Another Matriarch of Clown – Ann Miller

By Ira Seidenstein

July 2, 2023

Publicity photo of Ann Miller 1946

Ann Miller was a great clown whose forte was not acrobatics, nor mime, nor juggling but her forte was called ‘the triple threat’ i.e. an actor-dancer-singer.  Triple Threat was known initially in the world of American style Musical Theatre.

Miller’s personal story is quite incredible. She overcame numerous life obstacles, even as a child. At the age of 13 she began to provide the income to support herself and her Mother. Her mother though had insisted that Ann take ballet lessons because it may help her rickets… when Ann was 5.

In my workshops occasionally when someone is visibly suffering simply from doing one of my Acting exercises, I will ask: “Are you suffering for your art”? I do not encourage people to suffer. We each need encouragement though to simply try and deal with the situation as it occurs even when it is difficult.

I encourage us to think again about what we believe in the performance fields I cherish such as: clown, Shakespeare, Commedia Dell’Arte, improvisation, ‘physical theatre’ etc. The real suffering is the battle in action i.e. during a creative exercise when our beliefs are organically confronted via the simplicity of exercises instructions.

I mentioned Triple Threat, but I consider that some musical theatre artists are Quadruple Threats because they are also clowns or expert in comic acting. Miller showed her talent for comedy in her first film when she was only 14.  That was the legendary film with several great female clowns – each portraying a jobbing actress in New York City. The film was STAGE DOOR – 1937.  Miller lied about her age and said she was 18. She had also lied about her age when she was 13 so that she could get work dancing in a night club.

At that night club she was seen by Lucille Ball who helped her get into the film Stage Door in which Ball was also going to act.

Below is Miller with Red Skelton in Texas Carnival 1951

I saw Ann Miller perform live on Broadway in NYC. She was the co-star with Mickey Rooney in a musical play about Burlesque. That was Sugar Babies about 1981. Certainly at that time Miller and Rooney were Living Legends in Film and Acting this production was Rooney’s Broadway Debut. In the clip below Miller is about 58 and Rooney 61.

Below is a clip of Miller adding another element of skill, burlesque, combined with her triple threat. This is from Kiss Me Kate based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In the film, Miller plays the character Bianca. 1953.

Below is ‘physical theatre’ scene from the same movie Kiss Me Kate.

Below is Miller at 75, singing Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”. 1998.

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Ira Seidenstein