This 'Elderberry' keeps blossoming in the footlights
Updated 4:09 pm, Thursday, January 26, 2012
At 14, Elinor "Cookie" Kavanaugh was dancing at New York's Stage Door Canteen, entertaining troops on respite from World War II. At 84, Kavanaugh is directing the troupe known as the Elderberries as they dance and sing their way around Fairfield County.
The Stratford resident found her way to the Fairfield Senior Center and the Elderberries, a musical variety group, back in 1988, when she thought she'd hung up her tap shoes for good.
She was wrong.
Longtime friend and unofficial big brother, Joe Sullivan, a former General Electric employee, was the Elderberries' director back then and he asked Kavanaugh to perform with them. It took a bit of convincing, but Kavanaugh said she dusted off those tap shoes and when Sullivan could no longer direct the group, she took over that role.
Kavanaugh -- whose maiden name was Cooke, which explains the nickname -- may not be doing much dancing these days, especially now that she's recovering from a bout with pneumonia, but she clearly remembers when the dancing bug took hold.
Kavanaugh's two sisters and her father had been taking dancing lessons and he used to make them practice in the cellar on the concrete floor, she said. "They hated it," she said, recalling how she would hide on the steps to watch. "One night, he caught me," she said, and asked what she was doing up there. When she told him she wanted to dance, her father had her come down and show him what she could do.
"I started to do some of the steps my sisters were doing," Kavanaugh said. Her expertise prompted her father to tell her sisters they were off the hook. "He became my mentor," she said. "He took me to shows, to dancing lessons."
At one point, her dance instructor informed her father that she had taught the younger Kavanaugh -- who was performing in local shows with her father from the age of 6 -- all she could, and passed along the name of a teacher in New York City.
"My dad paid $100 -- at that time, $100 was a lot of money -- for a routine. I got the routine in two lessons." The dance teacher felt that since she picked up the routine so quickly, the Kavanaughs hadn't gotten their money's worth and let her join one of his classes to see what she could learn. "That was the start of me," she said.
In high school, Kavanaugh would dance for WWII soldiers at night in New York, and catch some winks during the ride back to Stratford so she could make it to school the next morning.
"It was thrilling," she said, being part of the Bridgeport War Council Talent Unit. "We would meet at 5 o'clock in the morning and go anywhere within a 300-mile radius that we could get to in one day."
The soldiers they entertained, either in shows at camps or at the Stage Door Canteen, were "wonderful," Kavanaugh recalled. At hospital wards, when the unit arrived the soldiers "were all so down and when we got finished, they were smiling and laughing. At night we would put on the big show in the auditorium, and everybody that could walk would be there."
She was the only student in her school doing anything for the war, Kavanaugh said, and it apparently sparked some jealousy. Two teachers began to spread a rumor "that I was a bad girl because I danced in short skirts," she said, adding she did the same type of tap dance routines for school assemblies. But "they made it tough."
Kavanaugh found herself serving an hour's detention for every minute she was late reporting to school, and when her then boyfriend, and now husband, Ron Kavanaugh, came home on leave, he'd sit in detention with her.
"They weren't going to let me graduate," she said, but Kavanaugh was able to collect her diploma from Stratford High School after some intervention by Bridgeport Mayor Jasper McLevy on her behalf. "Mayor McLevy took care of it and I graduated," she said.
Married and with two young sons at home, Kavanaugh still pursued her avocation. "On the weekends I'd get a phone call for a gig," she said. "They paid $10, it was a lot of money. Ron had to watch our little boys. I would put my costume on, and then a pair of slacks and my coat, and put my music and shoes in a suitcase and I would drive to the place."
Back then, she said, nightclubs were classy places with shows that featured an emcee, a singer, a dancer and a comedian. She'd do her number, stow her dance shoes and head back home. "I'd be gone about an hour and a half."
Kavanaugh even appeared on radio's "Ted Mack Amateur Hour," but unfortunately, she said, no one back home heard it because it was pre-empted by the broadcast of a baseball game.
While she was doing her dance routines and raising a family, Kavanaugh was also working at the Lycoming plant in Stratford, supervising four other women and earning a good paycheck. A friend was thinking of quitting her job and opening a small dress shop. The idea intrigued Kavanaugh, but while her friend had family money to invest in the business, the Kavanaughs did not.
"But I kept thinking about it," she said. "My father always said, `You girls belong in a dress shop.' He was quite a dapper Dan." The Kavanaughs talked it over and Ron suggested they visit the credit union at SNET, where he worked. They borrowed the $4,000 and the two friends opened "Claudel's Fashion Carousel" in 1962 next to Huntington Green in Shelton. When her friend left the business after about 10 years, Kavanaugh once again headed to the credit union to buy out her share and ended up moving the store across the street from Treeland in Bridgeport.
Eventually, though, Kavanaugh said she could see the bigger stores were able to sell the merchandise for less than she could even buy the goods, so decided after 26 years to close the shop's doors.
And that's when Sullivan got Kavanaugh back on her feet -- and dancing.
"I did it for about 10 years," she said. "I danced every Wednesday in the shows and then Joe got sick. He said, `You can't let these Elderberries fold, it's too good.' "
Kavanaugh overcame her reluctance and right now is gearing up for Elderberries' rehearsals and shows that will start next month.
"I listen to their music, I correct their mistakes," she said. "I'm not a connoisseur, but I know if something goes off key. I know which songs are better for people than they realize themselves."
The new season for Elderberries gets under way next month under the joint sponsorship of the Fairfield Senior Center and Fairfield Continuing Education. There is no fee because of the musical-variety group's performances in the community. Rehearsals for members will be weekly on Wednesdays, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., at the Fairfield Senior Center, 100 Mona Terrace. For information, call Fairfield Continuing Education at 203-255-8376 or check www.fairfieldcontinuinged.com.