At 91, Willie Hoffmann has lived an incredible life and shows no signs of slowing down

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2018

From performing in Hollywood to traveling the world, Wilhelmina (Willie) Hoffmann has led an amazing life. 

And, at 91, she is still making every minute count. 

“My life is so full it is just unreal,” Hoffmann said.

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Born and raised in New Orleans, Hoffmann said she was born dancing and at the tender age of 14 had her first paying job.

It was at the Casino Royale and her mother had served as her booking agent.

“She found a group that was working at a night club on Royal Street in New Orleans and these girls were really good so she got me to be a part of the group and we did very well,” Hoffmann said. “We were booked in there for two or three weeks and they wanted to hold us over but we had other jobs to do.”

Hoffmann said she never asked her mother how much money she was making, but by the age of 18 she had earned enough to buy her parents a new home.

“I just went ahead and danced because that is what I loved to do,” she said.

After performing with the group, Hoffmann said the M.C. at the Casino Royale was interested in hiring her to do a solo performance.

“I told him I was ready to go, but he said, ‘Hazel,’ that’s my mother’s name, ‘she doesn’t have any music and she doesn’t have a choreographer.’”

“And my mother said, ‘She has music and she can go with whatever she has,’ and he said ‘she can’t do that’ and my mother said, ‘You don’t know Willie.’”

“So I went out there just cold turkey.”

In addition to Hoffmann’s dance ability, she was also a proficient choreographer.

“I can take a show and put a show together, and it would sell like hotcakes because I am just a born choreographer,” she said.

In 1944, Hoffmann entered the Miss New Orleans annual beauty pageant and for the talent portion of the competition did a hula dance.

“The way my mother would say it was, ‘She just tore the house down.’”

Hoffman won the state contest and went on to compete in the 1944 Miss America Pageant.

Shortly after competing, Hoffmann moved to Los Angeles to continue her career.

She went to work for the USO and performed alongside Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamoure. She recalled one particular show aboard a naval ship.

“They booked me to do this show on the coast of California. The ship was huge and it looked liked a sea of men out there,” Hoffman said.

Before she was to perform, she said she was put under a ramp and told not to move.

“So I said OK. I wasn’t about to move, because it was dark and I didn’t know where I was.”

But, while under the ramp, Hoffmann said she heard hoof sounds and it turned out to be Roy Rogers riding Trigger.

“I am telling you that horse was so beautiful, and I was so excited to be on this ramp with Trigger. That was one of my outstanding remembrances,” Hoffman said.

Also while in Hollywood, Hoffmann’s booking agent helped her secure a contract with Paramount Pictures using the stage name Gayle Forrest.

Hoffmann shared a story of how close she came to being chosen for one very iconic movie.

“I had a contract with Paramount Pictures and my booking agent called me up and said, ‘Willie you have to go to Paramount studios.’”

“It was so beautiful and the office was so big and elaborate and these two men were sitting behind a desk to interview me.”

Hoffmann did not know what movie she was being interviewed for, since she never questioned her agent.

“I didn’t ask any questions, my agent would just send me everywhere and I would just do as I was told.”

It wasn’t until later that she learned the movie she had been interviewing for was “Some Like It Hot.”

“Marilyn Monroe got the part, she came right after me,” Hoffmann said.

“I guess I wasn’t sexy enough — that’s all I can say about that. I wasn’t that sexy gal, you know,” Hoffman laughed.

During this time at Paramount, Hoffmann had the opportunity to meet other well-known celebrities of the day, which she said included John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Although Hoffmann loved acting, she eventually returned home.

She said John Carroll, who was a friend and fellow actor from New Orleans, told her she did not belong in Hollywood.

“I said, ‘You know, you are right.’ I just don’t think I was sexy enough and I was a religious person and I couldn’t cut it that way,” Hoffmann said.

After returning home, Hoffmann married her first husband, and moved to Vicksburg, where he was a pilot for the Corps of Engineers.

While living in Vicksbursg Hoffmann opened the Willie Hoffmann’s School of the Dance.

“This is the thing I loved most, teaching my children here,” Hoffmann said, and from those students, two went on to open their own dance studios in Vicksburg, Debra Franco and Valerie Atwood.

Hoffmann left Vicksburg after marrying her second husband and the couple moved to Texas, where she opened one of the biggest dance studios in Houston.

One of her students was a young boy by the name of Patrick Swayze who went on to have his own dancing and acting career.

“He was my favorite boy,” Hoffmann said.

After retiring from teaching Hoffmann opened a ladies ready to wear shop and after several years in the retail business decided to sell the store and travel with her husband.

Hoffmann said the couple traveled the world and even lived two years in Saudi Arabia.

She eventually moved back to Vicksburg and lives with her son Chris.

Recently she underwent surgery for spinal stenosis and was told she would never walk again. Obviously, she defied the odds and is a regular at Wyatt’s gym.

She still has a walker, but is getting stronger every day, she said, and credits her long life and health to her mother and the “Mother of God.”

“The secret of longevity is a good diet, lots of exercise and to love. If you can’t love yourself and your body and yourself and God, how can you love anybody else?” she said.

Hoffmann is an avid believer in staying active even when your age increases and is hoping others will be inspired by her tenacity.

She also is hoping to get back into teaching.

“I am interested in learning about Tai Chi and I want to teach it to the elderly,” she said.

About Terri Cowart Frazier

Terri Frazier was born in Cleveland. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Vicksburg. She is a part-time reporter at The Vicksburg Post and is the editor of the Vicksburg Living Magazine, which has been awarded First Place by the Mississippi Press Association. She has also been the recipient of a First Place award in the MPA’s Better Newspaper Contest’s editorial division for the “Best Feature Story.”

Terri graduated from Warren Central High School and Mississippi State University where she received a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in public relations.

Prior to coming to work at The Post a little more than 10 years ago, she did some freelancing at the Jackson Free Press. But for most of her life, she enjoyed being a full-time stay at home mom.

Terri is a member of the Crawford Street United Methodist Church. She is a lifetime member of the Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary and is a past member of the Sampler Antique Club and Town and Country Garden Club. She is married to Dr. Walter Frazier.

“From staying informed with local governmental issues to hearing the stories of its people, a hometown newspaper is vital to a community. I have felt privileged to be part of a dedicated team at The Post throughout my tenure and hope that with theirs and with local support, I will be able to continue to grow and hone in on my skills as I help share the stories in Vicksburg. When asked what I like most about my job, my answer is always ‘the people.’

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