Lucia Chase

Lucia Chase

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1897

Died: 1986

Inducted: 2018

Named for her maternal grandmother, Lucia Hosmer Chase was born to a prominent family in Waterbury, CT on March 24, 1897. Her father, Irving Hall Chase, was the Secretary and later President of the Waterbury Clock Company.  Her mother, Elizabeth Hosmer Kellogg Chase, was the daughter of a State Representative.

Lucia was the middle of five daughters. Her oldest sister was Marjorie (Mrs. Sheldon). Her next older sister, Eleanor, would become the daughter-in-law of President William Howard Taft. Her two younger sisters included Elizabeth (Mrs. John Griffith Davies) and Dorothy (Mrs. Edward Carmody of Carmody & Torrance law firm).  Her parents taught her the value of the dollar and to be frugal, but were not otherwise strict parents. Their philosophy was to allow others to do what they wanted and not interfere.

Lucia was bright and outgoing from a young age.  She would dash around her family’s home called “Rose Hill” on Prospect Street in Waterbury. Known as “Lu” to her friends, she was frequently involved in stage plays or musical reviews. Her fellow classmates at St. Margaret’s School stated in the 1910 yearbook, “We feel that if she follows the stage as a profession, she will be unequaled.”

Graduating from high school in 1913 at age 16, she felt she was not ready to set off to New York City on her own just yet, so she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, an all-girls school in Pennsylvania. She enjoyed her classwork, but preferred to leave campus on the weekends – her favorite destination being Yale University in New Haven. She was very popular, and as a young co-ed, she never lacked for invitations to parties and football games and attended six Yale senior proms.

Contracting diphtheria during the fall of her junior year, her heart was no longer in her studies when she returned in the Spring. Instead, she left her books behind and headed to NYC to begin studying her first love… acting.  Her life became a whirlwind of acting classes, dance classes, voice lessons and performances. She became a popular socialite in New York. Her clothing and whereabouts were frequently mentioned in the social news.

In June 1926 she met Tom Ewing, a polo player and heir to the Alexander Smith & Sons carpeting fortune. It was love at first sight for Tom and he proposed marriage only a week later.  She agreed to the marriage after a three-month whirlwind romance and they were wed December 28, 1926.  He promised to never interfere with her drive towards a professional career in the Theatre.

Their first son, Thomas, Jr. was born in February 1929 and their second son, Alexander Cochran, “Sandy,” was born in February 1931. 

In January 1933.  Tom caught pneumonia from standing hatless in the rain at Lucia’s uncle’s funeral. His death at age 35 devastated Lucia. She began studying classical ballet with Mikhail Mordkin, an instructor with a strict worth ethic and imposing personality, to take her mind off the pain. She was quickly cast in ballets presented by his advanced dance students. 

In 1936 Mordkin set off to stage the first full-length production of Sleeping Beauty in the United States. The location of the performance was to be Waterbury, Connecticut, with funding from the Waterbury Women’s Club and Lucia Chase. With the accompaniment of two pianos instead of an orchestra, Lucia played the title role and was partnered by Dimitri Romanoff.

Despite beginning her classical ballet training so late in life, there was no question that she had a spectacular stage presence and her character performances brought critical acclaim. Mordkin Ballet was also well received by audiences but remained financially strapped.  Lucia soon found herself in the position of financier for each production.  After two years, her lawyer put a stop to any further funding of Mordkin Ballet.

Behind the scenes, Richard Pleasant, the man hired to run Mordkin’s ballet school in New York while the company was out on tour, conceived the idea of a new ballet company. He privately took his idea to Lucia. His grand ideas and quick hiring of sixty dancers and eleven choreographers (including Michel Fokine, Agnes de Mille, and Eugene Loring), and the mounting of eighteen ballets soon sent expenditures skyrocketing much higher than the $25,000 Lucia had promised.

The first two years of Ballet Theatre’s existence were a performance breakthrough and a fiscal disaster. Hailed in Dance News as “a new page in the history of ballet in America,” the accolades did not equate to attendance and box office receipts left the company in debt. Richard Pleasant, the man whose vision created this uniquely American ballet company, was asked to step down.  In the wake of his departure, the company came under the management of entertainment impresario, Sol Hurok.  For the first time since its inception, Ballet Theatre had regular engagements at the Metropolitan Opera House, a full tour schedule and an eager audience.

Sol Hurok, an immigrant from Russia and the manager of the Ballet Russes, preferred the Russian style of ballet and set a decidedly European tone to the tour.  Back in New York, he moved to set aside a new dance being created by Antony Tudor – one that dealt with sex, shame, and raw emotion. A dark drama, not the spirited high, stepping, ever-smiling ballets of the Russian classics. Lucia had never interfered with the direction or programming of the company. She simply wanted to be known as a dancer. For the first time, and at the right time, she spoke up and insisted that the dance be included in the upcoming season at The Met.  At its premier on Aril 8, 1942, the dance was met first with stunned silence, then the audience roared to life with a standing ovation that received 27 curtain calls. Pillar of Fire had taken ballet in a whole new direction.

Despite the acclaim and now record-breaking box office receipts, Ballet Theatre continued to run a substantial deficit that continued to be picked up by Lucia. Sol Hurok’s take for each production was a substantial 80% while the company received only the original agreed-upon fee of just a few thousand dollars.

In October 1944 Lucia gave an ultimatum. She would pay for the new Tudor ballet, Undertow, and an additional $25,000, but no more. The Board of Directors came to a standoff. The Chair of the Board threatened to resign “if he could not arrange for the company to function.” Lucia continued her ultimatum throughout the spring of 1945, insisting that other sources of revenue needed to be found. In April, the Board Chair resigned. The Board then voted to name Lucia, as well as scenic designer, Oliver Smith, administrative directors of Ballet Theatre.

One year later, a disagreement with Sol Hurok lead to a release of contract worked out between lawyers. Hurok got the rights to the Firebird sets and costumes designed by Marc Chagall as well as three other ballets.  Ballet Theatre gained its freedom.

Over the next fifteen years, Ballet Theatre would travel to 48 States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and England. The company withstood civil unrest that shut down performances in Buenos Aires and recovered from the disaster of a truck fire that destroyed all of their sets, costumes and personal possessions in Cannes, France. They were the first American performing company to tour Europe, playing in thirty-three countries. While in England, Lucia became the first American and first foreigner to be elected a member of the Royal Academy of Dance.

In 1957, Ballet Theatre officially adopted the name American Ballet Theatre.

In 1960, Lucia Chase hung up her toe shoes. She was 63 years old. She continued to dance mime roles until her retirement in 1980. Having started her ballet career at age 38 – the age when most dancers are ending their careers – she also kept her real age a secret. Most thought she was at least 10 years younger than her actual age, and she did not correct them.

November 10, 1962 brought a second tragedy to Lucia Chase. Her eldest son, Tommy, died in a boating accident off the coast of Rhode Island.

The same day that wreckage of Tommy’s ship was found, it was announced the American Ballet Theatre was moving to Washington DC to begin residence at the Washington Ballet Foundation. Lucia reported to Washington immediately after the funeral. Jackie Kennedy, the honorary chairman of the Foundation, later remarked that at the time she could only barely imagine what Lucia was going through.

Sadly, critical reviews of the performances, and mounting costs beyond what the Foundation had budgeted sent ABT back to New York after just six short months.

Lucia stepped back from ABT for over a year, spending her time on projects such as privately publishing Tommy’s journal and building a house in Narragansett that would be a way-station for friends and family visiting the area and would preserve Tommy’s memory.

Her attention returned to ABT in 1965 with the 25th Anniversary of the company’s founding. She remained as co-director until 1980 for its 40th Anniversary. On August 30, 1980, Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith relinquished their positions and were succeeded by Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Throughout the history of Ballet Theatre, it was Lucia’s determination, drive and tenacity that kept it alive for its first 40 years. She fought hard against any notion that she was “paying to dance.” She only wanted to be known as one of the dancers. 

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter on June 9, 1980. His remarks at the ceremony were, “Ballerina Lucia Chase has been a one-woman show, devoting her lifework to sustaining the vitality of American dance. A dancer and ballet director both, she has interpreted roles and created them, and in every instance she has served to inspire the young, entertain the old and win for American talent its rightful place on the international stage of dance.”

The State of Connecticut presented her with the state’s medal for her service to the arts.  Her most cherished honor, however, was to be granted an honorary doctorate from Yale University.

Other awards include the Handel Medallion (New York City’s highest cultural citation), Capezio Award, Dance Magazine Award, and honorary degree from Long Island University in 1979, and induction into the Silas Bronson Library Waterbury Hall of Fame.

Lucia Chase died in her New York home on January 8, 1986, having suffered a stroke a year earlier. She is buried in the family plot at Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers.

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