Harry R. Rosofsky dies at age 90

Vaudeville performer who was known as the "man with the dancing budgerigars"

September 10, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Harry R. Rosofsky, a retired vaudeville entertainer whose tap-dancing bird act during the 1940s and 1950s was described by a critic as "one of the most unusual novelty attractions in show business," died Aug. 26 of pneumonia at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

He was 90 and had lived at the Westminster House Apartments in Mount Vernon.

The son of grocers, Mr. Rosofsky — whose stage name was Ross Harvey — was born in Baltimore and raised on Norfolk Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.

Mr. Rosofsky began taking dancing lessons when he was a teenager and was given his first budgerigar, or common parakeet, and Blue Tit, a colorful woodland bird that is known for its distinctive yellow and bluish colors, as a 16th birthday present.

After graduating from Forest Park High School in 1938, he began his professional career as an acrobat in vaudeville with a touring company and took his two birds with him.

"Ross had taken a couple of dance lessons and then left Baltimore and went off on his own," said a niece, Norma I. Galinn of Towson. "He did do some performances around Baltimore before the war."

Mr. Rosofsky then began painstakingly training his birds to do small tricks. Because they were timid, this process took three years before they were able to do the simplest one.

By 1941, he had expanded his flock of performing birds to 25.

When World War II came along, he enlisted in the Army in 1942. Mr. Rosofsky, who served in the South Pacific as a cryptologist, attained the rank of sergeant.

After being discharged in 1945, Mr. Rosofsky resumed his theatrical career with his unconventional tap-dancing and bird act.

He called his birds his "parrot-cuties" and he had trained them to dance to the music of Mozart and Brahms while performing their various routines.

A theater critic described the birds as "the most highly insured in the world," trained to dance but not speak.

They were fed twice a day and given no food enticement on stage. Every bird had a name and knew it and, when not performing, was given plenty of rest and exercise between shows.

Some of his birds were named Blue Boy, Squeaky, Baldie, Topper and Wishy Washie.

Mr. Rosofsky later billed his unique act as Ross Harvey and his Dancing Parrot-Cuties, and as he performed "footwork that resembles Fred Astaire," one critic wrote, the birds performed acrobatic tricks on his body, keeping in time with the music.

Mr. Rosofsky explained that while he tap-danced, the birds took their cue for their dances from the rhythm of his feet.

Mr. Rosofsky's big break came in 1951, after performing with his birds in the Empire Room at Chicago's Palmer House. His act, which garnered a lot of press attention, was then booked to play the famous Wedgewood Room at the Waldorf- Astoria in New York.

As the Waldorf's Emil Coleman and his Orchestra performed, Mr. Rosofsky and his birds danced while thrilling the audience.

"Ross Harvey's act can play anywhere in the world and does. Refreshing novelty. Soft-shoes while a quintet of Australian Budgie birds do magic on his fingers. Terrific audience participation angle. It's this good: Harvey gets $550 per week — to open the show," wrote newspaper and gossip columnist Walter Winchell after seeing the show.

The resulting critical notoriety led Mr. Rosofsky and his birds to travel abroad where they played the London Casino, which was followed by a successful tour on the Continent and in South Africa and Scandinavia.

French critics referred to him as "L'extraordinary danseur americain."

While appearing in the early 1950s at the Montmartre in Havana, he shared the bill with Cab Calloway and his Cavaliers.

Mr. Rosofsky's "bird family" often expanded when he least expected it, such as the time he was crossing on the RMS Queen Elizabeth and one his budgies gave birth in the mid-Atlantic.

When the first TV link was established in 1953 between France and England, Mr. Rosofsky performed on the first show.

"It is so seldom that a vaudeville reviewer sees anything that strives to evade the beaten path that it is a joy to report on Ross Harvey," wrote George Bourke, a Miami Herald columnist. "Harvey taps out classical rhythms with this toe-and-heel and soft shoe dancing, and then adds a fillip to his sting with five love birds which do his bidding."

Mr. Rosofsky appeared in the late 1950s on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and performed on cruise ships.

"I saw him on TV and it was so exciting," said Alan Rosofsky, a nephew and former Baltimorean who now lives in Escondido, Calif.

By the late 1960s, weary of the road and with his type of act losing popularity, Mr. Rosofsky retired and returned to Baltimore, where he worked as a cosmetologist for the Hecht Co. until retiring in the 1980s.

"He had played the big rooms, appeared with a lot of bands and groups like the Ink Spots, but in the end, he was tired of the travel. He did, however, keep up with his show business friends," said Mrs. Galinn.

"He was an extremely nice person, yet very shy," recalled his nephew.

Mary "Scarlett" Scarless has been a friend of Mr. Rosofsky's for nearly 60 years.

"Of all the people I've met in my life, he was the most wonderful man," said Ms. Scarless.

"I never saw his act, because he was always traveling," she said. "He was shy and didn't talk much about his show business days. He did show me his scrapbooks, but he really was a very private man."

Services for Mr. Rosofsky were held Aug. 27.

Survivors include several other nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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