Still on Her Toes
She cut quite a rug in her day. Soon Lois Pearson Fagan will help the Orpheum celebrate its 80th anniversary.
She often enters a room with a twirl, executes a mean leg lift, and can bend at the waist and place both palms on the floor. "But don't try that now, Lois," cautions her friend. "It made you dizzy last time" — a warning that prompts a devilish grin from the lithe former dancer.
Lois Pearson Fagan, who will mark her 95th birthday in October, danced on the Orpheum stage in the early 1930s, went on to strut her stuff in Chicago and New Orleans, and married a fellow dancer and singer with whom she toured the country until World War II. On September 13th, Lois will return to the Orpheum as part of its 80th anniversary gala.
Sitting in a meeting room at St. Peter Villa, where she has lived for nearly a year, Lois chats with Lynn Coffman, a church friend who visits her regularly and occasionally prompts her as she reflects on her life, starting with her childhood in Memphis.
Born in 1913, Lois was a big sister to four boys. Their father, a special agent for the Illinois Central railroad, was a typical patriarch of the times, sitting at the head of the dinner table each evening, spanking the children when they needed it. Their mother was a homemaker but sometimes traveled to Washington, D.C., as president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
The Pearson family lived on Roland, in the Glenview neighborhood, and Lois attended Rozelle Elementary, Bellevue Jr. High, and Central High School. She took dancing lessons at Rozelle and at Glenview Park, held backyard shows for her father and anyone else who'd watch, and in the summers performed at the Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT) at Overton Park. She received professional training in jazz, tap, and ballet from Gladys Reeves, whose studio was at Linden and Bellevue. Each year, Reeves took a student to Chicago to expose her to the professional dance world, and the year after Lois graduated, she made the trip.
Upon returning to Memphis, Lois performed in numerous shows at the Orpheum and became friends with a girl whose father could book them at a club in New Orleans. "I heard that and I said, 'Let's go!' recalls a beaming Lois. "We were just tickled to death."
Her parents weren't so tickled. But their 18-year-old daughter took off for a gig at the Puppy House. While there, other dancers told Lois about a fellow — Jack O'Brien Fagan — who sang, danced, and emceed at another Big Easy club. Meanwhile Jack's friends were telling him about Lois, the new girl in town, who already had a boyfriend in Chicago. One night, as Lois was ready to take the stage, Jack walked in and their eyes met. Lois thought, "Oh gracious. I'm going to marry that man. But what am I going to tell Billy Boy?"
Apparently she told him good-bye. Lois and Jack were married in the early 1930s in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and returned to Memphis to live in the family home. From there, Jack booked their acts in cities around the U.S. and they toured for nearly 10 years. "He was a wonderful tap dancer," says Lois, "and my specialty was toe. It was a real happy time."
Then America entered World War II and Jack joined the army and handled entertainment for the USO. With her husband away, Lois took a job in the furniture department at Goldsmith's. Upon Jack's return, they settled down to life in Memphis, as Lois continued to work and Jack managed restaurants and clubs in the area.
After her husband's death in 1974, Lois stayed active visiting residents of St. Peter Home for Children, judging beauty pageants at the Mid-South Fair, and going on outings with her church, Aldersgate United Methodist. Today, Coffman calls her a "mover and shaker" at St. Peter Villa, where she exercises by walking the halls and helps other residents who aren't as active. She also likes watching Lawrence Welk and Dancing with the Stars. Asked about any aches or pains, she looks at Coffman and says, "Help me be truthful now. Do I have a crank about something?" To which Coffman replies, "Maybe your hip and shoulder some mornings."
Understandably proud of her looks, she keeps a full-length mirror in her room and, Coffman teases her, "Half the time I'm talking to you, you're gazing in that mirror." She can still turn heads, and Coffman tells of an admirer "checking her out" at the grocery store. Discreetly informed of this, Lois responded, "Does he look like he has money?"
The pair have been friends for several years and Coffman treats her to driving tours of downtown Memphis and trips to her old neighborhood. But mainly they talk of her dancing days, of meeting her true love, Jack. Asked if she chased him, she retorts to Coffman, "Absolutely not, he chased me." She also recalls her brother Ralph Pearson, who was an usher at the MOAT and, at their father's urging, looked out for his sister when she performed there.
Ralph, who is 89 and lives in Houston, went on to usher at the Orpheum in 1937 and remembers that after Mae West's performance there, the vaudeville starlet lined up the ushers and gave each one a $5 check. Times were hard, and Ralph didn't know whether to cash it or keep it. "He wishes he'd kept it," says Coffman, "for the money it would bring now."
Looking ahead to her 95th birthday, Lois gives a bemused grin and says, "You know I just can't believe I've lived this long. I got old in such a little while!" She still appreciates each day and will no doubt "show out" at the upcoming celebration, says Coffman. He was with her recently when an Orpheum employee asked, "Mrs. Fagan, can you still throw your leg over the banister?" Before anyone could stop her, she did just that. Says her friend: "She cannot resist a dare."