Q#1 Who is the girl in the white dress?

This is the question that Bobby White at Swungover* asked himself. In June 2011, just before All Bal Weekend, he published the answer, as we now know it.

Back then, all we knew was that there is a couple, both dressed in all white, dancing Bal-Swing in the clip famously called “The Venice Beach Clip”. This clip is important to dancers and historians as one of the earliest known examples of filmed southern California swing and Balboa dancing. It’s important to me as a beginning dancer learning everything I can about the origins of swing, and as an amature Californian historian. I’ll point you all to Swungover* for the details that I deliriously consumed. Read it before you continue here.

There, Bobby chronicles his journey into discovery, including amazing quotes from the follower’s future dance partner Johnny Duncan and her son Jeffrey Sliakis.

Short Answer: Genevieve Grazis, who went by Jenny Gray in films. A Bal-Swing dancer, then Lindy hopper, later mother. Her son Jeffrey tells Bobby that he has a box with some things in it that he would like to show him. Then, the story pauses.

Years later, I read all of this and lay awake at night wondering: what’s in that box? What happened to this story? What else is there for the world to discover about Jenny Gray, or Jean as family called her. It was a burning question that I had to pursue.

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Q#3 What’s in the box?

On February 25, 2017, Genevieve Grazis’ son, Jeffrey Sliakis, and I finally met up in Burbank, California- the town he grew up in, the town where his mother lived for the rest of her life. Sitting at a picnic bench in Verdugo Mountain Park, shivering from the unusually cold weather, we talked about his mother.

Much of what we discussed, her swing dancing and film career, are already chronicled on Swungover* . What I learned that day is who she was to her family. They called her Jean, daughter, wife, mom.

She was a devoted daughter, born Genevieve Teresa Grazis, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska during the Great Depression. Her parents were Lithuanian immigrants and farmers. Despite the Depression they had enough for themselves and enough to share. One of her fondest memories is of the weekly trips into town, when her father hitched the horse to the wagon full of vegetables, eggs, meat and bread. There, she and her mother would hand out the food to whoever needed it. They never took money, even though some tried to offer it. She passed this lesson on to her children- always help those who have less.

Her family moved to Hollywood between 1935- 1938, where her father worked as a gardener. Her parents supported her love of dance, enrolling her in classes while in High School. It wasn’t long before she was dancing Swing, entering and winning in competitions from Hollywood to Venice. The earliest footage we have of her is from the fall of 1938, dancing with Jack Helwig in the “Venice Beach Clip”, as it has become known. Then, the studios took notice and she started calling herself Jenny Gray. She and Jack were in “Naughty But Nice” in 1939. By 1940 she met Johnny Duncan on the set of “Too Many Girls”. They remained dance partners, appearing in a number of films throughout the years during World War II.

Genevieve’s parents were best friends with another Lithuanian immigrant family by the name of Sliakis. While their son Joseph was away serving in the military during the war, they encouraged her to write to him. Their correspondence continued until he came home six months after the war ended, and despite Johnny Duncan being in love with her, George Montgomery’s proposal, and the interest of numerous other actors, producers and directors, she married Joseph in 1948. He didn’t want her to continue to work in film, and to be fair it sounded like she had some close calls with casting directors. They settled down in Burbank and raised three children, Christine, Timothy and Jeffrey.

Jeffrey said that if there was one thing he would like people to know about her, it’s that “she was just as great a mom as she was a dancer”. She loved children and worked as a pre-school administrator until she was 85 years old. She passed away in 2009.

All that he has now of her dancing days are some precious personal photos and a few costumes. He gave me digital copies of the photos and asked me to take care of them. I have created a gallery for you to enjoy, but please link back to this blog if you copy one, and please ask for permission to reproduce them in quantity or for profit. I want to honor his mother’s legacy and ensure that these are used in the most respectful way.

As we ended our interview and started saying our good-byes, he asked if I would like to have something that belonged to his mother- an old cedar chest. I was, of course, honored. Later that week, as we arranged to meet and pick up the chest, he mentioned that there were a few things he put in the chest as well, things that he thought I would take good care of, things that might one day go in a museum.

What was in the cedar chest?

Q#2 How can I find out more about Genevieve Grazis?

I live a lot in my mind. I have imaginary conversations with people real, imagined, dead or alive, often after reading something and being filled with curiosity, often while I should be going to sleep at night. In the spring of 2016, one such conversation with Bobby White went like this:

What happened after you interviewed Genevieve Grazi’s son? Does he not want to talk about his mother more? Does he have anything else he would be willing to share? You mentioned something about a box he wanted to show you. Man, it would be amazing if he had a box of photos and documents so that I (I mean we) could get a first hand glimpse into the life of an original So-Cal swing dancer and help preserve her legacy. Even if he had that, how do you begin to ask for it? Do you just call him up and say, “Oh hi, I’m a swing dancer and researcher, I was wondering if you could give me all of your mother’s stuff for my research.” No, no one would just trust a stranger with their family’s private documents. I would probably come across as a crazy person.

I had to know more about the enigmatic girl in the white dress. I kept waiting for more, expecting that one day I would wake up and the story would continue, spoon fed to me like a hungry infant. This impatient waiting continued throughout the summer of 2016.

Flash forward 6 months- I’m checking facebook before going out for the evening to a Camp Hollywood dance. I notice a post from Bobby White about his friend’s performance of “Singing in the Rain” last night and I wonder if he’s here… and if so, maybe he has copies of his book Practice Swing with him. Maybe I could get it autographed. Maybe I could run all the ideas I’ve been developing for the last six months by him. Maybe I won’t come across as a crazy person.

So I message him. He responds! He’s here! He has books to sell! When I get to the dance I spend the first hour of the night making lots of eye contact with strange men. I keep wondering if people look very different in real life than on video or in photos. When I do spot him, it’s just the top of his hair, but he’s instantly recognizable as himself. Bobby is kind and listens to my ideas. Then, things start to get surreal because he agrees to allow me to help him contact Genevieve’s son Jeffrey Sliakis and to try to meet up with him. 

This is September, as the fall starts and winter approaches lives get busy and interviewing Jeffrey takes some time to organize. He is very enthusiastic though, and I can tell he is keen to talk with someone who is interested in his mother. We finally agree to a date and time in February 2017.

Will he have anything from the mysterious box with him?

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