It’s a pretty safe bet few people in Winnipeg, or in Western Canada for that matter, knew the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, George Burns, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore or Ed Sullivan on a first-name basis. Winnipeg’s Steiner Brothers did.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the Steiners — Roy, Ron and Rob — performed alongside these and other entertainment luminaries at some of the most famous nightclubs and theatres in North America. Constantly in demand, they were ranked among the best tap dancers in the world.
"We worked with every major star in the business at one time or another," says Ron Steiner from his home in north Winnipeg, where he and his brothers gathered recently to talk about their show business career.
"I can’t even remember all the people we worked with. Most of them are gone now. We were very well-known and respected in the business because we took it seriously and we loved to perform."
The boys came by their flair for entertaining naturally. Their mother, Madge, had been a member of a Saskatchewan-based dance troupe, the Hoffard Sisters, in the 1930s and ’40s. Ralph Steiner was a classical violin prodigy who conducted the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at age 12 and later formed a dance band. Hoffard and Steiner married and formed an act, with the latter performing as Howie Squeeks in a wig, clown shoes and buck teeth. They continued performing until their first child, Roy, was born in 1941. Settling down on Eugenie Street in St. Boniface, Ron was born in 1942, followed by the youngest brother, Rob, in 1944.
"When we started dancing there was never any thought of being in show business," says Ron.
"Roy had a slightly crippled foot, so Mom and Dad started us dancing to straighten out his foot. It was a therapeutic thing, recreational, not for any show business aspirations. Rob and I were enlisted to dance, too, to keep our brother company. We danced a couple of times at school, but that was it until we went to California. Even then, there was no plan for us to be entertainers."
Adds Roy, "Every night we would be playing outside, and then Dad would whistle at us that it was time to practise. We would have to come running. He’d roll back the carpet, and we would learn to tap dance. Our mother and father taught us our first three dance numbers."
The Steiners head to California
When Madge’s sister landed a job in Hollywood dancing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, she encouraged the Steiners to move to California. As Roy recalls, "In 1952, Dad sold everything in the house, and we went down to Minneapolis, bought a car there and drove out to California. We didn’t have anything to go to, but off we went. We stayed in a motel in Encino for three months before they bought a house in Sherman Oaks. Dad took a job with General Motors, and we got settled there."
All three brothers point out the family didn’t make the move in order to put them in show business.
"We didn’t have an act when we went to L.A.," says Ron. Their aunt invited the family to a Christmas barbecue for Martin and Lewis at Martin’s house, where someone mentioned the brothers tap danced. They were invited to perform and wowed the assembled guests and stars. Soon after, they found themselves being booked for engagements.
"It was all by happenstance," says Roy. "It just happened after we danced at that Christmas party."
They were hired to perform at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles and were later approached by a manager who started booking them.
"We didn’t have to promote ourselves for jobs," says Ron, who was 10, with Roy, 11, and Ron, 9, at the time. "Someone would call to book us, and off we went. We only had to audition once, and that was for The Dinah Shore Show. Our dad had converted the garage at our house into a dance studio where we rehearsed. One day we’re in there working when two limousines pull up outside, and this blond woman gets out with her entourage and knocks on our front door. We didn’t know who she was. ‘I’m Dinah Shore,’ she said. ‘Would you boys mind performing for me?’ Somehow she heard of us. We ended up appearing on three shows with her."
Thus began a whirlwind 30-year career. "We started out as tap dancers," says Roy.
They quickly became known as the fastest tap dancers in the business. "Flying Home was the number we would dance fast to," says Rob. "You couldn’t even count as fast as we were dancing."
Through the years, the brothers added singing and comedy to their act.
'There's no greater power than to know that those people out there are appreciating the work you have put in to entertain them'-- Ron Steiner
"Some people were dancers or singers or comedians, but we were all three in one act," notes Roy. "With our show, you never knew what we were going to do. We interacted a lot with the audience."
'You never knew what Rob was going to do next'
While all three danced, Roy was the singer, Ron the dancer and Rob the comedian. "You never knew what Rob was going to do next," says Roy. "He was crazy. While Ron and I would be dancing, he would go out into the audience and sit on someone’s lap."
Rob also added pistol-twirling to the act. "I twirled two Colt 45 handguns," he says.
Jerry Lewis would twirl handguns in his act until he witnessed Rob’s talent.
"Rob would be practising backstage, and one time Jerry asked him to show him what he could do," says Roy.
"Afterwards, he handed his guns to Rob to have."
It was a different time, as Rob recalls. "I flew with those handguns all over the world and was never stopped once at airports. I represented Colt firearms."
Lewis became a close friend to the brothers. "Jerry was a real jokester," says Ron. "He was the kind of guy who would play a joke on you, and you could do the same to him, and he’d laugh and enjoy it. He was the only star we worked with who wouldn’t get upset if you kidded around with him onstage and off."
Rob pranked the comedy star several times. Ron’s house is adorned with caricatures of many of Hollywood’s early greats given to him by Lewis.
The boys also enjoyed a relationship with Dean Martin and his family and often played with Martin’s children. They dined frequently with Martin’s father, who had been a barber.
"He used to cut our hair," says Roy. And they worked the biggest nightclubs with Martin.
"We played with Dean Martin at the Sands hotel in Vegas," Ron recalls, "and he was a heavy drinker. He came out one night and walked right into the microphone stand. On the third night, the hotel manager came to us and asked us to do a longer set because Dean was too drunk to perform. But he was a functional drunk. He couldn’t have been able to remember his act if he wasn’t." They also played shows with Rat Pack members Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.
As Roy remembers, "Those guys would have a rolling bar in their dressing rooms starting at around 6 p.m., so when they went on at about 9 they were really flying. But it was the best show you could ever see."
Frank Sinatra, George Burns were their favourites
If a television show required kids for a skit, the Steiner boys would often get the call. "We did one Halloween skit with Boris Karloff," says Rob. "We played the kids coming to the door, and Boris tried to scare us. We were in a skit with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, and we were all playing poker, and we were winning all the chocolate bars."
"Everybody said Frank Sinatra was a hard guy to work with," says Roy, "but when we were booked to open for him we walked into his dressing room, he said ‘Hi guys. Pleased to meet you. What do you want to do?’ We said we’d do 25 minutes. He said ‘Great,’ and that was it."
They recall other favourites. "George Burns was really a nice guy, and his wife, Gracie Allen, was so funny, too," says Ron. "Bob Hope was very personable, very down to earth. If he liked you, you had it made. I never saw him talk down to anyone." Rob recalls, "We got along well with everyone except Milton Berle. He was really rude to people."
Adds Ron, "Berle stole everyone’s act. He never did anything original. When we worked with him, he was trying to tell us how to do our act. Wrong thing to do. Red Skelton was one of the most cordial guys you could ever meet." Notes Roy, "We worked with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans often. We had a great time with them." They also recall singer Rosemary Clooney was prone to swearing. The brothers performed with Marilyn Monroe on a couple of occasions, and when she died they attended her funeral.
"The people who were the big stars were generally very nice," says Ron. "The people who thought they were the big stars or who were on the way up were the most difficult to work with."
The brothers once worked with singer Judy Garland at the Theatre-in-the-Round in San Francisco. As Roy relates, "A trumpeter kept trying to play her introductory theme song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, but couldn’t because every time he started, the crowd would stand up and cheer. The crowd stood and applauded for 20 minutes before allowing Judy Garland to sing. She came out, and she was bombed. She was mixing booze with pills backstage and couldn’t even stand up."
The brothers were making $750 a week
By 1956, the Steiner Brothers were earning US$750 a week in Las Vegas nightclubs. "My dad made nowhere near that kind of money," laughs Roy.
They were enrolled in the Hollywood Professional School for school-age performers, where their classmates included Natalie Wood, Yvette Mimieux and Sherry Jackson from The Danny Thomas Show. Classes were held in the mornings, with rehearsals or performances in the afternoons and evenings. Attendance was flexible because most of the students were already working in show business. "We could do our school work on the road and send it in," says Rob.
The brothers temporarily split up the act in July 1955 when Ron was selected to be one of Walt Disney’s original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club television show. He worked five days per week and was paid US$185 a week.
"It was a great experience," he recalls. "Walt Disney was a total gentleman and like a father figure to us. He knew everyone of us by name, and he remembered and celebrated every one of our birthdays. We all had free passes to Disneyland for life. Annette Funicello and I were very good friends, and we remained so until she died."
Rob and Mouseketeer Cubby O’Brien were good friends and would go horseback riding together at his house. Rob and Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton rode elephants in the circus at Disneyland while Roy rode a chariot.
Ron missed working with his brothers and chose not to renew his contract after the first year. He took part in the 25th anniversary show for The Mickey Mouse Club, televised in 1980, and attended the 1997 Angel in Show Business award party for Funicello.
Reunited, the Steiner Brothers resumed their career with nightclub and television show gigs, including three appearances on The Gary Moore Show and twice on The Ed Sullivan Show, sharing the bill one time with Barbara Streisand. They appeared in the 1959 movie Say One for Me, starring Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds and Robert Wagner. New York’s Playboy Club booked them for a solid year. By that point, they were making US$3,500 per week.
"We played every state in the United States and right across Canada, too," says Ron.
"In our act, we had our basic structure, but we also had our fun because we were very comfortable onstage," says Ron. "We were very spontaneous, and audiences liked that about us. There are artists, and there are performers. An artist does everything to what is written for them. A performer has the audience with them in their hands. There’s no greater power than to know that those people out there are appreciating the work you have put in to entertain them."
The brothers head overseas
In 1962, the boys spent a year performing in Japan. "During the week, we performed in Japanese nightclubs, and on weekends on American military bases," recalls Ron.
They also entertained Canadian troops at United Nations outposts around the world.
"I remember those United Nations tours," says Rob. "Those were great. We flew in these giant Hercules military planes, and I remember when we got off the plane in Germany they had a bagpiper pipe us onto the base."
They travelled with singer Juliette and a young Anne Murray to remote locations in northern Canada.
"Juliette was the headliner," says Ron, "so she closed the show on the first night, but the next night she wouldn’t follow us, so we went on after her to close the show. We had a very powerful act." They also toured with Tommy Hunter and Gordie Tapp.
There was the occasional bad gig as well.
"We did a show in Bakersfield once where the band was like Harry the butcher on drums and Mike the plumber on trombone, all these kind of guys," Roy recalls.
"We went up there with our music charts and spent all afternoon, five hours, going over a 45-minute show with these guys. So that evening we’re introduced and come out, and the band starts, and they don’t know where the hell they are in the music. They were awful. We had to stop our act and tell them, ‘Guys, we’re starting at bar 38. Has everybody got it?’ It was totally embarrassing. But people never say the band’s bad, it’s always the act that’s bad."
On another occasion at an outdoor show, they had to contend with a swarm of insects in their faces throughout the act.
Once Roy turned 18, the brothers were no longer chaperoned on the road by their mother.
"We had a lot of freedom and responsibilities at a young age," says Ron. There was also plenty of hijinks.
"One time, we were coming home from Las Vegas after performing, and we stopped along the way, and we each bought a motorcycle and drove the rest of the way on motorcycles," Rob says. "Mom and Dad just about hit the ceiling."
Another time in Las Vegas, the boys asked to be paid in silver dollars. "We had 64 pounds of silver dollars, US$2,000 worth, in a sack in the car," laughs Rob. "We each had silver dollar collections."
Another time they rented a house in Vegas for a six-month engagement and spent their days hunting and fishing at nearby Lake Meade.
"We did everything together," says Ron. "We bought houses, cars, boats, guns, took vacations together. We never got tired of each others’ company."
Back to Winnipeg, where they packed the club
Returning to Winnipeg for a vacation in the early 1960s, Roy called Auby Galpern, manager of the Town ’n’ Country nightclub on Kennedy Street, to see if he had any openings. Despite having been away from Winnipeg for more than a decade, the Steiners packed the club every night with lineups waiting to get in. In 1967, they made the decision to move back to Winnipeg.
"Our home had pretty much been wherever we came back to," says Ron. "We were on the road all the time." Though still travelling the continent, Winnipeg offered a central location as well as the opportunity for their other passions: hunting and fishing.
"We loved the lakes and the outdoors and the fishing here," says Ron. "Our grandparents had lived on a lake near Winnipeg."
Ralph and Madge Steiner the brothers’ parents, moved back 10 years later. The brothers performed around town, including in musical productions at the International Inn’s Hollow Mug cabaret.
"When we were back in Winnipeg we were still travelling to Las Vegas; Spokane; Raleigh, North Carolina; you name it — all over the place," says Roy.
By the ’70s, the pace was slowing, and the brothers folded the act in the early ’80s. Ron took a job as a technician at Concordia Hospital, while Rob worked for the Canadian National Railway Co. (and appeared in many local television commercials). Roy managed the Yamaha Music store in Winnipeg, later buying it along with Yamaha Music franchises in London, Burlington, Hamilton and Ottawa. When Roy retired, he and Rob established their own construction business under the Steiner Brothers name. None of the brothers’ children followed in their father’s footsteps in show business.
Reunited in 1998
In 1998, the brothers reunited for a charity fundraising show at the Westin Hotel organized by Rob for the Heroes program.
"We hadn’t danced in 10 years, so we rehearsed for a couple of days before the show," says Rob. "It wasn’t quite as energetic as when we were younger, but we earned a standing ovation. We thought everyone was just getting up to leave."
Looking back on their amazing career, the Steiner Brothers have nothing but warm memories.
"Entertaining was our life," says Ron. "We didn’t do it for fame or fortune. It was what we loved to do. We had a very good reputation in the business, and that meant a lot to us. I don’t really recall any bad times."
Adds Rob, "I couldn’t wait to get onstage wherever we were."
"We still do everything together and talk on the phone almost every day," says Ron.
John Einarson writes about Manitoba’s music history. He gives thanks to Bill Redekop for his help with this column.