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Michael Vita: Stories of Songs, Stars & Service

Michael Vita is well known and beloved throughout many communities in South Florida. He settled here after a chock full life that included 30 years on the Broadway stage; starting a trend that led to the film Dirty Dancing; and helped light the spark that gave life to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Michael arrived in Miami in 1994 and soon went to work at the City of Miami Beach in the public information office and later became the city’s special events liaison. He followed that up by selling many units at South Beach’s Morton Towers and even more at Mid-Beach’s Manhattan Towers. He worked for Claire Tomlin in the early days of The Market Company she started. “She hit it at just the right time, when everybody was looking for organic produce and farm-to-table eating,” he said.

Many reading this will have likely met Michael when he worked with Steve Adkins for eight “glorious” years in the early days and rapid growth of the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. He then spent five years working here in the offices of the Treece Financial Group. During this period, he also sang in the local St. Patrick’s Church choir and went with them on tour overseas. His retirement now keeps him almost as busy he was during his years on Broadway as a feature player and a triple threat – dancer, actor and singer.

But his story starts during a very different time in the nation’s history. Not so long ago, and during the years of WWII, Michael was the first son born to a large Italian family in the Bronx, New York. Michael’s father died when he was barely a teenager, so he became a close companion to his mother Rose. She had been a ballroom dancer and when he was young, she’d taught Michael the moves from her day like the Fox Trot and the Lindy Hop, so that he could dance with her at family functions. Toward the end of Rose’s life, Michael was again her close companion, moving her in with him and taking good care of her every need until her passing just four years ago.

Michael’s life story is like a movie. His words and descriptions are too good to interpret or rewrite. The following is our interview

“I guess my love of performing all started when I went to PS 103 on Carpenter Ave. There was a lady there, a social studies teacher named Miss O’Hara, and she was rather like a LucilleBall, lots of red hair and makeup. She was very theatrical and ran a dance class I liked very much. It was during the 1950s, at the very beginningof rock and roll.

I’d go with my sister to her tap dance classes at Rose Riceman’s School of Dance. The owner’s claim to fame was having had Jerry Vale as a former student. My sister decided she didn’t like the classes, so I said I’d take the classes. I didn’t like tap either, but I liked the tap teacher, who was very tall and very beautiful, she was a former Rockette.

I was a good dancer, so the teacher put my audition number together for me and

I went without knowing anything about tights or belts. I tried out with ‘The Firebird,’ dancing in my street clothes. Two days later I learned I’d been accepted into the High School for the Performing Arts. From then on I became quite a sought after young dancer.

While in high school, I was a page for ABC-TV and I worked on the afternoon television show ‘Peter Loves Mary,’ with Mary Healy and Peter Lind Hayes. One afternoon, they had a group on singing my favorite song -- I think it was the Four Freshman or the Hi-Lows. I sang to the orchestra and when the camera cut to me for a moment, my family all said they saw me on TV.

That summer, I was asked to work at a summer camp at Indian Hill in Stockbridge, Mass. It was founded for teenagers by the baritone singer Mordecai Bauman and his wife as the first summer school in the arts. Years later, the actress-dancer Marge Champion bought that mansion.

The following summer I was a performer at Green Mansions, a resort in The Adirondacks where young Jewish ladies went to find young Jewish men to marry. It was a wonderful place that was situated around a lake and was very beautiful. I was 17 and part of the entertainment for two seasons in 1957 and ’58 [Full disclosure: this writer’s parents met at Green Mansions in the summer of 1958]. It was a wonderful experience with great writers creating a weekly variety show, opera excerpts and drama works. Don Adams from Get Smart was there and met his wife, Dorothy, who was a very attractive blonde dancer and at the time was dating Hugh O’Brian, who was the star of the television series, Wyatt Earp. Also, Bobo Lewis was there. She was a comedian. There was always something new from these terrific writers who were Charles Strause and Lee Adams, a team of young Broadway writers. It was a great group of young, creative people and we had a great time.

I began bringing in early rock and roll records from my parents’ collection for us to dance to during lunch. Since we were all dancers and actors it caught on quickly. That went on for years, and eventually someone wrote about that time, which became the backdrop for the film Dirty Dancing. If I hadn’t brought my records in, we may never have seen a story like Dirty Dancing!

In high school I became a Martha Graham dancer, learning modern dance and ballet. We studied four hours of dance and four hours of academics. It was a miracle that it worked out, or I would have likely been stuck in the Bronx and never left.

I was granted a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, but my father had passed away and I felt I had to stay home and help my mother. So I went to a beauty trade publishing company to apprentice to be a publisher. They published magazines and books about hair, shoes and accessories and they taught me how to plan a book, which came in handy later on.

Soon after I started learning the publishing trade, I got a call from one of my fellow cast members from Green Mansions, and he said auditions were being held for the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie, written by the Green Mansions writing team of Lee Adams and Charles Strause. I objected at first, but finally said I’d go to the audition and got in! I remember it so vividly because it was my first job on Broadway and Gower Champion choreographed it. I met an older man during this time and had my first affair.

In 1961, and a year into my first Broadway foray in Bye Bye Birdie, a group of us left to do a USO tour around the world. There were two performing companies: A and B company. Joan Rivers was in the A company and did the same act then she did throughout her life. The tour was fabulous and ended after five months.

I went back to New York to try and get a job when I got a call from my friend Frank, my friend from high school. I used to stay at his house during high school productions when I didn’t want to go all the way back to the Bronx. His father was a doctor and they had a housekeeper named Yasinta who made rice and beans that were wonderful. They loved me and accepted me as their own.

Frank knew Delores Gray, who had been a big movie star, and she had an act that needed two male backup dancers, so she asked Frank and I to be the backup boys. We performed the first shows with her at the Rainbow Room atop the Waldorf Astoria. I’d pinch myself when I’d get into a cab at 9 p.m. and say, take me to the Waldorf Astoria. Then, after the show, we’d all go out to a nightclub and see Tony Bennett over there and everyone asking, ‘How was your show? How was yours?’

By then I was living with my first lover in his large apartment, located at 9 West 82nd St. It was two apartments connected with a pantry. A floor-through, it was called. It was a magical time and place. We threw lots of parties. My partner was a voice teacher, so he taught me voice and I’d polish the piano to pay for lessons. There was lots of singing and a festive scene. The parties were often loud and one Christmas people downstairs on the street heard the festivities through an open window and asked what was going on. Of course, we invited them to join the party! And it was that kind of freedom.

The relationship ended just when I left for Europe to do the act with Delores Gray. We played the Talk of the Town in London, like Radio City Music Hall, as well as the Palladium, which was like the Ed Sullivan Show. She was the Ethel Merman of London and had opened Gypsy. When Frank and I opened with Delores in London, everyone wanted to meet the Americans. It was the eve of the British music invasion and I met most of the day’s English songwriters and musicians like Norman Newell, Russ Conway and Dorothy Squires. Everybody in entertainment there came to see the show.

Since my relationship had ended in the States, I decided to stay in London and went in search of a place to live. I happened to meet a tall, black haired, black-turtle-necked friend of my friend Australian composer Lance Mulcahy. Lance’s tall friend was Peter Farmer, a well-known painter in England and a contemporary of David Hockney. They had attended art school together.

Peter said there was a vacancy where he lived, so I had a place to stay and, because I was paid in American dollars I had enough to stay at least a year. The building I moved into had four units and was full of artists. Peter Farmer lived on the top floor, and in another unit was the artist Nicholas George, the set designer for the ballet Romeo and Juliet with Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev, which I was lucky to be backstage for, helping Nicholas.

At this point, I was part of the in-crowd and was spending a lot of time with my good friends Dusty Springfield and Tom Springfield. We would hang out at each other’s house or go out in the East End. I remember once being with Dusty and Tom and Dionne Warwick, who we had to surround completely or she’d get mobbed if it was found out she was there.

I went to Peter Farmer’s gallery show opening and at some point in the evening suddenly everything went quiet, security came in and there she was, Princess Margaret. I was with my friends and they could see the surprise on my face. They told me to go over and say hello. I said, “Really?” They said, “Sure!” I was smoking English cigarettes, so I went over with a lit one and said, “How do you do? I heard you just attended the orchestra conducted by my friend, Alyn Ainsworth.” I turned to put my cigarette out and when I turned back they were gone! My friends were laughing hysterically at my naivete. I was 21 and didn’t know you never talk to a princess without being introduced.

Around 1963, The Beatles and Rolling Stones were gaining in popularity and the film A Hard Day’s Night was being made. We’d met and George and Ringo were with us while John and Paul were with other people. George and Ringo were telling us about making the film and how an idol in the film kept falling over and was going up and down.

Because I knew a growing number of famous people in London, I got involved with Ready, Steady, Go, the UK counterpart to dance shows like the Dick Clark Show and Hullabaloo. I was the one to tell the dancers, “The camera’s coming, move over, move over.” I wasn’t paid, but they liked having me around.

Then I got a job as the choreographer for a spin-off dance show called, It’s All Go.

I also did some film work with Gene Pitney and others on a number of rock and roll films.

I was making a record for CBS London, so my songwriter friend Lance wrote a song for me, I took it to a group of friends and they helped me record it. It sold about 4 copies and I was starting to grow weary of London. I was 21 and my hair had started falling out. I’d go in to record at CBS with an orchestra and my hair would fall out in clumps. I was advised to get a wig, so I did and something funny happened.

A man came over who was mentoring a scraggly young musician. He asked where I got my hair cut. I said, ‘At Vidal Sassoon!’ The man wanted to film me coming out of the Vidal Sassoon salon, then the kid going in with bad hair, and the kid coming out with my mop top haircut. After filming ended, I was balding, running out of money and felt like my time in London was coming to a close. It had been four years and I wanted to come home. But first I was contacted about a job in Paris with popular French singer, Line Renaud at the Casino de Paris. She wanted two boys. I accepted the job. But wanted to go home for two weeks before moving to Paris.

On the day I returned home, Dec. 16, 1964, I arrived at the airport but no one was there to meet me. I was shocked there wasn’t a big welcoming party with balloons and all the rest. After all, I thought, I’m the prodigal son, the big success. So, I called home and my aunt said she’d pick me up as soon as she could. Four hours later she came and told me my stepfather had died two hours before I touched down. My mother had gone out to get food for my welcome home party and when she returned the house was empty.

It was extraordinary in that it happened so fast and she wasn’t with him when it happened. I can still see her with her face drawn and neck pulled. She didn’t look like the mother I knew. So I called Line Renoud and said I wasn’t able to be a part of her show. That was met with some resistance, I’d received a $500 retainer so I said I’d return it, but they wanted me to return. I said I’m sorry, I can’t leave my mother in her time of grief.

So, I was back in New York, started looking for work. I was lucky, the time was ripe on Broadway and after Bye By Birdie I got into Skyscraper with Julie Harris. Then Sweet Charity with Gwen Verdon, who smoked up a storm. But I was so enamored with her. She would smoke until the last minute when the curtain was going up, and say to me, “Here! Take this! Take this!” The curtain went up and the star performed effortlessly.

The rest of the list of shows I was in: Promises, Promises, Golden Rainbow, Cyrano, On Your Toes, Chicago, 42nd Street and A Doll’s Life. I hit Broadway at the very best of time, from the early 1960s until 1990, when the shows were all hits being made by people like Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Candor. Because I sang and was moving from a young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy, to an aging, balding character actor, I was really in high demand. I’ll never forget when the director Harold “Hal” Prince put his arm around me and said, “Where have you been? Why haven’t you worked for me before” And I thought, “I don’t know, but I’m here!” What a compliment!

I began to play nightclubs after the show and one of the best club acts then was Bette Midler and her piano player Barry Manilow. I was doing two shows in three places every week. People came to see me from upstate to the Village, I had a three-piece band with a bass and a drum. My act now is what I did then. Just having a conversation like we’re all at a party, singing a little and talking a little.

I met and fell hard for Danny around this time, he would always meet me at the stage door, cook for me and make sure I had what I needed. He worked at Saks Fifth Avenue. We lived at 349 W 43rd St., in 4th-floor walkup that I paid $68 a month for, then I bought it for $26,000, I sold it for $60,000 in the 90s and today it’s worth a half million dollars. Danny was also an artist and became the assistant to Bob Randolph, who was a big set designer on Broadway. That was a wonderful life because I was with the man I loved, I never went to the bar. With Danny it was love at first sight. I saw him, walked up and asked if he’d like to take a walk. We walked for 18 years.

In 1984, I was in the national tour production of 42nd Street, the disease that turned out to be AIDS was starting to sicken and then kill so many members of the theater community. We landed in San Francisco when the local Carbonell Awards were being presented. The show’s lead was asked to present them but turned it down. So they asked me and I said yes. While I was up there, I asked if anyone was interested in having an East/West exchange of nightclub performers -- singers and comics -- with New York, because there were amazing performers in both places. I asked about joining together MAC, Manhattan Association of Cabarets, now the Mabel Mercer Awards, and the west coast Gold awards, and maybe we could all be bicoastal. San Francisco performers would come play in New York and vice versa. That was my goal and I asked if anyone is interested to come up and talk to me. The only person who did was the executive director of the west coast group, Ed Maglin. He wanted to help it happen, but when we met with the New York group they weren’t interested.

Back in San Francisco, we decided to put a show on ourselves and I became the entertainment director. The show went on at the Morris Mechanic Theater to benefit the local AIDS organization, the AIDS Emergency Fund. Anybody who wanted to perform was allowed and we all volunteered our creative services. I directed, and volunteer help came from wardrobe, lighting, dressers and more. It was called Modest Vaudeville. We raised about $10,000 -$14,000 for two local AIDS organizations. It was such a hit that we would put on this show everywhere we went the two years on tour with 42nd St., and the money always going to the local AIDS service group in that city. People with HIV and AIDS were getting sicker and dying and didn’t know what was happening them. Those local AIDS groups were their beacons. It was a really scary time.

I was starting to acknowledge the feeling that my time on Broadway was coming to an end as the glitter slowly wore off. I was no longer in love with it. I knew I was never going to be a star and I was pretty much doing the same thing over and over. It was still fun, but getting to be the same thing and I was ready for something different.

When the tour ended and we came back to New York, Ed Maglin called and asked, “Why don’t you come back to San Francisco and continue doing my AIDS work? Ed was a rather wealthy man. He had a marketing company and I was doing his marketing as well as his AIDS work. I became the assistant director of development for Shanti Project, which was then the third largest AIDS organization in the country. I knew many of the performers that were coming the San Francisco to work so I’d ask if they’d come and shake a hand for $100 bucks. That was the start of AIDS fundraising through entertainment. We’d do a show if someone wanted to give money to the AIDS organizations. To honor this work I was doing, the city made August 4, 1991, Michael Vita Day.

That whole experience is how I got into event planning. Shanti Project had a big dinner every year, like we have here, and I would just go wild. Everybody wanted to help boost the event’s fabulous factor. There were candelabras and drag queens with poofy Queen Anne dresses. What a time that was, it was absolutely wonderful. Diane Feinstein Presents Michael Feinstein. Michael Feinstein was just starting out then and Ed was good at bringing an audience out. Michael Feinstein was playing in a little club and Ed was one of the many people to give him a boost on his way up.

It wasn’t long before Ed suggested we bring our idea to Actors’ Equity, so we met with their council in New York. We proposed a partnership with Broadway Cares in writing. They agreed and sent their proposal. But they were unsure what to do after the biggest event in town, Elizabeth Taylor’s Night of 1,000 Stars, a red carpet, show and a dinner. That was the big AIDS event for AmFar.

We suggested doing the shows we’d been doing all along and together the collaboration led to the forming of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I only take credit for planting the seed. Others have helped it grow in all sorts of ways, which is great. It’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m donating all the communication, letters and items from the formation of it to the Stonewall Museum here in Fort Lauderdale.

I wanted to be the executive director, but wasn’t interested in going back to New York. They asked Larry Kramer’s lover to do it, which was good, and then they started the LGBT community center in the Village.

The AIDS crisis was horrible, but it also taught us wonderful lessons and brought the community together in ways it never would have been. We learned everything from raising funds to being nurses for our dying friends. Something we see less and less these days.

I left San Francisco after three years and went to Texas to see my ex Danny and try to get back together, but it wasn’t to be. By now he was Mr. Mardi Gras in Galveston, designing all the costumes and floats. I got a job there as the marketing director of the Lone Star Performing Arts Center for two years. That was interesting because there was a lot of writing and making up the Playbills and making things happen, and that’s what I did. It was an outdoor theater with 1,700 seats. The Miss Texas beauty pageant was there and the contestants were told to sit in the audience. I said, “No they will not, they will be on the stage! We gave them each a rose and at the end they all threw their roses in the air and my fabulous photographer caught the image of the roses in the air. That was just one of the many fun events I was part of there.

I felt as if I was in a state of grace. Just following my instinct.

In 1994, after two years in Texas, my friend Ed called and said he was now living in Miami Beach, it was happening here and I must come. He gave me a place to stay in an apartment, so I stayed and within two weeks Ed introduced me to Michael Aller. He needed someone to work for the City of Miami Beach. Ed told Michael I had worked at an outdoor theater and Michael said, ‘We have three outdoor theaters, please come and talk to me.’ He said he’d like to see what I could do with the North Shore Bandshell and two other theaters. I wasn’t sure about it so he said I could volunteer in the public information office. I became part-time and then full time. I left the city and came back later to be the special events liaison for the city. I did that for a couple of years. During this time Pavarotti performed on the Beach and Judy Drucker’s concert series was in full swing.

I was living at Morton Towers, now Grand Flamingo. One day I was sitting by the pool, wondering what I would do for work. All of a sudden, Ed came running out to the pool. He was the building’s leasing manager and had just lost a salesperson. He asked me if I could help. I said OK, what do I do? He said, sell apartments! So I did. I sold and sold and sold, and within a few weeks there was a fire in the building. I was put in charge of helping residents relocate. The fire destroyed one unit, but the water ruined every unit. So I took care of them and it helped that I was the president of the citizen’s police academy in Miami Beach, I knew the police and that helped me a lot. There was no food and the Mortons were wonderful, they fed everybody. The Red Cross came. I had to go and get food at Publix and they’d heard what happened on the radio, so they gave me a ton of food. I filled my car and when I got back they wouldn’t let me in! Luckily a sergeant saw me and told them to let me in.

I was soon hired away from Morton Towers to work at Manhattan Towers, owned by the distinguished Mr. Kriz. I said I was happy where I was, but he kept sweetening the deal I simply couldn’t refuse. I gave my two weeks notice at Morton Towers, during which time I sold six units at Manhattan Towers! It turned out to be a wonderful job that lasted three years, and then it was sold to slumlords.

I called Michael Aller and said I’m looking for a job and he said they were looking for civic calls. A liaison between the residents and the city, so if you wanted a hole in the road in front of your home repaired, I’d get that call and make it happen.

A couple of years later I went to work for Claire Tomlin at The Market Company. You know, she hit it right at the right time. It was just when people were looking to eat organic and farm to table. We started with three markets and went to six and now she’s got 20, I see them everywhere. Next, I went to work at the gay chamber with Steve Adkins and we had a wonderful eight years of working together, bouncing ideas off each other and growing the chamber. The week after I left the chamber I went to work for David Treece and was there for five years.

I moved up to Fort Lauderdale four years ago and the doors opened again. I went to the gay chamber up here and worked there for a couple of months. The director is working very hard to grow it, but I don’t have the same wind in my sail that I used to when Steve and I built the Miami chamber.

I sang in the St. Patrick choir in Miami and toured Europe. When I moved up here I went searching for a choir and found one at the Center for Spiritual Healing. I’ve been doing my nightclub act again. Two concerts have passed, a third is on April 15, I’ll do two more after that and then I’m retiring.

I’ve just helped my friend Peter move an 80-year-old woman into independent living. He wants to start a company that helps seniors ready for assistance called What’s Next?

What’s next with me is that I’m assisting The Imperial Council of San Francisco with an event they want to do here in Fort Lauderdale in March. It’s a very regal and fabulous organization of men who dress up with tiaras and jewels and have a coronation to raise money.

I’m also consulting about a March 6 fundraiser with new age speaker August Gold who is at the Pride Center on Tuesdays at 12.

When I was a kid my uncle was a loan shark. One time he took me to a place owned by a mafia member who liked wearing dresses. My uncle told me to sing for him, which I did. I’m so relieved he didn’t like my singing or I may have never left.

To tell you the truth, I think it is all written for us. When a door opens you decide whether to go through it or not. Doors continued opening for me and I’m very glad I kept going through them. That’s it.

Why should I use your firm instead of a larger, institutional advisory firm?

Treece Financial Group provides an advisory relationship that takes pride in  the personal touch. We are a boutique firm that keeps in close touch with our clients. We get to know our clients as individuals and not just accounts. This personal interest creates a level of service which we believe cannot be matched by the larger financial companies and banks.

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