Jerry Ross

As a young dancer in the 1940s, Jerry Ross soared high above the Broadway boards in New York musicals. Well into his 70s, he was still training aspiring actors in Miami.

Ross, who danced three seasons on the hit variety program Your Show of Shows in the 1950s and choreographed the Orange Bowl Parade opener in 1984, has died at 91.

Not long after his final annual trip to the New York theaters in October, Ross learned he had a brain tumor. The Navy veteran of World War II died Nov. 25 at a Homestead nursing home.

Ross, who'd worked with legendary choreographers Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, settled in Kendall in the early 1970s, said nephew John Aronson, of Wellsboro, Pa.

Among Ross' treasures: an autographed photo on which Fosse wrote, ``My ambition is to dance as well as you do.''

Ross taught jazz dance at the University of Miami and choreographed 39 productions at the university's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre in the 1960s and '70s, according to information he compiled for his family.

FAMOUS STUDENTS

Among his students: actors Ray Liotta, Andréa Burns -- star of In the Heights on Broadway -- and Tony Award winner Katie Finneran.

Notified of Ross's death, Burns e-mailed to friends: ''I feel so lucky I got to see him one last time, and right in his element: backstage at a Broadway theater,'' after a performance.

''Jerry was on the [UM] faculty for about 15 years'' as an instructor, said Robert Ankrom, retired Theatre Arts department chairman. At the Ring, ``he choreographed Hair for me. He did one or two musicals each year.''

In 1983, Richard Janaro, then heading the Performing and Visual Arts Center (PAVAC) at Miami Dade College's Kendall campus, hired Ross to choreograph a production of Godspell.

PAVAC evolved into the New World School of the Arts in 1987. Ross continued to teach there while in his 70s.

''He was very gentle and a huge talent,'' said Janaro, New World's acting founding dean, now retired. ``His choreography was absolutely brilliant. And he was breathtakingly handsome when he was young.''

Powerfully built and athletic, Ross was known for his high-flying leaps. He exercised daily until his final illness, his nephew said.

DESTINED TO BE

Born Arnold Jerry Rosey, Ross studied piano while growing up in Washington, D.C., intending to be a concert pianist. But all that changed by chance.

Washington Times Herald columnist Ernie Schier wrote in 1948 that Ross was in a George Washington University opera audience in 1938 when the pianist ''stubbed his toe'' and couldn't go on.

``In desperation [the director] asks if there's a pianist in the house. . . .Suddenly a hush falls over the audience as one slim, solitary young man makes his way down the aisle.

``Amid cheers, he sits down to the piano, the house lights are darkened, the curtain is gently raised, and the performance goes on.''

Schier wrote that Ross' bold move got him a job accompanying modern dancers, and that Ross, ``after a few weeks of observing the muscle-straining kinetics of the group, closes the keyboard on his piano and falls into their ranks.''

He earned a fine arts degree from GWU, where he studied with Martha Graham protégée Elizabeth Burtner.

After serving in London during the war, Ross launched his Broadway career. By 1944, he'd won the New York Drama Critic's Award for the best dance performance of the year, in Rhapsody.

He also danced in Dream With Music,Sing Out, Sweet Land and Windy City on Broadway, and was lead dancer in the road company of Call Me Mister.

Ross danced three seasons on Your Show of Shows, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, as well as Abbott and Costello revues, Arthur Murray shows and NBC Variety Star Spectaculars.

He appeared at top nightclubs, including the Washington, D.C. Shoreham Hotel's Blue Room, the Pierre and Waldorf-Astoria hotels in New York, and the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas.

Ross performed at automobile shows, in industrial films and commercials. His biography says he choreographed ''over 70 shows for summer tent musicals'' and three ballets for the Princeton, N.J., Ballet Society.

His summer-stock experiences includes the famous Tamiment Playhouse in Pennsylvania, where he sometimes performed with his sister, Marcia -- John Aronson's mother.

Chris Warren, a Miami actor and longtime friend, said Ross loved telling stories about the celebrities he knew.

''At parties he'd be holding court, because he was so darn interesting,'' Warren said.

Once, Ross went to dinner in Las Vegas with bandleader Harry James and his wife, actress Betty Grable, and actor/singer Harry Belafonte. When the restaurant refused to serve Belafonte because he was black, the party left, Ross told Warren.

``He was a pure gentleman. He knew which side the fork goes on. He was a perfectionist in the way he dressed.''

He was also a perfectionist as a teacher, Aronson said.

``He may have come off hard at times, but he was only doing it because he wanted the best for his students.''

In addition to Aronson, Jerry Ross is survived by a niece, Susan Baratta of Naples. He directed that the Neptune Society scatter his ashes at sea.


Published in the Miami Herald from Dec. 10 to Dec. 25, 2008