The Steiner brothers
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When stars were stars, Winnipeg's tap-dancing Steiner Brothers shared the limelight with legends like Dean and Jerry, Frank and Sammy, George and Gracie, Milt and Marilyn [plus Bob Hope & Judy Garland].
An article by Bill Redekop -- C. Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 26, 1997. Reprinted with permission
"Show business is totally different now. The nightclub performer as we knew him is really not around anymore. There used to be stars. Now there isn't that kind of star anymore." - Roy Steiner
George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Starting in the '50s, these were the legendary names that blazed in huge block letters from the glittering marquees on the Las Vegas strip. -- But in smaller letters on those same marquees, you often would find another name, the Steiner Brothers, a kid tap-dancing act from Winnipeg.
Roy, Ron, and Rob basked in the spotlights for 30 years when they were one of the most popular opening acts in Vegas.
But when time came to settle down they returned home, married Winnipeg women, and slipped into anonymity. Today, Roy, 56, owns Yamaha Music Centre; Ron, 54, is a support worker at Concordia Hospital; and Rob, 52, has taken retirement from CN Rail and is now executive director of Operations Crossroads, an accident protection program.
Rob, the youngest, was watching an old Jack Benny rerun recently via his satellite dish. "I saw these three kids dancing, and I thought, "Hey, they're not bad. Then I realized, Holy Geez! That's us". Recently, they sat down to reminisce, beginning with the early days in Los Angeles where they attended Hollywood Professional School for show business kids. Some of their classmates included Tuesday Weld, Brenda Lee, future Hollywood sex kitten Yvette Mimieux, and Natalie Wood. It wasn't easy; four-and-a-half hours of classes with no breaks each morning, followed by three hours rehearsing afternoons and performing at night.
Every Sunday they went to Dean Martin's parents' home. Dean's mom would cook them great Italian dinners. Dean's dad, Guy, a barber, would cut their hair. "They were the nicest people you'll ever meet." Ron says. The Steiners were looked up to at school because they were already in showbiz while most of the others kids were still wannabes. Major stars would recruit from the school when they needed a kids act. The Steiners performed with Marilyn Monroe several times. When Monroe committed suicide, they attended her funeral.
The brothers aren't awed by fame. "You don't think about it. They're just people like you and me." Ron says. Their 'showbiz break' was a staff Christmas party thrown by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the early 1950s. It was at a ranch and the Steiner boys rode horses all day until someone asked them to tap dance. An agent saw them and took an interest. He booked them on the Dinah Shore Chevy Show.
But what were three Winnipeg kids doing in Los Angeles at Dean and Jerry's Christmas party in the first place? Brothers see the good and bad -- To understand that you have to go back to the Great Depression and the dust bowl plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Their mother, Madge Hoffard, was a high-spirited girl with a flair for entertaining. Near the end of the Depression, she formed a vaudeville act with her three younger sisters. They invented a zany song and acrobatic dance act and called themselves the Hoffard Sisters. They toured small-town Saskatchewan, their earnings helping to support the family farm near Prelate.
The Steiners' dad, Ralph, was a child prodigy concert violinist. He conducted the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at age 12. But the pressure of performing and carrying the virtuoso mantle became too much for him and he suffered a nervous breakdown. ``He got out of classical music and formed a dance band.'' Roy explains. The band played regularly at places like the famous Winnipeg Beach dance hall. During this period Ralph met Madge Hoffard. They eventually wedded - personally and professionally. Ralph donned a wig, buck teeth and big shoes, and became a comedian violinist with the stage name Prof. Howie Squeeks.
When Roy was born, they shelved their entertainment careers to avoid raising a family on the road and settled on Eugenie Street in St. Boniface. Two more boys followed. Then Roy developed club feet. To strengthen his feet, mom and dad made him take tap dancing lessons. To keep him company, the other boys had to learn, too. "Every night we'd be playing outside and my dad would whistle at us it was time to practise. He'd roll back the carpet and we'd learn to tap dance." Roy recalls.
Meanwhile, Madge's sister landed a job in Los Angeles dancing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. She persuaded Madge and Ralph to move to Los Angeles in 1952, a decision made easier after the Steiners survived Winnipeg's great flood of 1950. Then came the Christmas party, which actually was a barbecue. Their aunt mentioned to her bosses that her nephews were pretty good tap dancers. They got up and danced a couple of numbers.
The boys would spend the next 30 years in show business. Roy, 11, Ron, 9, and Rob, 7, started performing on TV shows like Dinah Shore, the Gary Moore Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. When a TV skit needed some kids, they were thrown into that, too. "We did one Halloween skit with Boris Karloff. We were the kids coming to the door and Boris Karloff tried to scare us." Rob says. "Another skit we were in was with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford. We were all playing poker and we were winning all the chocolate bars."
Then the brothers broke up.  Ron, the middle Steiner, had landed a job as one of the original Mousketeers. It was 1955. "It was fantastic." he recalls. "Walt (Disney) treated us like family. He remembered everybody's birthday. He'd come in with a big birthday cake and we'd have a party on the set." There were no ego problems among the 20 or 25 Mousketeers, just among the parents, he says. "You had show biz parents always pushing their kids, trying to make sure their kid was up front, or that their kid had the lead role. Finally, they banned parents from the set." He retains a lifetime pass to all Disney parks. He also keeps in touch with most of the original Mousketeers. "When you all work together for a year like that, and at that age, it's a family."
Last April, while holidaying in Los Angeles, he renewed acquaintances with the most famous Mousketeer of all, Annette Funicello, who is battling multiple sclerosis. "She's very sick and can hardly talk." he says. "But she has got a terrific attitude and she's so strong." While Ron was having a ball being a Mousketeer, he felt guilty because his two brothers were no longer in show business. When it came time to renew his Disney contract, he declined. The reunited Steiners performed at a Hollywood dinner show shortly after and were spotted by Don Haynes, the former manager of big band leader Glen Miller. Haynes took over their careers and three weeks later they were playing Las Vegas. That was 1956, and the three boys - now 13, 11 and nine - were making $750 a week. "That was more than dad made in a month." Rob says. In the audience every night was their mom, the chaperon.
The Vegas hotels back then were the Sands, Thunderbird, Sahara, Dunes, El Rancho, Tropicana, and Riveria. They played most frequently with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, both before and after the duo split. "The greatest thing about Jerry Lewis is he could play a prank on you, and you could play one back." Ron says. One time, Rob snuck on stage and mimicked Lewis behind his back, as Lewis performed a gun twirling act. The crowd loved it - and so did Lewis. Lewis, they recall, would stand behind the curtain and grab the seat of their pants through the drapes and just hold them there. "He'd be standing in the wings saying, `C'mon you little shmucks.' Ron laughs. Another time Lewis ran up to Roy 30 seconds before show time and cut off his tie just below the knot. The brothers recall Lewis having great bouts of generosity where he would take everyone who worked for him out and buy them gifts. "Jerry Lewis has a heart of gold." Ron says. "Jerry was like our second dad. If you did anything wrong, he gave it to us. He never drank or ran around." Rob adds.
They carry similar affections for Sinatra, Hope and Dean Martin, but acknowledge Martin had a problem. "Dean was a total funster, but he had a very bad drinking problem." Ron says. "In Vegas, many times someone would come up to us and ask us if we could handle the show tonight because Dean was sick in his dressing room." "He was one of the calmest people I ever met but that may be because he was drinking all the time." They found Sinatra easy to work with despite a notoriety for being difficult. "He was just a really super guy." Roy recalls. The really big stars treated you like human beings. The guys who wanted to be stars were hardest to work with. They were the ones who were snobby."
Hope was another favourite they toured with. Hope always wanted to join the Steiners on stage and do a little soft shoe dance. The brothers remember the respect Hope commanded whenever he entered a room. When Bob Hope came to Winnipeg in 1979, he looked up his old pals and had them open for him. "Bob Hope was very personable, very down to earth." Ron says. "If he liked you, you had it made. I never saw him talk down to anyone." Hope once asked the Steiners to join him on his annual Christmas tour to entertain American troops in Vietnam. But one of the boys was injured in rehearsal and they had to cancel.
They opened for George Burns over several years, performing on the Vegas-Reno-Los Angeles circuit. "He was an absolute fabulous gentleman who had a fabulous wife. A real pleasure to work with." Roy says. -- One person they didn't enjoy working with was Milton Berle. "Milton Berle wants to run everyone's act." Ron says. "I don't recall too many people who liked to work with Milton Berle." Rob adds. "I can't recall anyone so nervous before a show. He was a total basket case."
One of Roy's greatest memories is of standing in the wings watching Judy Garland sing. The brothers had opened for her at the Theatre-in-the-Round in San Francisco. A trumpeter kept trying to play her introductory theme song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, but couldn't because every time he started, the crowd would stand and cheer. The crowd stood and applauded for 20 minutes before allowing Garland to sing. But the Steiners also knew what was happening backstage. Garland was taking a deadly mix of drugs and alcohol. "She was literally crawling on her hands and knees, she was so drugged out." Rob says.
Somehow, the Steiners came through the entertainment world of Hollywood and Las Vegas - a world fraught with alcohol and drugs and the Mob and star egos and manipulating agents and wrecked relationships - with their lives intact. "None of us took drugs or anything like that." Roy says. "Night life wasn't our bag." "We never went out drinking after work." Rob adds. "We didn't have time."
As they grew older, they expanded their tap-dancing act into a singing and dancing comedy act. It was at about this time their earnings peaked at about $3,500 a week split three ways. They got a year-long engagement at the Playboy Club in New York. It wasn't a highlight in their careers. "Sometimes people there just acted like animals with no class at all." Roy says. "The audience could be very crude. If there was a girl dancer, there could be crude remarks coming from the audience. I remember a guy in front trying to burn one of the girls' legs with a cigarette."
The era of show business they knew was starting to disappear in the 1970s. As well, injuries slowed down their high-energy act. The Steiners settled in Winnipeg in the 1970s. "Seeing as we liked to fish and hunt, we thought let's move up there and see how it goes." Roy says. They were still performing. They travelled several times with Canadian entertainers Tommy Hunter and Gordie Tapp to perform at Canadian military bases around the world. At home, they performed at the old 'Town and Country'. In the early 1980s, they called it quits.
"We felt we were lucky. There are many, many people with tons more talent who never got the breaks we got. We were really lucky." Roy says. But they miss entertaining. "We could go out on stage and the audience could be the craps, but we just would have so much fun that the time flew by." Roy says. "It was the joy of entertaining we liked." Ron adds. "The greatest gratification is the applause."