Toast to George Theiss

Toast to George Theiss

In today’s age where we have a resurgence in the popularity of dancing and where stars are again dancing on TV as they did on the Arthur Murray Dance Party show in the 50’s, it seems a bit sad that the passing of one of the industry’s leaders, George B Theiss, did not bring more accolades.  The facts are simple enough.  George B Theiss died September 30 at his home in Coral Gables at 84, and was President/CEO of Arthur Murray International Inc.  He like so many of his generation found their occupation after serving their country and then went on to look for a new life.  An entire generation of veterans would learn that the world was fast becoming smaller and the mobility and new jobs learned in the service could translate into a whole new world.  George would start at the beginning and rise to the top of his field, and never gain the recognition of either his predecessor in business or the many professional dancers that now grace TV that probably started in one of his studios.

George himself told me, when I interviewed him earlier this year, that he and his brother both started at the same time and the rest is history that the company web site will extol.  What is not being told is the story of George and his associates and how they bought or got the company at such a crucial time in the company.  After all, the “name” was no longer there.  Arthur Murray the company’s namesake has been acclaimed for establishing or popularizing franchising, for using television in its infancy to popularize dances and promoting the company through his own stardom.  Early ads always showed Arthur’s prominent features asking the question, or inviting you to answer it and get a special offer.

What is known is the 60’s were one of those decades of cultural and generational revolution.  That alone would make many hesitant to take on a company that was already steeped in tradition.  The Arthur Murray Studios were established society.  That being said, all of the dances made popular in the 40’s and 50’s Rumba, Cha-Cha, Mambo, Jitterbug would be largely ignored by the participants in the Cultural Revolution.  The earlier dances already popularized by Arthur Murray, Fox Trot, Waltz, Tango Samba were not at all like the free-style dancing that would be popular throughout the 60’s.  Most dancers of that genre would not require lessons, and the free spirit of the day was not ready to take direction anyway.

At some time the entire history of the company may be written, but now we have to admire the people who were willing to take the chance and keep a company going when the founder himself was ready to get out.  Insiders may take objection to how the company was led at times.  Certainly there were some who felt they too should have been part of the next generation of leaders.  Those that did, George included will be credited with putting the business back in dance.  Growing a company in the good times as Arthur did in the 40’s and 50’s had to be much easier than keeping it in the bad times of the 60’s.  Children of the rich and famous often have a hard time following in their father’s footsteps, and the next generation would not have the celebrity of being Arthur Murray to attract publicity.  They would not have new rhythms being introduced by totally new media, films first followed by TV to promote new dances.  Instead they would handle the legacy of lifetime courses, anti-dance studio legislation, and the image of little old ladies being taken advantage of by gigolo dance teachers.

I remember George telling an entire industry they would have to change from sales to service.  If you were not able to keep the student happy to teach the lesson you would have to be able to refund their money.  I remember a man willing to tell franchisees and executives they would need to work and get more students taking fewer lessons instead of just a couple taking enough to support an entire studio.  I remember George telling our company to use the refunds and limits as advertising to get more students instead of reasons to complain.  I don’t mean to ignore the contributions that other members of the Board and Company may have made in implementing or requiring these actions, but it was George who would face the audience and make the proclamations in his deliberate, sometimes belittling, but always assured way.

As the 70’s came and free style would make way for Disco, “Touch Dancing” became a part of the company’s institutional advertising, and George remarked that his social acumen in dance enabled him to recognize the trend and capitalize on it with advertising.  Whether the company will ever regain the stature it had with Arthur Murray may well be a question for future accountants and historians.  The fact the company has expanded to other countries, and the studios are now enjoying the fruits of So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars may well ultimately be due to George and his associates audacity or guts to think they could handle the company after Arthur Murray was so ready to leave.  The fact is that George was with Arthur Murray longer than Arthur was.  He never gained the limelight of the stars, and honestly I don’t know if he would have wanted it, but the company exists today in large part to his efforts and those that were with him.

That alone deserves a Toast.  Cheers and Happy Dancing!!

Michael Reichenbach

Published:

Dance Week

December 7, 2007

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