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By Cheryl Montelle

I met Milton the first day of rehearsal for the musical Carousel. I was 19 years old. This was my first professional job. I'd only done two musicals before, and they were at my synagogue when I was 11; they were Fiddler On The Roof and Milk And Honey, and we stood on stage mouthing the words to the albums.

The elevator door to the rehearsal studio opened and someone pushed past me, knocking my dance bag to the floor. As I bent down to pick it up, I heard, "Maybe standing in front of the elevator isn't such a good idea." I looked up into the sparkling eyes of a heavyset man with gray, unkempt hair and a white goatee. "Oh I'm so sorry," I said standing up.

"Don't worry about it, are you in the show?" he asked.

"Yes I am," I said proudly. "I'm a dancer -- my name is Cheryl Movitz, I mean Montelle, I just changed it and I keep forgetting. You see, I've never heard Jewish names in the chorus, and my grandfather, Sam Movitz, wanted to be a tap dancer instead of a butcher, which he ended up being anyway, but he was going to call himself Ronnie Montelle -- so I kept it all in the family." God I was nervous.

"Nice to meet you Miss Montelle, my name is Milton Rosenstien, and I didn't change my name."

"Milton, that's my dad's name, you know there aren't that many Miltons around." He laughed and said, "You know, you're right."

As he walked away, I noticed a thick bundle of music under his arm. I thought he was one of the character actors, but as we started rehearsal, he took a seat behind the table next to the director, and I discovered that he was actually the musical director of the show. He caught my look of embarrassment, raised his eyebrows, then gave me a wink.

From then on, Milton looked out for me. Once, when I kept shifting off my alto line back to the melody line over and over again, he took me aside after the rehearsal and whispered, "Sing the melody. In fact, just sing the melody whenever you feel the need to, but don't tell anyone I said so."

He walked away with his wife, Sally. They were newlyweds and she was a singer in the chorus. I always sat next to her in the dressing room and she taught me how to put on stage makeup because, as she put it, "God knows, I've slapped on enough of this shit!" A buxom blonde, she reminded me of Mae West, only sweeter. Sally was about 40 to Milton's 65, and she loved taking care of him. On tour, they'd rent rooms with kitchens so that she could cook all his favorite foods. She even converted to Judaism, calling herself "the Jewish shiksa."

Sometimes at rehearsal breaks, Milton would sit down next to me, and just talk. He'd tell me about growing up in Brooklyn, and how he delivered groceries to pay for his piano lessons and trips to the Yiddish theater. He said his parents were poor, but had a great love of music and wanted him to become a concert pianist. "Yeah, well, I tried that route, but my real calling was interpreting a score, not necessarily playing it. Besides, I liked to watch all the pretty girls dance by me in the shows."

He talked about the shows too, like Funny Girl; he was assistant conductor on that one. "She was just a kid when she started, but I watched Streisand bloom into a real talent. Her voice was pure; not like now, always sliding up to hit the notes, singing pop music no less. And let's not forget Merman, what a gal, what a love of the theater that woman had." He'd worked with her on Gypsy. I thanked Milton for sharing his stories and he shrugged, "I gotta tell somebody, and I knew you'd get a kick out of 'em. Besides, I like you kid."

In Indiana, a couple of weeks into the tour, I knew he really did like me when he found me alone in the dressing room crying over a recent ex-boyfriend. I'd lifted my soggy head off my folded arms to find a tissue, and there, past my own reflection in the mirror, was Milton's. He was standing in the doorway, wearing a frown and a soiled T-shirt, his large belly protruding over his pants, held up by a pair of suspenders. His eyes were moist, and I wondered how long he'd been watching me cry. I turned around, still heaving, unable to catch my breath.

"Boyfriend trouble?"

I nodded yes. How did he know that?

"Is there anything I can do?"

I shook my head no.

He was thoughtful for a moment, then brightened, "Well, cheer up kid, it only gets worse." He disappeared down the cement hallway, chuckling. Something in his delivery made me stop crying and start chuckling, too.

When it was time to start the show, I took my place on a little platform along with two other girls. We played kooch dancers, hired to lure men into a girlie show at the carnival. I wore an exotic costume and played the castanets. The music was strange, dreamlike, and the choreography, sensual. I watched Milton for our cue, and as he brought down the baton he looked right at me and nodded. I began dancing. I took my arms over my head Spanish-style and turned slowly around swinging my hips. I caught Milton's eye again, and he was grinning ear to ear.

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