Busby Berkeley, the man whose name has become synonymous with mammoth, kaleidoscopic, fantasy dance sequences, died thirty-five years ago today after a chaotic life that contrasted sharply to the well-patterned numbers he created for Hollywood.
Berkeley, born William Berkeley Enos in 1895, was a child of vaudevillians. His father died soon after he was born and young “Buzz” developed a lifelong obsession with his mother, who had for a time acted in silent movies.
He learned choreography in World War I where he trained troops to perform intricate marching routines. After a successful stint on Broadway, he came west to stage dance sequences at Warner Bros., where his geometric extravaganzas – famous for being shot with a single camera and for paying tribute to the female form – almost single-handedly kept the studio afloat during the darkest days of the Depression.
During his career, Berkeley staged over 50 huge musical numbers, like Lullaby of Broadway in Gold Diggers of 1935, where he directed 150 singing and tap-dancing young ladies. His unequalled imagination allowed him to turn lines of dancers into waterfalls, giant violins, and images from kaleidoscopes.
Famous for his “combustible personality,” Berkeley was most often unconcerned with the feelings – or the safety – of his dancers. Since his rants often took place during the many hours of preparation required to set up his sequences, working on a Busby Berkeley set was often described in the same manner as warfare: boredom punctuated by terror.
Berkeley was a heavy drinker, and his alcoholism resulted in the deaths of three innocent people one night in 1935 when he crashed his car while driving intoxicated. He was tried for second-degree murder in the case, but high-priced studio attorneys were able to get him acquitted.
High-living and alimony (he married six times) cost him his fortune, and after his beloved mother died, he attempted suicide. Work in Hollywood grew scarce when musicals fell out of fashion, and for a time Berkeley’s work was largely forgotten.
He successfully returned to the stage before finally retiring. He was able to see his work get rediscovered by the public before his death in Palm Desert on March 14, 1976, at age 80.
One secret that Berkeley may have wanted to take to the grave with him was that he couldn’t dance!