Collier, Johnnie Lucille [Ann Miller] (1923–2004)


By: Jesse Ritner and Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: Biography

Published: April 13, 2022

Updated: April 14, 2022


Ann Miller, tap dancer, singer, and actress during the golden age of Hollywood musicals, was born Johnnie Lucille Collier at St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Houston, Texas, on April 12, 1923. She was the daughter of John Alfred Collier and Clara Emma (Birdwell) Collier and was reportedly named Johnnie because her father wanted a son. When she was born, John Collier worked as a barber at the Rice Hotel in Houston but was a practicing attorney by the mid-1920s. Young Johnnie at age five began dancing ballet to help her recover from rickets, a skeletal disorder that causes weak bones in children. When she was eight, she saw famed tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson perform at the Majestic Theatre in Houston. When her mother took her backstage to meet Robinson, he encouraged the girl to join him in a tap dance and remarked on her natural talent. Essentially, Robinson taught her first tap lesson, and she subsequently took up tap dancing. She attended the William S. Sutton School (now Sutton Elementary School) and was in several dancing schools in Houston. At some point her family started calling her “Annie” instead of Johnnie. During school vacation in summer 1934 Clara Collier took her daughter Annie to Hollywood, California, where she enrolled in Fanchon and Marco’s Dancing Studio. They subsequently moved to Los Angeles, and her parents divorced in 1935.

Clara Birdwell was hearing impaired and struggled to hold a job in Los Angeles. The burden of earning money fell in large part onto Annie, who initially attended LeConte Junior High and then Mrs. Lawlor’s Hollywood Professional School. She began dancing in clubs to support herself and her mother. A pianist who accompanied her dance routines suggested a simpler name such as Anne Miller, which she adopted as a stage name when performing. She won several amateur contests, appeared in vaudeville shows, and was a regular on the bill at the Casanova Club on Sunset Boulevard. In 1937, after a weeks-long engagement at the Bal Tabarin Club in San Francisco, she was seen by RKO Radio Pictures young star Lucille Ball and talent scout Benny Rubin, who arranged that Miller have a screen test. A contract required two stipulations. First, she was told to change her name from “Anne Miller” to “Ann Miller.” Second, she had to prove that she was eighteen. Miller, still only thirteen, and her mother telegrammed an appeal to her father John Collier. The Houston criminal defense attorney secured a fake birth certificate that specified that she was born Lucy Ann Collier on April 11, 1919, in Chireno, Texas (the home of her grandparents). Thus the 1919 date made her eighteen. RKO signed her to a seven-year contract at $150 per week.

Miller made her credited film debut in the RKO musical comedy New Faces of 1937 (1937), in which she danced in two numbers. Thus began her screen career as a dancer, singer, and actress in Hollywood. She appeared in a number of films for RKO, including Stage Door (1937), in which she was a dancing partner with Ginger Rogers; Room Service (1938); and Too Many Girls (1940). RKO loaned Miller to Columbia Pictures to work in the comedy You Can’t Take It With You (1938), that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. She made her Broadway debut in the revue George White’s Scandals in 1939. Signed as primarily a comedy act with “incidental” dancing, Miller had to devise her own tap dancing arrangements which were received with rousing success. According to a feature in the Los Angeles News, she had eight curtain calls after her first number at her Broadway opening. A subsequent national tour included Texas, where she was “treated like returning royalty.” Miller exuded an energetic and youthful optimism through her dancing. Though she was skilled in different styles of dance, she became best-known for her tap, especially a fast and precise “machine-gun tap” style that dazzled audiences. Early in her career, she was clocked at dancing 500 taps per minute.

In 1940 RKO released Miller from her contract. That year she appeared in two films for Republic Pictures—Hit Parade of 1941 and Melody Ranch, which starred Gene Autry. She soon signed with Columbia Pictures and appeared in a string of movies, including the comedy Western Go West, Young Lady (1941), the musical comedy Reveille with Beverly (1943), and the musicals Hey, Rookie (1944) and Jam Session (1944). Her role in the musical comedy Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) was a rare instance when she sang exclusively and did not dance. She was on loan to Paramount for the wartime movie True to the Army (1942), in which she was reportedly measured at the world record-breaking speed of 840 taps per minute during rehearsal.

Miller was released from her contract so that she could marry wealthy iron heir Reese Llewellyn Milner on February 16, 1946. They had a daughter, Mary, who died within a few hours of her birth. Newspaper accounts at the time reported that Miller, in the advanced stages of pregnancy, was in an automobile accident and went into premature labor. Biographical accounts in later years reported that, in actuality, Milner pushed her down a flight of stairs. Their marriage ended in divorce in early 1948.

After the divorce, Miller signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (known as MGM). Her MGM debut was in the musical Easter Parade (1948). She reportedly replaced the injured Cyd Charisse in the role of Nadine Hale and danced alongside Fred Astaire. The critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful movie marked the launch of an eight-year run with MGM, where she worked on films such as On the Town (1949) alongside Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, Watch the Birdie (1950) with Red Skelton, and Kiss Me Kate (1953) with Howard Keel. 

In 1956, with the declining popularity of Hollywood musicals, her movie career ended. She left MGM to marry actor and producer William P. Moss, Jr., on August 22, 1958. They divorced after three years. Shortly after the divorce, on May 25, 1961, Miller married oilman Arthur Cameron, but the marriage lasted less than a year and was annulled on May 10, 1962.

After her failed marriages, Miller returned to Broadway. She starred in the lead role in the musical Mame in 1969. She also made a memorable tap dancing performance in a Heinz Great American Soup commercial in 1970. Her most celebrated role was touring with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies from 1979 to 1988. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1980. She remained an impressive tap dancer well into her sixties, and Broadway proved to be the most profitable part of her career. In 1998 Miller, at age seventy-five, performed in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. New York Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley characterized her as the “very essence of this emotionally rich, exquisite-looking production.” She was inducted into the American Tap Dance Foundation’s International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2004. She had received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Anne Miller spent her later years in Beverly Hills, California, and in Sedona, Arizona. Her autobiographical memoirs during her career included Miller's High Life (1972, with Norma Lee Browning) and Tapping into the Force (1990). She died of lung cancer on January 22, 2004, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles California. She was buried beside her daughter Mary in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

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Constance Valis Hill, “Tap Dance in America: A Short History,” Library of Congress, 2013 (https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200217630/), accessed April 11, 2022. Los Angeles News, April 8, 1940. Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2004. Ann Miller with Norma Lee Browning, Miller’s High Life (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972). New York Times, May 8, 1998; January 23, 2004. “Remembering Tap Dancer Ann Miller (1923–2004),” Tap Dancing Resources (http://www.tapdancingresources.com/dancers/ann-miller/), accessed April 12, 2022. Peter Shelley, Ann Miller: Her Life and Career (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2020). Robert Simonson, “Legendary Hollywood and Broadway Dancer Ann Miller Is Dead,” Playbill, January 22, 2004.

Categories:
  • Music
  • Stage and Film
  • Performing Arts
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jesse Ritner and Laurie E. Jasinski, “Collier, Johnnie Lucille [Ann Miller],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/collier-johnnie-lucille-ann-miller.

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April 13, 2022
April 14, 2022

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