Inarguably one of the most talented dancers in Hollywood history, Cyd Charisse is a performer whose contributions to entertainment are immeasurable. From her prodigious childhood ballet career and
show stopping film pairings with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to her indefatigable stage presence and
entrepreneurship, Cyd has been a model of professionalism, grace, and strength.
Tula Ellice Finklea, named for her aunt Tula and uncle Ellis, was born in Amarillo on March 8, 1921. Her father, Ernest, owned and operated a jewelry store in the Texas panhandle city. Her mother, Lela, ran the Finklea household at 1616 Tyler Street as well as numerous charitable organizations. Later, when young Tula's older brother tried to call her "Sis," he could only manage "Sid." Mercifully, this became the name she has answered to since.
Ernest Finklea loved ballet and when his daughter began lessons at eight years of age, he was delighted to learn she was a remarkably gifted dancer. He actively encouraged Sid's training and, when she was fourteen, took the advice of her instructor and provided her with more intensive training than she could obtain in Amarillo.
She quickly advanced from professional classes in Hollywood to performing with the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo - in less than a year - as Felia Siderova. However, Ernest's health rapidly deteriorated during Sid's first season with the company and she returned to Amarillo in time to see him before his death. She remained there until the company returned to the U.S. after a tour of Australia.
Sid returned to the ballet under the tutelege of instructor Nico Charisse, a charming 32-year-old Frenchman. While the Ballet Russe was touring England, Charisse arrived unannounced in London and proclaimed his love for the fatherless 16-year-old. When he asked her to accompany him to Paris for a romantic getaway, Sid declined because it would appear unsavory. His solution was to propose marriage. She accepted and they were wed in the City of Lights. Upon returning to L.A. (and getting "properly" married for Mrs. Finklea's sake), Nico and Sid operated a ballet school and began appearing in pre-war soundies as Nico and Charisse. Nico tried to enlist in the Army after Pearl Harbor but was classified 4F and served instead in the defense industry. Sid took a very brief hiatus from running the school when they were blessed with a son, Nicky, in 1942.
Through acquaintances in L.A., Sid was introduced to work in feature film ballet numbers. The studios liked everything about her (who wouldn't) but hated her name. Sid proffered a substitute - Lily Norwood, the first name of her grandmother combined with her mother's maiden name. In 1943, she appeared in Warner's "Mission to Moscow" and Columbia's Janet Blair vehicle, "Something to Shout About", under that name.
The industry's response to Sid was positive and she was courted heavily by MGM's musical machine. With encouragement from Nico, her mother, and her extended family, she decided to shift her dancing from the stage to the screen.
Sid was chosen to appear briefly with Fred Astaire in the opening number of producer Athur Freed's "Zeigfeld Follies" (1946). Freed wasn't thrilled with the Lily Norwood moniker, however, citing its plain incongruity with her dark beauty. He thought Charisse was certainly exotic enough and spruced up the spelling of her de facto first name, Sid. Thus, Cyd Charisse was introduced to the world.
Her uncredited appearance with Fred Astaire got her a seven year contract with MGM. She appeared in a number of musicals over the next few years, but it was "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)' with Gene Kelly that made her a big star. That was quickly followed by her great performance in 'The Band Wagon (1953)'. As the 1960's came, musicals faded from the screen, as did her career. She made appearances on television and performed in a nightclub revue with her second husband, singer Tony Martin.
The Cyd Charisse Appreciation Page