Lee Roy Reams “Wanted to Be an MGM Star” – Part I

Actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director, and risqué Scheherazade, Lee Roy Reams is the Zelig of musical theater. He seems to have befriended everyone, laughed with most, tamed obstreperous leading ladies and extricated himself from sticky situations with the wily diplomacy of a more graceful Madeleine Albright. Reams has maintained his moral compass and courtly, southern charm, fostered loyalty, and zealously plied his craft.

Mr. and Mrs. Reams didn’t expect a seventh child. “Mom said, ‘I’ve got three boys, three girls, and Lee Roy.’” Having doted on her brother, his mother lavished attention on her son. “I was catered to,” he admits like a grateful cat with cream. “Mom and my sisters came to all my shows. My dad not so much. I was never hurt by it. It was foreign to him.”

Lee Roy Reams in dancing school

“I knew from birth what I was going to do.” Lee Roy signed up at the Jules Stein School of Dance:  Tap, Toe, Ballet, Acrobatic, Ballroom, Personality, Baton, and Culture read the sign. Free tap shoes came with a certain number of classes. He performed his first recital at six and, at ten, was asked to entertain at The Ludlow Kentucky Stag Club. There he sang “Bummin’ Around” dressed as The Little Tramp and danced a hula in drag. “They put me in girl face.” He demonstrates still balletic arms. “Honey, men went wild.” Fifty-two dollars was stuffed into Lee Roy’s bra and skirt. There was no sign of stage fright. He was teased in elementary school, but even then had the equanimity to realize it was “temporary.”

“I started having sex at six. Next door was a boy my age who took me behind the garage, pulled my pants down and rubbed up against me. It felt good.” Straight cousins followed- experimenting. “We didn’t kiss or climax. It wasn’t emotional. In Kentucky, when you’re not near the girl you love (after the EY Harburg lyric from Finian’s Rainbow), there’s the boy, cow or sheep…I thought if you got a girl pregnant it was bad and you shouldn’t do it with a girl until you were married.” Lee Roy admits to being “horrified” at the description of French kissing. There was, eventually, a virgin for whom he “did missionary work.” He was apparently robust and later invited back. Once was enough.

Mom and his first dachshund

Lee Roy lived at the movies. Never having read Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, sophisticated images and ambition was garnered from popcorn matinees. He performed around town and saved money, but studied typing and shorthand in high school – just in case. “Mom didn’t push me into it.” The entertainer’s only held two civilian jobs in his life, a piping contractor’s secretary (he lasted one month) and a substitute teacher (of which he’s proud). His father took him hunting with older brothers, but mom put her foot down. “I was removed from masculine interaction.” He shrugs. “I don’t think she was aware of my sexual orientation. I was going out with girls.”

Asked to join the Cincinnati Zoo Opera as a 17 year-old, he befriended 14 year-old Suzie Ficker who would become prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell at American Ballet Theatre. They danced in such as Carmen and La Traviata. When he finally got to New York, Lee Roy would go see Suzie dance so regularly that “Mr. B.” – George Balanchine – recognized him as an influence. He tried to bribe the young man into convincing her to marry him, not the dancer with whom she was in love. Had things evolved differently, we might’ve seen Lee Roy at Lincoln Center in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. 

Suzanne Farrell and Lee Roy Reams

He was energetic and ambitious, simultaneously attending both the University of Cincinnati -on savings and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music -on scholarship. Summer 1961, in stock at the James Alex Summer Theater, Lee Roy danced with Rita Moreno – “Heaven, just Heaven” – and Jane Powell, as well as around Dorothy Collins and Dorothy Dandridge. The company performed a musical a week. “I could’ve done two if they’d let me!” Eagerness remains in recollection. He got his Equity card.

Two elective credits short of graduation, a little creative skirting of rules and an appeal to the dean – “You’ve seen me perform for four years. You have to get me out of here!” – secured undergraduate and master’s degrees followed later, by an honorary doctorate.  When he had saved $500, his professor drove him to New York.

Lee Roy Reams headshot at 21

Lee Roy got a job as a Juliet Prowse back-up dancer at 21. The act was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb then working on Flora the Red Menace, musical directed by Billy Goldenberg, and orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick – all of whom are legends today. Juliet was having an affair with Sal Mineo whom Lee Roy had met earlier on a film. The actor invited him to breakfast in his hotel room. He opened the door in a towel apologetic for running late. Coffee and compliments followed. Then Mineo rose and dropped the terrycloth. “Honey, I’m not f**king the boss’s boyfriend!” Lee Roy said with undoubtable aplomb.

Juliet and Lee Roy would talk. (Everybody talks to Lee Roy.) She told him she was a virgin when Frank Sinatra “got a hold of her” during the filming of Can, Can and that he was a very unsatisfactory lover. (Her phraseology was more colorful.) The 19 year-old had no idea what she was missing until an affair with one of her Las Vegas chorus boys, whereupon she took off Ol’ Blue Eyes’ engagement ring, picked up her dog, and left.

Juliet Prowse and Lee Roy Reams; on The Carol Burnett Show

Next came Sweet Charity (Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields). “I went to the audition in ballet tights because there was nowhere to buy dance pants in Kentucky. (Bob) Fosse thought I was a ballet dancer.” Gwen Verdon liked him. He was hired to dance and play the small role of ‘a Spanish boy’ “because I could roll my r’s.” He demonstrates. By the time Fosse realized Lee Roy’s talent, the young man handed in his notice to rejoin Juliet’s act. The musical paid $125. weekly, Juliet offered $400. “I’m a show whore.” An outraged Fosse couldn’t argue with that. (Lee Roy was in the film.)

Television variety shows were omnipresent. The dancer went to California. He worked on the Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, Dean Martin, and Carol Burnett shows. At the last, there was to be a Jungle Book number. Asked which end of the elephant he wanted to be- “I started to feel like I was on a treadmill.” He quit.

Living in Hollywood, still somewhat naïve, Lee Roy met Scotty Bowers (infamous escort and procurer) at the first all male/gay party he’d attended. Bowers’ manhood was displayed with the cocktails. Years later, Bowers catered a party for Carol Channing and her gay husband. “Honey, that was the night Rock Hudson walked through a door frame in front of me. The handsomest man I’ve seen in my life!” There was, Lee Roy says regretfully, no interaction with Hudson. He remembers learning to deal with his first avocado and artichoke. This is a man who makes lemonade of lemons.

Lower deck front: Professor Paul Rutledge and Lee Roy Reams on The Majestic

On the way back east he was invited to direct, choreograph and play the lead in three shows on Showboat Majestic – an authentic paddle wheel boat. “It got my juices flowing again and inspired me to get back my Broadway goals. I knew I could always get a job.” (Oddly this doesn’t sound like bragging.) He returned to New York and joined The Peter Gennaro Dancers on The Ed Sullivan Show. “It’s going to a party every day. The little man had rhythm in his body. A divine human being.”

With Ethel Merman on The Ed Sullivan Show

While dancing on an Alan King special, Lee Roy found himself cornered by Michael Bennett. “I liked him, but I wasn’t attracted. Still, I appreciated his talent, that energy was appealing.” A situation much like that of Sal Mineo ensued. “The apartment smelled like Brigadoon on weed. Michael was high as a kite and pounced. He choreographed my body. I let him.” They had an affair. Around the same time, Lee Roy met Bob Donahoe who literally introduced himself with an in passing kiss. (Imagine a Nora Ephron film) Bob would become his life partner (50 years, 4 married). They dated, but he held his admirer at arm’s length until…

Lee Roy auditioned for the role of Will Parker in the Lincoln Center production of Oklahoma!. Composer Richard Rodgers cut off his rendition of “Lonely Town.” “Don’t you have a comedy song?” rang from the orchestra. He didn’t. Warned not to sing the composer’s work, he nonetheless delivered a rousing “Kansas City.” “Young man can you dance?” Rodgers demanded. “Yes, sir.” “Show me.” He did. “Young man is there anything you can’t do?” “No sir, there isn’t.” He got the job and never had to read. “I’ll tell you in all honesty, I played Will Parker like Doris Day in Calamity Jane.” His shoulders rise- just a little.

Lee Roy Reams and Margaret Hamilton who played Aunt Ella

Given an opening night ticket, Lee Roy naturally offered it to his lover. Michael whined he couldn’t sit through Oklahoma!. “I love you, I can’t live without you, move in with me, but…” he ruefully imitates Bennett. “I invited Bob.” His suitor rented a limousine. They had a gala evening. Two days later, Michael telephoned and found the door, without malice, politely shut. “Let’s just work together,” Lee Roy said with demonstrable equanimity. “I was never in love with him.”

In 1969, after four months of dating, Bob was invited to his apartment. “He spent two nights and started bringing his clothes. I didn’t want to live with anyone, but I learned to love him… (Pause) I miss him every day.” He describes his partner as “an attractive older man, very kind, smart, much more romantic than me and the most honest person I ever knew. He liked to take control and I liked having him do that. He had a steady job (advertising) and loved show business.” Bob also loved collecting and decorating, habits about which Lee Roy tells me he became fanatic. 

Bob Donahoe and Lee Roy Reams

Eventually the two would together buy an 1890 brownstone on the Upper West Side and turn it into a 19th century showplace. (Their Darien, Connecticut home was sold when Bob died. Possessions are coming out of storage. They sit, ready to be dealt with, on every floor of his home.) Below a dozen paintings by “the Pennsylvania Grandma Moses,” an impressive Rookwood pottery display, and a wall of Bob’s cow collection, beside hundreds of small iron, brass, and china “weiner dogs” (he’s had eight beloved live dachshunds), we’re sitting at a big, heavy, country French table – which of course has a story.

One day at Pierre Deux in the Village, Lee Roy saw exactly what Bob had announced they needed for the dining room. His partner was skeptical. When they finally got down there, the piece had been sold – to their friend Sandy Duncan. “So I called Sandy and said, ‘You c*nt!’ “Who is this?!’ she exclaimed. I said ‘You c*nt, you stole my table!’ I explained and asked that if she ever decided to get rid of it, she call me first. A few years later, I pick up the phone: ‘Hello, c*nt.  Do you still want the table?’” Lee Roy’s friends often speak his language.

Bob with dachshunds Greta and Gerta and some of their collected toys

Applause

“I auditioned for the part of Duane Fox, the homosexual hairdresser in Applause. He was the first openly gay character on Broadway. (I didn’t play him limp-wristed, just with flair.) My agent warned me I might get typecast. I told him I was a “fu**in’ actor. I really wanted to do it and didn’t get hired. That New Year’s Eve, I was so depressed. Within days, the phone rang. They fired the person they hired and wanted me immediately. I said, ‘not without a signed contract.’ Bob wrote on a pad – take the job, but for six months. The show was a hit. I got my pay increase with the new contract.”

“We were running through a scene. They told me to stand really close to a closet. It went on and on. Finally, I said, ‘When does this character get out of the closet?’ Betty (Bacall) roared. We began a friendship.” The star went out a back door down an alley to the car. Concerned for her safety and ever cavalier, he volunteered to escort her through autograph hounds earning major points and regular rides home.

Actor Len Cariou tells me that VIPS and royalty were asked back to the star’s dressing room with the show’s principals. When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited, Lee Roy came in and was introduced. Shortly thereafter, he left – but three beats later poked his head back in with, “Oh, and Duke, thank you for the knot.” (The Windsor knot!) The door gently closed. ‘Impeccable timing.

Candid photos of Lee Roy Reams and Lauren Bacall

Lee Roy was unhappy to discover he’d be sharing a dressing room with a straight actor. Brandon Maggart was from Tennessee, however, and he found they had a lot in common. The thespians would do three shows together and become lifelong friends. “The only time Betty got mad at me was when I missed my entrance because Brandon was telling me this story about fu**ing his 80 year old landlady. Betty was livid…I learned to swear from Betty Bacall. Boy could she do it!” Lee Roy apologized, dauntlessly reminding the star that he too felt awful. She backed down.

Nine years later, Brandon and Lee Roy were in Potholes at the Cherry Lane Theater. Brandon was going through a rough divorce. He vividly remembers singing a song about a struggling relationship, finding himself on stage frozen and in tears. Lee Roy rushed out with his next, decidedly upbeat number and rescued the situation. “I was sympathetic. He was always falling in love.”

Young Brandon Maggart and Le Roy Reams

Actor Brad Oscar tells me that when his parents (fish out of water) came to visit a Las Vegas production of The Producers, Lee Roy sat for hours regaling them with stories of favorite MGM stars. His mother still talks about it. Actor Susan Powell got off a plane with laryngitis scheduled to audition for Lee Roy in The Sound of Rogers and Hammerstein. “I walked up to him and showed him a yellow legal pad where I had written: “I HAVE LARYNGITIS. I CANNOT SING FOR 7 DAYS, but I know my part and can whistle it till we open. Please don’t fire me.”  He was sympathetic. They bonded. He’s kind.

“When we flew into Dallas on tour (with Applause), Bob was with us. His clients were at the airport to pick him up. Betty said, ‘Watch this!’ Getting off the plane, she hooked onto Bob’s arm, grabbed and kissed him on the mouth saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna live without you’, then turned to the surprised men with, ‘So nice meeting you.’ We walked off and she said, ‘How’d I do?’ That’s the Betty I knew. We were girlfriends. I always said, I worked with, knew, and loved Lauren Bacall, but when we were alone, she was Betty Perske.”

Anne Baxter and Lee Roy Reams

Ann Baxter was hired to replace Betty. She was a deer in headlights. Lee Roy helped her. “Ann had a backbone like a pioneer woman. From then on we went out together.” At the same time Betty was leaving and Ann taking over, Lee Roy’s mother was dying in Kentucky. He naturally flew home. “I get a call, ‘Is there any way you can get back here? Betty is hysterical. She wants you here for the closing. Ann will not let us bring in any reviewers until you’re back in the show. She’s not gonna open till you’re back.’ I said, ‘My mother is dying.’ My sister said, ‘What do you think mother would say?’

“So I got on a plane. I closed the show, rehearsed Anne the next day, opened with her that night, and made plans to fly back to Kentucky. On my dressing table was an envelope with a round trip ticket and $100 left by Anne. When I insisted on thanking her, she cried.  I got home in time to be there when mom died.”

All unattributed quotes are Lee Roy Reams
Opening photo by Deborah Templin
All other photos courtesy of Lee Roy Reams

Read Part Two

About Alix Cohen (1787 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.