Palm Springs Dancer Resumes Stage Career at 78
The first time he heard the symphonic-like score by Leonard Bernstein and saw Jerome Robbins' ballet-jazz fusion choreography, Hank Brunjes--one of the show's original cast members--knew that West Side Story was destined to become something special.
"On opening night, September 26, 1957, Leonard Bernstein, the great man himself, conducted. It was fantastic," says Brunjes, who is still dancing at age 78 in The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies.
More than half a century has passed since that Broadway opening, but for Brunjes, West Side Story is still as fresh as when he created the role of Diesel in that original production. Brunjes was also the understudy to Mickey Callan as Riff, the leader of the Jets and succeeded Callan in the role. And when "Cool," a big number, was performed on the televised Ed Sullivan Show, Hank played Riff--and got $400, he remembers--with Jerome Robbins directing the camera shots.
New York remains in his blood and in his brogue because Brunjes, who started tap dancing at the age of four, was literally born under the
Brooklyn Bridge--the maternity ward of the hospital was located beneath the span's trusses. He started his Broadway career in Pal Joey, and during 30 years as an ensemble member, also had long runs in such hits as Mame, The Rothschilds , Chicago and Sugar Babies. Because of his height--he's over six feet--Brunjes danced with such tall and elegant leading ladies as Ann Miller and Angela Lansbury.
He was lured to the Follies in 2003 by Leila Burgess, the company dance manager. They had been students together at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, showcased in Fame. Eight years later, at the age of 78, Brunjes notes a difference in himself.
"I'm getting better and better," he says immodestly. "I'm losing weight (his contract calls for him to stay under 183 pounds). When I first came here, my cholesterol was 265. I had a test the other day, and it was 186. I'm starting to feel that I should be on stage more so than ever. You start to work your craft. We're doing nearly 190 shows a year. You start to get pretty good."
He also is getting more to do. Playing the drums has been his life-long fellow passion, and he gets to "beat the skins" on stage; he has a son, David Henry, who, he proclaims proudly, is the best professional drummer in Leicestershire, England.
Hank is unfazed doing a number in drag. "People tell me I have beautiful legs," he laughs, and recalls that the great Bob Fosse first put him in a dress for Chicago, in which he also came out in diapers for "Me and My Baby." He adds, "I don't care what I wear, if it's a great number."
And he revels in the camaraderie of the Follies. "It's a great feeling after the show," he elaborates, "to go out and shake hands with the folks from the audience because you feel like you're shaking hands with aunts and uncles, people you know. I was shaking hands with a lady 90 years old the other day, and she said, 'You know, I'd like to take you home with me.' Her daughter said, 'C'mon, Mom, that's enough.'
"These are some of the best years of my life. Between seasons, I go fishing in Canada and go back to New York and take some jazz classes. When you're performing, you're able to express yourself on stage, and that has a cleansing effect. If something bothers me, it comes through me and goes out."
And a svelte, upbeat Hank Brunjes dances blithely on.