Obituary: Lisa Gaye, dancer and actress in TV Westerns

Lisa Gaye, rock Around the Clock dancer and star of TV Westerns. Picture: Contributed

Lisa Gaye, rock Around the Clock dancer and star of TV Westerns. Picture: Contributed

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Born: 6 March 1935, in Denver, Colorado. Died: 14 July 2016, in Houston, Texas, aged 81.

Lisa Gaye had ambitions to become a professional ballerina before landing a seven-year acting contract with Universal-International at the age of 17. Her training as a dancer was put to its greatest great effect in the 1956 film musical Rock Around the Clock, starring Bill Haley and the Comets.

She and the movie’s choreographer, Earl Barton, are seen leading the bopping and jiving that is giving young people an escape from their everyday lives and the chance to express themselves presented by the phenomenon of rock ’n’ roll. Their performance to the Comets’ Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie number was a show-stopper.

In “the first film to plead the cause of the newest craze in modern dance music”, as one critic described it, Haley, with his famous kiss curl, and other acts such as the Platters and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys portray how it began. Legendary DJ Alan Freed makes a cameo appearance and actor-singer Johnny Johnston plays Steve Hollis, the band manager who falls for Gaye’s character, Lisa Johns.

Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956), which was quick to cash in on Rock Around the Clock’s success and includes music by Fats Domino, features Gaye as June Fitzdingle, the love interest of a TV host who meets protests from the older generation in small-town America for allowing teenagers to dance to the new music.

In real life, both films found similar opposition, particularly from church groups and educationalists concerned that rock ’n’ roll was an affront to moral values and would cause juvenile delinquency.

Gaye then spent much of her career in television, becoming one of the most prolific actresses to appear in 1950s and 1960s Westerns.

Born Leslie Gaye Griffin in Denver, Colorado, she came from a show-business family. Her mother, Marguerite (née Gibson), who previously performed in vaudeville theatres and nightclubs as Margaret Allen, married Frank Griffin, a painter, and their two other daughters both went into acting – Debralee as Debra Paget, a movie-magazine pin-up and star of the 1950s, and Marcia as Judith Gibson, then Teala Loring – while their son, Frank, spent a decade as an actor before becoming a leading film make-up artist.

When Marcia landed a film contract with Paramount, the family moved to Los Angeles and Leslie was taught dancing and acting at the Hollywood Professional School. She made her stage début as a dancer in The Merry Wives of Windsor, starring Charles Coburn, at the Los Angeles Biltmore Theatre.

At the start of her Universal contract in January 1953 – Leslie’s mother insisted that she and her sister work for different studios to avoid competition because of their similar looks – she took the professional name Lisa Gaye and was given lessons in drama, singing, dancing, fencing and horse riding.

She made her feature-film début in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) as one of the fan-worshipping teenagers screaming at a bandleader, played by James Stewart, and his wife (June Allyson), standing out from the crowd with her auburn hair and green eyes.

Gaye also acted Audie Murphy’s reserved fiancée in Drums Across the River (1954). A scene showing her beating up the gangster’s moll who incriminates Murphy’s character in a robbery for which he is sentenced to hang was cut when Universal decided it tarnished the actress’s squeaky-clean image.

However, the studio dropped her after two-and-a-half years, partly because a back injury meant that she had to wear a brace for a while and it had to shelve plans for her.

Gaye left the studio system and, after the rock ’n’ roll film musicals, appeared alongside Dean Martin in Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957), in which she dances to an Italian version of Rock Around the Clock.

In La Cara del Terror (Face of Terror, 1962), a Spanish thriller, she played an escaped asylum patient whose disfigured face is restored to beauty by Fernando Rey’s pioneering doctor – until the serum wears off. The less-than-successful Night of Evil (1962) gave Gaye her only top billing, as a high-school cheerleader who becomes a stripper, then commits armed robbery.

By then, while sister Debra was landing film parts alongside Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender, Gaye had found more fulfilling roles on television.

When she played French model Collette DuBois in The Bob Cummings Show (1955-9), Tidbits magazine ran a picture of her in a gold lamé jump suit with the caption: “Lisa Gaye is one of the main reasons why The Bob Cummings Show is so popular with viewers.” She played Monique Vidal, a magician’s assistant stealing a credit card from the star, in a 1961 episode of the sitcom’s sequel, The New Bob Cummings Show.

Gaye’s other best-known comedy role was in the second series of How to Marry a Millionaire (1958-9), when she took over from Lori Nelson as Gwen Kirby, one of a trio of young women looking for a rich husband.

But it was small-screen Westerns that became a staple for Gaye. Her horse-riding experience proved invaluable as she dipped into episodes of more than 20 popular series, from Annie Oakley (1956), Northwest Passage (1958) and Cheyenne (1960) to Rawhide (1960), Maverick (1961) and The Wild Wild West (1966 and 1967). She had 10 different roles in Death Valley Days between 1960 and 1969.

Gaye, who in 1955 married Bently Ware, a business executive, retired from acting in 1970 to bring up their daughter, Janell. Following Ware’s death from a heart attack in 1977, she moved to Houston, Texas, worked for 19 years as a receptionist at KETH Channel 14, a local religious television station, and sang in the Evangelistic Temple Church’s choir.

She is survived by her daughter, sister Debra and brother Frank.

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