Woman of the world: Jeanette Heller

Jeanette Heller danced, served (in the armed forces), and defied the norms of her time. She lived a life of adventure as a dancer and performing arts worker. From the time she was 16 years old in 1929, she was dancing professionally and continued to work in the industry as a producer and costume designer well into her later years. Her final performance was in 2006 at the age of 95!Several photographs

One of the first Rockettes was an Ontario local, Jeanette Heller. Born in Paris, Ontario in 1911, Heller began her globetrotting career as a vaudeville and pantomime performer in Toronto. In the 1930s, she moved to New York to join the dance troupe that became the Rockettes. From the 1950s on, she enjoyed a storied second career in wardrobe and production, working with contemporaries Julie Andrews and Ed Sullivan. 

Her story  span her six-decade career in entertainment with the Roxyettes (Rockette), USO troupe, and many famed dance companies is preserved at CTASC. Records mostly consist of photographs, newspaper clippings, programs, annotated maps, correspondence, contracts, and a collection of Jewish recipes.

Dancing career

Following the Great War, her family moved to Toronto in 1921. After settling into the city, Heller enrolled in her first dance classes at Lansdowne Public School. Recognizing her passion for the limelight, Hylda Parker hired Heller for her first dance job as part of a line at the luxurious Royal York Hotel. At 16, Heller quit schooling and started performing small parts in shows at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.


 In the early 1930s, Heller moved to New York City and began dancing as a Roxyette. The Roxyettes were a precursor to S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel's Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Heller then danced for eight years across North America.

While her brothers were serving in WWII, Heller worked at the Globe and Mail in Toronto. Following the war, Heller resumed her dancing career in the United States. In 1946, she began dancing with the United Service Organizations (USO) for the American military. Heller continued with the troupe to Japan in 1947 and Korea in the fifties. From the 1950s onward, she continued to perform around the world including Scandinavia, the Middle East, and Cuba. 

Second career before retirement

 After retiring from dancing, Heller settled in New York City and worked in wardrobe and show production. Her credits include:

  • the American Ballet Theatre, 
  • the American Repertory Company,
  • fashion shows at the Waldorf-Astoria, 
  • Broadway shows (Guys and Dolls, the King and I, and Annie).
  •  popular soap operas (All My Children and One Life To Live),
  •  talk shows (the Dick Cavett Show and Ed Sullivan Show),
  • and other productions (Sesame Street, the 1957 CBS Cinderella television special with Julie Andrews, and ADD FILM).

In the seventies Heller settled in Canada, yet commuting to the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami until retirement in 1993. Having lived an adventurous and unique life, she passed away on October 16, 2008. Her legacy lives on having performed in the 2006 Guinness World record for the longest kicking line in Toronto and as the feature of the 2008 documentary episode of ‘Limelighters’ by David Hansen. 


In October 2023, students from HIST4840 had the opportunity to visit the archives for a workshop on writing for the public. They participated in group activities that helped transform the archival finding aid into this blog post. The course examines the forms, goals, and practices of making history in museums, archives, historic sites, and other institutions of public history. It enables students to learn the meaning and methods in the production of memory and introduces them to practical skills for the public presentation of historical knowledge. 


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