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The queen of dinner theater made Florida her biggest stage

Ann Hodges went from Broadway to the Show Boat to yoga, gathering fans along the way.

Ann Hodges first stepped off Broadway and onto dinner theater stage in the 1970s.

There was a kind of magic then, she said later, “something with the people of this area.”

She’d been on Broadway, television and in movies. But here, Ms. Hodges' name ran above the marquee. In 1984, draped in a pink boa, she talked with a Times' reporter in her Bayfront Tower apartment. She was queen of a small, devoted land.

“Certainly this place has been kind to me, but I don’t know if I should stay in a place that’s kind to me,” she said. “It’s nice when you breeze into town and they put you on a pedestal, and your name is in lights, and they say, ‘Oh, isn’t she wonderful?’ But, eventually, it’s better if you leave town, because if you hang around too much, people get to know you, and your stock, maybe, is not as high as it could be.”

Ms. Hodges never left Florida. And when she stepped off the stage, she took that pedestal with her.

She died Sept. 1 of complications from several health issues. She was 82, but don’t you dare repeat that.

Ann Hodges starred in the movie "The Cardinal." Her Broadway shows included "No Strings," "Heathen," "Gone With The Wind," and "The Rothchilds." [ Courtesy Michael Angeline ]

“Get out of Kentucky,” Ms. Hodges' dance instructor once told her.

In Elizabethtown, she’d been a cheerleader, starred in the school play and wore the crown at homecoming. In nearby Louisville, Ms. Hodges performed at the Louisville Ballet and Iroquois Amphitheater.

“If you’re going to New York, which I strongly advise, do not try out for the Rockettes,” her teacher said. “It’s a dead end.”

Ms. Hodges headed to the big city. She found a spot with the June Taylor Dancers, performing on The Jackie Gleason Show, Arthur Murray Dance Party and The Ed Sullivan Show. She appeared in commercials and soap operas, Once Upon A Mattress with Carol Burnett and on Broadway. She met and married another actor, and the two had a son.

After they divorced, Michael Angeline traveled with his mom through the third grade, then moved back to Kentucky to live with his grandparents. On visits to New York, he’d watch adoringly from the orchestra pit or backstage peeking behind the curtain. When Angeline’s grandmother died, Ms. Hodges took a break and came home.

“And that break right there probably cost her some starring roles,” he said.

It also led to something new. She’d heard there was a market for great roles in off-Broadway dinner theater, and soon Ms. Hodges was landing leads.

Six years later, the Times wrote: “Her name on the marquee is like some quality stamp or seal of approval.”

Ann Hodges headlined dinner theater shows around Florida. [ Via ]

Not every role in Ms. Hodges career was a hit, including the musical version of Gone with the Wind, which somehow included horses on stage.

But people who knew and worked with her said Ms. Hodges made each production she starred in special.

In his book Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business, the late Howard Keel included a passage on working in a show he didn’t enjoy with an actress he did.

“She was something else,” he wrote of Ms. Hodges.

Richard Bell first saw Ms. Hodges' name in Backstage magazine in an ad for Chicago auditions. She’d be in the starring role of Roxie Hart.

“She could be hard to handle at times, believe me, a lot of those divas are that way,” said Bell, who got the role of Billy Flynn. “They don’t like something, baby, you’re gonna know about it.”

“I can say she didn’t like sharing the stage so much, and I can say that because I shared the stage with her,” said Linda Featherstone, who played Chicago’s Velma Kelly.

But Ms. Hodges was also good-hearted, they agreed, a natural on the stage and a lot of fun off it.

“She was bigger than life,” Featherstone said. “If you were in one of Ann’s shows, you were in a hit.”

Ann Hodges as Dolly in Hello, Dolly at the Showboat Dinner Theatre in Pinellas. Ms. Hodges was inducted into the Elizabethtown High School Hall of Fame. [ Courtesy Michael Angeline ]

Her fans knew Ms. Hodges would sparkle on stage and charm them in the Show Boat’s lobby after, a glass of champagne in one hand.

They didn’t know she was a devoted piano player, which she learned to help her rehearse. And they didn’t know she’d been practicing yoga since the ’60s.

Ms. Hodges, who made her home in Safety Harbor, taught yoga at the Don CeSar Resort and Spa, the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa and the Harbour Island Athletic Club.

“Yoga started out as a complement to my hectic life in the theater,” she told Times in 2000. “Now it’s my whole life.”

Years after all that jazz at the dinner theater, Ms. Hodges ran into Featherstone and mentioned she taught yoga. Soon, she was teaching at Featherstone’s Safety Harbor dance studio.

Ms. Hodges put every ounce of herself into the role, Featherstone said. It was another kind of spotlight — one she used to help people turn inward.

And her students, like her audiences, loved her for it.

Ann Hodges, center, led a yoga class at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa on Oct. 25, 2000. [ Amber Tanille Woodfolk ]

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