"Memoirs In Toe Shoes"

DECEMBER 30, 2004

Erna Segal's memorable life.


No choice but to dance the night away

Chiquita and Johnson perform in New York in 1957 with Jerry Lewis at the RKO Palace Theater
New Year's Eve is made for dancing. But what if dancing was your job? For Erna Segal of the 1950s and '60s novelty act Chiquita & Johnson, it was no party.
As portrayed in her autobiography "Memoirs in Toe Shoes" (FictionSpin, $28), posthumously published last month, being an end-of-the-year showbiz staple had its downside. Sure, she and her partner, John von Kralik, opened on New Year's for the likes of Red Skelton at Harrah's Club in Lake Tahoe and Mae West at the Latin Quarter in New York. But it seems all she really wanted was a little time off.
The dancer, who was born Erna Grabler in Prague in 1938 and died last year in L.A., was a talented ballerina who turned down a scholarship to the Bolshoi Ballet at age 12 to team up with Von Karlik, 33 years her senior.
Called "ballet-adagio," their four-minute routine featured dazzling split-leg lifts and jumps to showcase her technique and skimpy costumes to highlight her hourglass figure. In addition to appearing on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and opening in Las Vegas for Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Lena Horne, the duo gigged in pre-Castro Cuba, where their Tropicana Nightclub engagement ran for a year.
One half of the singular act, Segal led a life that was equally off the radar: Von Kralik became her guardian so she could travel with him, until they married, albeit briefly, when she turned 18. Five year later, she quit the act.
"Erna had no time off," says Daniel Segal, the dancer's second husband. "They were in such hot demand, especially on New Year's Eve; that's one of the reasons she wanted out of the act."
The upshot: The onetime nightclub dancer began writing science-fiction novels, opened a specialty film distribution company with her husband and wrote TV screenplays, including the memorably titled "Dan Haggerty Goes to the Circus" for NBC.