June 11, 1925 to May 29, 2014
A passion for life
Felisa Vanoff, who danced lead roles in the New York City Opera and choreographed many a Hollywood TV show, died of natural causes on Wednesday, May 29th, at her home in Beverly Hills. She was 89.
In tandem with her Emmy-Award-winning producer husband, Nick Vanoff, Felisa was a magnificent hostess, whose joy in entertaining resulted in glittering gatherings of actors, painters, dancers, writers, composers, musicians, titans of industry and politicians. But it was her passion for life that trumped any star-studded affair.
The type to remark on the magnificence of a day or the color of a flower, Vanoff expressed the same enthusiasm for people, always making them feel special and encouraging them to pursue great things.
Dance was what captured Vanoff’s soul, however, an art that led to her explosively dramatic style on stage, as well as to her partnership with Glen Tetley, a noted choreographer. In 1953-55, Vanoff was a principal dancer with The John Butler Dance Theatre, performing numerous roles, including “Amahl and the Night Visitor” and “Aida” for the NYC Opera.
As a young woman, blessed with chocolate-brown curls, a seductive smile and legs that went on forever, Vanoff worried that her five feet eleven height might hamper her as a dancer. Accentuated with superb posture and undeniable presence, it enhanced her abilities instead. That presence remained throughout her life.
She enjoyed a close professional partnership with her late husband, Nick, winner of five Emmys: three for “The Kennedy Center Honors,” produced with George Stevens Jr., and two for “The Julie Andrews Hour” in the early 1970’s, as well as the 1988 Julie Andrews special “The Sound of Christmas.”
Felisa and Nick met when both were young dancers in the company of the NYC Opera in the early 1950’s and soon wed. Mrs. Vanoff acted as dance choreographer on virtually all the television series produced by her husband, such shows as “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall,” “The Hollywood Palace,” “Night Life,” “The Don Knotts Show,” “The Milton Berle Show” and “The Sonny and Cher Show.”
Along with owning the Sunset Gower Studios for several years, the Vanoffs underwrote The Joffrey Ballet’s re-creation of the famous Diaghilev Ballet, “Sacre du Printemps”, in 1987.
A captivating storyteller
Along with her hysterical sense of humor, Vanoff dressed better than anyone on the planet and was a captivating storyteller. With innate timing, she told how she changed her name from Phyllis to Felisa in the second grade, how her husband’s friendship with Perry Como got him going, and how she once arrived at a White House dinner, during the Ronald Reagan Administration, wearing the exact same dress as Nancy.
One of two daughters born to Eugene Caputo, an attorney and member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and Velma Lindway, a professional artist and illustrator, Phyllis Elizabeth Caputo came into the world in Ambridge, PA on June 11, 1925.
She sensed her calling as a dancer early, assuming the stage name Felisa Conde long before she set foot on Broadway. Younger sister Paula, who also became a dancer, idolized her sibling and became her closest confidant.
After graduating high school in her early teens, Felisa set off to New York City in pursuit of her dream. She trained there with Vincenzo Celli, ballet master of The Ballets Russes, before heading off to Mexico City to study classical Spanish dance and flamenco with Jose Fernandez.
She went on to become a Captain in the Army in September of 1945, touring the Philippines, Korea and Japan with the USO Camp Shows during WWII. Upon her return to New York, she joined Charles Weidman’s Dance Theatre as a lead dancer, gave concerts with Peter Hamilton and appeared on the early Fred Waring and Billy Rose television shows.
Hasty Pudding Review
In 1948, she became the first woman to choreograph the “Hasty Pudding Review” at Harvard University. In 1949, she became assistant choreographer, as well as lead dancer, in the NYC Opera Company where she danced lead roles in many operas, including “Carmen”, “La Traviatta” and “Don Giovanni.” In the early 1950s, she went on to choreograph for television for Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” and with Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander for “Carousel.”
Vanoff was a true patron of the arts. She served on the board of directors for the Joffrey Ballet, helping The Joffrey to become bi-coastal in New York and Los Angeles. A many term Member of the Board of Directors of The Blue Ribbon of the Music Center of Los Angeles, she chaired or co-chaired many charity events for their benefit.
She was also a member of The Colleagues and on their Board of Directors, chairing and/or co-chairing benefit after benefit. She did the same as a member of S.H.A.R.E. In 1987, Vanoff, along with her husband, donated start-up funds to the Ballet Foundation for the creation of the Summer Dance Festival in Sun Valley, Idaho. Co-created with former NYC Ballet Dancers Jacque d’Amboise and Paula Caputo, her sister, the fund made way for performances and workshops by guest artists and choreographers from the Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and NYC Ballet, among others.
“She gave generously of herself”
Vanoff gave generously of herself, her time and her resources without fanfare and supported individuals as well as organizations, especially those that protected animals. Owner of one of the first Portuguese Water Dogs in the U.S., she obtained four or five more over time.
Vanoff went on to produce the Broadway musical “City of Angels” in London, for which she received the Laurence Oliver Award.
After Nick’s passing in 1991, Vanoff and Gordon Davidson created “Salon at The Taper”, a yearly benefit that honors an outstanding lyricist each year. The proceeds from these evenings fund “Nick’s Tix”, low-cost tickets for Music Center performances for students, seniors and the disabled.
Along with building a home in Malibu, one featured in Architectural Digest, she formed another passion, skiing, when visiting Sun Valley.
Vanoff is survived by her son Nick E. Vanoff, his wife, Kate Lusk Vanoff, and two granddaughters, Marina and Kathryn; also her sister Paula Caputo, three nieces, one great grandniece and two great grandnephews. She loved them all dearly.
On Thursday, June 5th, as per her wishes, Vanoff was buried in Sun Valley Idaho, where she owned a home. A memorial service in Sun Valley is planned for later in the month.