By Mary Vespa
January 12, 1976 12:00 PM

There was a time when singer-dancer Gretchen Wyler would brag about the frugality that enabled her to buy a fur stole. That was when she was a leggy Broadway chorus girl in her teens. Now she is 43, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a mink. In fact, most of her spare moments are devoted to shielding animals from human cruelty.

Ironically, the principal target of Wyler’s ire these days is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—a group whose board she was a member of only 10 months ago. She and current board member Linda L. Meyer are suing the ASPCA, and its managers—including William Rockefeller, a distant cousin of the Vice-President—charging financial mismanagement and indifference to animal welfare, and seeking to replace its officers with a slate that includes actress Carrie Nye (Mrs. Dick Cavett) and writer Cleveland Amory. “The current officers,” says Gretchen, “are nice gentlemen who meet in the money room of Bankers Trust and never go to the shelters.”

During her three years on the board of the 3,000-member, quasipublic organization, Gretchen says she discovered incidents of cruelty in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island shelters. Employees, she said, would destroy a cat in labor to reduce the number of animals they had to care for. Cages with kittens still in them were cleaned with high-powered hoses. Healthy cats and dogs were put in compartments infected by sick animals.

Gretchen is also angry at the ASPCA’s general director, Encil Rains. She says Rains put a $749 membership in a private club on his expense account. He did so, she charges, at a time when the ASPCA was so short of cash it closed its Queens shelter. Rains, for his part, maintains that “there are no charges that are true,” but refuses to discuss specifics while the case is before the courts.

Wyler’s shoestring campaign is headquartered in her modest one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. She and 40 volunteers send out mailings for donations to offset their legal fees. “I will not let wealthy New York City board money frighten me,” vows Gretchen. “When the time comes to pay the bills, performers will donate their services for a telethon or a show at Carnegie Hall. Actors are fools for animals.”

Not so her parents, with whom Gretchen has always been close. Of her mother and father, who live in Bartlesville, Okla., where Wyler was raised, she says with a sigh, “They felt dogs were things that messed up their front lawn.”

Her father, a retired construction engineer, had always encouraged her interest in the stage. She was born Gretchen Wienecke (musical-comedy star Ray Bolger suggested changing her name), and she began dancing lessons at 3. By 15 she was running her own dancing school out of her home and studying dance in Manhattan during the summers.

At 17 Gretchen went pro and five years later got her big break on Broadway in the musical Silk Stockings. In 1956 she succeeded Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees, and from there went on to a “B” career in TV, nightclubs and stock musicals, always impressing audiences with her girlish exuberance and skyscraper kicks.

Two-and-a-half years ago, her dancing career ended when she fell and broke her right ankle while performing in a New Jersey dinner theater. In a bitter setback last month she lost a $250,000 lawsuit stemming from the accident. (“I cried for about an hour, but got over it. I am a resilient lady.”) She is now appealing.

Gretchen supports herself—she made about $54,000 last year—with TV commercials and nightclub engagements. This year she plans to augment her income with lectures on show business and animals.

Her interest in animals began when she and her husband, musician Shep Coleman (they divorced in 1967 after an 11-year marriage), bought a Great Dane. When the dog died four years later, Gretchen was so upset she stayed in bed two days. “That sent me to a shrink,” she recalls. “The marriage was not good at that time, and I thought, ‘I must be sick—falling apart because of a dog.’ I had guilt about my interest in animals because society makes you feel like you should be doing things for people. Therapy helped me get over the guilt.”

In 1966 Gretchen started her crusade for stray animals. She and Shep owned an estate in Warwick, N.Y., and Gretchen persuaded the town to build an animal shelter that she still manages. She is building a $40,000 two-bedroom cottage on two acres in Warwick where she plans to keep two horses now stabled with friends. Three cats and a Great Dane room with her in Manhattan.

Fiercely energetic, Wyler manages her career and causes on six hours’ sleep. Her hectic life leaves little time for socializing, but she occasionally dates (younger men). “It’s hard,” she says, “to have a serious relationship in the middle of the life I have now.” “Gretchen,” says her secretary, Marcie Olivi, “is the most amazing lady I have ever known. I am just 21, and she runs me into the ground. She just goes and goes and goes.”