SHERIDAN — At age 70, Alex Banks hobbled on crutches into singing class weeks after the class started having had hip replacement surgery.
“I went with my friend Jack Vernon to take singing lessons at Sheridan College,” Banks said. “I don’t know what possessed him to go but I went along to give him a hard time.
“I decided to quit. I went to see the instructor, Gene Sager, to give him all the excuses I could think of,” Banks continued. “Why would anyone want to hear an old man sing love songs? Why this? Why that? I didn’t know if he could get away with this, but Gene pulled out a contract I had signed to see the class to the finish. He said, ‘now go back to your seat.’”
Not only did Banks complete the class that semester, he re-enrolled for 14 semesters.
“It was the same class over again but it kept me rehearsing,” Banks said.
Toward the end of the first semester Gene’s wife, Lillian, approached Banks about appearing in a live performance of the play “Barefoot in the Park” at the WYO Theater.
“I wasn’t an actor but I did it anyway,” Banks said.
Two years after “Barefoot,” Banks tackled producing a musical at the WYO Theater he called “Alex and Friends.” Banks went on to direct three additional musicals.
“I did the choreography, hair and makeup and selected the music,” Banks said. “I had top local people with me: Mary Jo Johnson, Tami Davis, Kelley Miller-Smart, Dennis Heizer and Jack Vernon.”
Banks grew up in family comfortable with performance entertainment. His parents were a dance team that performed around Grand Rapids, Mich. At age 10, Banks was performance dancing with his sister, Peni. They danced until Banks was 14 when his mother took him with her to California following her divorce from Banks’ father.
Following high school, Banks went to work for the Sears and Roebuck Company.
“Then, the morning I turned 21,” Banks said, “I woke up with my sister Peni standing at the foot of my bed and crying. She was holding my draft notice.”
Banks served with the U.S. Army during World War II then returned to work for Sears and Roebuck following the war. He taught dance for the Veloze Yolanda studio founded by a husband and wife dance team recognized as one of the top tango dancing teams in movies.
Then an opportunity came for Banks to work for the Western Costume Company, a supplier to the movie studios.
“I had never worked for a costume company,” Banks said, “and didn’t feel that I was qualified but they felt my experience in retail with Sears and Roebuck gave me all the qualifications needed as a wardrobe manager.”
Banks was in heaven when he toured the company’s wardrobe warehouse.
“I could look at the racks, see a costume and identify what movie and what actor wore that particular costume,” Banks said.
He was hired.
Through his career at Western Costume, Banks met numerous film stars of the time.
“I once told James Coburn how much I enjoyed his performance in the musical, ‘Paint Your Wagon,’” Banks said. “He told me, ‘Alex, that wasn’t me—that was Lee Marvin!’ And he laughed. He was such a good guy. We didn’t see each other for years and the next time we met, he gave me a hug and told me never to go away again!
“During the Great Depression, the studios were really struggling. ‘Stars’ are what saved them,” Banks continued. “Mae West saved Paramount Pictures, Shirley Temple saved Fox Studios and Judy Garland saved MGM.”
Banks retired to Sheridan.
“My favorite genre is the music of the 1920s,” Banks said. “It was before my time but mom gave me her old records from the 1920s and 1930s when I was 7 years old. Music during that time was written for singers to tell a story.”
Banks still shares his interest in dance. He teaches tap and ballroom dance lessons at Studio 48 on Coffeen Avenue.
Banks also volunteers as an entertainer around town having performed at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Green House Living for Sheridan, Emeritus at Sugarland Ridge and teaches a weekly tap class at the Senior Center.
Banks also shares his voice with the Senior Center’s SheridanAires Spring Follies and Holiday Show.
By Lois Bell, Sheridan Senior Center