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Alan Johnson, 81, ‘Springtime for Hitler’ Choreographer, Dies

Alan Johnson, 81, ‘Springtime for Hitler’ Choreographer, Dies


Alan Johnson, a choreographer renowned for his campy movie collaborations with Mel Brooks on the “Springtime for Hitler” goose-steppers-and-showgirls extravaganza in “The Producers” and the “Puttin’ On the Ritz” tap dance in “Young Frankenstein,” died on Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by his nephew Todd Johnson, who said that he had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease several years ago.

Mr. Johnson had danced in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” and begun his career as a choreographer when he started working with Mr. Brooks, whom he had already met through a friend, the lyricist Martin Charnin. Mr. Brooks, best known at the time for his work with Carl Reiner on the “2000 Year Old Man” records, was developing “The Producers,” about a producer who schemes with his accountant to create a certain Broadway flop and steal the money invested in it by unsuspecting old women.

The show they choose — “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden” — is the film’s musical showpiece, a tasteless parody of 1930s musicals with Nazis singing and dancing and chorines wearing outsize beer steins and pretzels on their heads.

“There’s a Mel Brooks theory of filmmaking,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview for “The Making of ‘The Producers,’ ” a documentary included in the 2002 DVD relese of the film. “Three-quarters of the way through the film, give the audience a zetz” (Yiddish for a smack on the head). “Fortunately for a choreographer and dancers, it’s a musical number.”

Mr. Johnson added that “Mel threw out every crazy idea he could think of” for the “Springtime” number, including an overhead shot in which black-uniformed Nazi dancers created a swirling swastika.

Mr. Johnson agreed to stage the scene. But, Mr. Brooks recalled in the documentary: “Alan said, ‘Oh my God, are we allowed to show this? Oh my God, can we show this anywhere?’ I said, ‘Look, my favorite expression is, When you go up to the bell, ring it, or don’t go up to the bell.’ I said: ‘We’ve gone too far. We have to ring the bell.’ ”

Mr. Johnson understood Mr. Brooks’s comic aesthetic.

“Every time we’d hit a level, we’d go broader and bigger,” he said. There were no limits to what we could do.”

In 1974, Mr. Brooks released two films, both of which featured Mr. Johnson’s choreography. In “Blazing Saddles,” a western parody about a black sheriff who saves a frontier town, Mr. Johnson staged two memorable dances: Madeline Kahn’s comic ode to her ennui, “I’m Tired,” and a number with Dom DeLuise as a petulant choreographer rehearsing about two dozen men in top hats and tails as they sing, “Throw out your hands/Stick out your tush/Hands on your hips/Give them a push!”

In Mr. Johnson’s tour de force in “Young Frankenstein,” Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) tries to prove to an audience that the monster (Peter Boyle) he has brought back from the dead is actually a “cultured, sophisticated man about town” by dancing with him in formal wear to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

“Alan taught me how to teach Gene and Peter the steps, working out the timing with not only the taps but also the cane,” Mr. Brooks said in a book he wrote with Rebecca Keegan, “Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film” (2016). “It’s very intricate tapping if you use the cane as well as taps.”

Alan Scott Johnson was born on Feb. 18, 1937, in Eddystone, Pa., about 18 miles southwest of Philadelphia. His father, Clark, was a shipyard worker, and his mother, Mary (Shackels) Johnson, was a waitress who took Alan to dance classes at an early age. By the time he graduated from high school, his dance instructor had encouraged her to let him find work as a dancer in New York.

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Mr. Johnson in 1988 with the Emmy Award he received for choreographing “Irving Berlin’s 100th Birthday Celebration.” He won three Emmys in his career.

He got a job as an understudy in the original production of “West Side Story,” which opened in 1957, and later played small parts in the musical and its 1960 revival, before going on tour with it.

He returned to Broadway in various shows, including “No Strings” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” Following his work on “The Producers,” he choreographed a television special in 1970 for Anne Bancroft, Mr. Brooks’s wife, and TV shows that Mr. Charnin wrote or directed, including one celebrating the music of George Gershwin for which he won the first of his three Emmy Awards.

“He was an absolute master in terms of movement and how he could make something happen in very minimalistic ways,” Mr. Charnin said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Charnin, who met Mr. Johnson when they were both in the cast of “West Side Story,” added: “He wasn’t frantic. He was well mannered and believed in the importance of collaboration.”

Mr. Johnson also choreographed “The First” (1981), a short-lived musical about Jackie Robinson with lyrics by Mr. Charnin and music by Bob Brush.

Another of Mr. Johnson’s frequent collaborators was Shirley MacLaine. He choreographed two Broadway shows for her: a one-woman revue in 1976 and “Shirley MacLaine on Broadway,” a show with a small cast that had music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Christopher Adler, in 1984. He won an Emmy for his work on her TV special “Shirley MacLaine … Every Little Movement.”

In a statement, Ms. MacLaine said, “Alan will make heaven look like it can dance.”

Even as Mr. Johnson did more traditional choreography, he continued to work with Mr. Brooks on his films.

For “History of the World, Part I” (1981), he choreographed a ribald musical number about the Spanish Inquisition, set in a torture chamber, which, like “Springtime for Hitler,” borrowed from the conventions of old movie musicals.

Writing in The Daily News, the critic Rex Reed said it was “probably the single most amusing thing Brooks has come up with since his ‘Springtime for Hitler’ number in ‘The Producers.’ ”

In his role as producer, Mr. Brooks gave Mr. Johnson the chance to direct two films. The first, “To Be or Not to Be” (1983), was a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 comedy with Mr. Brooks and Ms. Bancroft in the roles played in theoriginal by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Three years later Mr. Johnson directed “Solarbabies” (1986), a science-fiction story about roller-skating orphans fighting for a solution to a worldwide water shortage. It was widely panned.

He is survived by his sister, Judi Johnson.

Mr. Johnson’s association with “West Side Story” lasted even longer than his connection to Mr. Brooks. In addition to the roles he played, he became the show’s dance captain, requiring him to learn everyone’s steps and make sure Jerome Robbins’s choreography was followed. That role broadened when Mr. Robbins recommended Mr. Johnson to restage the show with the original choreography for revivals around the country.

“My responsibility is to do exactly what Jerry Robbins put on the stage of the Winter Garden back in 1957,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1997, when he had restaged about 25 “West Side” productions. “People ask me, ‘Are you tempted to jazz it up?’ and I answer, ‘No.’ ”

He added: “Because it was so good, it’s lasted. It’s become a classic. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”



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