Tony Charmoli, a leading television and Broadway choreographer and director who won three Emmy Awards from the 1950s through 1970s and worked with stars from Mitzi Gaynor and Shirley MacLaine to the costumed characters of Sid & Marty Krofft’s Lidsville and, later, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, died August 7 at his Hollywood Hills home. He was 99.
“My darling Tony, who passed away peacefully over the weekend, was a wonderful gift in my life, and in the lives of all who knew him,” Gaynor wrote in a tribute posted on Instagram. “He choreographed and directed all of my CBS TV specials, and virtually all of my stage shows and tours between 1973 and 2013. More than that, Tony was a warm and special presence in my life, and a good and true friend who knew my soul.”
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Premiering as a Broadway dancer in 1947’s Dear Judas, Charmoli performed in two more productions — 1948’s Make Mine Manhattan and Love Life — before choreographing 1955’s Ankles Away. Among his other Broadway choreography credits were an Eddie Fisher concert show in 1962.
By that point, Charmoli had established a TV career as well, receiving his first Emmy Award in 1956 for his choreography of NBC’s Your Hit Parade. He’d choreograph numerous TV programs throughout the 1950s and ’60s, including The George Gobel Show, Shirley Temple’s Storybook, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show and The Danny Kaye Show, among many others.
As a director, Charmoli began his lengthy list of credits with 1969’s The King Family Show and, in the early 1970s, the Kroffts’ psychedelic kiddie shows The Bugaloos and Lidsville. Within a few years he’d direct TV programs for Paul Lynde, Doris Day, the Captain & Tennille and John Denver and the Muppets.
His most acclaimed collaborations arrived with Gaynor and MacLaine. He directed and choreographed the first of five Gaynor specials in 1974 with his Emmy-winning Mitzi … A Tribute to the American Housewife. He and Gaynor would team up for another four annual specials through 1978.
In 1976, Charmoli directed MacLaine’s one-woman Broadway show, launching another collaboration that would lead to two CBS TV specials: 1976’s Gypsy in My Soul (for which he won his third Emmy), and 1977’s Where Do We Go From Here?
He returned to Broadway in 1981 with his musical staging of Lauren Bacall’s Tony-winning Woman of the Year.
His television career continued well into the 1990s, and included directing or choreographing programs for Lily Tomlin, Bob Hope and various beauty pageants and talent contests. His work on Star Search in the early 1980s introduced him to a new generation of performers including Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and LeAnn Rimes. His final directing credit was 1999’s Destination Stardom contest, though he’d choreograph two more TV specials in 1981: the star-studded Musical Comedy Tonight II and Lily Tomlin’s Lily: Sold Out.
Charmoli’s memoir Stars in My Eyes (written with Paul Manchester) was published in 2016. At the time of his death, an original hard-copy edition was selling on Amazon for $869.97.)
Born in Mount Iron, MN, Charmoli was only 17 when, as a dancer for a summer stock series in Massachusetts, he met Wilford Saunders, who would become his life partner and, later also his manager. They both joined the military service during World War II, with Saunders serving as a secretary to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
Saunders died in 1999.
Charmoli is survived by niece Dorothy Batinich and her husband Nick, a nephew and niece, his longtime assistant Robert Jowers and friends Joe Stewart and John Shaffner.
Read Mitzi Gaynor’s tribute to Charmoli here:
“Goooorgeous!!!” I lived for that word, as spoken by, well, rather, exclaimed, shouted, and yelled with delicious verve by our director & choreographer and champion, Tony Charmoli.
This usually happened as Tony was making his way down the many steps from the control booth way in the back of Studio 4 at NBC in Burbank, through a maze of cables & cameras to the stage where all of us dancers stood waiting for his reaction to our performance of some fantastical bit of magic he’d choreographed for us to do.
“Gooorgeous” meant it was good, “gooorgeous“ meant he (and the cameras) liked what he saw, and “gooorgeous” was what each of us tried to achieve when working with this dynamic, funny, talented, and overall dazzling human being.
My darling Tony, who passed away peacefully over the weekend, was a wonderful gift in my life, and in the lives of all who knew him. He choreographed and directed all of my CBS TV specials, and virtually all of my stage shows and tours between 1973 and 2013. More than that, Tony was a warm and special presence in my life, and a good and true friend who knew my soul.
His accomplishments on television, movies, on the concert stage, and on Broadway, are the stuff of legend. With a choreographer’s eye, as a director, Tony revolutionized the way dance was shot for television. It wasn’t only me who waited for that “gooorgeous,” Tony’s list of admirers included Dinah Shore, Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse, Shirley MacLaine, Doris Day, Lily Tomlin, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Denver, Debbie Reynolds, Lauren Bacall, the Muppets, Carl Reiner, Julie Andrews and countless others.
If you enjoyed my shows, and many of the shows by the stellar list of talents above, say a little prayer of thanks for this brilliant man today.
I’m so grateful that, following my PBS special in 2009, Tony and I were able to hit the road again for my Razzle-Dazzle tour — one more show together after all the many years of joyful collaboration.
I will miss him every day, but the pain of losing him is really overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for all the happiness he brought to my life. He was truly “Goooorgeous!!!”
Bravo, Tony!!! I love you…Mitzi
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