By the time 16-year-old Charlotte Ray danced at Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair, she’d already had ballet lessons for three-quarters of her life.
She was schooled by some of the finest of the fine — pioneers of ballet and dance from an era when Chicago was molding groundbreaking teachers like Ruth Page.
Her early instructors, Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky, were sometimes likened to the great Nijinsky. At one point, they had a dance camp in South Haven, Mich. with a mailing list of 8,000 names, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Oukrainsky was a veteran of the dance troupe of Anna Pavlova, the prima ballerina assoluta whose halting, feathery performance of “The Dying Swan” moved people to tears.
Another of Mrs. Ray’s Chicago dance teachers, Berenice Holmes, also taught Hollywood hoofer Gene Kelly.
At the Century of Progress, Charlotte Ray danced in an operatic extravaganza, even by the standards of a World’s Fair. A 1,500-member ensemble gathered at Soldier Field on Aug. 23, 1933 to perform Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” including a 900-voice chorus, 200 soldiers, and elephants, camels and horses.
“They were dancing barefoot and they shared the stage with horses — and they had to watch where they put their feet,” said her daughter, Judy Frazin.
“Forty trainloads of Texans” were expected for the show, produced on Texas Day at the fair, according to documents from the Chicago History Museum.
In high school, she used mirrors and wood flooring to transform her Albany Park basement into “Charlotte’s School of the Dance.” She charged 25 cents per lesson. She went on to teach ballroom and tap at Amundsen High School and at Bell, Hibbard, Lafayette and Palmer grade schools.
Until her death at 96 at her Northbrook home on May 7, she dressed in stylish clothes from Ann Taylor and Polo, had her hair done weekly and carefully applied her lipstick. She drove until she was almost 95.
The young Charlotte Jacobson grew up at 4859 N. Kildare, the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Lithuania. By age 4, she was studying ballet.
She spent the summer between grade school and high school in Springer, New Mexico, at a ranch owned by the family of one of her ballet-school friends. The journey required two trains, but her father, who was in the produce business, had shipping contacts along her route. He made arrangements for colleagues to watch over her and ensure she reached her destination.
She met her future husband, Herman Ray, when they attended Roosevelt High School. He was the student business manager, so she had to see him to ask for a parking space.
He was smitten. Soon, she began hearing her name over the intercom, with requests to report to a school office. She was nervous, but it was just Herman.
“He would call her down — he just wanted to talk to her,” their daughter said.
After her performance at the Century of Progress, she also danced in the corps de ballet at the Auditorium Theatre for the San Carlo Opera Company, Judy Frazin said.
She attended the University of Wisconsin for a year, but dropped out to return home and earn money from dance lessons so she could marry Herman.
He had two left feet, but it didn’t matter, their daughter said. “She was so in love with my father.”
“She always wanted to look nice and used her lipstick and lipstick mirror to make sure she was presentable,” said her granddaughter, Melissa Frazin-Pechter.
Her family does not attribute her longevity to diet. “My husband once asked what her secret was to living a long life,” her granddaughter said in a eulogy. “She told him that cookies, crackers and coffee were what she ate most regularly. She also noted she was allergic to water and did not eat many fruits or vegetables.”
“She always thought dessert was the best part of the meal,” Judy Frazin said.
Still, Mrs. Ray could cook. “She taught me right from wrong, and how to make her famous matzo balls for soup,” her grandson, Gary, said in his eulogy.
The Rays lived in Chicago before moving to Highland Park and Northbrook. They spent winters in Hollywood, Fla. They were married 51 years when he died 25 years ago.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Ray is survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Services were held.