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-in addition to-showgirls extravaganza in “The Producers” in addition to 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 in which he had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease several years ago.
Mr. Johnson had danced inside the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” in addition to begun his career as a choreographer when he commenced 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 in addition to steal the money invested inside the idea by unsuspecting old women.
The show they choose — “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf in addition to Eva at Berchtesgaden” — is usually the film’s musical showpiece, a tasteless parody of 1930s musicals with Nazis singing in addition to dancing in addition to chorines wearing outsize beer steins in addition to pretzels on their heads.
“There’s a Mel Brooks theory of filmmaking,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview for “The doing of ‘The Producers,’ ” a documentary included inside 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 in addition to dancers, the idea’s a musical number.”
Mr. Johnson added in which “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. although, Mr. Brooks recalled inside the documentary: “Alan said, ‘Oh my God, are we allowed to show This particular? Oh my God, can we show This particular anywhere?’ I said, ‘Look, my favorite expression is usually, When you go up to the bell, ring the idea, 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 in addition to 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,” in addition to a number with Dom DeLuise as a petulant choreographer rehearsing about two dozen men in top hats in addition to 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 in which the monster (Peter Boyle) he has brought back through the dead is usually 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 in addition to Peter the steps, working out the timing with not only the taps although also the cane,” Mr. Brooks said in a book he wrote with Rebecca Keegan, “Young Frankenstein: The Story of the doing of the Film” (2016). “the idea’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, in addition to his mother, Mary (Shackels) Johnson, was a waitress who took Alan to dance classes at an early age. By the time he graduated through high school, his dance instructor had encouraged her to let him find work as a dancer in brand new York.
He got a job as an understudy inside the original production of “West Side Story,” which opened in 1957, in addition to later played modest parts inside the musical in addition to its 1960 revival, before going on tour with the idea.
He returned to Broadway in various shows, including “No Strings” in addition to “Anyone Can Whistle.” Following his work on “The Producers,” he choreographed a television special in 1970 for Anne Bancroft, Mr. Brooks’s wife, in addition to TV shows in which 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 in addition to 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 inside the cast of “West Side Story,” added: “He wasn’t frantic. He was well mannered in addition to believed inside the importance of collaboration.”
Mr. Johnson also choreographed “The First” (1981), a short-lived musical about Jackie Robinson with lyrics by Mr. Charnin in addition to 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 in addition to “Shirley MacLaine on Broadway,” a show using a modest cast in which had music by Marvin Hamlisch in addition to 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 the idea can dance.”
Even as Mr. Johnson did more traditional choreography, he continued to work with Mr. Brooks on his films.
For “History of the planet, Part I” (1981), he choreographed a ribald musical number about the Spanish Inquisition, set in a torture chamber, which, like “Springtime for Hitler,” borrowed through the conventions of old movie musicals.
Writing inside the Daily News, the critic Rex Reed said the idea 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 in addition to Ms. Bancroft inside the roles played in theoriginal by Jack Benny in addition to 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. the idea was widely panned.
He is usually 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 in addition to make sure Jerome Robbins’s choreography was followed. in which role broadened when Mr. Robbins recommended Mr. Johnson to restage the show with the original choreography for revivals around the country.
“My responsibility is usually 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 the idea up?’ in addition to I answer, ‘No.’ ”
He added: “Because the idea was so not bad, the idea’s lasted. the idea’s become a classic. If the idea’s not broken, don’t fix the idea.”