Alan John­son

Dancer and chore­og­ra­pher, Mel Brooks col­lab­o­ra­tor

The Scotsman - - Obituaries -

Alan John­son, a chore­og­ra­pher renowned for his campy movie col­lab­o­ra­tions with mel brooks on the spring time for Hitler goose-step­pers and-show girls ex­trav­a­ganza in The Pro­duc­ers and the Put­tin’ On the Ritz tap dance in Young Franken­stein, died last Satur­day at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

His death was con­firmed by his nephew Todd John­son, who said that he had re­ceived a di­ag­no­sis of Parkin­son’s dis­ease sev­eral years ago.

John­son had danced in the orig­i­nal Broad­way production of West Side Story and be­gan his ca­reer as a chore­og­ra­pher when he started work­ing with Brooks, whom he had al­ready met through a friend, lyri­cist Martin Charnin. Brooks, best known at the time for his work with Carl Reiner on the 2000 Year Old Man records, was de­vel­op­ing The Pro­duc­ers, about a pro­ducer who schemes with his ac­coun­tant to create a cer­tain Broad­way flop and steal the money in­vested in it by un­sus­pect­ing old women.

The show they choose – Spring­time for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Ber­cht­es­gaden – is the film’s mu­si­cal show­piece, a taste­less par­ody of 1930s mu­si­cals with Nazis singing and danc­ing and chorines wear­ing out­size beer steins and pret­zels on their heads.

“There’s a Mel Brooks the­ory of film­mak­ing,” John­son said in an in­ter­view for The Mak­ing of The Pro­duc­ers, a doc­u­men­tary in­cluded in the 2002 DVD re­lese of the film. “Three­quar­ters of the way through the film, give the au­di­ence a zetz” (Yid­dish for a smack on the head). “For­tu­nately for a chore­og­ra­pher and dancers, it’s a mu­si­cal num­ber.”

In 1974, Brooks re­leased two films, both of which fea­tured John­son’s chore­og­ra­phy. In Blaz­ing Sad­dles,” a west­ern par­ody about a black sher­iff who saves a fron­tier town, John­son staged two mem­o­rable dances: Made­line Kahn’s comic ode to her en­nui, I’m Tired, and a num­ber with Dom Deluise as a petu­lant chore­og­ra­pher re­hears­ing about two dozen men in top hats and tails as they sing, “Throw out your hands/stick out your tush/hands on your hips/give them a push!”

In John­son’s tour de force in Young Franken­stein, Dr Fred­er­ick Franken­stein (Gene Wilder) tries to prove to an au­di­ence that the mon­ster (Peter Boyle) he has brought back from the dead is ac­tu­ally a “cul­tured, so­phis­ti­cated man about town” by danc­ing with him in for­mal wear to Irv­ing Berlin’s Put­tin’ On the Ritz.

“Alan taught me how to teach Gene and peter the steps, workingout the tim­ing with not only the taps but also the cane,” Brooks said in a book he wrote with Re­becca Kee­gan, Young Franken­stein: The Story of the Mak­ing of the Film (2016). “It’s very in­tri­cate tap ping if you use the cane as well as taps.”

Alan Scott John­son was born on 18 Fe­bru­ary, 1937, in Ed­dy­s­tone, Penn­syl­va­nia, about 18 miles south­west of Philadel­phia. His fa­ther, Clark, was a ship­yard worker, and his mother, Mary (Shack­els) John­son, was a wait­ress who took Alan to dance classes at an early age. By the time he grad­u­ated from high school, his dance in­struc­tor had en­cour­aged her to let him find work as a dancer in New York.

He got a job as an un­der­study in the orig­i­nal production of West Side Story, which opened in 1957, and later played small parts in the mu­si­cal and its 1960 re­vival, be­fore go­ing on tour with it.

He re­turned to Broad­way in var­i­ous shows, in­clud­ing No Strings and Any­one Can Whis­tle. Fol­low­ing his work on The Pro­duc­ers, he chore­ographed a tele­vi­sion spe­cial in 1970 for Anne Ban­croft, Brooks’ wife, and TV shows that Charnin wrote or di­rected, in­clud­ing one cel­e­brat­ing the mu­sic of Ge­orge Gersh­win for which he won the first of his three Emmy Awards.

“He was an ab­so­lute mas­ter in terms of move­ment and how he could make some­thing hap­pen in very min­i­mal­is­tic ways,” Charnin said.

Charnin, who met John­son when they were both in the cast of West Side Story, added: “He wasn’t fran­tic. He was well man­nered and be­lieved in the im­por­tance of col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

John­son also chore­ographed The First (1981), a short-lived mu­si­cal about Jackie Robin­son with lyrics by Charnin and mu­sic by Bob Brush.

An­other of John­son’s fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tors was Shirley Ma­claine. He chore­ographed two Broad­way shows for her: a one-woman re­vue in 1976 and Shirley Ma­claine on Broad­way, a show with a small cast that had mu­sic by Marvin Ham­lisch and lyrics by Christo­pher Adler, in 1984. He won an Emmy for his work on her TV spe­cial Shirley Ma­claine … Ev­ery Lit­tle Move­ment.

In a state­ment, Ma­claine said: “Alan will make heaven look like it can dance.”

Even as John­son did more tra­di­tional chore­og­ra­phy, he con­tin­ued to work with Brooks on his films.

For his­tory of the world, part I (1981), he chore­ographed a rib­ald mu­si­cal num­ber about the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion, set in a tor­ture cham­ber, which, like Spring­time for Hitler, bor­rowed from the con­ven­tions of old movie mu­si­cals.

In his role as pro­ducer, Brooks gave John­son the chance to direct two films. The first, To Be or Not to Be (1983), was a re­make of Ernst Lu­bitsch’s 1942 com­edy with Brooks and Ban­croft in the roles played in the­o­rig­i­nal by Jack Benny and Ca­role Lom­bard. Three years later John­son di­rected So­larba­bies (1986), a sci­ence-fic­tion story about roller-skat­ing or­phans fight­ing for a so­lu­tion to a world­wide water short­age. It was widely panned.

He is sur­vived by his sis­ter, Judi John­son.

Spring­time for Hitler, chore­ographed by John­son in The Pro­duc­ers

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