When Louis McKay was 12 years old, a neighbor heard him singing in his backyard. She happened to be a pianist in the orchestra at the Starlight Theatre in San Diego and invited him to audition for the lead role in Oliver Twist. Soon after, McKay landed the role of Oliver.
That experience was the beginning of an extraordinary musical career, which included being a lead singer, dancer and choreographer for the Debbie Reynolds Show. During the eight and a half years he was part of the show, McKay developed a close relationship with Debbie Reynolds that continued until the leading lady died on Dec. 28, 2016.
McKay’s love of dance carried over into the studios he owned over the years, including North County Dance Arts in Carmel Valley, which he currently runs with his wife Tanya, a classically-trained ballerina. North County Dance Arts has been in business in San Diego County since 1981, beginning in a small studio in Solana Beach off the Coast Highway.
The studio provides all levels of dance instruction from beginning to professional. It was voted “Best Dance Studio” in San Diego County for 36 years. McKay said he and Tanya pride themselves on providing excellent instruction and a state-of-the-art facility, which offers high-quality flooring and sound equipment. Before hiring new teachers, McKay said he invites them to come and teach. “I make sure the teachers know how to break down the steps and have a great rapport with the kids,” said McKay.
McKay said the studio focuses on technique, terminology, and discipline in a nurturing environment. They take a sincere interest in all their students, encouraging and inspiring them in their love of dance. “When people come to the studio they feel appreciated, they feel liked and part of a family,” said McKay. “They tell us, ‘This is our home-away-from-home.’”
Over the years, McKay learned many life lessons from Reynolds, which he now passes on to his own students at the studio. “You want to teach the kids to respect each other and most of all to respect themselves,” said McKay. “That’s our goal.”
Much of what he instills in his students is from many years of being a part of musical theater and the Debbie Reynolds Show.
Following his performance in Oliver Twist, McKay joined a musical theater group called the Bright Side, which he was part of until he was 20 years old. He said that his father, a singer with the San Diego Opera, and mother, a lyrical soprano, were very supportive of his talents.
His father encouraged him to follow his dreams of becoming a professional singer and dancer. After borrowing $600, he helped McKay move to Los Angeles and get settled in a studio apartment in Hollywood.
McKay began taking dance classes there. A friend in his tap class, Pat Rico, who was known for the movie “Tap,” encouraged McKay to audition for the Debbie Reynolds Show. McKay recalled Rico telling him the audition was 11 blocks away and started in a half hour. With a change of clothes as well as his tap and jazz shoes in hand, he ran to the audition. He soon realized that he had headed in the wrong direction. “I took off running again,” said McKay. When he arrived, he was told the audition had ended. After Reynold’s assistant heard his story, she talked to Reynolds about watching one more audition. When they asked what he wanted to sing, he replied that he was unprepared and had just found out about the audition a half hour earlier. They asked if he knew the lyrics to the Oliver Twist song, “Who Will Buy.” It happened to be one of his favorites from his first performance eight years earlier.
McKay, just 20 years old, was hired as a back-up dancer and singer for the Debbie Reynolds Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. “The whole thing was a dream,” said McKay. “That’s how my whole life has been.”
They performed at the major hotels, including the Riviera, the Desert Inn, the Frontier and the Sands. In addition, they performed throughout the United States and Europe as well as in Australia, New Zealand and Mexico City. “We traveled the world,” said McKay “They were the most amazing years of my life.”
The first five years he was a lead dancer and sang. Eventually, he began choreographing her show as well and appeared in “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway.
“She always included us and made us feel like we were a family and that’s what she was always about,” said McKay. He said when she was invited to dinner, “…she always took us and paid for everything. Always. She treated us like her own children.”
McKay was part of her show during a time when Reynolds was having financial difficulties. He said he’ll never forget when she called him up to her room and gave McKay a $5,000 check to put toward expenses. He and his wife had recently had a baby and her gesture meant the world to him.
During this time, he also operated dance studios in San Diego. At one time, he and Tanya were managing four of them. Reynolds came to the grand opening of two of the studios. “She came down from Los Angeles and even performed a couple of numbers for the audience,” said McKay.
An autographed photograph in his dance studio from Debbie Reynolds, says,” To Louis, My ‘2nd’ Son! You are a marvelous talent and a great dancer. Happy Teaching, Love, Debbie.”
McKay said he continues to choreograph and teach at North County Dance Arts seven days a week. “There’s never a bad day,” said McKay. “You’re with kids who love what they are doing. And you dance all day.” Visit www.northcountydancearts.com.