Broadway Bound

Can a song and dance help lift kids out of poverty?

SOME NIGHTS, LIKE THIS ONE, police sirens on the north side of Minneapolis seem to wail all night long, as if the neighborhood was in a state of emergency. Rampant foreclosures—more than anywhere else in the city—have darkened many streets. On the weekly crime maps, where shots fired are indicated by red dots, the circles on the North Side bleed together. ¶ Nowhere is this apocalyptic perception more manifest than in the industrial area near the Mississippi River, a block off West Broadway Avenue, where salvage companies have congregated behind rusty metal fences. Jagged scraps of homes and cars are silhouetted in the moonlight, and feral cats have the streets to themselves. But in one low-slung building, the lights are on, and the sound of rhythmic tapping can be heard through the walls. ¶ Inside, a dozen teenage boys and girls are dressed in tuxedos, top hats, white gloves, and canes. They sweep across the open floor, arm in arm, to the music of a piano, until one boy breaks off and begins, delicately, to tap dance. “Stepping out,” he sings, in a high, sweet tenor, “with my bay-by.” ¶ This is the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts, where hundreds of inner-city kids take lessons in singing, dancing, and acting. “They have a safe haven here,” says a supporter of the center, “a sanctuary where they feel accepted and safe.”

They also have an unusual edge. Before the center was moved two years ago to this location, it was based for nearly nine decades in a smaller, more tranquil space beside the Church of the Ascension, about a mile away. There, it developed a reputation for sending its students on to New York to become Rockettes, Broadway dancers, and models. They won national beauty contests and starred in the Aqua Follies, the musical cavalcade that was once a prominent part of the Minneapolis Aquatennial celebration. More recently, they appeared in films, on TV shows, and on stage at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Paris Bennett, the American Idol star, has taken lessons at Lundstrum, as has the daughter of singer Bobby McFerrin.

Now the proprietors of the center are seeking $2.7 million to turn this former warehouse into a practice and performance space worthy of their ambition: to train kids from the North Side to become bona fide Broadway stars.

The center is run by the five Casserly sisters: Amy, Kerry, Janie, Laurie, and Sue. The sisters, along with their brother, Robert, grew up in the 1960s and ’70s on the North Side, which was then, like themselves, largely white and middle-class. When they were barely old enough to walk, they began taking classes at the Ascension School of Dance near their home, run by Dorothy Lundstrum and her sisters.

The studio was an art-deco marvel done up in Lundstrum’s favorite colors, pink and black, which matched the leotard she wore practically all day, every day, often with dazzling jewelry and a feather boa. “The first time I saw her dressed in anything else was at her funeral visitation,” says one former student. The studio offered lessons in tap, jazz, ballet, elocution, etiquette, and modeling—“all the ‘fine lady’ kinds of things,” says Kerry Casserly, and Lundstrum helped train the entertainers then emerging from Minneapolis: Liberace and the Andrews Sisters, among others.

Lundstrum also sought to endow her students with more than the latest dance moves. At the end of many lessons, Lundstrum would gather the kids at the foot of her stool and offer up sermons on posture, charm, and inner beauty—an ineffable pride in oneself. “She not only nurtured our bodies but also our hearts and our souls,” says former student Sandra Mangel. “You came away being a better person in all respects.”

The Casserly sisters each eventually launched careers in show business. Kerry strutted Broadway stages for 23 years, and once danced alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov. Amy also became a dancer, backing up Michael Jackson and Gregory Hines. Sue sang with the Minnesota Opera and other theater companies. Janie modeled, sang, and danced. And Laurie modeled and danced even as she was drawn into national politics as the wife of Senator Norm Coleman.

Lundstrum willed the studio to the Casserlys, and when she died in 1998, the sisters debated what to do. It had been decades since any of them had spent much time on the North Side. “I thought nothing could bring me back,” says Kerry. But they decided that Lundstrum’s philosophy was exactly the kind of thing that might make a difference in the neighborhood. It’s estimated, Kerry points out, that some 60,000 minors reside on the North Side, the most of any neighborhood in the city. Which means, given the circumstances in which they’re starting out, that there is no place in the area with a greater potential for change.

In the new studio, Lundstrum’s stool and ballet slippers—pink, of course—rest on a balcony near some practice rooms. Large chunks of the old studio dance floor have been re-installed in the new space. And the sisters have come to know the studio’s students—now mostly black, poor, and almost equally boys and girls—as intimately as Lundstrum knew hers. “It’s the same philosophy, the same warmth and concern and nurturing,” says Andrea Hjelm, a former student of Lundstrum and head of the Moore Creative Talent modeling agency in Minneapolis.

The sisters lead some of the classes themselves. But true to the center’s motto of bringing “Broadway to West Broadway,” they’ve also recruited their friends from New York, such as dancer Billy Johnstone, who starred in the final tour of Cats. Stephen Pelinski, a veteran member of the Guthrie Theater, teaches acting. So does Lev Mailer, a Hollywood producer and acting coach who’s worked with everyone from Clint Eastwood to William Shatner on the original Star Trek series.

As solidly as the sisters have constructed this bubble of talent and nurturing, however, their students remain marked by the violence and poverty just outside the door. Some have lost brothers, cousins, or even parents to drive-by shootings. Transience is common, phones are not, such that kids move and stop coming for lessons without any notice, and it becomes difficult to see how any of them may one day be appearing on Broadway. One standout student had to pool his money with his siblings to bail their mother out of jail. “Some of them are very damaged, hurting young people,” says Sue Casserly-Kosel. “Their lives have just gone the wrong way.”

On a Wednesday afternoon, a school bus pulls into the back lot of Lundstrum and a couple dozen kids spill out, loud and fast. They’re known as the “Nellies” around the studio—second through fifth graders from the nearby Nellie Stone Johnson Community School. Braids flying, they eventually pinball their way into the dance studio, a sunny room with mirrors and wooden railings. As the accompanist warms up at the piano, trucks rumble past with loads of scrap metal.
The Nellies settle down and begin leaping through the air. “When the kids arrive for their first practices, they’re often ‘I’m all this’ and ‘I’m all that,’ screaming and fighting for ballet shoes,” says Sue. But a little ensemble work seems to enforce cooperation, and ballet imbues discipline and focus.

At snack time, the kids line up dutifully at the door to hit the lunchroom, spines straight, shoulders back. “When I touch your head,” Kerry tells them, “you may leave like a princess or a prince.” No vulgarity or uncouth behavior is tolerated here. The kids have been rehearsing the Broadway hit Damn Yankees, but they don’t call it that—the sisters have dubbed it Those Yankees.

A half-dozen girls stay behind to practice their singing, leaning against the piano as they croon, “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” from Cinderella. As the rehearsal ends, the accompanist marvels at the skills the Casserlys have cultivated in the midst of misfortune. But, she adds, even if these kids’ talent takes them only as far as the studio’s garage-door walls, the sisters would consider their work a success. “They want the kids to have something inside themselves,” she says, “something that no one can take away.”

Tim Gihring is senior writer and arts editor for Minnesota Monthly.

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