandwiches. "They say, 'What do you do out there?'" The answer isn't complex. "I have a big house I have to take care of. I have lots of plants to water. I get up in the morning, I have my Cave Creek Coffee, I sit and look at Black Mountain, contemplate my day, contemplate my week coming up, feed the dog, feed the cat, visit with people. I read a lot, and I love film; I go to movies all the time."

Sounds pleasant, but it's understandable that her friends might wonder if it was too sedate a retirement for Wood -- her career kept her on her toes. After years on Broadway as a dancer and an assistant to no less than Michael Kidd, Wood became a top choreographer in her own right, staging dances for such classic movie musicals as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and later winning an Emmy for her TV work.

We're at Cave Creek Coffee Company, the airy, comfortable caffeine emporium where Wood buys her morning joe, just before the lunch rush. The pilgrimage to the far northeast Valley isn't one I make often, but Wood has promised me that the sandwiches we've ordered will make it worthwhile. In the meantime, she gives me her bio.

Born in Boston, she grew up in Connecticut, and came to dancing comparatively late, in high school. "But once I started, you couldn't talk me into doing anything else," she says. "I got a scholarship to Jacob's Pillow, which is a dance camp up in Massachusetts, started ballet classes in Westport, Connecticut, started traveling to New York on the train, to the American School of Ballet, moved to New York and started studying jazz at the Katherine Dunham school, which is Afro-Cuban. I started auditioning for Michael Kidd, who I later assisted. My first show was Guys and Dolls, was in that for over a year, then I went into Can-Can, was in that for over a year, then I assisted him and was a lead dancer in Li'l Abner, and then Destry Rides Again. And from there, we got asked to stage a television show because Michael Kidd was not available, so he suggested us."

The "we" isn't editorial; it refers to Wood's husband, Mark Breaux, with whom she collaborated on most of her earlier choreography jobs, as well as two kids. "He lives in Palm Springs," says Wood of Breaux, "and we're still married, and we're very good friends, but the marriage is perfect, because he lives there and I live here." She chuckles.

The couple broke into movies through a TV acquaintance. "They called us to stage a number for Dick Van Dyke on The Jack Benny Show. And [Van Dyke] was in negotiations for Mary Poppins. He told Disney about us, and we went up and met Walt, and boom, we got the gig."

The sandwiches arrive, and Wood isn't wrong. Mine, the Palomino -- pastrami, pepper Jack cheese and raspberry chipotle on sun-dried tomato basil bread -- is the best sandwich I've had in a very long time.

Wood phased out performing when she and Breaux started choreographing. Asked if she missed the thrill of performing, she notes, "Well, when you choreograph . . . like, I would do Julie Andrews' part. I made the most of that. And you know, I was one of the penguins in Poppins."

Beg pardon?

"Three of our dancers and myself, they filmed us doing the penguin dance, and then the animators took the film and the music up to the animation building and then drew the penguins from us."

Actually, there's a third for lunch -- Wood has brought along a penguin cutout that was used in the film to help Van Dyke look at the right spot while he danced soft-shoe with the animated birds, which would be added later.

"I love my penguin," Wood says of this unique souvenir.

Poppins, she admits, was a high point in her career. "[Disney] was one of the best places to work, 'cause when we did Poppins, he was alive, and he came every single day after lunch." The "he," almost religiously intoned, refers to Walt, of course.

After Poppins, Wood and Breaux choreographed two more family classics, The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They worked on other films and shows, together and separately. "Then Mark retired, and I kept working." She received an Emmy nomination for her work on Cher's TV show, and she staged dances for the Bette Midler film Beaches, but she came to specialize in large-canvas works -- many Super Bowl halftime shows, and her magnum opus, the closing ceremonies for the three-hour special for the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty. "I got my Emmy for that," says Wood proudly. "It's on top of the TV." She remains a member of the judging board for choreographers for the Emmys. She's also keeping her hand in by working on Celebration of Dance, a concert in honor of National Dance Week featuring various Arizona dance troupes, slated for Sunday, April 29, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Wood offers me a section of her sandwich, the Tornado -- turkey, cream cheese and cranberry walnut sauce on focaccia. It's delicious, too.

Naturally enough, Wood regards Kidd as her greatest influence, but when I ask her who her favorite dancer was as a kid, she names a guy who, according to tradition, never had a lesson: "Jimmy Cagney, even when he was just doing his hoodlum, had an air about him. . . . Also, Fred Astaire. To me, Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson are two of the top: Nobody can touch them."

The choice of Cagney may be especially significant, though. Outside of her long association with Dick Van Dyke, an acclaimed dancer, Wood has spent much of her career building numbers around star performers who weren't dancers first and foremost. Always eager for dish, I ask her to tell me who, among the show-biz giants with whom she's worked, was particularly difficult.

"I have to tell you, most of the top stars are terrific people," she says diplomatically. "I don't think they get there unless they are. I've been lucky. Bing Crosby was a dream. Bob Hope was not terrific. He was very standoffish. We never got one-on-one."

The same was true, she says, of Frank Sinatra. "Those two guys always had a lot of suits around them." She's quick to add, "They were at the top of their game," however.

She came in contact with two very different types of difficult performers while working on the later incarnation (1979) of Laugh-In. "Robin Williams was the only one I would allow to disrupt a rehearsal," she recalls, "because he would start ad-libbing with stuff around the rehearsal hall. I mean, you could not stop him. Besides not being able to stop him, you knew you were seeing a genius at work."

But her favorite story comes from the same period, and involves the legendary Queen of Difficult Performers: "Bette Davis was on Laugh-In. The big guest star was always in the opening number, and the director and I would design it sort of so that the star could just walk into the number. And she came into rehearsal, and we had sent her the tape of the number; she was going to talk it, you know. So she came in and the director introduced me, and I said, 'Ms. Davis, here you'll do this, and here you'll do this, and . . . .' So she turned to me" -- Wood jabs me in the chest with her forefinger to demonstrate what Davis did, much harder -- "and said, 'I'll do it my own way!'"

Wood laughs. "I loved it! I said, 'Yes, you will.' And I turned to the director and said, 'All yours.'"

On the other end of the spectrum, says Wood, "Goldie Hawn's wonderful to work with. So are Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Cher. . . . I said to Cher one time, 'Okay, Cher, I want you to do a plié here,' and she said, 'What? Deedee, please don't use those words with me. If you want me to do that, tell me to squat.'"


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