Matt Mattox: the Australian years – from Oklahoma! to Song of Norway

Oh What a Wonderful Mornin’ it was for Rodgers and Hammerstein when Oklahoma! opened in New York in March 1943.

Neither could have dreamed of the musical’s great success and the royalties that would come in the years to follow.

The musical ran for more than five years in the US and then for many years in countries around the world.

In 1949, J C Williamsons brought the show to Australia where it opened with a seven month run in Melbourne before touring throughout Australia into 1950.

Act I of the show ended with the Dream Ballet (“Out of My Dreams”) in which the lead characters of Laurey, Curly and Jud were interpreted by three dancers.

In the original production, Curly, in the Dream Ballet, was danced by Marc Platt, Laurey by Katharine Sergava and Jud, for the first two months, by George Church, then by Vladimir Kostenko.

The creative team took the dancing roles seriously and cast with care.

Sergava, Platt and Kostenko had all danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and went on to future careers as professional ballet dancers.

In Australia, the role of Curly was danced by Matt Mattox, an excellent jazz dancer, while Laurey was danced by Strelsa Heckelman and Jud by Vassilie Trunoff.

Both Heckelman and Trunoff had danced in the Borovansky Ballet.

Heckelman died last December (2012) and Mattox died less than two months later, in February (2013) aged 91.

Soon after his death in France, Mattox was acclaimed by the dancer, Jacques d’Amboise as “one of the greatest male dancers that ever was on a performing stage. He’s equal to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.”

Mattox’s most remarkable role was that of Caleb Pontipee in the 1954 movie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

As one of seven frontiersmen in Oregon in the mid 19th century, Mattox starred in a spectacular, barn-building scene in which his virtuosic solo featured soaring split leg jumps. His ‘floor’ for the high jumps was a wooden horse saw.

Directed by Stanley Donen, the movie was choreographed by Michael Kidd who chose a group of excellent dancers, among them Mattox, d’Ambroise, on leave from New York City Ballet, Marc Platt, Tommy Rall and Russ Tamblyn.

Harold (Matt) Mattox was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma so it seemed as though fate would lead him to the musical of the same name.

In Australia, Williamsons brought Mattox to help stage the operetta, Song of Norway, but a reshuffling of the opening dates of various Williamson shows meant he danced in Oklahoma! first.

In an oral history for the National Library of Australia,the dancer, Strelsa Heckelman, told the interviewer, Lee Christofis, that in Australia, Mattox’s first Laurey in the Dream Ballet was Edna Busse, however he found her too short to partner.

Cast lists for the musical in the initial Melbourne season show Busse in the role but some time during 1949, Heckelman took over the part.

The dancers were coached by Gemze De Lappe, an American dancer who had worked closely with Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer of Oklahoma!

De Lappe, who danced the role of Laurey in the Dream Ballet in the London premiere of Oklahoma! in 1947, is listed in programs as the choreographer for the Australian production.

But why De Lappe, and not de Mille?

It seems that de Mille did not retain the rights to her choreography for the musical and therefore anyone could be commissioned to reproduced her work or create their own choreography. That meant of course she received no royalties for any of the long running productions whereas the composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, did.

By 1958, the show had earned an estimated $US60 million in royalties but de Mille received nothing more than her initial fee.

As for the Australian production, Mattox was a “lovely” partner, Heckelman told Christofis, though in rehearsals, he was demanding, insisting she danced with more attack. He achieved that attack by “making me cross” in rehearsal.

At the end of 1950, Wiliamsons staged Song of Norway, with Mattox listed in the program as choreographer. Along with Heckelman, he also danced in the operetta.

In the original 1944 production in the US, George Balanchine choreographed the dance sequences that included both folk dancing and ballet.

9 Comments

  1. Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    And the State LIbrary of New South Wales has the original negatives of Trunoff, Mattox and Heckelman, taken by Royce Rees when he worked for Hal Williamson. Most of the 6600 negatives were for J.C. Williamson programs, foyer boards and advertising.

  2. valerie
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks Robert, I didn’t know the State Library had all these negatives. Are there any productions shots of Oklahoma! or Song of Norway?

  3. Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    Valerie,
    Thanks for the interesting article.
    Here’s link to a Mattox video.
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=343631262405049&set=o.53974794854&type=2&theater
    (not sure if it works for non Facebook members)
    Dynamics some of us, well, almost of us have forgotten about. One terrific dancer …!
    I did classes with Matt in London (Floral St, Studios) and, of course Vas Trunoff was Ballet Master when I joined London Festival Ballet in the seventies.
    cheers,
    barry

  4. valerie
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks Barry, what an amazing video! Was Matt’s studio very near the stage door of the Royal Opera House?

  5. Nick H
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    It would appear that there are negatives of Oklahoma (ON 192-1588-1682, 2024, 2057-2064 etc.) and Song of Norway (ON 192-2616-2703 etc. (see partial listing at: http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/_transcript/2007/D00007/rees.pdf).

    If the following photograph from the NLA is an indication (‘Dream Ballet scene in the J.C. Williamson production of Oklahoma!, 1949’ – http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3805177) there should be some production shots amongst the Royce Rees Collection. However, given that the NLA has already catalogued and scanned approximately 40 photographs from the Oklahoma! production it is probably easier to just go there (Richard Stone and John Thompson did a phenomenal job with their very detailed and meticulous cataloguing of almost 3500 photographs in their JCW photographs collection). There appears to be an interesting small collection of production photographs of the Song of Norway amongst the Lady Viola Tait Collection at the NLA, see for example: http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3601018.

  6. valerie
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks for all this information, Nick

  7. Posted May 10, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Valerie,
    To answer(finally!) your question: here is the building(you have to click on more> Street View.
    https://maps.google.com.au/maps?oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&q=floral+street&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x487604cc896b9aa5:0x558123779d061a55,Floral+St,+City+of+Westminster,+London+WC2E,+UK&gl=au&ei=PrKMUYvUF6auiAeWyIHADw&ved=0CIABELYD
    The address is 12

  8. Posted May 10, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Valerie,
    To answer(finally!) your question: here is the building(you have to click on more> Street View).
    https://maps.google.com.au/maps?oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&q=floral+street&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x487604cc896b9aa5:0x558123779d061a55,Floral+St,+City+of+Westminster,+London+WC2E,+UK&gl=au&ei=PrKMUYvUF6auiAeWyIHADw&ved=0CIABELYD

    The address is 12 Floral Street and it was called the Dance Centre where, Errol Addison, Matt, John O’Brien – among others – gave a daily class . It is now a luxury beauty Spa. So what was once a Temple to Beauty, is now a Temple of Indulgence. Although I’m sure some folks might have a reverse pov.

    If you move – navigate the image around – you can see how close it is to the Opera House.
    cheers,
    barry

  9. Lynnette Mattox Brown
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    My Father was an amazing, creative, wonderful and loving man. He was more than a choreographer….he was My Dad. I miss him every day, just like you would.

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Matt Mattox, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Matt Mattox, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Dream Ballet, Oklahoma!, 1943, photo © Harry Alton Atwell

Dream Ballet, Oklahoma!, 1943, photo © Harry Alton Atwell

Vladimir Kostenko as Jud, Dream Ballet, Oklahoma, 1943

Vladimir Kostenko as Jud, Dream Ballet, Oklahoma, 1943

Katharine Sergava (Dream Laurey) in Oklahoma!, 1943

Katharine Sergava (Dream Laurey) in Oklahoma!, 1943

Marc Platt and Katharine Sergova, Dream Ballet, Oklahoma!

Marc Platt and Katharine Sergova, Dream Ballet, Oklahoma!

Vassilie Trunoff, publicity shot for Oklahoma!, 1949, National Library of Australia ,nla.pic-vn3064651

Vassilie Trunoff, publicity shot for Oklahoma!, 1949, National Library of Australia ,nla.pic-vn3064651

Matt Mattox, Oklahoma!, 1949, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3805194

Matt Mattox, Oklahoma!, 1949, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3805194

Strelsa Heckelman, Oklahoma!, 1949, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3805193

Strelsa Heckelman, Oklahoma!, 1949, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3805193