When someone dies, it can take months to sort out legal and personal matters, but what if that life encompassed more than 70 years of international stage performances? Russ Reno is a long time family friend of the late performer Percy ‘Mike’ Madill.
Russ Reno’s decades of friendship with the dancer, acrobat and long time Anchorage resident ended when Madill died last September, leaving boxes full of memories from his life as a dancer and singer. As Reno pecks at his keyboard and pulls up some of the hours of video he has, it’s clear that he truly admires Madill’s skill. He points to the tremendous back flip in the grainy, old video of a young Mike Madill on stage. Reno says Madill was a consummate performer:
” The thing about Mike that you can tell right away when he’s performing, is because of his classical background, he would go to point, everything was spot on.”
Madill started as a child performer and had a career that scanned decades, Reno says.
“From the early 1930s clear up till, recent, 2013. And I thought I knew him, I mean I’ve known him for, most my life, but I thought I knew him and I was just shocked how much I didn’t know about him.”
Reno runs a tourism business from a cramped office across the street from the Hilton Hotel in downtown Anchorage. He called Madill ‘uncle’ and says his favorite expression was, ‘you’re only as good as what you do tomorrow’, which may explain why Reno learned so much after the modest performer died. As he digs through memorabilia, Reno says Madill never bragged, but he could have:
“That was just amazing when he would talk about it, he would be so matter of fact about things, you know we’re looking through this pile here, this is an NBC original script. This one here I think is from the 1950s, here is Paramount studios, this is when he was in For Whom The Bell Tolls.”
Madill also could have dropped well known names. Reno holds up a yellowed piece of paper.
“We’ve got old telegrams from, that is Sammy Davis junior. Wishing him well on his first night at Radio City Music Hall. He and Gil Johnson were headlining Radio City.”
Mike Madill started in television on The Milton Burl and Patty Paige shows. Learning how to direct during his stint on the Milton Burl program and going on to direct himself, on the Patty Paige show. Madill had a twin sister he performed with in the early years. His legal name was Percy, hers Gertrude. Reno says they didn’t care for those, so on stage they went with Rusty and Rita:
“And they’re named the Sunshine Twins as they had used many times on stage. Rusty and Rita went on and toured, they even took an airplane flight with Amelia Earhart when she was coming through California.”
If you’re not retirement age you may not know the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, Nat King Cole or Eartha Kitt but you get the point- Mike Madill was well known and well traveled.
A vaudeville performer, Madill developed curriculum for Chico State University in California and taught dance to students like Morgan Freeman. For rehearsals he hired a young man for two bucks an hour named Liberace.
Reno’s task is daunting given the number of boxes of fragile documents, but he’s determined. He holds up paper that crackles with the brittleness of age to illustrate why mounting the articles and clippings to a sturdy backing is crucial to saving them for the future:
“It seems to work great, you can tell by the ones we haven’t done already. They’re curling up like crazy and you can see here that they’re just…if we don’t do them soon, they’re starting to crack and everything else so we’re trying our best to get them all preserved as quickly as possible.”
He says Mike Madill never stopped embracing new ideas.
“Mike also had two doctorates. He found time to go to school at the same time. He also had a third honorary doctorate degree from the President of Mexico.”
Madill signed up to fight in World War two after a heckler ridiculed his astounding, on stage acrobatics, saying he should put his talent to work defending the country. He was 17 but looked older. Embarrassed by the encounter, he forged his parent’s signature and went to war, resuming his dance career after his service ended in 1946. By his early 20s, he’d traveled to 30 different countries.
In Alaska, he taught dance at UAA and UAF. Reno says even after a severe injury in his seventies, he didn’t slow down.
“72 I think he was, when he broke his neck in six places doing a back flip on stage. As soon as he got out of his body cast he started working out, getting in his garden, taking walks, soon went back to work. That’s when he went to work on the North Slope, started cooking and then like a year later, he went to work for Holland America and Princess and started touring.”
Madill went back to college at 76 and became a probation officer for the State. Even though Russ Reno has cross referenced thousands of articles to verify Madill’s prolific performance life, incredibly, he’s still looking:
“The only thing I wish we had more of was them as the Sunshine Twins, that’s been the hardest thing to prove. If anybody knows out there knows, Aunt Polly’s Radio Hour, 1937, possibly that one also sponsored by Wonder Bread. Still not sure on that though. The verdict’s still out.”
Russ Reno misses his Uncle Mike Madill. He says Madill worked until a week before he died at 88, even though he liked to pretend he was 10 years younger. Reno says Madill’s sister Gertrude or ‘Rita’, was asked once at a UAF picnic if she was 55. Her response? “Mike may be 55 but I’m 65 and we’re twins.”