Two friends, still on the move, enjoy the Rockettes


Sheila Sullivan turned 86 this summer and aging was on her mind because she was genuinely curious. What do all those old people you hear about, those poor souls, do with themselves all day long? She had no idea.

“I am too. …” and there was a pause, like in the theater, “whatever“it's-it's, being old,” he once told me.

Sullivan is an actress whose resume begins in the Atomic Age and traces the history of late 20th century Hollywood and all its ups and downs like a line on a healthy electrocardiogram. A couple of Tuesdays ago, she stepped out in style with Tina Dupuy, a writer and former neighbor of hers who has been a close friend of hers for 10 years. They arrived at Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. It was, surprisingly for Sullivan, that she has seen it all, the first time for her.

“I wanted to be!” she recalled recently. She showed up one day in the 1960s for the Rockette auditions. “I'm too short,” she said, her hands stacked as if describing a tall sandwich. “When I wasn't on the show, I didn't see any reason to watch it.”

For some reason, West 50th Street was closed to traffic, so the two friends did a little dance in the middle of the street, Sullivan dressed head to toe in a leopard-print hat and coat.

“It caused a disturbance inside,” Dupuy said. “Women just stop her to tell her she's beautiful.”

Sullivan thought the show was wonderful. “I don't mind not being the star of something,” she said. “A lot.”

This modesty with an added asterisk follows a life and career edited here for space: a Broadway actress who worked alongside Woody Allen and Sammy Davis Jr. A dancer at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. A civil rights activist who marched alongside black celebrities in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

Wife of a theater publicist, later divorced, and then wife of television star Robert Culp, later divorced. She was enough. She sticks a fork in a toaster once, it's an accident. On two occasions, maybe you weren't sure what the hell just happened. Three times? You have problems.

And more recently, Sullivan was an Upper West Side renter lucky enough to have had the right neighbor when trouble hit.

Earlier this year, he had a scare, one familiar to many New Yorkers, famous or not. An eviction letter appeared on the door of her 40-year-old apartment.

That's when his former neighbor in the building, Dupuy, intervened. The two had become inseparable over the years, popping in and out of Broadway shows and movies and relaxing in their usual cosmopolitan haunt.

I met the women as they untangled the bureaucratic errors behind the eviction notice. Very soon, the problem was resolved. Five months later, Sullivan can say she is no longer the terrified woman who had nightmares about being thrown out onto the street.

He's back to doing what he's good at. Being Sheila Sullivan.

In November, she and Dupuy were invited to a party for Nat Horne, 93, who, like Sullivan, had appeared in “Golden Boy,” a 1964 musical about a boxer played by Sammy, as everyone knew him. Horne was a member of the ensemble and Sullivan was an understudy called in at short notice to perform, months after they had started.

From time to time, of course, things happen to Sullivan that happen to normal people. She and Dupuy caught terrible colds in November and recovered. Around the same time, Sullivan, who still exercises the stretches she learned while dancing, tore a muscle that caused her such pain that she had to be taken to an emergency room.

What happened? the doctor asked.

Obviously: “I was doing ballet.”

He recovered and resumed his stretches, a little more carefully. So maybe there's something to the whole aging thing?

Or not.

“I'm old,” she said. “But not me old.”

The morning after the Rockettes' show, the two laughed about their night and their year together while eating breakfast at Dupuy's apartment.

“This woman is extraordinary and I wanted to share her with the world,” Dupuy said. “I thought the only way to do it was with her obituary.”

Sullivan laughed: “Thank you!”

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