Community Stories

The Glamorous Stories of a 1940s Broadway Dancer

February 26, 2024

Glamorous stories of 1940s Broadway dancer

Lillian Flowers didn’t intend to end up on Broadway 82 years ago. 

As a teenager, she was never starstruck by the big names. But when opportunities kept falling into her lap, she thought: 

“Well… that would be just fine.”

Who says “OK, fine” to a Broadway audition? 

Lillian grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City and attended Art High School. As a teenager, she loved to go dancing on Friday nights. 

One evening when she was about 16, she went to pick up her friend, Evelyn, from her summer job in the offices above Sardi’s, a famous restaurant in the theater district. While Evelyn used the ladies’ room, Lillian minded her desk. 

That’s when a 6-foot tall “old” man approached her with a showgirl on his arm. “Well, who are you?” he asked.

Lillian was unbothered by his demand: “Well, who are you?’”. 

“With this building and all the theaters in New York, you don’t know who I am?” he asked. 

“No, I don’t,” Lillian said. “Do you know who I am?” 

“You tell Evelyn to tell you who I am,’” he replied.

The man was Jacob J. Shubert — famous Broadway theater owner, operator and producer.

Later, Lillian got a summer job in the same building, working for a public relations company. One day, she saw Shubert again, while she was waiting for the elevator. 

“He turned to me and said, ‘Would you like to be in a show?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that should be fun,’” Lillian said. 

Lillian went to his office to discuss the show. As a child, she had studied tap dancing and sung in the church choir. She knew she could carry a tune.

“He said, ‘Meet me at my Broadway theater,’ and I said, ‘OK, fine,’” she said.

Soon, Lillian was standing on a stage in the Shubert Theater right on Broadway. 

“He had the piano player play a few notes, and I sang a little,” Lillian said. 

Shubert came to his decision quickly: “OK. I’m going to put you in a few acts to see how you work out.’”

Lillian’s showbiz career had begun.

Dating celebrities

Shubert wanted Lillian to study drama, singing and dancing. She remembered how all the other girls would sit around on the floor of the theater, looking up to Shubert like he was a king.

Lillian would hide in the back.

Despite all that, Shubert invited her to ride in his limousine then have lunch in his penthouse. He was a perfect gentleman, Lillian said. 

He cast her in the Broadway show, The Student Prince, and later an off-Broadway show called Blossom Time, which Shubert produced.

“It was just like I was in another world,” Lillian said.

From there, she traveled in an exciting life of showbiz as a dancer. She worked in Riviera with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at one point. 

“I went out with Dean,” Lillian said. “He asked me to go out with him, but I had a jealous boyfriend, and he found out about it and he dumped me. I met a lot of stars that way.”

Life after nearly a century

Lillian will turn 98 in April.

Life in her 90s isn’t as easy as her younger years. Lillian’s husband used to help her with a lot of things, but he passed away a number of years ago. Now she lives alone, in a little villa in Fort Lauderdale, and she just can’t get around like she used to.

She needs help.

When she had eye surgery a while back, she explained her dilemma to a nurse, who told her about Heart2Heart. 

That’s how Lillian became one of the three seniors that volunteer Steve Retford regularly visits and helps.

“Lillian’s a sweetheart,” Steve said. “She’s just a wealth of stories.”

Steve helps her with anything she might need, and his wife has made her dinner. Most recently, Steve has been working hard to get her qualified for Medicaid through the ADRC Broward so she can receive in-home nursing care and meals delivered to her door.

For an important phone interview, Steve guided her through dozens of questions. Some were confusing or tricky, Steve said, so he was glad he was there to help her through the process. Thanks to their persistence, Lillian finally qualified at rank 5, meaning that she will be prioritized for those community-based services. 

But of all the things Steve and Lillian do together, Steve especially enjoys listening to her stories.

A wealth of stories

In addition to the on- and off-Broadway shows, Lillian worked in night clubs as a dancer. She also modeled in the GARNER Arts Center, and later she danced at the Copacabana in Miami Beach.

“It was wonderful,” Lillian said. “Most of my day was on the beach, then working at night. All us girls lived in the same hotel and we had lots of fun.”

Another time, Lillian’s friend, who was a dress designer, invited her to join her on a trip to Europe and attend fashion shows. Together they traveled through Portugal, the French Riviera, and Monte Carlo. 

It was in Monte Carlo where they ended up meeting Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III. They were having lunch — and the famous couple happened to be the only other table at a restaurant. 

“The gentleman who was with us was from New York and he knew her, so he took us over to say hello,” she said. “She was gorgeous, and she wanted to know who we were, so we all had a nice chat.”

After many years of dancing and shows, she saw that all of her friends were getting married and having children. Lillian finally did get married later in life. Though she never had any children of her own, she did have two stepchildren.

To experience fascinating history through firsthand stories, volunteer to help a senior in your community. 

Join the Team!

Becoming a Heart2Heart volunteer means that you are dedicated to serving the aging community. It means you want to connect in a meaningful way to a specific individual or to several people. It means you are committed to a consistent amount of time per month – whether that’s several hours a week or just a few hours per month.

Heart2Heart volunteers must be background checked and trained. Our training can be completed from your home on your computer or device, through the online Volunteer Portal. We run fingerprints in our office in Fort Lauderdale, and you can schedule an appointment with us after you finish the training.

The first step is to create an account on our Volunteer Portal. To get started, click here!

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