Remembering Marjorie Duckett and Her School of Dance

photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Some two years ago, I wrote a column about Marjorie Duckett, a very talented dancer here. I'm sure you remember the story, because it was quite possibly one of the finest things I've ever done, discussed at water coolers and copy machines at offices around the nation. Do you know, it went on to win the coveted 2010 Hubert K. Bucknell Prize for Two-Page Columns About City and Regional Dance Instructors.

It's a rather specialized honor, to be sure, but an impressive one. And good for a free car wash from Mr. Pride, too. What do you think of that, Nobel Prize committee?

Anyway, Sara LeMaster, who has written many fine freelance articles for Memphis magazine over the years, knew Marjorie personally. She recently sent me a letter — okay, it was actually one of those "electronic" mail thingies (I believe the hip kids call them "emails" in that street-tough slang they use) — telling me some things about Marjorie that I didn't know. So I thought I'd share them here:

Dear Vance: I recently came across your August 2011 piece about Marjorie Duckett.

I live in Colorado Springs but spent my first 44 years in and around Memphis. I did some freelance work for Memphis magazine during the eighties. And, like you, I spent some time at the Marjorie Duckett School of Dance. Unlike you, I knew I had the grace and spunk of a three-toed sloth and that dance lessons for me were strictly therapeutic. One day, after yet another clumsy gaffe, I stood burning with shame, as 14-year-olds are wont to do. Marjorie came over and put her tiny arms around me. "Such a sad look on that pretty face," she whispered.

I never forgot that. The spring that I was 34 and Marjorie was 68, I wrote and told her so. It was the beginning of a close friendship that spanned over a decade. During those years, Marjorie shared her life's memories with me. I learned that she was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Doris and Henry Duckett, a civil engineer ("civilized engineer," as Doris liked to joke.) By the age of eight, little Marjorie was dancing professionally. She and Doris traveled by train across the country, as the little ballerina became a hot item at the old Chatauqua shows. She shared Doris' scrapbook, filled with newspaper clippings showing pictures of the child performer, with captions declaring, "This little girl is already an accomplished toe dancer."

The Ducketts moved to Memphis when Marjorie was 10. In addition to dance, Marjorie became involved in Memphis theater, performing with the likes of Lyle Talbot and other pros who got their start in Memphis.

At 17, having become the youngest member of the Chicago Association of Dance Masters, Marjorie had some dates with a young Eugene Kelly( whose parents owned a dance school,) before he became the famed Gene Kelly. Doris warned  Eugene, "You can date her, but don't get any ideas about marrying her. She's way too young."

Marjorie had some other pre-famous young pals, including Cyd Charrise, who married her much older manager Nicco Charrise. When she was still in her early twenties, Marjorie was offered a screen test by MGM but declined and decided to open her dance school in Memphis.

The unknown fellow in the photo (above) is fellow dancer Joe Stroud, whom Marjorie married and divorced twice before marrying dentist Arthur Binford.

When Ed Weathers was still an editor at Memphis, I sent him some info about Marjorie and he considered doing a piece about her, but the final consensus was that it just didn't warrant the space. [What foolishness! This was before I came along. - Vance]

I loved her dearly, though I must say for the sake of fairness that, fascinating and loving as she was, she could also be meaner than a rattlesnake. For that matter, Marge Binford, terror of the bowling alley, was quite different from Marjorie Duckett the dance teacher.

Remember how tiny she was? I always called her "Tinkerbell," and people were amused when they saw  us together and heard her answer to it. I'm pretty sure she liked it.

At any rate, I was glad to see you acknowledge her as a significant part of Memphis history.

Most sincerely, Sara LeMaster

Thanks so much for sharing this, Sara. Go here to read more about Marjorie.


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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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