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Monday, December 29, 2008

Disconnected Women - Penny Johnson, Vivian Pressman and Marjorie Houseman

The movie Dirty Dancing begins with a doctor’s younger daughter exclaiming: “I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my Dad!” In the story that follows, this younger daughter Baby lost much of her ability to communicate with her father and transfered her main affection to a young man who worked as a dance instructor. Meanwhile the older daughter Lisa, who had been infatuated with a young man who was a medical student, began to talk much more with the father and then broke off her relationship with her medical-student boyfriend.

For each of these two daughters, their father Dr. Jake Houseman was a safe harbor. Each daughter could transfer her own affection and communication from the father to a young man, but if the relationship with the young man failed, then the daughter eventually could return to her father as a safe emotional haven.

Besides these two daughters, the story features three female characters – 1) Penny Johnson, a dance instructor, 2) Vivian Pressman, an adulterous married woman and 3) Marjorie Houseman, the doctor’s wife and the daughters’ mother. The first two of these women are disconnected, frustrated and angry throughout the story. The third is disconnected and frustrated, but not apparently angry.


Penny Johnson, the female dance instructor, was kicked out of her home when she was 16 years old by her mother. There is no mention of her father. We can speculate that Penny was the child of an unplanned pregnancy, and we can suppose that she was an extremely rebellious teenager, beyond the control of her unmarried mother.

Penny told Baby what happened after she had been kicked out of her home by her mother:
Penny: I’ve been dancing ever since. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do anyway.

Baby: I envy you.
Of course, what Baby envied was Penny’s beauty and dancing. Baby was oblivious to Penny’s deprivations and insecurities.

In a conversation with Johnny Castle’s cousin Billy Kostecki, Baby learned that Penny and Johnny were only a platonic, dancing couple now, but that they had been a romantic couple long ago, when they were still “kids”.
Baby: They look great together.

Billy: Yeah. You’d think they were a couple, wouldn’t you.

Baby: Aren’t they?

Billy: No, not since we were kids.
The movie’s dialogue provides several clues about this previous romantic relationship. We already know that Penny had always wanted to dance, that she had been thrown out of her home when she was 16 years old, and that she began working as a professional dancer immediately after she was thrown out of her home. One business that employs dancers is the Arthur Murray company, which teaches ballroom dancing. The movie’s author Eleanor Bergstein worked her way through college by teaching dance in this business. It seems, therefore, that Bergstein created her character Penny Johnson as a young woman who likewise began earning her living, while still a teenager, as a dance instructor in an Arthur Murray business.

(With regard to Penny’s being kicked out of her home, remember that both of Eleanor Bergstein’s parents died when she was in early twenties and that she therefore had to leave her own family home and go live with another family.)

The movie does not describe how Penny Johnson began working as a professional dancer, but it does mention how Johnny Castle was recruited to work as a dance instructor for the Arthur Murray company. When Baby asked Johnny where he had learned to be a dancer, Johnny answered:

Well, this guy came into this luncheonette one day, and we were all sitting around doing nothing. And he said that Arthur Murray was giving a test for instructors. So, if you passed, they teach you different dances, show you how to break them down, teach them.
Apparently, Johnny had been sitting in a luncheonette with a group of people who already knew how to dance well. A recruiter for the Arthur Murray company came into the luncheonette to recruit dance instructors (not dance students). We therefore can speculate that Penny already was working as an Arthur Murray dance instructor and that she knew that Johnny (with whom she had been in a romantic couple when they were still “kids”) and his friends had the dancing ability to become instructors too, and so Penny recommended to her supervisors at Arthur Murray that they go to the luncheonette and recruit Johnny and his friends.

We know from the dialogue that Penny had worked for a while as a Rockette dancer at some time before the story, but apparently she still was working with Johnny as an Arthur Murray dance instructor when the movie’s story takes place.

Based on all these clues, we can speculate further that Penny was thrown out of her home by her mother because of Penny’s relationship with Johnny – when they were still “kids.” Apparently, this relationship was sexual, because a mother does not throw her 16-year-old daughter out of her home because of a puppy-love relationship.

By the time of the movie’s story, however, the relationship between Johnny and Penny had become only platonic. They still worked together as a couple, performing and teaching dance, in the resort hotel. Johnny now was extremely promiscuous, having brief sexual affairs with several of the resort hotel’s female guests every week. And Penny now had fallen in love with Robbie Gould, a medical student who worked as a summer waiter in the resort hotel’s restaurant. Furthermore, Penny has become pregnant from Robbie, and Robbie has abandoned her and has refused to pay for her abortion. Johnny knew about Penny’s predicament and tried to help her as a friend.

Throughout the movie, Penny Johnson usually spoke angrily. In her first conversations with Baby, when Baby was just trying to express her own admiration toward her or to offer helpful suggestions, Penny responded with sarcasm and hostility. At one point, Penny hissed:
Baby? Is that your name? You know what, Baby, you don’t know shit about my problems. …. Go back to your playpen, Baby.
Gradually, however, after Baby provided the money for the abortion and offered to substitute for Penny in a scheduled performance at the other, Sheldrake resort hotel, Penny became civil and then candid with Baby. Penny also helped Johnny teach Baby how to dance.

In one scene, Penny was helping Baby were alone in a locker room as Baby was trying on Penny’s dress that Baby would wear in the performance at the Sheldrake. Baby said was afraid that she would forget her dance moves and techniques during the performance, but Penny reassured her and reminded her to let Johnny lead her.

At that moment, Penny had a lot on her mind, because she would go to the abortionist later that day. Then she said:
Thanks, Baby. I just want you to know that I don’t sleep around, whatever Robbie might have told you. I thought that he loved me. I thought it was something special. Anyway, I just wanted to know that. …. I’m scared. I’m so scared, Baby.
Later, after Dr. Houseman has treated Penny for her abortion complications, Baby and Johnny came to visit Penny, who was lying in bed.

In this conversation Penny spoke nicely to Baby, and then Baby left the room, leaving Penny and Johnny to talk together alone. By this time, Penny has recognized that Johnny and Baby have begun to have a sexual relationship, and so Penny and Johnny said to each other:
Penny (angrily): What are you doing? How many times have you told me, never get mixed up with them?

Johnny: I know what I’m doing.

Penny (angrily): You listen to me. You’ve got to stop it now.
In this conversation, Penny and Johnny are talking about the resort hotel’s rule that employees of their status were forbidden to become involved in intimate relationships with the guests. As dance instructors, Penny and Johnny were the two employees most likely to become involved in such relationships, so the prohibition was especially significant to them. Johnny nevertheless did become involved very promiscuously. He felt he could get away with violating the rule, because “I know what I’m doing,” but he frequently nagged Penny to obey the rule.

This conversation raises two questions.

The first question is what possible relationships had provoked Johnny to nag Penny in the past. It is possible that Penny had involved herself intimately with guests, but the only relationship we know about from the story is Robbie Gould, who at the time of the story was a medical student who worked as a waiter in the resort hotel during that summer. Perhaps Penny and Robbie had begun their relationship in a previous summer when Robbie was still just a guest visiting the resort hotel with his family.

The second question is why Penny objected so strongly to Johnny’s intimate relationship with Baby, when Penny surely knew by now that Johnny promiscuously involved himself with brief affairs with many female guests. What was it about Johnny’s relationship with Baby that caused Penny to warn Johnny so sharply? Perhaps the reason was simply Baby’s young age, perhaps it was that the hotel owners’ attention eventually might be attracted to the situation because of Penny’s abortion or because Baby had replaced Penny at the Sheldrake performance.

In any case , Johnny initially agreed that Penny’s warning was right. Immediately after he left that conversation with Penny, he encountered Baby and indicated to her that he was ending their affair. That resolve did not last long, but it was real for a while.

At the end of the story, Penny was professionally and romantically alone. Her dance partner Johnny had been fired by the hotel’s owner because of Johnny’s relationship with Baby, and Johnny had fallen in love with Baby and had declared his love publicly. Penny’s own future employment was endangered, and even her platonic friendship with Johnny was endangered.

In the meantime, Baby was now Johnny’s dance partner and romantic. Baby would begin attending college in a few weeks, and perhaps she could earn some money by working in her free time as a dance instructor, with Johnny, for an Arthur Murray business near her college. And then in the summers she and Johnny could work as dance instructors at some other resort hotel in the Borscht Belt (as the movie’s author Eleanor Bergstein had worked during her own college years).

Penny herself soon would resume working full-time as a dance instructor for an Arthur Murray business. If there was a shortage of male instructors, then she could suggest some good place, perhaps a luncheonette, where an Arthur Murray recruiter might find some young men who danced well enough to learn how to teach dance. But Penny herself was not getting any younger.

Penny still wanted to get married and start a family. After Dr. Houseman had treated the complications from her abortion, she was very relieved when he told her she still would be able to have children. At the end of the movie, Penny was angry that she still had no prospective husband in sight.


Vivian Pressman was a middle-aged married woman. The resort hotel’s owner Max Kellerman described her to Jake and Marjorie Houseman as follows:

That’s Vivian Pressman, one of the bungalow bunnies. That’s what we call the women who stay here all week. The husbands only come up on weekends. Moe Pressman’s a big card player; he’ll join our game. He’s away a lot, I know. It’s a hardship.
While staying at the resort hotel during the week, Vivian Pressman paid Johnny Castle for dance lessons and also paid extra for sexual sessions. Johnny said that he had sexual relations with many female guests. At one point Johnny even remarked to Baby that “women are stuffing diamonds in my pockets.”

On the second-to-last night, the night before the talent show, Vivian walked up to Johnny, who was preparing for the talent show, and whispered: “This is our last night together, lover. I’ve got something worked out for us.”

A short time later, Johnny walked by a table where a group of men were playing cards. One of the men, Vivian’s husband Moe Pressman, gave Johnny $100 and said, “I’ve been playing cards all weekend, and I’ve got an all-night game tonight. Why don’t you give my wife some extra dance lessons?”

Obviously Vivian understood that her husband Moe preferred to play cards all night, so she had asked him to pay for dance lessons so that she could have some fun of her own. It’s not clear whether Moe knew and did not care that Vivian was having a sexual affair with Johnny or whether he simply was inattentive and oblivious about her adultery.

By this time, however, Johnny had decided that he wanted to stop his own sexual promiscuity and so he declined to take Moe’s money, saying: I’m sorry, Mr. Pressman, but I’m booked up for the whole weekend with the show. I won’t have time for anything else. I don’t think it’d be fair to take the money.”

Vivian was standing nearby and heard Johnny reject her husband’s money and indicate that he would be too busy preparing the talent show to give any dance lessons. Thus Vivian understood angrily that Johnny would not have another sexual session with her.

Vivian Pressman then arranged to have sex with Robbie Gould instead, and they were seen together in bed by Lisa Houseman when she herself went to Robbie’s cabin to have sex with him for the first time. Lisa was upset and left, leaving Robbie and Vivian alone in the cabin to continue their sexual session. This happened in the early evening. (Eleanor Bergstein mentioned in her running commentary that the scene was filmed “at dusk.”)

Early the next morning as Vivian Pressman was leaving Robbie Gould’s cabin, she saw Johnny Castle and Baby Houseman coming out of Johnny’s cabin. Johnny and Baby kissed, and so Vivian understood that Johnny had declined Vivian’s arrangements because he preferred to spend the night having sex with Baby.

Later that day, the resort hotel’s owner Max Kellerman fired Johnny for stealing Moe Pressman’s wallet. Kellerman explained that Moe’s wallet had disappeared while he had been playing cards all night. Moe was certain that he still had his wallet at 1:30 a.m., when the wallet was in his jacket that he hung from the back of his chair. Then at 3:45 a.m. Moe found that his wallet was missing from his jacket. Later, after Moe Pressman had reported the disappearance to Max Kellerman, Vivian Pressman told Kellerman that she had seen Johnny Castle walk close by the jacket during that night. Max Kellerman then accused Johnny Castle of the theft and fired him.

This sequence of events has some gaps that we can fill in. During the afternoon, Vivian Pressman had arranged for her husband to offer $100 to Johnny Castle for dance lessons, but Johnny refused the money and thus refused the sex session with Vivian. Then Lisa Houseman saw Vivian Pressman having sex with Robbie Gould in Robbie’s cabin at dusk, and so Lisa left. In the middle of the night, Vivian must have left Robbie’s cabin and gone to make a public appearance in the place where her husband Moe was playing cards.

Vivian would have made a public appearance at the gambling table for several reasons: 1) to make sure that Moe still intended to play cards all night, 2) to tell Moe that she was going to their hotel room to sleep, and 3) to get from Moe’s wallet the $100 that Johnny had rejected. Vivian then took the $100 back to Robbie’s room, gave him the money and spent the rest of the night in Robbie’s room. At dawn, she left Robbie’s room and saw Johnny and Baby kissing as they exited Johnny’s cabin.

Later that morning, when Moe told Vivian that his wallet was missing, Vivian responded that she had seen Johnny standing near the jacket, which was hanging from Moe’s chair. Therefore, Johnny was accused of the theft. This all happened before breakfast, because Max Kellerman told the Housemans during breakfast that he intended to fire Johnny for the theft.

Practically the entire audience of the movie assumes that Vivian incriminated Johnny in order to get revenge because Johnny had preferred to spend the night with Baby. I think, however, that a kinder explanation can be proposed. It’s hard for me to believe that Vivian really was so deliberately vindictive toward Johnny.

I think that when Vivian went to see Moe at the gambling table at 1:30 a .m., she did not steal the $100 from Moe’s wallet, but rather simply asked Moe openly for the money. Vivian told Moe that Johnny had found time after all, after the talent-show rehearsal, to give Vivian a dancing lesson after midnight. The lesson had just finished, and so she wanted to pay Johnny the promised $100 and then go alone to their hotel room to sleep. Vivian then returned to Robbie’s room and gave the money to Robbie.

Later, when Vivian was discussing the missing wallet with Moe, Vivian confirmed to him that she had seen the wallet in his possession at 1:30 a.m., when he had given her the $100 for Johnny. In order to strengthen her story, she even assured Moe that Johnny too had been with her right there near Moe’s chair, even though Moe had not noticed him. Later when Max Kellerman heard Vivian’s story, he concluded falsely that Johnny had stolen the wallet. But Vivian never had intended for anyone to blame Johnny. Vivian Pressman was not such an evil person. Rather she was a person whose dissatisfaction had led her into adulterous activities that eventually would cause problems for herself or for people around her.

The wallet was stolen by the Schumachers, an old couple who regularly visited resort hotels and stealing wallets from other guests. They must watched the card game very attentively and seen Moe Pressman give Vivian Pressman the $100, put his wallet into his jacket, and hang his jacket from his chair. Sometime after that time, 1:30 a.m., and 3:45 a.m., they stole the wallet from the jacket.

The Schumachers eventually were caught because Baby previously had noticed two wallets fall out of Ms. Schumacher’s purse and also had noticed the Schumachers at the Sheldrake resort hotel, where several wallets had been stolen. Based on this new information from Baby, Max Kellerman gave the police two drinking glasses that the Schumachers had used. The police took fingerprints from the drinking glasses and found that warrants had been issued for the arrest of the Schumachers for stealing from guests at resort hotels in Florida and Arizona.

We can suppose that Doctor Houseman pressured Max Kellerman to continue the investigation of the theft based on Baby’s new information. Max Kellerman already had made up his mind that Johnny Castle was guilty. Since, however, Doctor Houseman had saved Kellerman’s life when Kellerman had become sick with high blood pressure during a previous summer, Kellerman felt morally obligated to comply with Houseman’s insistence that Baby’s information be taken seriously. Doctor Houseman himself took Baby’s information seriously because he recognized how embarrassed she had been to admit to him, her father, that she had spent the night with Johnny.

Thus, toward the end of the movie, Vivian Pressman set dramatic, consequential events into motion when she asked her husband Moe Pressman for $100. At the beginning of the story, Baby Houseman had likewise set dramatic, consequential events into motion when she had asked her father Doctor Houseman for $250. These two incidents when women asked for money – once from a father and later from a husband – for secret, illegitimate activities provide a parallel and balanced structure to the story.

At the end of the movie, during the talent show, when Johnny took Baby up onto the stage to perform their dance, Vivian Pressman is seen in a front row sitting alone. Next to her is an empty chair, where her husband should be sitting. (Probably he has learned that she lied about Johnny Castle being at the gambling table and receiving the $100.) Vivian looks morose and angry, although all the surrounding audience, sitting as couples and families, looks happy.


Marjorie Houseman, the wife of Dr. Jake Houseman and the mother of Lisa and Baby, plays a small role in the story. Jake Houseman keeps secret from her all the events and considerations involving Baby, the abortion money and the abortion complications. Jake even orders Baby to wipe the makeup off her face before her mother sees it. Marjorie also seems to be completely unaware of Baby’s romance with Johnny and of Lisa’s romance with Robbie.

Perhaps the original script included a larger role for Marjorie. Many scenes were cut because the movie was becoming too long. In addition, the actress who originally was supposed to play Marjorie became sick during the first week of filming after, so various changes had to be made unexpectedly. Kelly Bishop, the actress who was supposed to play Vivian Pressman was moved into the role of Marjorie Houseman, and Miranda Garrison, an assistant choreographer, replaced Bishop as Vivian Pressman. Perhaps some of Marjorie Houseman's role was diminished in these changes.

Marjorie Houseman is a homemaker who has raised two daughters. She always has hoped that her daughters will be able to fulfill themselves in ambitions careers. She named her younger daughter (Baby) Frances, after Frances Perkins, the first woman member of a Presidential Cabinet; the Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt was Frances Perkins. (In the author 's own real family, Eleanor Bergstein was named after Eleanor Roosevelt and her sister Frances was named after Frances Perkins.)

In the movie's story, the oldest daughter already is attending college, and the younger daughter will enroll as a college freshman right after this summer vacation. Marjorie’s husband is a doctor who is wealthy enough to give his daughter $250 (1963 dollars) for no explained reason. Marjorie therefore will not have to get a job. Marjorie is entering a new period of her life in which she will have to re-define her own purposes and activities.

Perhaps Marjorie Houseman will become frustrated and angry. Perhaps her own marriage will become like the alienated hostile marriage between Vivian and Moe Pressman. Early in the movie, we see an entertainment show for the resort hotel’s guests. A male comedian tells a joke: “I finally met a girl, exactly like my mother – dresses like her, acts like her – so I brought her home. My father doesn’t like her!”

Later in the movie, Marjorie and Jake are putting golf balls, and Jake jokes to Baby: “If your mother ever leaves me, it’ll be for Arnold Palmer.” Apparently, Jake already senses some alienation and dissatisfaction in Marjorie.

In the original script, the scene was supposed to show Marjorie as the better golfer, and she was supposed to give Jake tips about improving his putting. Since, however, the actor playing Jake sank an amazing put, the scene was redone so that he gave her the tips. In that context Jake’s joke about Marjorie leaving him for Arnold Palmer made much more sense.

Perhaps the best expression of Marjorie Houseman's personality occurs in the last scene, when Johnny Castle has invaded the talent show and had grabbed Baby and was leading her to the stage to perform their dance. At that moment, Jake Houseman stood up to stop Baby, but Marjorie grabbed Jake and made him sit back down. Then when Baby began to dance brilliantly with Johnny on the stage, an admiring Marjorie says to Jake, "I think she gets this from me."

At this moment we can appreciate that Marjorie is much more relaxed than Jake about Baby's efforts. Marjorie is willing to watch Baby take some risks in her personal life. She seems to accept calmly the revelation that Baby has become personally involved with the dance instructor and become his dance partner. Marjorie genuinely admires Baby's dancing but feels that she herself possesses similar talents and spirit. When she sees Baby's accomplishment, she can honestly boast, "I think she gets this from me."

For Marjorie, the story ends very happily. She feels confident about her daughters' future accomplishments and probably also about her own.


  1. Moe Pressman was on stage in the talent show in his pirate hat,I don't know at what point he might have rejoined Vivian.In a later shot,when the staff dancers have started pulling people out of their seats,she gets up to search for a partner,but I don't recall if she is seen dancing with anyone after that.

  2. I loved reading this synopsis!

  3. I disagree about Vivian... I def think she was jealous About Baby and Johnny (and angry about Johnny rejecting her), so she framed Johnny and lied about him stealing.