U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame – HallreMarks

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HallreMarks [HallreMarks Archive]

This section will feature informal articles, thoughts, and works by individuals who have experienced much in the world of gymnastics.  We hope that you will enjoy the themes implicit in each presentation, and you will find an idea or two to help guide your interest in our great sport. So, enjoy this first story and all to come.

Muriel Grossfeld The Dolly Who Became an Olympian

Part 1 The Early Years

By Muriel’s Brother

Bruce A. Davis, Professor Emeritus Miami Dade College
Director of Flip Flops & Fitness of Apollo Beach
[email protected]
[email protected]

When my sister, Dolly, as our parents affectionately called her, was three years old she was already taking dance lessons. Perhaps it was because our Mother was a product of the Great Depression. She was simply making sure that Dolly got all the opportunities that she didn’t get when she was a little girl growing up in Chicago.

In any case, Muriel was a person of immense talent from the start! She could do everything but sing. “Dolly” was a straight A student in school, sports, dancing-tap, ballet, toe, and acrobatics. Art and drawing; were easy for her. Please, just never ask her to sing! From my viewpoint, I always pictured her as an adult. I saw her as the person to come to for frank advice on life; yet, she was only three years older than me. Her take on things always seemed more rational than that of my parents.

Maybe her maturity stemmed from her voracious appetite for reading. I clearly remember her sharing these thoughts with me. Yes, Kennedy was a Roman Catholic and he would win the 1960 Presidential election. Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and We the Living. Who is John Gault? Who is Ayn Rand? Winston Churchill says! Kemal Ataturk is the Father of Turkey. The average 12 year old doesn’t always read such material. She did! Sometimes she would disappear in the bathroom and not reappear for an hour. Yes, it was sometimes rude; but another chapter was consumed.

Evelyn and Harry Davis, our parents, met at a public swimming pool in Chicago. They had escaped family pressure in Chicago by moving two hundred miles Southeast to the suburbs of Indianapolis. Perhaps it was because the marriage of a Missouri Lutheran German boy to a Catholic Polish-Irish girl needed the freedom to grow without relatives butting in!

In 1912, Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler had founded the city of Speedway to help accommodate several of their business interests. They also founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The development of local Industries like Allison Divisions of General Motors, Prest-O-Lite Co. Link-Belt Co., Esterline Angus and American Art Clay provided industry jobs for new arrivals to Speedway.  One of those arrivals in the late thirties was my Father, Harry B. Davis. He had two years of college engineering at Carl Schurrís of Chicago. He worked for Allison’s for nearly thirty years as a tool and die specialist. Harry and his wife, Evelyn, purchased a small home at 1819 Christopher Lane. You could hear the Offy engines and an occasional Novi at the Davis household throughout the month of May echoing from the Indianapolis 500 racetrack less than a mile from their home.

Muriel took dance lessons from all the sources the city of Indianapolis had to offer. She studied under Kathryne Anderson, Carl and Ruby Zenick and even James Rozanas of Chicago. When Muriel was ten she began teaching her own classes in dance and acrobatics in the basement of our family home. She had a student enrollment of nearly 100. Daily, in the late afternoon, they would file through our back door home and go down to the tiny half basement. The ceiling was low and the converted oil furnace crowded the area. The floor was concrete and dipped where the drain was. A thin, black, rubber mat was unrolled for acrobatics. Dad installed a pipe wall ballet bar for her and her students to use.

Muriel performed in many recitals as a youngster. I remember her performing a Chinese split on the stage at the famous Murat Temple and slicing her chin open. It was good for two stitches at Methodist Hospital, the hospital where she was born in1940.  I remember her winning the City Park competition at Garfield Park with partner and Indiana University diver to be, Billy Barton. Dad made her a bar out of a carpet roll so she could hold it on her feet while she performed a headstand in a straddle position. Billy would run from the stage wings and perform an arch dive roll over her and the bar.  I also remember her performing with Joan Everling, a pianist who could play anything from ear! She could get under the piano and play it backwards while dressed in high heels and an evening gown! Muriel would swoop in on toe shoes or a modern dance routine and perform to Joan’s piano music. The Bardahl Man (Bardahl oil) was often used as a prop while Muriel would dance to Dragnet, feverishly waving a couple of vales with her hands. The soldiers at Camp Atterbury and Fort Benjamin Harrison enjoyed it. Marguerita de Anguera, a New York native and a Uraguay raised ballet instructor and actress, helped polish Muriel’s ballet technique. Muriel was often the star student at the National Association of Dance & Affiliated Artists, Inc. workshops.  My Mother was angry when Muriel chose gymnastics over ballet.

During many summers our family would swim at the Riviera Club on Illinois Avenue on the North side. Muriel pursued springboard diving with Coach Frank Galvich.  The pool was shaped like a giant milk bottle and featured a giant slide with a paddlewheel under it. We had some good times there!

Muriel and I both jumped up and back between public and parochial school education from Kg. Through the eighth grade. Muriel announced to her parents that she would like to attend St. Mary’s Academy rather than the local Speedway High School. Was it because her religious beliefs were kicking in or was it because the Athenaeum Turners was across the street from St. Mary’s in downtown Indianapolis? Athenaeum was a German social club with a restaurant and beer hall downstairs and a gymnasium upstairs. Dan Mackey, who worked with my Father at Allison’s told my Dad about the gymnastics instruction at the Athenaeum Turners. We began attending classes and Sunday workouts. I think I was seven and Muriel was ten. In those days we would take the city bus downtown and transfer to another bus just to get to class. Dan was a wonderful hand-balancer who would workout in red bikini swimming trunks, He always sported a good tan and was like a feather on his feet. All the women gymnasts liked to balance handstands with Dan.

Muriel would take the city bus early in the morning to St. Mary’s and would come home by city bus at  nine or ten PM. After high school classes ending at 2:30 p.m., she would paint and draw and get a little mentoring from her favorite teacher, Sister Cecelia. It was Muriel’s  favorite class. She would cross the street to Athenaeum Turners and do her homework in the basement locker room. Then, the three-hour gymnastics workout. 

She began competing in open AAU and Turnverin meet competitions in cities like Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio or in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, when she was fifteen, her coach, Hall of Fame coach Walter Lienert, informed our parents that Muriel was going to the Olympic trials at Penn State University. The top six gymnasts would become the 1956  women’s gymnastics 1956 Olympic team to Melbourne, Australia. Walt emphasized to our parents that Muriel was going only for competition experience. He maintained that teammate Sandy Ruddick would make the team and probably Myra Perkins and possibly Sharon Phelps would make the ‘56 team. The Davis family didn’t go to the trials. The little voice that called late that Sunday evening sounded excited. “I won floor exercise and made the United States Olympic team to Melbourne, Australia”, said Muriel! Muriel celebrated her 16th birthday on October 7th, just in time to go “down under” and be eligible for the Olympic Games. Dolly was indeed an Olympian!