Friday, February 27, 2015


On October 31, 1965, Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong gave his first performance in New Orleans, his home town, in nine years. As a boy, he had busked on street corners. At twelve, he marched in parades for the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he was given his first cornet. But he had publicly boycotted the city since its banning of integrated bands, in 1956. It took the Civil Rights Act, of 1964, to undo the law. Returning should have been a victory lap. At sixty-four, his popular appeal had never been broader. His recording of “Hello, Dolly!,” from the musical then in its initial run on Broadway, bumped the Beatles’ ”Can’t Buy Me Love” from its No. 1 slot on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and the song carried him to the Grammys; it won the 1964 Best Vocal Performance award. By the time the movie version came out, in 1969, he was brought in to duet with Barbra Streisand.

Armstrong was then widely known as America’s gravel-voiced, lovable grandpa of jazz. Yet it was a low point for his critical estimation. “The square’s jazzman,” the journalist Andrew Kopkind called him, while covering Armstrong’s return to New Orleans for The New Republic. Kopkind added that “Among Negroes across the country he occupies a special position as success symbol, cultural hero, and racial cop-out.” Kopkind was not entirely wrong in this, and hardly alone in saying so. Armstrong was regularly called an Uncle Tom.

Detractors wanted Armstrong on the front lines, marching, but he refused. He had already been the target of a bombing, during an integrated performance at Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park auditorium, in February, 1957. In 1965, the year Armstrong returned to New Orleans, Malcolm X was killed on February 21st, and on March 7th, known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers armed with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips attacked nearly six hundred marchers protesting a police shooting of a voter-registration activist near Selma. Armstrong flatly stated in interviews that he refused to march, feeling that he would be a target. “My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn … they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”

When local kids asked Armstrong to join them in a homecoming parade, as he had done with the Colored Waif’s Home in his youth, he said no. He knew the 1964 Civil Rights Act was federal law, not local fiat. Armstrong had happily joined in the home’s parades in the past, but his refusal here can be read as a sign of the times. The Birmingham church bombings in 1963 had shown that even children were not off limits.

And yet little of what Armstrong said about the civil-rights struggle registered. The public image of him, that wide performance smile, the rumbling lilt of his “Hello, Dolly!,” obviated everything else. “As for Satchmo himself,” Kopkind wrote, “he seems untouched by all the doubts around him. He is a New Orleans trumpet player who loves to entertain. He is not very serious about art or politics, or even life.”

Armstrong grew up poor and powerless, and he never forgot it. Despite his fame, he understood the repercussions for a community after the celebrity savior jets home. “I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert,” he said in a 1964 profile in Ebony. “These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro.”

Armstrong chose his battles carefully. In September, 1957, seven months after the bombing attempt in Knoxville, he grew strident when President Eisenhower did not compel Arkansas to allow nine students to attend Little Rock Central High School. As Teachout recounts in “Pops,” here Armstrong had leverage, and spoke out. Armstrong was then an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Armstrong stated publicly that Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts.” He told one reporter, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

Doing things Armstrong’s way, no one had to accept responsibility for his actions but Louis Armstrong. When Eisenhower did force the schools to integrate, Armstrong’s tone was friendlier. “Daddy,” he telegrammed the President, “You have a good heart.”

As the pieces come together, a consistency of thought in Armstrong once obscured to us has finally become clear: “You name the country and we’ve just about been there,” he said of his travels with his wife Lucille. “We’ve been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We’ve had an audience with the Pope. We’ve even slept in Hitler’s bed. But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I’ve got sense enough to know that I’m still Louis Armstrong—colored.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Many people regard Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the greatest dancers the movies have even seen and rightfully so. However, one of the most amazing dancers that film ever captured were The Nicholas Brothers The Nicholas Brothers were a famous African American team of dancing brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000). With their highly acrobatic technique ("flash dancing"), high level of artistry and daring innovations, they were considered by many the greatest tap dancers of their day. Growing up surrounded by Vaudeville acts as children, they became stars of the jazz circuit during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance and went on to have successful careers performing on stage, film, and television well into the 1990s.

Because of the racial prejudice of the 1930s and 1940s, many of the dance scenes that The Nicholas Brothers filmed were not part of the plots of the films, so they could be cut out depending on where the movie was being shown. It is such a shame, because like other African-American entertainers at time (i.e.-Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) they deserved to be superstars. I remember seeing them as young teenagers in the Eddie Cantor movie Kid Millions (1934). Reportedly they did not want Eddie to dance on screen with them, but Cantor (a major star at the time) threatened to walk from the film. All three talents introduced the Irving Berlin song “Mandy” in the film.
The Nicholas Brothers grew up in Philadelphia, the sons of musicians who played in their own band at the old Standard Theater, their mother at the piano and father on drums. At the age of three, Fayard was always seated in the front row while his parents worked, and by the time he was ten, he had seen most of the great African American Vaudeville acts, particularly the dancers, including such notables of the time as Alice Whitman, Willie Bryant and Bill Robinson. They were fascinated by the combination of tap dancing and acrobatics. Fayard often imitated their acrobatics and clowning for the kids in his neighborhood.
Neither Fayard nor Harold had any formal dance training. Fayard taught himself how to dance, sing, and perform by watching and imitating the professional entertainers on stage. He then taught his younger siblings, first performing with Dorothy as the Nicholas Kids; they were later joined by Harold. Harold idolized his older brother and learned by copying his moves and distinct style. Dorothy later opted out of the act, and the Nicholas Kids became known as the Nicholas Brothers.

The Brothers moved to Philadelphia in 1926 and gave their first performance at the Standard a few years later. By 1932 they became the featured act at Harlem's Cotton Club, when Harold was 11 and Fayard was 18. They astonished their mainly white audiences dancing to the Jazz tempos of "Bugle Call Rag" and they were the only entertainers in the African American cast allowed to mingle with white patrons. They performed at the Cotton Club for two years, working with the orchestras of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. During this time they filmed their first movie short, "Pie Pie Blackbird" in 1932, with Eubie Blake and his orchestra.
In that exhilarating hybrid of tap dance, ballet and acrobatics, sometimes called acrobatic dancing or "flash dancing," no individual or group surpassed the effect that the Nicholas Brothers had on audiences and on other dancers. The brothers attribute their enormous success to this unique style of dancing that was greatly in demand during this time.
The brothers made their Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and also appeared in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's legendary musical Babes in Arms in 1937. They made a huge impression on their choreographer, Balanchine. The impression was so great that he was the one who invited them to appear in Babes in Arms. With Balanchine's training they learned many new stunts and because of how talented they were, many people assumed they were trained ballet dancers.

It was their tour of England with a production of "Blackbirds" that gave the Nicholas Brothers an opportunity to see and appreciate several of the great European Ballet companies.  In 1948, they gave a royal command performance for the King of England at the London Palladium. Later, they danced for nine different presidents of the United States. Also in 1948 they filmed a classic number in the MGM musical The Pirate. The movie was a forgettable bomb, but their performance of “Be A Clown” with Gene Kelly is among the best remembered they captured on film.
With the decline of the movie musical, the Brothers left Hollywood.  They later taught master classes in tap dance as teachers-in-residence at Harvard University and Radcliffe as Ruth Page Visiting Artists. Among their known students are Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson. Several of today's master tap dancers have performed with or been taught by the brothers.
Fayard was married three times, and two of his granddaughters are now performing as dancers. Harold was married 4 times. He was first married to singer and actress Dorothy Dandridge from 1942 to 1951. The couple had one child, Harolyn Nicholas, who was born severely mentally handicapped. In Paris, he had a son, Melih Nicholas, by his second wife.

Both brothers continued to dance until the mid-1990s.  Harold died July 3, 2000 of a heart attack following minor surgery. Fayard died January 24, 2006 of pneumonia after having a stroke. Upon his death his memorial service was standing room only. Presided over by Mary Jean Valente of A Ceremony of the Heart, the service was a moving collection of personal tributes, music and dance and as appropriate, one last standing ovation.

A signature move of theirs was to leapfrog down a long, broad flight of stairs, while completing each step with a split. Its most famous performance formed the finale of the movie, Stormy Weather.  Fred Astaire once told the brothers that the "Jumpin' Jive" dance number in Stormy Weather was the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen. In that famous routine, the Nicholas Brothers leapt exuberantly across the orchestra's music stands and danced on the top of a grand piano in a call and response act with the pianist. Another signature move was to arise from a split without using the hands.  Gregory Hines declared that if their biography were ever filmed, their dance numbers would have to be computer generated because no one now could emulate them. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov once called them the most amazing dancers he had ever seen in his life. Looking back at their performances 70 years later, it is amazing the dancing ability they had. It is unfortunate that due to their race, they did not receive the fame that they deserved. However, audiences now can marvel at their abilities regardless or who they were or where they came from. Forever the Nicholas Brothers will be dancing in our memories…

Monday, February 23, 2015


You would think that after winning the Academy Award for her role in Gone With The Wind, that it would open doors for actresses like Hattie McDaniel in better movie roles. Unfortunately it did not, and McDaniel fell back to more roles as just sassy maids. In the 1942 Warner Bros. film In This Our Life, starring Bette Davis and directed by John Huston, McDaniel once again played a domestic, but one who confronts racial issues, as her law student son is wrongly accused of manslaughter.

The following year, McDaniel was in Warner Bros' Thank Your Lucky Stars with Eddie Cantor, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis. In its review of the film, Time wrote that McDaniel was comic relief in an otherwise "grim study," writing, "...Hattie McDaniel, whose bubbling, blaring good humor more than redeems the roaring bad taste of a Harlem number called Ice Cold Katie."

Hattie McDaniel continued to play maids during the war years in Warner Bros' The Male Animal (1942) and United Artists' Since You Went Away (1944), but her feistiness was toned down to reflect the era's somber news.

She made her last film appearances in Mickey (1948) and Family Honeymoon (1949). She remained active on radio and television in her final years, becoming the first black American to star in her own radio show with the comedy series Beulah. She also starred in the ABC television version of the show, replacing Ethel Waters after the first season. (Waters had apparently expressed concerns over stereotypes in the role.) Beulah was a hit, however, and earned McDaniel $2,000 a week. But the show was controversial. In 1951, the United States Army ceased broadcasting The Beulah Show in Asia because troops complained that the show perpetuated negative stereotypes of black men as shiftless and lazy and interfered with the ability of black troops to perform their mission. After filming a handful of episodes, however, McDaniel learned she had breast cancer. By the spring of 1952, she was too ill to work and was replaced by Louise Beavers.

McDaniel died at age 57 on October 26, 1952, of breast cancer in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills. McDaniel was survived by her brother, Sam McDaniel. Thousands of mourners turned out to celebrate her life and achievements. In her will, McDaniel wrote: "I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery." The Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood is the resting place of movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and others. Hollywood Cemetery refused to allow her to be buried there, because it, too, practiced racial segregation and would not accept for burial the bodies of black people. Her second choice was Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, where she lies today.

In 1999, Tyler Cassidy, the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery that had renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery, offered to have McDaniel re-interred at his cemetery. Her family did not wish to disturb her remains and declined the offer. Instead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery built a large cenotaph on the lawn overlooking its lake. It is one of Hollywood's most popular tourist attractions.

McDaniel's last will and testament of December 1951 awarded her Oscar to Howard University, where she had been honored by the students with a luncheon after she had won her Oscar. At the time of her death, McDaniel would have had few options. Very few white institutions in that day preserved black history. Historically, black colleges had been where such artifacts were placed. Despite evidence McDaniel had earned an excellent income as an actor, her final estate was less than $10,000. The IRS claimed the estate owed more than $11,000 in taxes. In the end, the probate court ordered all of her property, including her Oscar, sold to pay off creditors. Years later, the Oscar turned up where McDaniel wanted it to be: Howard University, where, according to reports, it was displayed in a glass case in the University's drama department. Hattie McDaniel never got the roles she deserved, but she helped to pave a way for African American actresses even now some 75 years after her monumental Oscar win...

Friday, February 20, 2015


It is hard to believe that someone like Sydney Poitier is 88 years ago. The images he displayed on the film made him seem so timeless. Sir Sidney Poitier was born February 20, 1927. In 1964, Poitier became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor,  for his role in Lilies of the Field. The significance of this achievement was later bolstered in 1967 when he starred in three successful films, all of which dealt with issues involving race: To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, making him the top box-office star of that year. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.

Sidney Poitier's parents were Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on Cat Island and traveled to Miami in the U.S.A. to sell tomatoes and other produce. Reginald worked as a cab driver in Nassau, Bahamas.  Poitier was born in Miami while his parents were visiting. His birth was two months premature and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained three months in Miami to nurse him to health. Poitier grew up in the Bahamas (then a British colony) but because of his birth in the U.S., he automatically gained U.S. citizenship. Poitier's uncle has claimed that the Poitier ancestors on his father's side had migrated from Haiti and were probably a part of the runaway slaves which had established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. He mentions that the surname Poitier is a French name, and there were no white Poitiers from the Bahamas.

At the age of 15 he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At the age of 17, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. A Jewish waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper. He then decided to join the United States Army after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theatre.

Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of African American actors at the time, Poitier's tone deafness made him unable to sing. Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which he received good reviews. By the end of 1949, he had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950). His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a Caucasian bigot (played by Richard Widmark), was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most African American actors of the time were offered. Poitier's breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).

Poitier began to be criticized for being typecast as over-idealized African American characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967). Poitier was aware of this pattern himself, but was conflicted on the matter: he wanted more varied roles, but also felt obliged to set a good example with his characters to defy previous stereotypes, as he was the only major actor of African descent in the American film industry at the time. For instance, in 1966 he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC production of Othello with that spirit in mind. In 2001, Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, Poitier became the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor. On March 2, 2014, Poitier appeared with Angelina Jolie at the 86th Academy Awards, to present the Best Director award. He was given a standing ovation, as Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating "we are in your debt". Poitier gave a small speech telling his peers to "keep up the wonderful work" to emotional applause...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person.In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. What was once the norm of American entertainment is quite offensive today, because often blackface would make perpetuate a negative stereotype of the African American race.

Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor brought blackface to the cinema with their popular musicals of the 1930s. Each of their films would usually include one number in blackface. For the Al Jolson musical Big Boy in 1930, Jolson was in blackface the entire movie. However, by the late 1930s Hollywood were using blackface less and less in their films. Bing Crosby, who strived for race equality throughout his career appeared in blackface in three of his movies: Holiday Inn (1942), Dixie (1943), and Here Comes The Waves (1945). Eddie Cantor appeared in blackface in his last movie If You Knew Susie (1948), and Betty Hutton appeared in blackface in the musical Somebody Loves Me as late as 1952.

Is it ever okay for a white to perform in blackface? In 1936 when the lead in touring company of Orson Welles' Voodoo Macbeth (Maurice Ellis) fell ill, Welles stepped temporarily into the part and played the role in blackface.

An example of the fascination in American culture with racial boundaries and the color line is demonstrated in the popular duo Amos 'n' Andy, characters played by two white men who performed the show in blackface. They gradually stripped off the blackface makeup during live 1929 performances while continuing to talk in dialect. This fascination with color boundaries had been well-established since the beginning of the century, as it also had been before the Civil War.

Bing Crosby
The wearing of blackface was once a traditional part of the annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Growing dissent from civil rights groups and the offense of the black community led to a 1964 official city policy ruling out blackface. Also in 1964, bowing to pressure from the interracial group Concern, teenagers in Norfolk, Connecticut, reluctantly agreed to discontinue using blackface in their traditional minstrel show that was a fund-raiser for the March of Dimes.

In 1980, an underground film, Forbidden Zone, was released, directed by Richard Elfman and starring the band Oingo Boingo, which received controversy for blackface sequences.

In 1993, white actor Ted Danson ignited a firestorm of controversy when he appeared at a New York Friars' Club roast in blackface, delivering a risqué shtick written by his then love interest, African-American comedian Whoopi Goldberg. Recently, gay white performer Chuck Knipp has used drag, blackface, and broad racial caricature while portraying a character named "Shirley Q. Liquor" in his cabaret act, generally performed for all-white audiences. Knipp's outrageously stereotypical character has drawn criticism and prompted demonstrations from black, gay and transgender activists.

Blackface and minstrels also serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style in a series concept in an attempt to get himself fired, and is instead horrified by its success.

Robert Downey Jr

In 2008, the film Tropic Thunder had Robert Downey Jr. in an Oscar-nominated performance where he plays a Caucasian Australian actor who is so committed to method acting an African-American character that he has his skin surgically darkened and clumsily lecturing to his bemused African-American co-players about racial politics. Aware of the racial connotations that could be misconstrued, Director Ben Stiller had the film screened for a group of African American journalists and representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They in turn responded positively and reassured Stiller that they understood the artistic intent of the character.

While I am against banning classic Hollywood films that have blackface, I do believe it is an outdated "form of entertainment" that is almost embarrassing to sit through in 2015. It is a shame that stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor used it so often in their movies, because they were quite talented. I guess when blackface is used in a "tasteful" way to tell the story and not to show a racial stereotype like in Tropic Thunder then it is okay. It is a fine line though and not matter how you look at it in 2015, blackface might not of meant to be a form of racism when it was popular in movies in the 1930s, but it is highly racial by today's standards and should be...

Eddie Cantor

Monday, February 16, 2015


One of the most popular singers of the early rock era of the 1960s has died. Lesley Gore was one of the most popular female vocalists of the 1960s.
A singer-songwriter who topped the charts in 1963 with her epic song of teenage angst "It's My Party" and followed it up with the hits "Judy's Turn to Cry" and "You Don't Own Me" has died. Lesley Gore was 68.

According to her partner of 33 years, Gore died Monday of cancer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

Brooklyn-born and New Jersey-raised, Gore was discovered by Quincy Jones as a teenager and signed to Mercury Records.

Gore's other hits include "She's A Fool," "That's the Way Boys Are" and "Maybe I Know." She co-wrote with her brother, Michael, the Academy Award-nominated "Out Here On My Own" from the film "Fame."

She also played Catwoman's sidekick in the cult TV comedy "Batman."


The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939) had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O'Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid's uniform, she won the part.

Upon hearing of the planned film adaptation, the NAACP fought hard to require the film's producer and director to delete racial epithets from it (in particular the offensive "n-word") and to alter scenes that might be incendiary and that, in their view, were historically inaccurate. Of particular concern was a scene from the novel in which black men attack Scarlett O'Hara, after which the Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of provoking terror on black communities, is presented as a savior. Throughout the South, black men were being lynched based upon false allegations they had harmed white women. That attack scene was altered, and some offensive language was modified. But another epithet, "darkie", remained in the film, and the film's message with respect to slavery remained essentially the same. Consistent with the book, the film's screenplay also referred to poor whites as "white trash," and it ascribed these words equally to characters black and white.

The Loew's Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia, was selected by the studio as the site for the premiere of Gone with the Wind, Friday, December 15, 1939. As the date of the premiere approached, all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film in the South. Studio head David Selznick asked that Hattie McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia's segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway.

Most of Atlanta's 300,000 citizens crowded the route of the seven-mile motorcade that carried the film's other stars and executives from the airport to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they stayed. While Jim Crow laws kept McDaniel from the Atlanta premiere, she did attend the film's Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. Upon Selznick's insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.

It was McDaniel's role as the house slave who repeatedly scolds her owner's daughter, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), and scoffs at Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), that won McDaniel the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first black American to win an Oscar.

She had also been the first black American to be nominated. "I loved Mammy," McDaniel said when speaking to the white press about the character. "I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara." Her role in Gone with the Wind had alarmed some whites in the Southern audience; there were complaints that in the film she had been too "familiar" with her white owners. But at least one author pointed out that McDaniel's character does not significantly depart from Mammy's persona in Margaret Mitchell's book, and that in both the film and the book the much younger Scarlett speaks to Mammy in ways that would be deemed inappropriate for a Southern teen of that era to speak to a much older white person, and that neither the book nor the film hint of the existence of Mammy's own children (dead or alive), her own family (dead or alive), or her desires to have anything other than a life at Tara, serving on a slave plantation.

The Twelfth Academy Awards took place at the Cocoanut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was preceded by a banquet in the same room. Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:

"Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of 'Mammy' in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen's taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor"...

Hattie McDaniel's acceptance speech:
"Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you."

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Movie fan and critic Bruce Kogan is back with a review of the MGM musical Cabin In The Sky from 1943. The movie as important now to African American entertainers now as it was some 70 years ago...

Cabin In The Sky marked Vincente Minnelli's feature film debut as a director and he certainly started on a grand scale. Louis B. Mayer was purportedly reluctant to do black cast feature film with an A Budget, but Minnelli and Arthur Freed's faith in Minnelli paid off big time.

Cabin In The Sky, musical fantasy, with score by John LaTouche and Vernon Duke ran for 156 performances in the 1940-1941 Broadway season. The only two members of the cast who made it to the screen version was lead Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram as Lucifer, Jr. Unless of course you count the Hall Johnson Choir.

It would have never been made if MGM could not get Ethel Waters to repeat her role as the wise and faithful Petunia Johnson praying ever so that her husband Little Joe Johnson gets saved from his evil ways of drinking and gambling and carousing with that no good Georgia Brown on whom no gal made has got a shade. Come to think of it, that song should have been interpolated in the score, MGM should have paid any price for it.

MGM got their work out of Ethel though. She appeared in Cairo with Jeanette MacDonald and Robert Young and the contrasting styles of MacDonald and Waters is something to see in that film.

On Broadway Little Joe's part was played by someone who would make a big splash in Hollywood this same year of 1943. Because Dooley Wilson was playing piano at Rick's place in Casablanca, I guess he missed repeating his role. Stepping in for Wilson was America's most well known butler, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson who did the impossible, get rich working for Jack Benny.

Sweet Georgia Brown was played by Lena Horne, the devil had no better temptress ever on screen, not even Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees. She does a mean version of Honey In The Honeycomb.

The plot's a simple one. Petunia brings her husband Little Joe to church for the hundred and umpteenth time to get himself saved, but he slips away for a crap game and gets himself shot in the process. He's about to enter the devil's domain, but Petunia's prayers get him a six month stay of his sentence to see if he can mend his ways. After that both heavenly and hellish forces work overtime to have claim to his soul.

LaTouche and Duke gave Ethel Waters two of her best known numbers to sing, the title song and Taking A Chance On Love. Cabin In The Sky has a unique distinction of being one of the few Broadway musicals that came to the screen. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg wrote some new material including a song for Eddie Anderson Life's Full of Consequences and another song uniquely identified with Ethel Waters, Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe.

Louis Armstrong is in Cabin In The Sky as Lucifer's Trumpeter and while we get a couple of licks from Satchmo, I do so wish that someone at MGM would have given him a number for himself. He doesn't standout as he usually does because of that.

Still Cabin In The Sky is a delightful film, a real treat with some of the best talent in the human race in it...

Bruce's rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, February 12, 2015


For every singer like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra that become mega stars in their profession, there are footnotes in the business as well. These footnotes are people who have a great talent, there is no denying that but they just never made it to the heights of Crosby or Sinatra. Harlan Lattimore was one such person who never made it.

Harlan Lattimore was born in Cincinnati,Ohio to on November 25, 1908 to first generation freed slaves. Lattimore was a popular African-American singer with several jazz orchestras of the 1930s, most notably Don Redman's. He was known as "The Colored Bing Crosby", an unfortunate title because Lattimore was talented on his own.

He built his reputation as a singer on that city's WLW radio station. By March 1932, he had arrived on the New York music scene, and began his recording career with Fletcher Henderson's band. Not long afterwards, Lattimore was signed by Don Redman as his vocalist. This association lasted throughout the 1930s.

His style of singing, as well as the timber of his beautiful voice, closely resembling that of Bing Crosby, earned him recording dates with some of the top studio and dance bands of the era, most notably those of Victor Young, Abe Lyman and Isham Jones, as well a number of dates as vocalist for a number of generic dance records for ARC (on Melotone, Banner, Oriole, Romeo, and Perfect).

The 1933 Vitaphone short, Don Redman and his Orchestra is included on the Warner Brothers DVD of Dames, where he sings a beautiful rendition of Harold Arlen's "Ill Wind", which the Redman band never recorded. With the exposure of Lattimore to the public through radio broadcasts (with Don Redman), recordings and an appearance in a Vitaphone short subject film (with Redman), it seemed a foregone conclusion that he was headed for stardom. This was not to be.

Lattimore's behavior became unreliable and erratic in the mid 30's, and he made his last recordings with Redman in 1936. A 1940 Census shows that Lattimore did a stint in Sing Sing Prison, and at the time of his incarceration he was also married. Depression and alcoholism took over Lattimore's life, but he pulled it together to join the military in 1942. After service in WWII, he dropped out of the music scene. It was reported a war injury and a return to alcoholism cause Harlan to further withdraw from everything. Except for an attempt at a comeback, in the late 40's, Harlan Lattimore slid further and further into musical obscurity until his death in 1980. He reportedly died in July of 1980 in Brooklyn, New York...broke and penniless.

Although the name Harlan Lattimore is now looked upon as a mere footnote in American popular music, there can be no denying his role as a pioneering African-American singer who established a style and role later filled by such musical luminaries as Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole. Harlan Lattimore was a great singer when it was difficult and virtually impossible for an African-American to get ahead. He deserves to be remembered even though he is a mere footnote in the history of popular music…

Monday, February 9, 2015


One of the true greats among early African American movie stars was the talented Hattie McDaniel. Hattie was born June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, to former slaves. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her father, Henry McDaniel, fought in the Civil War with the 122nd USCT and her mother, Susan Holbert, was a singer of religious music.In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Fort Collins and then in Denver, where Hattie graduated from Denver East High School. Her brother, Sam McDaniel (1886–1962), played the butler in the 1948 Three Stooges’ short film Heavenly Daze. Another acting sibling of Hattie and Sam was actor Etta McDaniel (1890-1946).

In addition to performing, Hattie was also a songwriter, a skill she honed while working with her brother's minstrel show. After the death of her brother Otis in 1916, the troupe began to lose money, and it wasn't until 1920 that Hattie got her next big break. During 1920–25, she appeared with Professor George Morrison's Melody Hounds, a touring black ensemble, and in the mid-1920s she embarked on a radio career, singing with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver. In 1926–1929 she also recorded many of her songs on Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago. In all, McDaniel recorded seven sessions; one in the summer of 1926 on the rare Kansas City label Meritt; four sessions in Chicago for Okeh (late 1926-late 1927) – of the ten sides, only four were issued, and two sessions in Chicago for Paramount (both in March 1929).

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the only work McDaniel could find was as a wash-room attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Despite the owner's reluctance to let her perform, McDaniel was eventually allowed to take the stage and she soon became a regular.

In 1931, McDaniel made her way to Los Angeles to join her brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Sam was working on KNX radio program called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and he was able to get his sister a spot. She appeared on radio as "Hi-Hat Hattie", a bossy maid who often "forgets her place". Her show became extremely popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.

Her first film appearance was in The Golden West (1932) as a maid; her second was in the highly successful Mae West film I'm No Angel (1933), as one of the black maids West camped it up with backstage. She received several other uncredited film roles in the early 1930s, often singing in choruses.

In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). She began to attract attention and finally landed larger film roles that began to win her screen credits. Fox Film Corporation put her under contract to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. In 1935 McDaniel had prominent roles with her performances as a slovenly maid in RKO Pictures' Alice Adams, a comic part as Jean Harlow's maid/traveling companion in MGM's China Seas, the latter her first film with Clark Gable, and as Isabella the maid in Murder by Television with Béla Lugosi. She also appeared in the 1938 film, Vivacious Lady, starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers.

McDaniel had a featured role as Queenie in Universal Pictures's 1936 version of Show Boat, starring Irene Dunne, and sang a verse of Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man with Dunne, Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, and the African-American chorus. Later in the film she and Robeson sang I Still Suits Me, a song written especially by Kern and Hammerstein for the film.

After Show Boat she had major roles in MGM's Saratoga (1937), starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, The Shopworn Angel (1938) with Margaret Sullavan, and The Mad Miss Manton (1938), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. She had a very minor role in the Carole Lombard/Frederic March vehicle, Nothing Sacred (1937), in which she appeared as the wife of a shoeshine man (Troy Brown), masquerading as a sultan.

It was around this time that she began to be criticized by members of the black community for the roles she chose to accept and for her decision to pursue roles aggressively rather than rock the Hollywood boat. For example, in The Little Colonel (1935) she played one of the black servants longing to return to the Old South. But McDaniel's portrayal of Malena in RKO Pictures's Alice Adams angered white Southern audiences; she had stolen several scenes away from the film's white star, Katharine Hepburn. McDaniel would ultimately become best known for playing a sassy and opinionated maid.

Next up was a role in a little film called Gone With The Wind (1939) that would change Hattie's life forever in both good and bad ways...

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Many people do not truly know who Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was. He has been dead 65 years now, and most of his film roles were dated by the 1950s. However, Robinson was a gifted dancer, and like so many otherAfrican-American performers, he deserved to have been given better roles in the musicals. His long career though mirrored changes in American entertainment tastes and technology, starting in the age of minstrel shows, moving to vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, Hollywood radio, and television. 

Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878. His parents were Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. His grandmother raised him after both parents died in 1885 when he was 7 years old—his father from chronic heart disease and his mother from natural causes. Details of Robinson's early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Robinson himself. He claimed he was christened "Luther"—a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. Eventually, the exchange between the names of both brothers was made. The brother subsequently adopted the name of “Percy” and under that name achieved recognition as a musician.
In 1890, at the age of 12, Robinson ran away to Washington, DC, where he did odd jobs at Benning Race Track and worked briefly as a jockey. He teamed up with a young Al Jolson, with Jolson singing while Robinson danced for pennies or to sell newspapers. In 1891 he was hired by Whallen and Martel, touring with Mayme Remington's troupe in a show titled The South Before the War, performing again as a pickaninny, despite his age. He traveled with the show for over a year before growing too mature to play the role credibly.

In 1898 he returned to Richmond where he joined an army unit as a drummer when the Spanish–American War broke out. He received an accidental gunshot wound from a second lieutenant who was cleaning his gun.

On March 30, 1900, Robinson entered a buck-and-wing dance contest at the Bijou Theater in Brooklyn, NY, winning a gold medal and defeating Harry Swinton, star of the show In Old Kentucky and considered the best dancer of his day. The resulting publicity helped Robinson to get work in numerous traveling shows, sometimes in a troupe, more frequently with a partner, though not always as a dancer (Robinson also sang and performed two-man comedy.

When the U.S. entered World War I, the War Department set up a series of Liberty Theaters in the training camps. The Keith and Orpheum Circuits underwrote vaudeville acts at reduced fees, but Robinson volunteered to perform gratis for thousands of troops, in both black and white units of the Expeditionary Forces, receiving a commendation from the War Department in 1918. Throughout the early 1920s, Robinson continued his career on the road as a solo vaudeville act, touring throughout the country and most frequently visiting Chicago, where Marty Forkins, his manager, lived. From 1919–1923 he was fully booked on the Orpheum Circuit, and was signed full-time by the Keith in 1924 and 1925. In addition to being booked for 50–52 weeks (an avid baseball fan, he took a week off for the World Series), Robinson did multiple shows per night, frequently on two different stages.

Robinson’s film debut was in the RKO Pictures 1930 musical Dixiana. RKO was formed in part by a merger of the Keith and Orpheum theater circuits, with whom Robinson had performed as a headliner for many years. He was cast as a specialty performer in a standalone scene. This practice, customary at the time, permitted Southern theaters to remove scenes containing black performers from their showings of the film. Dixiana was followed by Robinson’s first starring role, in Harlem is Heaven (1932), the first film made with an all-black cast. The movie was produced in New York and did not perform well financially, leading Robinson to focus on Hollywood-produced movies after that.

The idea for bringing a black dancer to Fox to star with Temple in The Little Colonel was actually first proposed by Fox head Winfield Sheehan after a discussion with D. W. Griffith. Sheehan set his sights on Robinson, but unsure of his ability as an actor, arranged for a contract that was void if Robinson failed the dramatic test. Robinson passed the test and was brought in to both star with Temple and to teach her tap dancing. They quickly hit it off, as Temple recounted years later:

“Robinson walked a step ahead of us, but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand, but he hadn't looked down and seemed unaware. Fannie called his attention to what I was doing, so he stopped short, bent low over me, his eyes wide and rows of brilliant teeth showing in a wide smile. When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking silence. "Can I call you Uncle Billy?" I asked. "Why sure you can," he replied... "But then I get to call you darlin.'" It was a deal. From then on, whenever we walked together it was hand in hand, and I was always his "darlin."

Robinson and Temple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history. The scene was controversial for its time, however, and was cut out in the south along with all other scenes showing Temple and Robinson making physical contact. Robinson and Temple became close friends as a result of his dance coaching and acting with her. Robinson carried pictures of Temple with him wherever he traveled, and Temple considered him a lifelong friend, saying in an interview "Bill Robinson treated me as an equal, which was very important to me. He didn't talk down to me, like to a little girl. And I liked people like that. And Bill Robinson was the best of all.”

Robinson appeared opposite Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky (1935), the last movie Rogers made prior to his death in an airplane crash. Robinson and Rogers were good friends, and after Rogers’ death, Robinson refused to fly, instead travelling by train to Hollywood for his film work. Robinson’s final film appearance was a starring role in the 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather. Lena Horne co-starred as Robinson’s love interest, and the movie also featured Fats Waller in his final movie appearance before his death, playing with Cab Calloway and his orchestra,. The Nicholas Brothers are featured in the film’s final dance sequence, performing to Calloway’s "Jumpin' Jive," in what Fred Astaire called "the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen".

Robinson’s final public appearance in 1949, a few weeks before his death, was as a surprise guest on a TV show, Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour, in which he emotionally embraced a competitor on the show who had tap-danced for the audience. A friend remarked, “he was handing over his crown, like him saying, 'this is my good-bye. '”

Despite being the highest-paid black performer of the first half of the twentieth century, earning more than US$2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless on November 25, 1949, at the age of 71 from heart failure. He was married numerous times, but never had any children. His funeral was arranged and paid for by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan, co-star Shirley Temple, and fellow dancer Fred Astaire. Robinson's casket lay in state at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in Harlem, where an estimated 32,000 people filed past his casket to pay their last respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the funeral, which was broadcast over the radio. Bill Robinson might not have gotten the recognition he deserved due to race relations in the 1930s and 1940s, but his dancing inspired a generation and influenced countless dancers to this day…