SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. – She just got the turndown from George Clooney, but Marguerite Derricks is beaming.
Sunbeaming, to play off the nickname Debbie Allen assigned decades ago to her “beautiful and youthful and energetic” platinum-haired protégé, who was fresh out of Buffalo and hoping to build a long dance career.
That happened. It happened so well that today, some 30-plus years after she cashed in six gold coins to fund her dreamy leap from West Seneca to New York City, she’s completely cool with being turned down by Clooney. (Or, in fairness, likely by his budget-minded movie producers.)
“I went to his house and watched dance movies with him for a couple of hours,” said Derricks, who’s sitting on the deck of a Starbucks gated by palm trees swaying over Ventura Boulevard. She’s wearing a sleeveless white shirt that reveals the tanned, tattooed, taut arms of a choreographer who still likes to dance.
“We were storming up all these ideas, and then I got an email saying that they had cut the budget, and the first thing to go, of course, is the dance,” Derrick said.
Had she booked this upcoming movie with Clooney, she likely would have been dancing with him. The big actors, she explains – meaning people like Brad Pitt (she choreographed him and Angelina Jolie in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”), Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”), Patrick Stewart (the television show “Blunt Talk”) and many others – “don’t want the young, hotshot assistants. They want me on my feet in the room, up with them.”
Clooney could have been next. Maybe he still will be. “(It’s a) great script and he’s a cool guy,” Derricks said, “and I’m sure we’ll work together again.”
That is optimism. Pure, unfiltered, sunbeaming, highly deserved optimism. Today, at 55, Derricks is one of the most versatile choreographers in the entertainment industry. Her six-page résumé includes 40 television shows, even more feature films, Broadway and Vegas shows, and dozens of music videos, commercials and awards programs. Her own awards – highlighted by three Emmys – take up half a page.
“Marguerite possesses two of the rarest, yet essential, qualities of a great choreographer: she is at once a great artist and a great pragmatist,” said Mike Myers, who hired Derricks as the choreographer for his “Austin Powers” film franchise. “She can dream about the possibility and yet live within the reality.”
Myers is talking about moviemaking, where grand creative visions (“the possibility”) is countered by budgets and time (“the reality”). Rick Gray, who’s hired Derricks to choreograph three shows at the Wynn Las Vegas casino, adds a third quality: open-mindedness.
“She’s really an incredible collaborator,” said Gray, who remembers Derricks telling his crew, “I want everybody to really feel that they have a stake in this. I’m not doing anything that’s precious or can’t be changed.”
Those qualities are good for business, but Derricks has applied them to the choreography of her life. That number goes like this:
Possibility: As a girl growing up in Buffalo, Derricks was a dancing star.
Reality: She was a high school dropout whose rebellious years could have crushed her dancing future.
Possibility: Derricks’ career could have stumbled at several points: When she became a young mom. When she became known as a “strip choreographer.”
Reality: It never did. But because of that success, Derricks never struck a work-life balance. Not until now.
* * *
It’s a sunlit Sunday afternoon in North Buffalo, and Derricks is home, visiting her parents to celebrate her mother Anna Hoffman’s birthday. She’s sitting in the airy living room with her parents and longtime friend, the actor and director John Fredo, who has stopped by.
Franklin Pomerhn is beaming; he's a proud dad. He steps to another room to retrieve a collection of artifacts that span his daughter’s career: “Fame” TV show DVDs from the early '80s, big-haired headshots from the same era, a Cirque du Soleil program from Vegas and an assortment of clippings, playbills and photographs.
Derricks and her mother, meanwhile, are recalling the beginnings of it all – right up to the point when Hoffman realized, “We’ve gotta get her out of Buffalo! She’s got to get out of Buffalo if she’s going to have any chance.”
In the early to mid-1970s, Marguerite Pomerhn (her maiden name) was a hotshot young ballerina training under the noted Buffalo dance teacher Bernadine DeMike. By age 12, Marguerite was dancing five or six days a week and teaching, too. It was also when she was 12 that her parents divorced, but even that wasn’t too dramatic: It ended turmoil in the house, and many years later, after Anna Hoffman’s second husband died, Franklin Pomerhn moved into an apartment on his ex-wife's property, where they live together as friends today.
Life was smooth for Marguerite until age 16. That's when a movie about a performing arts high school in New York City dislodged Marguerite's comfortable sense of being.
“I got very antsy,” she said. “I remember seeing the movie ‘Fame’ and was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do that. That has to be my life.’ ”
"Fame" dangles an enticing idea in front of adolescents looking to find their place in the world: Big dreams and hard work can lead to a life far bigger than one's self. To say "Fame" caused Marguerite's rebellious years is far too simplified. But the movie may have triggered it.
"It shook me to the core and I didn’t want to go to school," Derricks said. "All I wanted to do was dance.”
She dropped out of West Seneca West High School. She partied. But she still danced, though, and ended up landing a role in the Viva Vegas show at the since-closed Executive Hotel near the Buffalo airport. Fredo, who would go on to become an actor in New York and Los Angeles before returning to Buffalo, was in the show too. Management took notice of both of them and sent them onto the dance floor after the show to rev up the crowd.
“Margie was always up for that,” Fredo said. “Always seeing beyond it. Always knowing that there was a bigger picture. She helped me with that.”
By 19, Derricks was a picture of complexity and contradictions.
The reality: She was a rebellious teen, partying in bars and dancing in a sexy, Vegas-style show.
But the possibility: She was dancing and doing it better, and bigger, than the people around her. She seemed to sense there was more out there. So did her mom, who realized, “She’s got to get out of Buffalo if she’s going to have any chance.”
Hoffman and Marguerite’s stepfather gave her a gift: Six gold coins, which she sold for $3,000 — enough to buy one-way ticket to New York and sublet an apartment.
“I was fearless — I just went to New York,” Derricks said. “I knew what I wanted. I’ve always known what I wanted. I’m still that way. I’ll get a focus on something and before long, it’s in my life.”
Before long, yes, but not easily. In New York, Derricks was hit with a couple of hard realities: She didn’t have the body of professional ballet dancer, and her singing voice wasn't Broadway quality. She had sprinkles of success, and managed to book a role on the national tour of “Kiss Me, Kate,” but recognized it wasn’t enough.
“There came this really pivotal point where I just realized, ‘What am I going to do? I’m a great dancer but I don’t sing. The ballet thing is not going to work out,’ ” she said. “I was kind of, like, a little lost.”
Then, one night in New York City, Derricks was asleep in her apartment when the phone rang. It was a friend. “Marguerite,” he said, “Debbie Allen is looking for dancers for ‘Fame.’ ”
* * *
Earlier this year, the TV Land network gave its Trailblazer Icon award to Allen, who is African-American, for her work as an Emmy-winning choreographer, Golden Globe-winning actress, and director, producer and dance studio owner. Allen’s “Grey’s Anatomy” castmate Ellen Pompeo introduced her. As a surprise, the show also included a “Fame” tribute number choreographed by Derricks — the woman Allen nicknamed “Sunbeam” some 30-plus years ago.
The morning after Derricks received that late night call about a “Fame” audition, she showed up at the studio dressed in a sparkly blue leotard, ready to “dance for my life,” she recalls. She positioned herself right by Allen, who was looking to select exactly one dancer from the 80 who were auditioning.
“I needed somebody who was phenomenal,” said Allen, whose auditions were legendarily difficult. “I had many auditions where people would run out because we weren’t step-touch dancers. We were doing triple-turn layouts to get on the floor.”
As she recalls her first impression of Derricks, Allen's voice vaults into fully punctuated storytelling mode: “There was Marguerite Derricks. Oh my God, she came out of there like a cannon — BAM! She just came out of there like nowhere. I couldn’t see anybody in that room but her. I was like, ‘Honey, stop, when are you coming? Let’s go. Let’s go now.’ ”
Allen ended the audition by saying, “I know who I want!”
Derricks headed home to her apartment on the outskirts of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan. Her phone was ringing. It was Allen, who said, “I’m really sorry to tell you, YOU GOT THE JOB!”
That was 1982. For three years and 40 episodes, Derricks played out her dance dreams as a “Fame” cast member. At the same time, though, personal life dramatically changed her career trajectory. At 22, she became pregnant and got married. Her nuptials were short-lived, but as the mom of a young son, she began to think about a longer-term career. “I’m a mother now,” she said, echoing her thoughts at the time. “I’ve got to do something else.”
The natural next step was choreography: more money, more authority, more longevity. Derricks started working in New York, then moved to Los Angeles, where she booked a steady stream of work over the next decade.
Her first major film was a $200,000 contract for “Showgirls,” the 1995 movie starring Elizabeth Berkley as a young Vegas strip dancer. That was followed by the Demi Moore film “Striptease.”
Both films were crushed by critics, though in recent years, “Showgirls” has become something of a cult classic. But at the time, the projects seemed to be bad mojo for Derricks.
“The whisper in Hollywood was like, ‘Oh, she just destroyed her career, dude, she’s going to be known as the strip choreographer,’ ” said Derricks, who instead parlayed the strip moves into something much bigger: Austin Powers.
The comedian Mike Myers both created and performed Powers, a bespectacled British spy with an unlikely sex appeal. Myers and director Jay Roach originally met with Derricks in hopes of having her appear in the movie based on her strip-choreographer street cred. But she pitched them on the idea of integrating more dance into the movie, and ultimately choreographed all three Powers films.
“And I used the same moves on Mike that I did the girls to make fun of myself, and it" – meaning her "Showgirls" roots – "never hurt my career."
In an email interview with the News, Myers called Derricks “an essential member of the Austin Powers team.”
“I love dance, but I’m more of a dance enthusiast than a dance scholar,” he said. “Before Marguerite would choreograph a scene that I was dancing in, she would ask me to ‘dance it out.’ I would fumble through my limited knowledge, and she would heighten, and explore, and ultimately, shape my fumblings. And then she would push me to greater heights.”
Professionally and financially, Derricks has reached her own heights: She accepts and rejects jobs not based on finances, but rather, appeal. “I say yes to fun,” she says. Thanks largely to her lucrative work in Vegas, where her deal allows her to make money every time the curtain rises on one of her shows, she spent the summer looking for a beach house on the Pacific.
That’s reality, and it’s a good one.
She’s working on possibilities, too, but these are much more personal. Years ago, on a New Year’s Eve when Derricks was home alone at 8 p.m. she thought, I need friends.
Success, she realized, came with a social cost, and that’s her focus now: nurturing friendships; building a relationship. Derricks is less willing to talk about that part of her life, other than to say she was in an 18-year relationship with a recording artist, and another four-year relationship, and started dating someone not long ago, but “I’m not naming names.”
“I had great friends in Buffalo,” Derricks said. “But I went through a long period of time where I was so focused on my drive that I didn’t balance my life. I’m balancing my life a lot better now.”
Which means the most important people in Derricks’ life aren’t the celebrities for whom she works, but rather the people closest to her — including those who shall remain nameless.
As for the Clooneys? She’ll take them too. But at this point, the stars may want Derricks more than she needs them.
Why you know her: She’s choreographed more than 100 movies and television shows, theatrical performances (Broadway, Vegas and major regional stages), commercials, awards programs and music videos. Among her best-known work is Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” trilogy, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the Elizabeth Berkley cult classic “Showgirls,” and the “Khakis-A-Go-Go” Gap commercials. She is the winner of three Emmys for her work on “3rd Rock from the Sun” (1997), “Fame L.A.” (1998) and the Goodwill Games opening celebration (1999).
Career: Derricks grew up in Lackawanna and West Seneca and trained with the noted dancer teacher Bernadine DeMike. She dropped out of West Seneca West before graduating, worked locally as a dancer in a Vegas-style show at the now-defunct Executive Hotel, then moved to New York at age 19. After working as a cast member of the TV series “Fame” through 1984, she switched to choreography and moved to Los Angeles.
Residence: Studio City, Calif.
Family: son Clinton Derricks
WNY Roots: Derricks’ mother, Anna Hoffman, and father, Franklin Pomerhn, are divorced but still live together “as friends,” Derricks says. Her brother Mark Pomerhn lives in Newport Beach, Calif., and her sister Michele Nevin lives in New Hampshire.
Debbie Allen, who gave Derricks her first break on the early ’80s TV show “Fame”: “I wish she had danced a little longer because she has something as a performing artist that people loved and would love to see even more of. I know that. But I’m very proud of her work as a choreographer and director. I’m very proud of her.”
Mike Myers on Derricks’ work as the choreographer for “Austin Powers”: “Her positivity infects all around her and her encyclopedic knowledge of dance brought what I wrote off the page, and made it better than written. She was an essential member of the ‘Austin Powers’ team.”
Derricks on her career: “I’ve had a career that just keeps going, and keeps going to new places. It’s still surprising and exciting. I still scream over certain things that come my way. There aren’t a lot of people that have this kind of longevity and I don’t see it stopping ever, really. I feel blessed, but I’ve worked hard, and I’m really, really good at what I do.”