Remembering Betty Tillotson

(originally published 7/4/19

In June 2019, I posted an excerpt from The Waldo Story, a piece on Betty Tillotson, a Waldo icon. In May 2020, passed away May 19, having reached her 97th year. That’s all I know, and all I need to know. The causes of death are never as interesting as the lives left behind. And Betty led an interesting life, mostly because she found life interesting – professional dancer, sixty+ years as a dance instructor, a one-time secretary, long-time business owner, and life-time learner. Betty loved Waldo almost as much as she loved dance, and devoted her non-dancing life largely to the pursuit of local history, Waldo particularly. I’d known Betty for several years when I asked her if she minded if I wrote a book on Waldo’s history. Betty had also written one that was a favorite Waldo promo booklet. She had staked out that territory as hers long ago. I was the interloper. Yet Betty couldn’t have been more supportive, helpful, and genuinely excited. To Betty, sharing Waldo’s story was all that mattered.

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In places where the sense of community is as strong as it is in Waldo, there are invariably people whose lives and careers are so aligned with that history that they become a part of the rhythm of the community. In Waldo, there is no greater example of that connection than the story of Betty Tillotson and her Studio of the Dance.

Betty Tillotson in front of her studio on Gregory Blvd. Courtesy Betty Tillotson.

Betty’s Waldo story started in 1945 with a tiny advertisement in the real estate section of the newspaper. “House for Sale in Waldo area,” it offered, near 76th Street and Madison. The Tillotson family knew the area well. From their home in Kansas City, Kansas, they would regularly follow the bus and street car connections to Waldo. Mr. Tillotson raised Scotch terriers, and the local chapter of the American Kennel Club held regular shows at the Meadow Lake Country Club at 75th and State Line Road. The Tillotsons, including their only child, Betty, would walk by Madison on their way to the shows from the Waldo streetcar stop. Mr. Tillotson had recently taken a job at the new Pratt & Whitney plant near 95th Street and Troost Avenue. A home in Waldo would be much more convenient. The Tillotsons already liked the area.

When they saw the small brick house, it was love at first sight for all of them. The house was modest, but just right in every way, from the lovely gabled roof to the front room with its fireplace, to the elm trees that canopied the street. They saw it on a Saturday, and wanted to buy it right away. But there was no chance to talk to the banker until Monday morning. Could the real estate agent hold it for them until then? She asked them, “How much can you put down in good faith?” Mr. Tillotson gave her all he had in his wallet – ten dollars. It was enough. On Monday, the Tillotsons had a new house.

Living in Waldo meant a shorter ride for Mr. Tillotson, but a longer one for Betty, who was finishing up her course work at Park University in Parkville. She didn’t mind. She had friends to ride over with, and she loved living in Waldo from the start. She was twenty-two and her life was filled with interests that kept her busy. She studied two of those – history and languages – at college. And in between times, there was dance. Betty had been dancing since she was four. Betty and her friends were playing in the front yard when a woman came to the door of her house and asked her mother if she thought her daughter might like to take dance lessons.

Betty started dancing, and never stopped. By the time she moved to Waldo, she had already been a teacher and a professional dancer for several years. She performed with her dance company at local trade shows and conventions. When the war came, she performed with USO tours all around the Midwest. Often, the troupe would perform for the swing shifts at places like the Boeing plant in Wichita or Whiteman Air Force base near Knob Noster, Missouri, dancing at 3:00 in the morning. She earned two dollars a show.

At home, Betty had started teaching a few neighborhood children out of her home. Mothers would approach her about their daughters. “Won’t you teach my little Susie to dance? She’s so clumsy.” Betty loved to teach, and had thought as she was attending college at Park University that she might become a grade school teacher. Teaching dance allowed her to combine the two interests, and provided a little income. Since her graduation from Park University in 1947, she had been working as a secretary for a downtown insurance company.

After the move to Waldo, Betty took up where she had left off. When women of Waldo learned Betty had taught dance, they came with the same pleas to help their shy or awkward children. Betty never turned them away. As she had done in Kansas City, Kansas, Betty taught on Saturdays in the front room of the family home. Her father would roll up the rug, exposing the hardwood floors. Her mother played the piano. Soon, the dance classes outgrew the front room. Then, they outgrew a neighbor’s basement, and finally they outgrew the VFW Hall near 77th Street and Wornall Road. Betty’s father, who had always been her staunchest supporter and chief carpenter when it came to building sets for recitals and programs, offered a solution. He built an addition to their home, complete with all the trappings of a real dance studio.

By 1951, Tillotson had enough students for a real recital. The first recital was held on the stage of the Waldo Theatre at 75th Street and Washington Avenue, a far cry from the cramped performances they had been giving in her home studio. The recital was a local hit, and would soon become a Waldo tradition. In time, teaching from her home proved too confining for Tillotson. The constant throng of youngsters in and out of the studio became too much for the neighborhood. In 1963, Betty went looking for a more permanent home. Hoping to find a Waldo storefront to lease, she was discouraged to find no property owner would rent to her. Some suggested she consider a location outside Waldo, but Betty would have none of it. By now, her loyalty to Waldo was firmly set. She had lived in the neighborhood, in the same house on Madison, for more than fifteen years. She was a long-standing member of Waldo’s original church, Broadway Methodist on Wornall Road. She wanted to keep her studio in the heart of Waldo. Even a location at 85th Street seemed too remote. Then she found Treasure Antiques, a small shop in the 7200 block of Wornall Road with a basement she could use. The Betty Tillotson Studio of Dance opened its doors.

Three years later, the studio was a thriving business. Tillotson relocated again to the Waldo Mart Shopping Center at 75th Street and Wornall Road. By now, there were several dance studios in the area, serving the growing population of youngsters in the 1960s. The Betty Tillotson Studio of the Dance was considered among the finest. Betty expanded her classes to include adults. Some were older students pursuing a professional career, but most came simply for the exercise and the social interaction. They came from all over the metro, but at the core were the Waldo regulars.

As the years went by, Tillotson continued teaching, and her students were often the children and then the grandchildren of her original students. Betty’s Studio led several of them to local and national-level performances. Betty Tillotson founded the Kansas City Tap and Musical Comedy Dance Company, an adult dance group that performs and celebrates dance in the great theatrical tradition. While no official count exists, it is not a stretch to guess that her lifetime list of students would have to number well into the thousands.

Betty also increased her involvement in Waldo, eventually serving on the board of the Waldo Area Business Association (WABA) and incorporating dance performances into events the organization sponsored. In 2000, Tillotson’s interest in Waldo culminated in the publication of “The History of Waldo,” a chapbook that brought together all she had learned over the years. In 2005, after forty years at the Waldo Mart location, Tillotson relocated her studio to Gregory Boulevard. She wasn’t about to leave Waldo.

That same year she finally sold the family house on Madison, having lived there for sixty years. It was a difficult decision, but it was time. The next year, at the annual Waldo Fall Festival, Betty was preparing her students for their performance. For several years, the program featured the “Tap-A-Thon,” where anyone with tap experience is invited to participate in a community chorus line. The “Tap-a-Thon” has become a signature piece of the annual Fall Festival. As Betty stood there, a young man approached her, pushing a toddler in a stroller. He asked if she was Betty Tillotson. “My wife and I bought your house,” the young man said. “We just love it.” For Tillotson, nothing could have brought more satisfaction than knowing someone else would come to know Waldo as she had, from the small brick house on Madison where her life-long love of Waldo began.

In 2010, Betty Tillotson celebrated sixty years of teaching dance in Waldo, and was elected Honorary Mayor of Waldo in the annual fund-raiser election held by the Waldo Area Business Association. The election was appropriate, but in one sense almost superfluous. Betty Tillotson had already been Waldo’s best ambassador for most of her life.

During her last ten years, Betty Tillotson remained active in the Waldo area. She transferred ownership of the studio to her one-time student and long-time instructor and partner, Lorna Sherer, who continues operating the studio on Gregory Boulevard. In 2018, she was honored as the first recipient of WABA’s Waldo Legacy Award. By all accounts of those who worked with her, she remained active and full of vigor. She never stopped tap-dancing her way through life, and she never failed to share her love of Waldo and its history wherever she went.

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ONE LAST TIME: The photo to the right is one that Betty shared with me for my Waldo book. She identified it as Waldo’s entry into Kansas City’s centennial parade in 1950, but she had never learned anything about it, and particularly was interested in learning the name of the young woman on the float. I promised Betty that every time I showed that picture, I’d make a point of asking, and I’d let her know. So, for one last time, does anybody out there know anything about this young woman or the Waldo float?

Betty still wants to know.

(Featured Photo: Betty (nearest the mike, left) leads students and others in the annual Tap-A-Thon showcase. In later years, as seen here, the event was part of the greater Waldo Fall Festival. Courtesy Waldo Area Business Association)

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