I’m honored and humbled to introduce you to a new feature, “Look Back, Elyria.”
I was born in Elyria in 1956. I was raised here. Elyria is where I lived most of my life. Although I now call Rocky River home, Elyria claims a substantial part of my heart; it’s where I began writing, and where my earliest memories reside.
After researching and writing several articles for the Chronicle’s Bicentennial supplement in July, I found that I was reluctant to leave the early annals of our town. I loved learning about Elyria’s past, hearing the memories of other Elyrians and helping to tell their stories. With this column, I’ll be able to continue doing so.
Elyria has a rich history. I came of age toward the end of her mid-century heyday. She played a supporting role in my life story, as she did for all of you who grew up here. No matter where you’re living now, you are the people for whom I’m writing. You remember what life was like back in the day. And you’ve no doubt shared your stories with your children and grandchildren. They’re my audience, too. I hope that all of you who have a connection to Elyria will find that my writing in these pages offers you a rewarding and refreshing glimpse into the past.
I look forward to seeing where the past will take me next. Maybe yours is a story I’ll tell. Please look for my feature monthly on select Sundays. And if you have an idea for a column, do drop me a line at email@example.com.
— Marci Rich
ELYRIA — Just like the song from “A Chorus Line,” countless Elyria children trooped “up a steep and very narrow stairway” in the early 1960s to learn ballet, jazz and tap from dance teacher Betty Ann Bishop. Although I don’t remember her voice being like a metronome, I do remember the elegant French phrases that punctuated her lessons: Arabesque, demi plié, port de bras. On some level, these words registered as important in learning ballet, but to my impressionable ears their musicality suggested mystery, beauty and fascinating lands far beyond Elyria’s boundaries.
Then there was the woman herself. She was not very tall, but she could command a room with her theatrical style: A short cap of red hair, full make-up with lipstick and eye shadow, black tights, black “character shoes” with small heels and a black turtle-neck leotard set off by a piece of stunning gold jewelry. One former Bishop student I spoke with remembers a “flow-y” jersey wrap-around ballet skirt that fell to about mid-length. Another recalls a scarf tied around her waist. Regardless of her studio attire, Betty shimmered in a way that few adult women shimmer to a 5- or 6-year-old girl; something glamorous and sophisticated set her apart from any of the moms in my neighborhood. Such is the measure of Betty’s creative force and vivid personage that I, who took group lessons for less than a year and never studied privately with her, never forgot her.
As Dianne Maddock Fenbers told me: “If you bring up the name ‘Betty Bishop’ to someone who knew her, their face lights up.”
Dianne had just turned 3 in 1963 when she started taking lessons from Betty with her twin sister, Dawn. Their older sister, Denise, also took classes. The three sisters continued until Betty’s death in 1967. Dianne is 57 now, and living in Malvern in Carroll County.
“I have, to this day, a love for Betty Bishop that will never leave me,” she said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Betty and her sister, Adelphia Mary “Budd” Bishop. The sudden and random manner of Betty’s passing loomed large in our childhoods, and left an echoing void.
A born dancer
Betty Bishop was born in Elyria on Feb. 26, 1917, the youngest of three girls. Budd, in the middle, was six years older. A half-sister, Thelma, completed the set of siblings.
A photograph of Betty at 10 shows her seated on a wooden table, one leg crossed over the other, jauntily holding what looks like a cane or walking stick. She’s wearing a newsboy cap, a striped shirt and suspender-fastened shorts complemented by knee socks and Mary Janes. The inscription beneath reads: “Age 10. Modeling at the C.H. Merthe Co.” In another photo, undated but likely taken at around the same age, she’s standing on the front porch of a house on Cornell Avenue, wearing a wrinkled ballet costume with a knee-length tutu, which she’s fanning out to the sides with her hands.
Toe shoes, ankle socks and a headband securing what looks like a butterfly’s antennae, finish the ensemble. In both photographs, her hair is cut in a short bob. Even as a child, she had a dramatic flair.
Betty’s reputation as a young dance theater impresario was established early. This note, possibly written in her mother’s hand, appears on the facing page of a notebook in which another Merthe’s modeling photo appears:
“Betty Ann and her gang put her show on at the McKinley Bazaar Dec. 4, 1928, Ogo Pogo being the name of the play. Room filled twice. Receipts $14.00. All through, they did well.”
The editors for the midyear Class of 1937 Elyria High School yearbook, “The Elyrian,” acknowledged Betty’s career destiny. Epigraphs for each graduate appeared next to their senior portraits. Betty’s reads like something out of Shakespeare, if, say, Ophelia or Juliet had been dancers:
Thou takest to dancing, fair damsel; thy feet are thy fortune.
Thou hast made a way for thyself in the world by teaching
Others to be graceful and to make use of their feet.
Betty continued her education at the Boston Elite Dancing Academy, and as early as the 1930s, notices began appearing in The Chronicle-Telegram announcing dance recitals presented by Betty Ann Bishop School of Dance. For the next three decades, her students danced at venues such as Ely School; Susan Murbach Hunt remembers ballroom dance lessons for all at Ely.
Hunt, 70, of Citrus Hills, Fla., took tap and ballet, and “even got up on my toes” at the Bishop school.
Betty’s appointment book had to have been packed; she also gave occasional, specialized lessons to boys and girls at the Elyria YWCA’s Holly Hall. An item in the Chronicle announces a lesson on “popular South American dance.”
Barbara Kasper Folds, 67, of Olmsted Falls, took ballet and tap from 1954 to 1963, starting when she was 5. “Every year we had a recital at Ely School,” she wrote in an email. “Everyone had a tap routine and ballet routine. To this day I still love the ballet and classical music.”
Marlene De La Vars Jacobs, 74, lives in Carlisle Township. She wrote in an email that the costumes were her favorite part of the recitals: “Many of (them) were very sparkly with glitter. Loved those!”
Marlene took lessons between 1951 and 1953, starting when she was about 8. She recalls Betty’s studio being upstairs on the south side of Broad Street, “somewhere between East Ave. and the alley next to (the) former Driscoll Music.” This timing suggests that Betty continued to teach in Elyria after her marriage. A June 12, 1951, edition of the paper includes a wedding announcement for the marriage of Betty to Alfred G. Taylor of Lakewood; they exchanged their vows that morning at St. Andrew Episcopal Church.
Cuyahoga County records show they were divorced Feb. 4, 1955, when they were Lakewood residents. They had no children.
A beloved teacher
When Dianne was 3, she and her twin were cast, at Betty’s recommendation, in an Elyria High School production of “The King and I,” directed by Frank Toth. He also was a friend of Betty’s, frequently collaborating with her for recitals. (This paragraph is changed 1/2/18 to correct the name of the director. The writer was given incorrect information.)
“Betty was (at the high school) for every rehearsal,” Dianne recalled. “On opening night, I fell asleep onstage. Betty and my parents were laughing so hard.
“The King carried me off. The next night, I wet my pants; when I turned around you could see the stain on the satin material. The audience roared. At the matinee, I fell behind in the clapping, and so I stood up and blew the audience a kiss. Betty, who was backstage, picked me up and hugged me. She loved each and every student for whatever they brought to her class.”
In the 1960s, Betty’s studio was at 375 Broad St., up a steep and very narrow stairway next door to the Fay Co., a ladies’ apparel shop. She lived in an apartment near the studio, in the Century Block, at 385 Broad St., according to city directories from the era.
Dianne remembers large windows in the studio that looked out onto Broad Street below, hardwood floors that creaked, and a room that “smelled like wood,” so large that it echoed. I recall a mirror off to one side — with a ballet barre attached— that seemed to span the length of the room. A row of wooden chairs was set up on the opposite wall, so that parents could sit and watch. Phyllis Wasserman Harvey remembers a “big, cool-looking desk” at the front of the studio, near the windows. A small, raised platform allowed Betty or her student assistants to demonstrate foot positions.
Phyllis was about 5 when she began lessons; by the time she was 14 she was Betty’s teaching assistant. She had her own changing room in the back of the studio, which she shared with Nancy Barr, another student pictured in the Chronicle’s recital ad. Betty encouraged Phyllis and Nancy to paint their changing room and decorate it to their liking.
Phyllis, now 67, lives half of the year in Palm Springs, Calif., and the other half in southwest Colorado.
“Betty loved to dance, but the thing I recall … is that she built your confidence as a child. She developed our personalities. Going forward in life, (I would attribute) my level of confidence and self-assurance to Betty. She knew how to build that in kids. When you went out on stage, she taught you how to emote the dance, how to show it. I’ve danced my entire life because of Betty. She gave me my sense of style and my sense of dance.”
Dianne Maddock Fenbers also recognizes the positive influence that dance lessons can have on a child. Because of what dance had done for her, she started her adopted daughter in classes at the age of 4, while she was still a foster child.
“It really healed her. Girls are very fragile,” she said. “If you can get that confidence at a young age, it can carry you through. Betty did that for my sisters and (me). Betty did that for a lot of young girls in our community … She was always so positive. She believed we could do anything we could set our minds to. ‘If you can dream it, you can do it,’ she would say. I lived that for a long time.”
The Yankee Clipper Inn, off State Route 8 in Boston Heights, had several events on its books the weekend of Nov. 18, 1967, including a meeting of the National Association of Dance and Affiliated Artists. Betty was going to be there, and she hoped that Phyllis Wasserman would join her. By then Phyllis was 17, and although she had remained close to her teacher, high school activities and a boyfriend kept her busy enough that she curtailed her involvement in dance. Phyllis later would marry the boyfriend; they celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary this year.
Nevertheless, she was delighted when Betty invited her along for a weekend where dance would be the focus. “It was something I would have wanted to do very much,” she said, so the reason must have been compelling for her to decline her teacher’s invitation.
Betty’s sister Budd took Phyllis’ place on the trip. Phyllis no longer remembers what scheduling conflict or family obligation intervened, but whatever the reason, it saved her life.
Carbon monoxide gas — odorless, tasteless and invisible — wafted through the Yankee Clipper that Saturday evening. The Chronicle reported that 200 hundred guests were evacuated, 60 were hospitalized, and three perished: a 22-year-old Cleveland man on his wedding night, and two sisters from Elyria — Betty and Budd Bishop.
According to Mark J. Price, a staff writer for The Akron Beacon Journal who wrote a local history piece on the incident five years ago, investigators traced the poisonous gas to a swimming-pool heater in a basement laundry room. Its vent, installed too closely to a fresh-air intake, gave the fumes free rein to make their deadly ramble throughout the hotel’s ductwork. Chronicle reporters and editors included the tragedy in their list of the top 10 news stories of the year.
Phyllis’ parents, owners of the Fay Co. next to the dance studio, heard the news of the tragedy before she did; she thinks they were the ones to tell her. “I was devastated. I honestly was freaked out and I don’t like to use that word. I was so shocked to think that I would have been there, that that could have been my fate. And I was broken-hearted because (Betty) was someone I’d looked up to my whole life … she played such an important role in my life.”
Phyllis went to the visiting hours at the Sudro-Curtis Funeral Home, but she doesn’t have a vivid recollection of the experience. “I don’t know if I blocked that. I have a great living image of her … I do not have a gone image of her.”
Phyllis still dances, and she has taught many forms of dance as well. Also to this day, whenever she checks into a hotel room, she cracks the window and leaves the heater off.
Dianne Maddock Fenbers wanted me to know “something very specific” about Betty.
“She did not like to say goodbye to people. Instead, she would say ‘au revoir,’ or‘à tout à l’heure,’or‘à bien tôt’. On the night before she died, I had class with her. She said goodbye to my mother … to me, she said ‘goodbye, mon petit chou.’ I remember asking my mom, ‘Why did she say that?’ and my mom said, ‘I don’t know.’ That is something I never forgot.”
Dianne went to the funeral with her family, too. It was important to them — especially to Dianne — to say goodbye. But what she and her mother really said was this: “Au revoir, Betty.”
A. Mary ‘Budd’ Bishop
Adelphia Mary Bishop, Betty Bishop’s older sister, had been called “Budd” ever since she was a baby. In a Nov. 20, 1967, front-page article in the Chronicle covering the Yankee Clipper tragedy, reporter Barbara Kamp wrote that Budd, 56 at the time of her death, was as highly esteemed as a registered nurse as Betty had been as a dance instructor. Also a graduate of Elyria High School, Budd went on to graduate from the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing; since 1952, she had been employed by Drs. Roy E. Hayes and Harold E. McDonald, and was, Kamp wrote, “regarded as their ‘right hand.’ A strict disciplinarian, she … made certain her patients did as their doctors had ordered.”
Budd lived at 709 East River St., which had been the Bishop family home.
The list of survivors for the two sisters was small: just two aunts and a nephew, Richard Loomis of Elyria. Loomis was the son of their half-sister, Thelma, who had predeceased them. Richard Loomis died in 1997, but I was able to track down one of his two sons, Bradley, 52, of Lebanon, Ohio. He and his brother are Betty’s and Budd’s great half-nephews. Bradley inherited from his father a trove of photographs, many of which appear with this article.