Entertainment multi-hyphenate Toni Basil's most visible contribution to popular culture was her infectious single "Mickey," which topped the pop charts in 1982. However, she had enjoyed a lengthy care...
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Born Antonia Christina Basilotta on Sept. 22, 1943 in Philadelphia, PA, Toni Basil was raised in a show business family. Her father, Louis Basil, was an orchestra conductor at The Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, among other venues, while her mother, Jacqueline Anderson, was a vaudeville acrobat and comedienne in a family act called Billy Wells and the Four Fays. Their daughter began dancing professionally as a child, and parlayed her skills as a member of the cheerleading squad at Las Vegas High School, from which she graduated in 1961. Three years later, she became enmeshed in nearly every aspect of the entertainment industry, from acting and directing to choreography and pop music. Basil began as a member of the Shin-diggers, a high-energy dance group featured on the musical variety series "Shindig!" The show's choreographer, David Winters, later employed Basil to serve as his assistant choreographer on both the series and the legendary concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show" (1964), which also featured her fellow Shin-digger, future actress Teri Garr. Both Basil and Garr made their feature film debuts as pajama-clad dancers in the Annette Funicello vehicle "Pajama Party" (1964) for American Independent Pictures, which also tapped her to choreograph "Village of the Giants" (1965), their tongue-in-cheek version of H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods, starring Beau Bridges and a young Ron Howard.
The following year, Basil tried her hand at a music career with the A&M Records single "Breakaway," which was the title song for a short film directed by acclaimed experimental film director Bruce Conner. The short, which featured Basil undressing and dancing to the song, was credited as one of the forerunners of music videos. She soon returned to choreography for features, including the Monkees' "Head" (1968), in which she also appeared in a musical number opposite Davy Jones, and appeared as a background dancer in Bob Fosse's screen version of the Neil Simon musical "Sweet Charity" (1969). That same year, she made her acting debut in "Easy Rider" (1969) as a prostitute who joined stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, along with fellow working girl Karen Black, in their LSD-fueled trip through a New Orleans cemetery. During this period, Basil also directed several short films, many of which were showcased at major museums and galleries as part of showcases on avant-garde cinema.
Basil continued to appear in counterculture features throughout the early 1970s, logging small parts in Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) and Dennis Hopper's ill-fated "The Last Movie" (1971), as well as a show-stopping cameo in Robert Downey, Sr.'s "Greaser's Palace" (1972) as a Native American woman riding topless on a horse across a desert. By the midpoint of the decade, however, she had returned largely to dance, choreographing "American Graffiti" and David Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, among other major projects. Her most significant work during this period was undoubtedly as a member of The Lockers, a street dance group she formed with former "Soul Train" (syndicated, 1971-2006) dancer Don Campbell. The group's propulsive style - an intricate combination of gymnastics and physical contortion executed through extraordinary muscle control and coordination - helped to introduce street dancing to a national audience through their appearances on countless television shows, including "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) and "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). The Lockers would have an enormous impact on popular culture, with numerous hip-hop artists and choreographers, as well as dance competition series like "So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox, 2005- ) citing them as major influence. Basil also choreographed the Lockers with a quartet of ballerinas in a dance from "Swan Lake" that won critical acclaim after airing in a 1978 episode of "SNL."
In 1982, Basil tried her hand again at a recording career, this time with spectacular results. Her debut album, Word of Mouth (1982), featured the single "Mickey," a slightly rewritten cover of a 1979 single called "Kitty" by the U.K. band Racey. The song's relentlessly chanted chorus and hyperactive beat took listeners by storm, who sent it to the top of the pop charts and boosted the album to platinum sales status. The track's popularity was aided immeasurably by its kitschy music video, directed and choreographed by Basil in a dizzying array of cheerleading routines which later made the song a staple of sporting events and cheerleading competitions. However, the album's second single, "Shoppin' from A to Z," placed much lower on the Billboard Hot 100, and a subsequent album, simply titled Toni Basil (1983), produced no significant pop hits, though an accompanying short film, "Toni Basil: Word of Mouth" (1983), received a Grammy nomination for Best Video Album.
Unlike many "one-hit wonders," as she was dubbed by the press and music listening public, Basil's career took an upward path after her stint as a pop star had waned. She helmed two music videos for the band Talking Heads, including the acclaimed "Once in a Lifetime" video, which she co-directed with singer David Byrne. Basil also remained an in-demand choreography for major concert tours and shows, including David Bowie's Glass Spider tour in 1987 and Tina Turner's 50th Anniversary Concert Tour in 2008 and 2009. In 1988, she earned a second Emmy nomination for a new version of the "Swan Lake" routine on the revived "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1988-89). Basil also choreographed production numbers for such feature films as Francis Ford Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!" (1996), "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997), "Legally Blonde" (2001), "The House Bunny" (2008) and countless others. Basil's long and storied career was paid tribute with a number of accolades, including the Living Legend Award from the Hip Hop International organization, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the American Choreographer Awards. Her single "Mickey" was also featured in an installation about innovative songs of the 1980s at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By Paul Gaita
From classic movie palaces to the state-of-the-art IMAX screens.