HERB JAFFE: 95-year-old found plenty to dance about

This isn’t your everyday love story. It’s about a lady who loved to dance, loved to perform on the stage, loved her husband for almost six decades and just plain loved life.

Her name was Miriam Shientag, and this story could have begun on July 9, 1916, the day she was born as Miriam Uretsky in Linden, N.J. Instead, it began on July 7, 2011, two days before Miriam was to celebrate her 95th birthday.

On that day her closest friend, Millie Caruso, did what she had been doing every Thursday for four years. She drove Miriam to the Suncoast so the two ladies could attend the weekly "Hit Parade" show.

What Miriam didn’t know that day was the little surprise cooked up for her by Millie and "Hit Parade" producer Ed Mathews. Robin Vincent, who appears as one of the singing nuns in "Nunsense," was performing on the Suncoast stage at the time, and she invited Miriam to come up for a special tribute.

Miriam, an old-time hoofer, was proud of the fact that in another era she danced with the famed Rockettes in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. She also danced with such celebrity entertainers as Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway. But now, age and arthritis are her chief obstacles. Still, with some help from Millie, Miriam made it up the steps to the stage.

"She practically crawled up those steps," Millie said.

That was when Vincent told the audience Miriam was celebrating her 95th birthday. The capacity crowd of 504 proceeded to sing "Happy Birthday" to Miriam.

"She was truly touched," Mathews said. But then came the unexpected. Miriam asked if the band could play a slow version of "Tea for Two."

Miriam, who had such difficulty walking, went one better. She danced slowly to the tune, and she completed her little act with a fancy wiggle. The audience loved it.

"They’re basically the same crowd, week after week," Mathews said.

They come on Mondays and wait in line to get their free tickets, then return for the Thursday matinee that includes some of the finest entertainers in Las Vegas.

"Miriam was overjoyed. She told me it was the greatest day of her life," Millie said.

Two days later, July 9, was Miriam’s actual birthday. But there wasn’t much to celebrate. That was the day a neighbor found her on the floor of her apartment. Miriam had suffered a stroke and was rushed to Valley Hospital. Three days later she died.

One week after the birthday tribute at the Suncoast, Rabbi Mel Hecht conducted a funeral service for Miriam.

"Her family members told me of her early life," Hecht said. "Her daughter Dove, who lives in Arizona, said she was a very passionate woman. She loved life and people."

Dove Shientag said Miriam and Albert were married for 57 years until her father died in 1994.

"My mother came from a very poor family, and she hitchhiked across country at the age of 16 to go to California," Dove said.

Miriam’s search for a life as an entertainer was not in vain. Her daughter said that a few years later she landed a role in the 1936 movie "Riff Raff," starring Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.

"She loved show business. She danced at various times with Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway," Dove added.

Her friends Millie and Ed Mathews said Miriam, who was one of the "regulars in the audience" of the weekly "Hit Parade," often talked about the days when she danced at Radio City Music Hall.

Mathews, who spent a lifetime in the music industry before "retiring" to Las Vegas, has produced the "Hit Parade" ever since it was founded four years ago. Those close to him will tell you he truly enjoys doing special things for people. He proved it on July 21. Two weeks after Miriam danced on the Suncoast stage to celebrate her birthday, Mathews brought back Robin Vincent for a "special tribute."

Miriam’s favorite song was "Always," and the singing nun sang it as never before.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He is the author of the novels "Falling Dominoes" and "One At A Time." Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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