Right on cue
What is Tony Mendez of the Late Show with David Letterman doing in the Dance section? Read on.
Tue Jul 29 2008
Photograph: Imogen Brown
[Editor's note: This story has been expanded with online bonus content.]
There are a few things that even the most rigorous David Letterman fan might not realize about the Late Show’s cue-card star Tony Mendez. He is worried that Ethan Stiefel will hurt his knees again. He watches Veronika Part with binoculars even though he knows he shouldn’t. And he giggles when Gillian Murphy tosses off some dazzling technical feat, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Mendez rarely misses a performance by American Ballet Theatre. He is a bunhead. A former dancer himself—he started training after he began his cue-card career in Los Angeles—Mendez performed briefly with the Houston Ballet and was an apprentice with the Harkness Ballet, before appearing extensively on Broadway, in shows including Irene, Pippin and Dancin.’ As it happens, dancing runs in his family—after Mendez, with his parents, fled Cuba in 1961, his sister, Josefina Méndez, remained in Havana, where she was Alicia Alonso’s protégé and a major ballerina with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. (She died of cancer in 2007; the siblings were close, especially toward the end of her life, but circumstances prevented Mendez from seeing many of her performances.) Over lunch in the West Village—the Late Show was on a break, but he had remained in town for Giselle—we spoke about his favorite place to be in the dark.
What happens to you when ballet season is over?
You know, I sink into depression. It’s like magic every night. I think, I’m going to the ballet tonight. I get this rush, I get so happy. It happens more with the ballet, but it also happens with the theater. When you go and the curtain is going to go up and you sit in a little box of magic? [Kisses fingers] I miss that magic at night. So last year, I got depressed after the season; this year, I’m going to start watching videos.
TIME TO REFLECT: Mendez as a member of the singing trio the LATINFOLK
Photograph: Courtesy of Tony Mendez (LATINFOLK)
What is your background with ballet?
I was born in Cuba. I left at 15, in 1961. My sister was already with the Cuban Ballet: Josefina Méndez. She had been with the company since she was 14 or something, so I grew up with all that stuff. I missed a lot of her performances. We had a big 15-year gap where we didn’t see each other because after we left Cuba it was hard to communicate. Toward the end, I used to fly out whenever the company was performing somewhere, but by that time she wasn’t performing. The company was at the Met a long time ago, and I saw her do a couple of Giselles and Swan Lakes, and that was it. So I missed most of her career, and it’s sad because when my parents died, we had gotten much closer. We only had each other so we were really getting to know each other. And then all of a sudden she got ovarian cancer. I tried to get her to write a book but it was too late.
How did you end up leaving Cuba?
My parents decided overnight to leave. The American embassy was closing and Josefina was on tour with the company—in Czechoslovakia somewhere. She was Alonso’s protégé. They looked a lot alike; everybody thought Josefina was her daughter. My mother always hated Alicia. And Alicia didn’t get along with her own daughter then, so my mother was jealous. For her, she was the reason why we lost my sister. She used to put her makeup on and walk with her. Toward the end, she would stand in the wings and yell, “To the right, to the left, to the front!” And then run around to the other side.
Alonso was dancing even though she was virtually blind; your sister acted as her eyes?
Yeah. So we went straight to L.A. We were supposed to go to Canton, Ohio, and luckily my parents decided to go to Los Angeles because my mother had a cousin there. We took a bus; in those days, they had separate bathrooms in the back—it was real bizarre, like five or six days on a bus. For me, it was an adventure, but my parents were freaked out. We had $15 and the clothes on our back.
Did your parents try to get Josefina to come, too?
Yes. From L.A., my parents contacted my sister and said, “We want you to come to Los Angeles. Don’t go back to Cuba.” And she was crying and said, “All right, I will.” And they talked to Alonso and her husband and they said, “Yes, we’ll send her.” And then my sister sent a telegram saying she was going back to Cuba. I think if she had come to L.A., she wouldn’t have developed into the artist that she was. You know, I accept things the way they happen. There’s no ballet in Los Angeles. Under Alonso’s example, she became such an amazing artist and surpassed her in many ways. It worked out. I wish I had more siblings though. The family was split completely; at least we never had relatives in jail or tortured. A lot of people did.
Did you want to move to the U.S.?
[Laughs] For me, it was an adventure—and then when I heard we were going to Hollywood? [Grins] I went to North Hollywood High.
When did you start dancing?
I was about 22. I moved very fast. And in those days, if you could point your toes, they would give you a scholarship. I got scholarships everywhere. You know, you learn so much from osmosis. It was amazing how much I had picked up from just watching because I used to go to all of my sister’s performances and a lot of times I’d have to accompany her to class so I could chaperone her on the bus or whatever. The music was already in me. I had really good turnout, and I could point my feet so in a year the Houston Ballet hired me. There were just 12 of us, so we got a chance to dance. Then I came to New York on scholarship at American Ballet Theatre. I was an apprentice at Harkness Ballet. Ben Harkarvy was there and David Howard. Did you ever go to that townhouse where the school was? Rebekah Harkness was so eccentric. One day, I heard she was coming to watch class, and I envisioned this woman with jewels and fur and she was real frumpy and not very good-looking; it was bizarre. The elevator was bejeweled and there was a beautiful staircase, and there was a niche on the wall for this urn, The Chalice of Life, by Salvador Dalí. It was all gold for her ashes. The big studio had a chandelier. They gave us $65 a week, and we’d go around the corner in our tights to the bank on Lexington Avenue. [Laughs] I told them that I was 18 and they took me. That was the cap.
How old were you?
I must have been 23 or 24. It’s funny because the teachers would treat the dancers like little kids. They were 15 or 16. I started with Eugene Loring in L.A. There were other good teachers there; it was an amazing school. A lot of the movie stars used to take class there. Cyd Charisse used to take private class with this old teacher with a cane who had been a lover of Massine’s. That’s what everyone whispered about. Jane Fonda would take class. I remember one time when we were taking a jazz class. She was behind me and following and I screwed up and she screwed up too. [Laughs in delight]
What was the school called?
American School of Dance. It was on Hollywood Boulevard. They tore it down. But I used to also study with Tania Riabouchinska and David Lichine. Tania was a really good teacher.
How did it happen that you switched to Broadway?
I went on an audition for Applause with a friend of mine, and I got the job. It was at the Palace Theater. I didn’t even have a song, so they asked me to sing “Happy Birthday.” I got the job and my Equity card. I worked for Ron Field twice, for Fosse twice, and for Peter Gennaro and Gower Champion. Gower was great. You know what’s so great about doing a show from the beginning, like Irene, is that there’s so much in you. You do something in rehearsal, and they say, “Do it like him.” I also did King of Hearts for Ron Field, and there was a point when I had to do a cross on a bicycle; a basket would fall out with the costumes and all the crazy people would put the costumes on. So in one rehearsal—the show took place in France —the basket fell and I said, “Merde!” and then at the next rehearsal, Ron Field said, “What happened to ‘Merde!’?” So they put it in the script. Bob Fosse was great to work with. You could tell that he loved dancing and respected dancers. At the auditions, he always apologized whenever he cut anybody. He would say, “I’m known to have cut the best dancers sometimes. Thank you very much.” And do you know who put me in to Dancin’? Gwen Verdon.
What do you mean?
She taught me the show. I was an alternate, so I went in for everybody. A lot of times, during breaks, we’d sit on the floor and she’d be smoking and telling me stories. Here I was sitting on the floor talking to her! Or going to the diner on the corner. Also, when I saw the movie Pajama Game in Cuba, that’s when I wanted to dance. And all of a sudden, there I was: working with Bob Fosse. It’s amazing how life changes for you. I mean, when I was 15, my life completely changed, and then when I started dancing, my life completely changed again. It’s weird. I did Pippin also. It’s funny because things always fall in my lap. I have no ambition and no goals. Never have. And I know if I just go with the flow something will fall in my lap. Before I danced, I used to do cue cards in Los Angeles for Andy Williams and Dean Martin.
I know. And Fred Astaire, too, right?
Yes, on The Hollywood Palace. He was so amazing. One day he called me Tony and I thought, Oh my God, Fred Astaire said my name! He was older then. He did one number with Barrie Chase, who was his last partner. They had to stop in the middle so that he could catch his breath, so when they were doing it with the audience the director would say, “Oh, Mr. Astaire, I’m sorry, we had a problem here—we’re going to have to stop for a minute.” So he would catch his breath and nobody would know that was the reason we were stopping. In those days, it was mostly variety shows. Especially Dean Martin and The Hollywood Palace. Everybody went through there: Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. Even Cyd Charisse. And that’s when I decided, “Maybe I could take classes.” I would see the same dancers all the time; they would go from show to show. I was singing in a folk group with three girls. We were called the LATINFOLK, and then when I got to the hippies and stuff we changed it to the Guacamole Popsicles. [Laughs] We would sing at these coffeehouses in Spanish; I would play the guitar, and we would make money. I thought, Maybe I could sing and dance for a show or something.
Do you still see Alonso?
I do because my nephew is one of the principal dancers for the Cuban Ballet. He’s doing character parts now; he’s starting to slow down. So whenever they were in Madrid or Cancun, I would go and see them. Alicia was always so nice to me. When the company performed in Canada—and those three dancers defected—my sister was gone already. I sat with Alonso in rehearsal, and I said, “You must miss my sister so much,” and she said, “So much that I don’t even want to talk to you about her.” She never went to visit her when she was in the hospital, and a lot of people said, “We know her and she’s never going to go because she’s so afraid of hospitals.” For a while I was angry; then I realized that my sister knew that she was not going to visit and that she was probably all right with that, so I calmed down. She’s completely blind. She would feel my face, but then when she gave the notes to the dancers, I was so amazed. Of course, her husband sits next to her and tells her a lot of stuff. He was a critic, so he knows a lot about ballet, but also she hears the music and the notes she gave were so inspiring and correct. I never saw her in rehearsal like that because when I was a little kid in Cuba, I thought she was the ugliest woman in the world. If I saw her coming, I would go and hide and she would say, “Tony, is that you?,” and make me come out.
Did you meet the dancers [Taras Domitro, Hayna Gutierrez and Miguel Angel Blanco] who ended up defecting?
It was so weird because I was with those kids the night before they did it. I had breakfast with them. As a matter of fact, I had finished reading Julie Kavanagh’s Nureyev book and one of the dancers, Taras, when he stood onstage would pucker his face a little like Nureyev. We were having breakfast and I had brought the book for my niece- in-law. And I took the book over and I said, “You know, I think you look like him,” and he said, “Ah.” And afterwards, I thought, he must have been thinking, Yeah, and like him I’m gonna to run away! [Laughs]
It was so weird. It was really strange. I was watching them rehearse Nutcracker, and the three of them were so good. I thought, It’s such a shame that they don’t get to do Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. You know? They dance the same stuff all the time and then Alonso’s choreography, which isn’t that good. One time I asked my sister, “How was the tour?” And she said, “Oh, we looked really good, it was successful, nobody defected.” That was her barometer. She and I never talked about politics; I just knew she was there and that she was a big figure. I figure she must have had to join the Communist party whether she liked it or not. I talked about Bush all the time to her. She would get a little nervous sometimes. [Giggles] Sometimes she would watch Letterman, and they make so many jokes about the politicians and she would say, “How can you talk about the President that way?” And I’d say, “United States—that’s freedom of speech.”
We still kind of have it.
[Sadly] Don’t get me started on politics. This is the worst. And for me it’s so weird because we came here thinking this was the cradle of democracy and it’s like, Wow. Where do you go from here? I wouldn’t live in any other place, but it’s going to take so many years to repair the damage. That’s why, when I go to the ballet, for two and a half hours, I don’t think about anything. It’s total immersion into this beauty and music and the artistry of people who work so hard to perform for you. One time I waited for Nina Ananiashvili at the stage door and I said, “Nina, you were so beautiful,” and she said, “I try.” [Laughs happily] I went to the Kirov every night when they were here. I loved seeing Scheherazade. I saw eight Dying Swans with two of the best ballerinas in the world alternating [Uliana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva] and they were so different. I think I liked Vishneva the best.
Who are your favorite dancers?
You know, I think that Vishneva is probably the most interesting of them all. She’s got everything. But after her—you’ll be surprised: Veronika Part.
Really? You don’t get more beautiful than that. Even though she can’t whip off the pirouettes like Gillian Murphy or Michele Wiles, her grand jetés are amazing. I try not to watch too much with the binoculars, because you’re supposed to see the whole picture, but I’m on the binoculars with her the whole time. She’s so underused. I think it’s terrible that they haven’t promoted her to principal.
Did you see her Sleeping Beauty?
No, but I heard it was pretty bad! I hear she gets really nervous.
I don’t know—maybe. But she’s very inconsistent.
I agree. But Gelsey Kirkland was inconsistent, even before the drugs, and she used to be my favorite. When I told that to my sister, she got so angry: “I should be your favorite ballerina!” Inconsistency kind of gives a dancer an edge. When I go and see Gillian and Paloma, I know they’re going to be perfect especially Gillian Murphy—she’s going to whip off those turns, so secure, everything is controlled. So it’s pleasure. Gillian and Paloma bring me pleasure, absolutely. You know, when Gillian danced Don Q, she would do the fouettés with the fan? With triple pirouettes? And she wasn’t just holding this fan—she was fanning herself! Sylvie Guillem was another one that would make me giggle. The ease. So when I see Veronika Part, there’s a little more of a human thing about her—you don’t know how well she’s going to do, and when she does really well, it’s exciting. And her beauty onstage—she reminds me of Ava Gardner. She’s beautiful to look at. There are a couple of ballerinas that I don’t like to look at through the binoculars because I don’t think they’re that pretty, but I’m not going to tell you who they are. I don’t think that Veronika Part looks like a ballerina. She looks like a beautiful woman who dances.
Do you also attend New York City Ballet?
Yeah. Sometimes I don’t like the music. I have to like the music, and I don’t like Ives. I don’t like Schoenberg that much. My favorite there is a ballet called [Tchaikovsky] Suite No. 3 that ends with Theme and Variations, but actually what I like best are the first three movements. Mainly the first one: The girls are barefoot with their hair down. Balanchine always made the women look so beautiful, always, starting with the little earrings that they wear. I always try to see Serenade and Symphony in C and Firebird and The Cage. I mostly like the story ballets. There are good dancers there, but the men are much better at ABT. They didn’t used to be. At NYCB, a lot of them would land really hard to show it was a man dancing, and Jacques d’Amboise wouldn’t point his feet when he was doing pirouettes. And maybe they got three out. And now these guys do eight with perfect passés and split grand jetés. They never used to do split grand jetés! It’s always so amazing when David Hallberg does them, because he’s so big and his legs are so long. He’s amazing; when he’s alone on the stage he fills it like nobody else does. When he was in the corps de ballet, and they were giving him little things I always felt sorry for any other guys who were dancing next to him because he stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only his height, but his feet and that profile? Like Erik Bruhn.
What other men do you like at ABT?
I like Jose Manuel Carreno a lot. The Cuban dancers have such a different deportment when they walk onstage. They look different from all the other dancers. Their training has a little bit of Russian in it. Jose Manuel, of course, is so beautiful in person: You can tell he’s a star. You don’t know if he’s a dancer or a model or something, but you know he’s somebody special. I like Angel Corella. You know when he first started dancing, he was very young and he had the technique already, so he was dancing over the top with this crazy look in his eye. Then he tapered off and now he’s getting a little happy again. He was really good in Giselle. He was really restrained; he’s such a good actor. But if you get him in Don Quixote, he’s just like crazed. And Marcelo Gomes has turned so handsome! He’s such a good partner.
Did you get to see Hallberg and Wiles in Don Quixote?
I did. I thought it was the wrong cast for that ballet. They could do it well, but they just didn’t look the part.
How would you rate the season so well?
I’m very satisfied. You know, the only time I was a little disappointed was at that Don Q. I didn’t think they had the Spanish flair. He could have been a little nervous, and she just didn’t do the Spanish coquettish thing. Maybe next year. She’s great as Myrta in Giselle and as the princess in Bayadère and I loved her in Sylvia. Sylvia, I thought, was perfect for Gillian and Michele.
Why did you stop performing?
My partner was HIV-positive. He got AIDS and I just couldn’t travel. I was already 36. I was getting older. After Dancin’, I worked for a company that did TV commercials and I was going crazy; I was shaving and wearing a suit and it wasn’t for me, so I went back and did Peter Pan on Broadway with Sandy Dennis. That was amazing. I used to love and stand in the wings. The set would break and it would be all stars and they would be flying, and I’d stand in the wings and Sandy would come up on top of me. I’d say, “Hi, Sandy!,” and she’d fly back out again.
Did you stop after Peter Pan?
Yes, and I didn’t know what to do. My mom got me the job doing cue cards originally. She was teaching at UCLA and she talked to the theater-arts department and the chairman knew Barney McNulty, who invented cue cards. He was an NBC page and Ed Wynn—he couldn’t remember his lines, so he asked Barney to write some stuff on a card and all of a sudden he had an incredible business. We worked everywhere. The soaps. We went from show to show. The only one I did regularly was The Hollywood Palace, which I loved. Dean Martin was a really great guy. His fingers were tan and short and chubby just like my grandmother’s. Carol Burnett was amazing. One time in rehearsal, they had to pour water over this actress Jackie Joseph, and I heard Carol say, “Make sure the water is warm.” What a nice lady. The bigger the stars, the nicer they were. The ones on their way up were a little more…nervous. I did cue cards for Laugh-In.
So you rediscovered cue cards?
Yes. It turned out that the hairdresser from Dancin’ did hair at Saturday Night Live, so I went for an interview and the next day I was working. I did that for nine years. The cast was good—Jan Hooks and Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and Nora Dunn. They were older, and they would write a lot of the stuff; it was before Adam Sandler came. It was a solid cast, and they were so versatile. I can’t believe Dana doesn’t have a movie career. He’s so talented; he can do anything. That show used so many cue cards. There were six of us and I was in charge. I took care of the host. The most amazing one I worked with was Angie Dickinson. God, she was so beautiful. Even though I’m gay, I get these crushes on women.
How did you end up working with Letterman?
Marty got AIDS; we had been together 16 years when he died. It was 1985 and nobody knew anything about AZT. And they were giving him so much AZT, and he was nauseated all the time; nobody knew anything about hospitals, and they wouldn’t listen to me because I wasn’t married to him. I finally learned to get a power of attorney and wave it at people. And then all my friends died. But I mean all of them. The ones that I talked to everyday on the phone, all of them died within four years and Marty was the first. And then, most of the friends I toured with on shows, they all died too. Broadway and ballet was hit so hard. That changed me again; the AIDS crisis was a life-changing trauma for me . The new generation doesn’t know about that. I never thought I’d survive all that loss. I hadn’t reached 50 yet, and I had seen so much death, more than my parents probably. I didn’t think I’d survive. You either commit suicide or you go on. And if you go on, you don’t let bitterness eat you and then it makes you a better person. I feel now that nothing is important. Like when they go crazy on the show because of Dave and this and that—it’s like, please, it’s a TV show.
Are you and Letterman are friends?
I’m such good friends with him. I’m two years older, and we’re very much alike because we’re kids at heart. He’s very impish. Of course, he’s much more intelligent than I am, but the two of us like pranks and I talk to him like he’s my cousin. Nobody at work talks to him the way I do, and he welcomes it because everybody is so afraid of him. And he knows that he’ll get the truth from me. He gave me a lot of money to help Marty pay his bills; Marty was his cue-card guy before me.
Is that how you started working for him?
SNL is like six people and I was in charge. And Letterman is only two people. I had gotten Marty working for SNL. He was an actor and he didn’t have that much work, so he started doing the second person on Letterman and then he moved up, and whenever I wasn’t doing SNL I would do the second guy on Letterman. When Marty started getting sick, I took over for him and started working for Dave [at NBC]. Then, the season ended and Dave decided to move to CBS. I went to work with Letterman two days after Marty died. It actually saved my life because I had a reason to get out of bed. The last six months, Marty was paralyzed on his right side, and it was so intense. Then, all of a sudden, I had no one to take care of. It happens to everybody. I would cry all the way to work. I would cry as I was writing the cue cards, but then I would have to focus on the show, and I would be okay. Then, the show would end and I would cry on the way home and cry myself to sleep. For a long time. But the show saved my life. I had to get up and do something. And New York is great; when you’re crying on the subway, no one says, “Are you all right?”
I’m so sorry.
You know, I think everybody has his destiny. I don’t really believe in God. I think you should be good to human beings, animals and the planet. Somebody is supposed to get hit by a bus when they’re 35. Theirs was to get infected and die. And mine was to survive.
What does Letterman say about you going to the ballet?
[Laughs] You know it’s funny because they all think I’m crazy. I like to rub it in: “Guess where I’m going tonight?” They don’t understand how different it is every night. When you know the ballet so well, you can see the nuances. In Romeo and Juliet, after Alessandra Ferri would take the potion, she would drop it; she was the only one to pick up the bottle so no one would step on it without anybody seeing—except me—and then crawls into bed. A lot of times dancers change their diagonal because they can turn better to the left than to the right—they do little tiny things that I love to watch. It’s fascinating. I said to Dave, “It’s like a baseball game. It’s the same game every night. But it’s different people, and they’re better athletes.” I got him with that one. He’s such a sports fan. These guys are like athletes with a soul.
Who do you watch in the corps de ballet?
Sarah Lane I spotted right away, although sometimes she does this little thing with her eyebrows. She reminds me of Margot Fonteyn, and she’s a good technician. Melanie Hamrick is really good and also Simone Messmer. I love to watch the corps de ballet; you see the ones who are good corps de ballet members and some who are still dancing in the corps de ballet, but they have an extra energy that goes out of the tips of their hands. Or the way or the way they don’t look around when they’re standing. They’re in the role. It’s wonderful to watch.
Where do you sit at the Met?
I always buy upstairs in the balcony, but I get the front of the balcony or the center. If I go every night, that’s all I can afford—those are $35 seats. I spend a lot of money, and I don’t think about it. I charge it and I forget about it, because I feel it’s good for my soul. At NYCB, I buy standing room and then I move when the lights go down. But there, when the curtain goes up, the whole proscenium is open and at the Met, half of it is covered. I’ve never the seen the head of the Buddha in La Bayadère. I’ve never seen the end of Swan Lake [when the couple rises like a vision in the sun]. And it’s not fair! Just because we have cheap seats we can’t see it, and at NYCB you can sit in the last row and you can see everything. I thank Balanchine for that. He was very smart when he built that theater. I think he was a genius, and I don’t use that word with everybody. Also, if you’re in the orchestra, you don’t see the patterns, and Balanchine has the best ones. The choreography is the most simple steps from class, yet everything works so well. You know, ballet is so ridiculous when you think about it. I can understand when somebody says, “The guy’s ass is hanging out in those tights.” I’m so used to it.
When did you last see your sister?
She passed away two years ago. They had a big state funeral for her; I didn’t stay for it. I flew back to Cuba overnight to see her. She was in the hospital and she died, like, four days later. You know, I didn’t ask permission from the government to go? I talked to her husband on a Friday night. He said, “It doesn’t look good,” so I arranged for a ticket to Cancún [Mexico] and there I bought a ticket to Havana. And when I got there, they said, “You don’t have permission to come here—you can’t go in.” I said, “But I’m an American citizen and I know that Americans just fly to Jamaica and they get in.” They said, “But you were born here, so it’s different.” So everybody had left and they were holding me there and I said, “Listen, I’m Josefina Méndez’s brother; I want you to call the Cuban ballet and to talk to Alicia Alonso and that her brother is here, and you won’t let me in.” There were conferences, and finally they came over and said, “We’ll give you permission.” So they let me in, but it never entered my mind to ask permission. When I returned I was so afraid that they were going to stamp my passport.
The immigration guy said, “Are you going to get in trouble if I stamp this?” And I said, “Yeah, I wish you wouldn’t,” and he said, “Well, if you give a donation…” I swear! It was like a spy movie. I took a $20 bill because I’m so stupid, and I put it on under my hand and said, “Is that okay?” And he said, “It’s usually $50, but it’s okay.” And he let me through. I talked to others who said, “People pay thousands for people not to stamp your passport.” That embargo is so stupid.
How was your sister when you saw her?
She looked so awful at the hospital; she had a tube in her mouth and in her stomach, but her eyes were so alert and she reminded me of when she was a little girl. She was really helpless. I couldn’t wait for them to give her the morphine because I knew there was no going back. She was in intensive care. I didn’t want her to be aware of the situation. It was like when Marty was in the hospital, and I moved in with him; they put a cot in the room and I wanted to distract him. The last time I saw her, she was starting to nod off from the morphine. She died three days later.