Ivery Wheeler, “Mr. Feet,” Is Back
Ivery Wheeler, 55, began his dancing career at age three when his father took him to “jig joints” in Las Vegas. “At the Louisiana Club, he would put me on the bar and I would dance to the music in the juke box,” Wheeler recalled. “My mom didn’t like it, but my dad would sneak me out, and people would give him money. It was natural. I could always dance with the music.”
When he was older, he was drawn to song and dance musicals and watched the movies of the great tap dancers. He studied alto sax and piano. At age 14, he watched the Bob Bailey show, the first local Las Vegas show at which he met Maceo Anderson of the Step Brothers. “Maceo had kids who could dance and flip into a split,” Wheeler said. “I took down his number and he invited me over. My mom walked me down to Mr. Anderson’s house about two miles from my home. His wife answered the door and gave me directions to the basement where he was holding class on a piece of plywood. I began to watch the kids dance. He said she had to buy me some shoes. My mother agreed to buy the shoes. ‘If I buy you these shoes, you have to learn to dance, or I will put salt on these shoes and you are going to eat them,’” she stated.
Wheeler began to learn tap dancing very quickly. Anderson took a special interest in him and thought he needed private classes. His mother didn’t want to spend any more money, but Anderson was going to form a tap dance act and she made the sacrifice for the classes. At 15, he began helping with the classes to assist with tuition.
“I danced everywhere: his house, bus stops, on the tile at my house, just everywhere,” Wheeler exclaimed. “I fell in love with tap. I found my escape from the child abuse of an alcoholic father who would whip me for no reason, and Mr. Anderson was like a father to me. I was born on a plantation named ‘Hun’ in Tallulah, Louisiana. My parents were very strict, could not read or write and had no schooling.” He remembers going to the cotton fields. His parents moved to Las Vegas when he was three and his father worked at a saw mill.
The group Anderson formed was called “Four Steps and a Miss” and consisted of Lonnie Wright (Maceo’s grandson), Jeffrey Hull, Cindy Notz, Terry Criner and Wheeler. “We did local shows, the Jerry Lewis telethon, and Theatre in the Round with Donald O’Connor in Westbury, NY. The group disbanded after about seven years.”
Anderson then created the “Third Generation Steps” act with Wheeler, Terry, Cindy and Andre De’Laroche. Anderson taught them acrobatics, how to spin a cane, stage etiquette, discipline and humility.
“He would tell us that even if our names were on the marquee, that people came to see the stars,” Wheeler said. “He wanted us to remain humble. He taught us how to fix our shoes, costumes, makeup and the dedication and accountability for each other, on and off stage…a family. He was the manager and agent. From his years of dancing, he had all the contacts and knew everyone in the business. Our first audition was for Dean Martin at Caesar’s Palace. We were invited to see the show, and we dressed in the bathroom in full tux and canes. When Dean came out we danced for him backstage in front of his dressing room and he thought we were great.”
Dean Martin told Maceo he wanted to use them. “These kids are great,” Dean Martin exclaimed! Their first opening night was at MGM with Dean. “I put on a pair of canary sox and forgot to change my sox and finally my partners looked at my sox. I walked to the microphone and said ‘Nobody is perfect. I just happened to dress in the dark,’ and the audience laughed.”
Anderson always made sure they did the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and Wheeler wrote a song, “We Can’t Stop Dancing Until Jerry’s Kids Are Healed.”
Andre De’Laroche left the group after six years, but the other three kept dancing together and appeared on top shows: Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, The Pearl Bailey Special, and The Easter Seal Telethon. Because there was not much tap anywhere, the group kept tap on the map. On the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas television shows, they were on every other week. They were in demand with many headliners: Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Donald O’Connor, Engelbert Humperdinck and many others.
The group achieved a personal relationship with Donald O’Connor, who used them many times. He called Wheeler personally for his first sitcom, “Lucille Moves to NBC.” “The pilot didn’t get picked up, but it was my first experience,” Wheeler said. “Gloria, Donald’s wife, met me at the airport with the script and I got the job.”
Terry Criner left the group and joined the army. He was replaced with Pee Wee. Wheeler felt the act was never the same, and left the group as a result of going to dance contests. He landed a role in “Black and Blue” in Paris. Producers Hector and Claudio came to Vegas and gave him a personal audition.
“I met Ivery in 1985 in New York City during the rehearsal for 'Black and Blue' (Paris),” Dianne Walker recalled. “Bernard Manners and I were already friends and had danced together on many occasions (through our work with Slyde and the Hoofers), and he introduced me to Ivery. The directors and choreographers put the three of us together for a trio number in the show. We were the most seasoned dancers in the chorus. Henry LeTang choreographed the number, and the music was ‘When You’re Smiling.’ It was a beautiful number and different from the one in the New York production -- much more theatrical.”
Wheeler moved back to Vegas after “Black and Blue” and met Benny Clory, who was just out of armed service. Benny had studied with Henry LeTang, and they clicked. “I formed The Rhythm Kings…two of us,” Wheeler said. “We danced in different night clubs. A lady asked us if she could be our manager, and she got us jobs in the San Francisco area. She also got us an audition for Cotton Club, the movie, with Henry LeTang. Henry knew my background and asked me for some flash dance. He allowed me to do some of my own choreography that never made the screen….lots got cut. Lots of dance power for one movie…lots cut.”
He came back to Las Vegas and to Maceo’s studio and ran into Van Porter who was an awesome roller skater. “I took time with him,” Wheeler explained, “Van and I did Star Search. We won 11 straight weeks. We were the first act to dress up in drag on national television. We went to finals.”
Wheeler went back to Vegas, separated from Van, and got a call to do “Black and Blue” on Broadway and he was the logo for “Black and Blue.”
“After we worked together in Paris as a trio, we were invited to perform another trio number for the Broadway production,” Dianne Walker recalled. “This one, ‘Memories of You,’ was to be choreographed by Cholly Atkins. Cholly, with the help of Honi Coles finally approved of us as a trio for the number and we went into rehearsals for Broadway.”
Atkins wanted them to continuing working as a Class Act trio after the Broadway show and offered to manage them and put the act together. They were planning on opening on the Johnny Carson show.
“Things did not work out for us,” Walker stated. “Ivery left the Broadway show and Bernard died, so it was not meant to be. I have always felt badly about that missed opportunity to work as a trio with my partners, Bernard Manners and Ivery Wheeler.”
“After Black and Blue, I went into a slump and downward spiral… burned out,” Wheeler confessed. “I danced inside but didn’t put the shoes on. Through the grace of people, I am now back and with my wife and daughter and with friends reaching out for me, I am where I am today. Savion invited me over to his home and called him on the stage at the Flo-Bert Awards and so did Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards and Dianne Walker.”
Carol Dennis of “The Color Purple” and Wheeler were high school sweethearts and after his daughter and Dennis had lunch in New York, Wheeler received a letter from his daughter that Dennis was looking for him. They connected and Wheeler ended up touring with The Color Purple and teaching tap to the cast of the touring company and the Broadway Company. They are now married and live in Los Angeles. His daughter, Retina Wesley, a Julliard graduate, is in an HBO series, “True Blood.”
“Maceo introduced me to Arlene and Paul Kennedy years ago, and Debbie Allen’s School called saying they wanted to honor me,” Wheeler stated. “I taught my first class at the L.A. Tap Festival. Arlene Kennedy asked me to come over to work with her group at Universal Dance Designs Studio. I did some choreography. When she passed, I told Regina Moore, the new director of the school, to call me if she needed me. She called and asked me to be the head instructor there and to teach the Company Kennedy Kids classes and private classes and have a home base.”
“This is another generation of the Kennedy Kids. They are very well trained and very humble. I couldn’t ask for more creative students than I have now. It is time to put tap back on the map. I wasn’t sure they understood the simplicity of the dance, not the complexity of the dance. We are not just dancers, we are entertainers. We have to constantly check why we are doing it, for the love or for the money.”
“I am so happy Ivery is back on the scene,” Walker said. “He brings with him such a wealth of knowledge with regards to the business of the business, and of course he never lets us forget that this is about ‘show’ business and that is something he does well. He can entertain his audiences and educate them as well.”
Maceo Anderson and all the “Black and Blue” dancers/hoofers were an influence on Wheeler’s dancing. He is grateful for the teaching that Maceo Anderson gave him and for his influence to land him professional opportunities. He will always remember watching the many performances of all the tap artists in Paris “Black and Blue” and the many New York rehearsals.
“When Ivery is on a stage full of dancers, the only one you see is Ivery,” said Dianne Walker. “You may glance around at everyone, but your eyes will eventually focus on him. His smile lights up the entire stage and his movements are a combination of genius and magic. He is a pleasure to work with, and I love him so.”
Ivery Wheeler, whose stage name is “Mr. Feet,” is back on the tap scene with much knowledge and inspiration from the past and is excited to have the opportunity to pass it on to the future.