A Legend Legs It to Broadway

updated 02/24/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

LUNCHING ON TEA AND SOUP AT NEW York City's Regency Hotel, Cyd Charisse looks past the hem of her dress, contemplating the oh-so-perfect legs that made her a Hollywood legend. "When I was a little girl, I thought they were the worst in the world because my knees were so big and my legs so long and skinny. They've always been that way," she says. Charisse just doesn't see what all the fuss is about. "I think," she says, "it's more illusion than anything else."

Fortunately hers is a singular opinion. That's why the producers of Grand Hotel, looking for some star-power for their two-year-old Broadway musical, turned to Charisse, the dancing beauty who tantalized Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain and wrapped her impossibly long limbs around Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon during the high-stepping days of the MGM musicals. Still lissome at 69, Charisse plays a Russian prima ballerina on her farewell tour who falls for a young roué (John Schneider, formerly of TV's Dukes of Hazzard). Since Charisse joined the cast, says producer Marty Richards, "we're doing the best business since we started."

Charisse is delighted to dance on Broadway. "That was one goal I hadn't achieved, and it's exciting to do it now," she says. "But I'm very nervous when I walk out onstage."

Preparing for her part wasn't easy either. "It's hard to get back into those toe shoes after you've been off them a while," she says. But Charisse has always been fit, having taken daily exercise classes since she started ballet at age 8 in Amarillo, Texas. (Back then she was Tula Ellice Finklea; she became Cyd because her brother couldn't pronounce Sis.) At 13, she began studying with dancer Nico Charisse in Los Angeles and later joined the Ballet Russe. She married Nico in 1939 when she was 17—an age, she says, "when you think you know everything. I did what I wanted."

What drew her to Nico was ballet, and for several years she danced in Europe, until MGM producer Arthur Freed offered her a contract. She paid her dues as a background dancer in musical extravaganzas; then in 1952 she starred with Kelly in Singin' in the Rain.

Divorced shortly after arriving at MGM, Charisse spent a year "having a good time with the fellows"—including several dates with Howard Hughes—before marrying crooner Tony Martin in 1948. When musicals went out of style, Charisse kept going. She starred in movies and performed in clubs with her husband. Meantime she and Martin, 78, who now live in a condo in Beverly Hills, raised two children—Nicky, 49, from her first marriage, and Tony Martin Jr., 41.

Through it all, Charisse has remained as disciplined—and modest—as ever. "When I see myself on film. I always find something I should have done better," she says, "and I should have been a much stricter mother." But she also knows she has been blessed. "My Grand Hotel character is out of her mind because she has no career left," she says. "That was never true for me. If I wasn't working, I'd just travel with Tony and see the world while he sang. I've worked for the joy of it."

PAULA CHIN
DAVID HUTCHINGS in New York City

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