Thelma Stumpf danced with the ballet troupe at Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s and 1940s. Now living in Springettsbury Township, she is 100.
Thelma Stumpf danced with the ballet troupe at Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s and 1940s. Now living in Springettsbury Township, she is 100. (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - PAUL KUEHNEL)
When she was a child, early last century, Thelma Stumpf's mother got sick. Her father, a waiter, couldn't care for her or her siblings so they went to live in orphanages in New York.

Thelma wound up at the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Most of her brothers and sisters joined her, except for one brother, Irwin, who went to live in the Bronx.

While at the orphanage, Thelma learned to cook and sew. She also learned to dance. Her first experience with dance was during school dances. The boys would line up on one side of the room and the girls on the other. It might not seem like much now, but then, she was hooked. She couldn't get enough of dancing.

Even after reuniting with her family, when she was 13, she kept dancing.

Thelma Stumpf in 1933.
Thelma Stumpf in 1933. (submitted)
She was a natural at it, dancing with grace and passion. Some dancers are able to make the moves, but Thelma had that something else that made her special, beyond just grace. She glowed.

She went to school to learn office skills, typing and bookkeeping. But she kept dancing and hoped that one day, she could perform for a living.

She never had to rely on her office skills. In 1928, all of 17 years old, she joined the ballet troupe at the Roxy Theater in New York. Her last name then was Corey; perhaps you've heard of her brother, Irwin Corey. Show business runs in the family. Another brother, a musician, went to work for Disney.

It was at the Roxy that Steve Stumpf noticed her. He was an usher and would watch the dancers. He was always drawn to Thelma Corey, and for good reason. She was a beautiful young woman, petite with wavy dark hair. But he never approached her. He was shy.

In 1933, the troupe at the Roxy moved to Radio City Music Hall, the big time. It was hard work. The troupe would perform four shows a day; six during the holidays. They performed "Swan Lake" and "Coppelia" and "Giselle." During the holidays, they'd perform the "Nutcracker." They were the opening act for the famous Rockettes.

Thelma Stumpf is at the farthest left in this photo from the 1940s at Radio City Music Hall.
Thelma Stumpf is at the farthest left in this photo from the 1940s at Radio City Music Hall. (submitted)

It was a wonderful time, Thelma recalled. The dancers were like family, and Radio City was ground zero for show business in those days. She got to meet, and perform for, Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Cary Grant. Robert Taylor would drop by. Katherine Hepburn was a regular.

The dancers would play jokes on each other. One dancer would always complain about the size of the dressing room. One day, the others moved all of her stuff into the janitor's closet.

Some of the dancers moved on to bigger things, gigs on Broadway. Thelma stayed at Radio City. One of the dancers was willed $55,000 by a fan. That was a lot of money then.

"We had our moments," Thelma said. "I think about it all the time."

Steve Stumpf went along when the dancers moved to the music hall, getting a job in the theater's office. Eventually, he was named head usher. While tending to his duties, he would walk up the main aisle and watch Thelma Corey dance.

"He was very sweet," Thelma recalled. "He was a shy guy."

He asked her out in 1932. They dated for six years. In 1938, they were married at city hall.

He quit the theater and went into the cleaning business. In the 1940s, he joined the Navy and went to war. Thelma kept dancing.

She recalled being wooed by a member of the Flying Tigers. The soldier was passing through New York and tried to pick up some of the dancers. "We had to say, 'No, we don't do that,'" she said.

When Steve got out of the service in 1947, she quit dancing, and they settled down. They had a daughter -- Susan, an artist -- and bought a place to visit in the country -- New Jersey -- always keeping their home in the city, whether it be in Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan. They lived off the FDR with a view of the East River and the World Trade Towers.

In 2004, they moved to York, to be closer to their daughter. Steve died in 2007. He had a great life. Thelma says she shed no tears, but her daughter disagrees.

She's 100 now. She can't dance anymore. She's in pretty good health, but she broke a hip a few years back. She can get around, but dancing is out of the question.

She spends her days listening to music, classical and big bands, in her apartment in Springettsbury Township.

"In my head," she says, "I'm dancing. I'm always dancing."


Mike Argento's column appears Mondays and Fridays in Living and Sundays in Viewpoints. Reach him at mike@ydr.com or 771-2046. Read more Argento columns at www.inyork.com/ydr -- click on the opinion section -- or visit his blog at www.mikeargento.com.