Disabled Dealer Magazine November 2006
THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Donna McKechnie: Her Career and her victory over Rheumatoid Arthritis
By David Block
Anyone can get Rheumatoid Arthritis, and the Tony Award winning star of Broadway’s A Chorus Line, Donna McKechnie can attest to that. McKechnie who danced in additional Broadway shows such as Promises, Promises and Company, was diagnosed with this auto-immune disease in 1978. Her fear of never dancing again was eclipsed by the likelihood of becoming paralyzed for life. Her doctors told her that that was inevitable. But McKechnie refused to accept their diagnosis, so she found a different doctor, Dr. Sam Getlen, who put her on a special diet, which helped cure her.
Her recovery from Rheumatoid Arthritis was not the first time that she overcame a difficult challenge. Before starting, her senior year in high school, she ran away from her home in Detroit, Michigan, to join a New York City dance troupe. But when the job ended, she decided to stay in the Big Apple, so she had to fend for herself. She pounded the pavement and auditioned as a dancer, singer and actress. Outside of these professions, her job choices were limited because she had not earned her high school diploma.
“Running away before graduating high school is not something I’d recommend to anyone,” said McKechnie. “That was my particular journey”, and it was a tough one. Yet no matter how hard it got, McKechnie never got discouraged.
Her perseverance paid off. In 1961, she was cast as a dancer in the Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and that opened other doors for her. Among her accomplishments that decade included being a dancer in the 1965 movie, Billie, starring Patty Duke. Around the same time, she danced regularly on the NBC TV variety show, Hullabaloo.
“Being on Hullabaloo gave me great exposure,” said McKechnie. “A lot of talented people were on the show like Chubby Checker (Ernest Evans) and the Rolling Stones. We had the top sound of the day.”
Being seen on national television was not the only . way that Hullabaloo enhanced McKechnie’s career. On the show, she befriended Michael Bennett, who conceived, choreographed and directed A Chorus Line.
That decade, McKechnie learned to turn setbacks into victories. For example, in 1969, she was cast in the movie, Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon (premiered 1970), that starred Liza Minnelli. McKechnie was uncomfortable because her character divorced her husband because he was confined to a wheelchair. Not her character, but McKechnie herself hated to tell him that she could not handle his disability.
“It was difficult for me to say these things to him because in real life, he really was confined to a wheelchair,” said McKechnie. “He wasn’t an actor. The director hired him to make the movie look realistic …I felt uncomfortable rejecting him because he was a sweet man. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” She never told the man how she felt because he was happy to be in a movie.
Without explanation, the hire-ups axed McKechnie’s character from the movie. At the same time, her boyfriend Ken Howard, who later starred in the CBS TV series, The White Shadow (1978-1981) broke up with her.
Losing a part in a movie and a boyfriend simultaneously made her miserable, yet her despair worked to her advantage. Immediately after Howard dumped her, Dan Curtis, Executive Producer of the ABC daytime horror-soap-opera Dark Shadows gave her an audition. He was looking for someone to portray Amanda Harris, a portrait transformed into a person.
“I was upset when I auditioned for the part,” said McKechnie. “Dan had me read an emotional scene where Amanda had to cry. I was ready to cry anyway, so that was easy.”
After Curtis saw her cry without difficulty, he hired her on the spot.
“That’s a wonderful thing about theatre,” said McKechnie. “You can take difficult times from your personal life and be creative. It’s also therapeutic.”
Throughout her career, McKechnie used that approach. In the fall of 1997, she portrayed a convincing Paula in the Goodbye Girl at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, because like McKechnie, Paula had boyfriends broke up with her. “Although I never had a child (like Paula), I was very similar to her. There was a lot of Paula in me, so I related to her.”
The Turning Point
Throughout the ’60s and early ”70s, she continued to be a successful dancer/actress and singer. Yet in 1975, she catapulted to stardom by portraying Cassie Ferguson in A Chorus. Line.
A Chorus Line originated as a production of the New York Shakespeare Festival and opened at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre on April 16, 1975. Because of the show’s instant success, it then opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, July 25, 1975.
McKechnie said that performing on opening night always made her nervous, except when A Chorus Line hit Broadway.
“We all knew that we were in a successful show already,” said McKechnie. “It did very well at the Shakespeare Festival. Opening Night (on Broadway) was more of a celebration than an opening night. That night I remember being on stage, and I remember the audience loving it.”
The following year when Richard Burton presented her with the Tony Award at the Shubert Theatre, April 18, 1976 she repeated to herself as she walked onto the stage that this was -not a dream.
“Winning the Tony Award was a big surprise,” said McKechnie. “I wasn’t prepared with a speech …I was star-struck being in Richard Burton’s presence.” And when he told her that she deserved her award, she was almost speechless. “I was always shy around the big movie stars,” said McKechnie.
There Can’t Be Good Without Bad
By 1976, Donna McKechnie’s life seemed perfect. Winning the Tony Award, continuing to perform in A Chorus Line, coupled with marrying Michael Bennett (December 4th, 1976) made it appear that she was ‘on top of the world’, as the adage goes, but before she knew it, her life went downhill.
In 1977, she hurt her back and had to leave A Chorus Line. At the same time, she and Michael Bennett divorced. Then in 1978, she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
As her condition worsened, her fear of never dancing again seemed trivial: “I was no longer worried, will I dance? I was worried if I would survive, how I’d live, what I’d do if I can’t walk. I was determined to do everything I could to change that idea. I wasn’t thinking initially, ‘how to get back on Broadway, how to keep dancing.’ That was my intent, but when I was in that much pain, and was that disabled, I thought, ‘I can’t live like this. I have to kill myself.’ But suicide goes against my nature, so that broke me down. I was thinking, ‘this is the worst moment of my life. Now I have to find a way to live.’ That was a big awakening.”
After specialists told her that there was nothing that they could do for her, a friend took her to see the 95-year-old Dr. Sam Getlen, who only saw patients from l0PM to 5AM. “That’s when your body slows down,” said McKechnie. She said that doctors who practice Eastern medicine such as Dr. Getlen make better assessments of patients’ problems and ways to help them at night when their body system slows down.
He put her on a strict diet, which ultimately cured her. (You can learn about her diet by reading her 2006 memoir, Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life.)
By 1983, she was dancing again, and three years later, she resumed portraying Cassie in a Chorus Line, still running on Broadway.
While she had Rheumatoid Arthritis, she didn’t tell her show business associates: “In show business, if you’re known to have a disease, an ailment, or any medical problem, people tend to avoid you. Some of it has to do with people not wanting to face reality.
It has to do with insurance; they don’t want to put millions of dollars into a production if you won’t complete the job. These fears continue today.”
She said that having Rheumatoid Arthritis made her quite sensitive to people with disabilities: “You can’t go through something like that and not feel compassion for other people. It’s beyond a humbling experience because you realize how much you take for granted. I could never appreciate before the struggles people have. I was used to struggles before, but in my own way, not getting a part, not having money, losing a boyfriend.” She added that she realized the minuteness of those struggles when she found it almost impossible to walk to the bathroom.
The revival of A Chorus Line will open on Broadway this .October. Donna McKechnie is back in the news, not because of the revival, rather her memoir; Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life (co-authored by Greg Lawrence) got published this past summer. To learn more about Donna McKechnie, you can either order this book through her web site at www.donnamckechnie.com or on Amazon. On her web site, she recommends to people with Rheumatoid Arthritis specific books that can help them recover.