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Hoofer kicks up his heels for gay chamber

In his heyday, Michael Vita sang and danced in some of Broadway's biggest hits (Bye Bye Birdie, Sweet Charity and Chicago), behind legendary women of musical comedy including Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon.

Vita spent his youth in show business, until AIDS ravaged his friends in the theater and he could take no more.

Retired from entertaining, he now plays backup to Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce President Steve Adkins, who Vita claims can't tell dark-haired Rivera from red-headed Verdon.

''He's the straightest gay man I've ever met,'' Vita, 66, says with mock exasperation.

Vita, the chamber's part-time secretary-treasurer, is planning a stage comeback of sorts: a brief musical ''surprise'' he'll perform at Saturday's annual chamber awards dinner near downtown Miami.

16Born in New York City, Vita's first taste of show business came at age 10, when he appeared regularly on Ed Herlihy's Children's Hour, a live TV program. Then after his father died, his mother took a job at a theatrical publishing house. She enrolled him at New York's High School of Performing Arts, a block from her new job.

''I didn't even know what a dance belt was. I had to learn all that stuff,'' Vita said. ``I was there from 1954 to 1958. I was always dancing. Ballroom dancing.''

He worked as a model and got a job at Green Mansions resort in the Adirondacks, performing in variety shows with up-and-coming comics like Don Adams. He also met composers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who asked him to audition for their new musical to be directed and choreographed by Gower Champion.

Vita, 19, got a part in Bye Bye Birdie, appearing in the show's famous opening number, The Telephone Hour.

''I was in the bottom cubicle,'' Vita recalls. ``As the curtain went up, I could see the audience. The lights hadn't come up yet. It was thrilling.''

During the run, he got to dance occasionally with star Rivera.

The next 20 years, Vita worked in such Broadway hits as Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity with Verdon; Fosse's Chicago with Rivera, Verdon and, briefly, Minnelli; Golden Rainbow with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme; Promises, Promises, choreographed by Michael Bennett; and Bennett's Ballroom with Dorothy Louden.

He also lived in London during the mid-1960s and worked extensively with musical star Dolores Gray.

Vita says he was never in the closet.

''I was always out,'' he said. ``It was the theater -- I never hid it from anyone. My partner at the time was part of the family. He'd come back through the stage door. He was a set designer who worked on Pippin.''

Bye_bye_birdieIn the early '80s, Vita joined the national touring company of 42nd Street and appeared in Broadway's A Doll's Life and George Abbott's On Your Toes.

The one-time juvenile performer kept things in perspective as he grew older.

''I went from a young blond dancer-singer-actor to a middle-aged, overweight balding character actor,'' Vita said. ``It was very fortunate, because I kept on working. The more I could do with mustaches and hair and limps and accents -- and holding my stomach in or pushing it out -- I saved people money. If an actor can do many things, you save producers money. In A Doll's Life for Hal Prince, I played five characters. In 42nd Street, I played four characters.''

In the early '80s, AIDS began to decimate Vita's friends. To help, he and several other chorus members began collecting cash from audiences after performances of 42nd Street. It became the model for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which since 1988 has raised more than $100 million for people with AIDS.

Vita, who is HIV negative, gave up the theater in 1989 and moved to San Francisco, where he worked for several AIDS fundraising groups.

Noel_cowardIn 1995, a ''burned out'' Vita moved to South Florida. He met ''Mr. Miami Beach'' Michael Aller, the city's tourism and protocol chief and a former child perfomer himself.

Soon after, Vita went to work for the Beach's public information office.

''I liked him from the moment I met him,'' Aller said. ``Show business -- two old hoofers, only he made it and I didn't.''

Two years ago, Vita joined Adkins at the gay chamber. ''He's my right arm. He's not just my right arm, he's one of my closest friends,'' Adkins said.

He ''single-handedly'' brought in 24 local arts organizations to the chamber, Adkins said.

Vita, who lives with his 89-year-old mother, says he's content with his Florida lifestyle.

''I don't miss New York,'' Vita said. ``I miss being in the fast lane. But I work in the chamber, which is in the fast lane. It's making things happen.''

Gwen

Dancing with Gwen Verdon on "The Ed Sullivan Show." (Vita is directly to Verdon's right.) video Video | Michael Vita dances with Gwen Verdon in a 1966 clip from 'The Ed Sullivan Show' 

Nixons

Performing for President and Mrs. Nixon at the White House, about 1971.

Chita

With Chita Rivera at her Miami closing night party for "The Dancer's Life" in January 2007. Photo by Steve Rothaus / Miami Herald Staff.

Other pictures: Vita at age 16 in an anti-smoking ad that ran in The New York Times; a Life magazine page featuring the opening "Telephone Hour" number from "Bye Bye Birdie"; Vita with Noel Coward during TV taping in the 1960s.

IF YOU GO

What: Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce sixth annual awards dinner. Honorees are AT&T Florida, Realtor William Carson Jr., attorney Michael Larkin, law firm Akerman Senterfitt, AIDS agency Care Resource and philanthropist Dr. Patrick Ward. Entertainment by impersonator Jim Bailey as Judy Garland. Emmy-winning actress Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey, Queer As Folk) will introduce Bailey.

Where: Radisson Miami Ballroom, 1601 Biscayne Blvd.

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $140 per person; $1,150 table of 10; valet parking included

Info:www.gogaymiami.com or 305-573-4000

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