Stanley Kahn may not be a name known to everyone, but this master of classical tap taught in San Francisco for more than 45 years. The Mason-Kahn Studio, operated by Stanley and his wife Pat Mason, was on the 3rd floor of the Embassy Theatre on Market Street. Mason-Kahn Studio was a hub of activity for Bay Area students and professionals on tour.
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Stanley Kahn studied ballet with Grover Abel who owned a studio in Oklahoma City across the street from a hotel operated by Mr. Kahn's father. In 1925, Abel moved to Houston and Kahn followed to continue his studies. He went on to New York and was introduced to Jack Manning and Sammy Burns, famous tap dancers in those days. Mr. Kahn learned acrobatics from Lou Wills and later performed in Vaudeville, partnering with Joe Laurie in a soft shoe and acrobatic act. He began teaching in 1933 when he was hired for a Katherine Duffy production, meeting Louis Dapron. In 1937, assisted by an introduction from Dapron, Kahn became a full-time dance instructor with the Fanchon and Marco studio chain, teaching in their San Francisco facility. He was just 23. While working for Fanchon and Marco, Stanley Kahn met Pat Mason, an Oakland native who had danced in the Roxy circuit. They were married in 1938. In 1945, F & M's San Francisco studio was about to close. Pat Mason, always known as Miss Pat, located some good space above the Embassy Theater and soon the MASON-KAHN STUDIO opened its doors.
For 45 years Stanley Kahn and Pat Mason trained Bay Area dancers. Beginning in 1939 and for 36 years, Kahn was dance director for the Ice Follies (now Disney on Ice), staging numerous shows and educating dozens of skating athletes in dance and the requirements of a show business career. During and just after World War II, Mason-Kahn also trained dancers and choreographed shows for Charley Low's Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco.
I met Stan and Miss Pat for the first time in October, 1986. My partner's good friend, Kevin Gee, an actor/dancer from New York City, was the step-son of Charley Low, owner of Forbidden City night club. Kevin knew Stan and Miss Pat very well and recommended Mason-Kahn Studio as a good place for me to take some classes while I was in San Francisco. It's funny the way we make connections.
Mr. Kahn was about 72 years old when I met him, but he was still energetic and enthusiastic. He told me he had taught a famous Japanese chanson singer in the past, Yoshiko Ishii. who is indeed a famous singer in Japan and who is singing chanson still. Ishii wrote a book about her life in San Francisco and France. Her time with Stanley Kahn is remembered fondly.
In the 80's, Market Street in San Francisco was not the most fashionable place, filled with homeless people and pretty rundown. On the right side of the main entrance to the Embassy Theatre, there was a small door leading to a narrow hallway and a rather long flight of stairs. The second floor was above the movie screen after all and this entrance was somewhat dark and spooky. Once you reached the studio, you found rooms filled with a happy mood. You were greeted by Miss Pat at the desk, Stan with his big smile, students bustling in every direction; like Dorothy stepping out of her black and white world into the Technicolor Land of Oz. The little lobby was filled with pictures of students from the past and from the previous week, of parties at the studio and of grand production numbers from shows staged by Mr. Kahn for the Ice Follies or for touring companies booked into local theaters. The entire facility was filled with the echoes of classes underway. There were three rooms for dancing; one big main studio, a second smaller studio and a third room used for storage of costumes and props like hats and canes, umbrellas and wooden shoes that they used for the shows. Posters and audition information was everywhere.
From my collection of old tickets I can count about 104 private lessons that I took with Mr. Kahn between October, 1986 and August, 1987. He and Miss Pat were very kind to me, allowing me to take group lessons for free. Stan was like an encyclopedia of dance. He had broad knowledge of many dance styles. Best of all he was there at the last moments of Vaudeville and he showed me many great examples of Vaudeville style. I learned many steps that I would never have been able to learn in Japan. I even learned Bill Robinson's style of exiting and returning for an encore. I think all these experiences and this knowledge are priceless.
Mr. Kahn had so many routines to teach. I learned about 40 numbers and often came away with a cassette tape of the music we used. I also learned how to count, to analyze the steps and how to construct choreography from Mr. Kahn. He was a such a big help to me as I worked to become a tap dance teacher and choreographer. I learned some pretty basic information, as well, while at Mason-Kahn Studio, like the names of steps. In Japan, old dance teachers didn't use the names of the steps much. They just assigned numbers to basic steps; like a shuffle is #1, flap is #2. So I didn't know that steps had names till I studied in Mason-Kahn Studio. In the end, the best thing — Stanley Kahn showed me the importance of a warm heart for any dancer. And Miss Pat, too. She often said to me "Don't teach beginners too fast!" I remember Pat Mason when I get new students.
Stanley Kahn created his own notation system for tap dance called Kahnotation. Mr. Kahn began this project in the 1930's and finally, in 1951, he obtained a copyright for Kahnotation. It's a system of about 55 pictographs that allows a choreographer to write out tap steps like sheet music. He taught this system to enthusiastic students. I bought little Kahnotation booklet and learned the whole thing, basically. Sam Weber, a great tap dancer and one of Mr. Kahn's students, told me he used Kahnotation for his choreography. It is a very clever way to write choreography and once you understand it, it is possible to read choreography written by someone else. The truth is it takes a long time to learn Kahnotation well and video camera is a much easier way to record choreography. I learned this system, however, and it has improved my ability to analyze steps.
In September, 1989 I visited MASON-KAHN STUDIO during another trip to San Francisco . By coincidence, this visit came at the same time Stan and Miss Pat were forced to move out of that building. The Embassy Theatre had been sold and the new owner was asking outrageous rent. The old props and costumes were removed day by day and the mirrors on the walls were taken down. Behind the mirrors, you could see the old paint from the years during which the studio first grew and then faded. During that visit we had a birthday party for Mr. Kahn in the studio. Everybody was there, eating cake and dancing the routines we all knew. It was a wonderful party but also sad. Mason-Kahn Studio closed.
Pat Mason and Stanley Kahn
San Francisco Chronicle, September 13, 1989
Small classes continued for a while in the Kahn's home and one or two other local facilities. One day I heard that Miss Pat had passed away. On my next trip to San Francisco I wanted to visit Mr. Kahn, but Sam Weber told me that Stan was having memory problems and sometimes didn't remember his old friends. So I decided not to impose. Finally, I was told Stanley Kahn passed away as well.
Stanley Kahn and Pat Mason were not well known outside the dance world, but search hard on the Web and you find Stan's name acknowledged again and again as a dance teacher who influenced so many other dancers and teachers throughout America and indeed around the world. Stanley Kahn was a great dance teacher!
— Shinichi Matsumoto
Do you have memories of Stanley Kahn, Pat Mason or the Mason-Kahn Studio? Tap Wonderland has added a great comment feature to this Stanley Kahn tribute page. Just click the “Leave a comment” link and record your memory.
Some of the biographical information used in this commentary is taken from DANCE TEACHER NOW, May, 1986 edition, the article "Stanley Kahn, Master of Classical Tap" by Jan Wilken.