Wheeling Hall of Fame: Mary Elizabeth Fassig (Keyser)
Music and Fine Arts
Mary Elizabeth Fassig (Keyser) was a dance icon in Wheeling for much of the 20th century. But her fame began on the national stage when vaudeville was king.
Born March 11, 1905, to Wheeling residents Percival and Mary Ellen Altmeyer Fassig, she attended Ohio County public schools. Her mother and father died in 1934 and 1941, respectively. Her mother was the daughter of Luke and Mary Hartung Altmeyer. Her father was born in Columbus, Ohio, worked at Wheeling’s Hazel Atlas Glass Co., and played the cello in the Wheeling Symphony.
Fassig loved dancing from an early age and trained under instructor Alma Schafer in Wheeling before begging her parents to let her go to New York City — while she was still in high school. She studied in New York with a Russian teacher before she got her big break and was cast in a vaudeville act. She then was a professional dancer and entertainer, active on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s. During this time, she performed in New York and all along the East Coast; she also danced professionally on cruise ships to the Caribbean and Cuba. She continued to train in New York during her professional years and enjoyed success until an illness brought her home to Wheeling, where she turned to teaching.
After her marriage to musician T. Kenneth Keyser, the couple lived at 31 Oak Park, near what was then known as Triadelphia High School. Ken played the piano for Miss Fassig in her dance studio for many years. She spent a number of years teaching dance at West Liberty State College and working with the theatre department, then under the direction of New York stage professional Stanley Harrison. Her main studio was located in Wheeling’s old Pythian Lodge building, until it was torn down to make way for the West Virginia Northern Community College plaza. She then relocated to the Central Union Building until her retirement just a few years before she died in 1986. She also maintained studios in Tyler, Wetzel and Belmont counties. She had two children, a daughter Karen Sue (deceased) and a son Kurt, who resides in Virginia Beach, Va., after a 30-year career in the United States Navy.
Her students performed throughout the Ohio Valley, on television, in minstrels, at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and more. Considered a demanding teacher, she was known for her discipline and insistence on perfection. But she loved her students and wanted to see them succeed. Many of them went on to professional success, including six who became NYC Rockettes. Some of these include: Willadean Skillcorn Harris (deceased) and Rosalie Hornyak of New Jersey. This devoted artist taught and mentored performers for more than 60 years. Even Lou “The Toe” Groza, a famous kicker in the National Football League (NFL) Hall of Fame, who grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, learned skills from Fassig.
Fassig School of The Dance became known as the “school with a professional touch,” according to her former student of 30 years, Janet Ciripompa Grubler of Wheeling. Gruber also recalls that in 1964, the Fassig School was invited to perform at the United States Pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York City, on West Virginia Day.
Throughout the years, many of her students went on to perform professionally, including 2013 West Virginia Music Hall of Fame honoree Peter Marshall, the well-known game show host, who recalls taking tap dancing lessons from Fassig, then making his stage debut in 1934, at age nine, dancing and singing at the Capitol Theatre. Another student was Marshall’s sister, actress Joanne Dru. She trained thousands of young men and women not only in dance technique, but also in stage presence and poise. Considered the ultimate professional, Miss Fassig is truly Wheeling’s “grand dame of dance.”
Text and pictures provided by Wheeling Hall of Fame. Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with the Wheeling Hall of Fame Committee.