Amoeblog

Lena Horne 1917 - 2010

Posted by Whitmore, May 10, 2010 12:05pm | Post a Comment
Lena Horne
 
Lena Horne, the legendary jazz singer, icon of American popular music and award winning actress -- and as far as I’m concerned, one of the most captivating women ever to walk this planet -- died yesterday, Sunday, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She was 92. Called "one of the incomparable performers of our time," she was best known for her plaintive signature song "Stormy Weather" from the film of the same name and her starring roles in such pictures as Cabin in the Sky, Panama Hattie, and The Wiz.
 
Horne had an easy, sultry singing voice, insanely beautiful, and her compelling sex appeal may have at first overshadowed her talents, but she wasn’t just another pretty face. When she signed with MGM Pictures, she was among the handful of black actors to have a contract with a major Hollywood studio, though it was never easy. Her life long battle against bigotry took its psychic toll; Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation of racism. A pivotal moment took place in 1945 as she entertained at an Army base in Europe and saw that German prisoners of war were seated up front while black American lena Hornesoldiers were relegated to the back. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. Her involvement in various social and political organizations and her friendship with Paul Robeson, who was just as well known as a singer as for his communist leanings, had Horne’s name placed on the era’s blacklists during the red scare witch hunts of the early 1950’s and the age of Joseph McCarthy.
 
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, she dropped out of school at 16 to help support her family. She joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club, the mythical Harlem night spot where the entertainers were black and the clientele white. By the spring of 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade. She left the club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle's orchestra, then billed as Helena Horne. Horne was also one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band when she joined Charlie Barnet's orchestra in 1940. She was the first black performer to play the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.
 
In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical Stormy Weather. Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and put her name center stage for the next several decades.
 Lena Horne
Horne became one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement of the late 50’s and 1960’s. She made headlines for once throwing a lamp, an ashtray and several glasses at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant, bloodying the man's forehead. In 1963 Horne joined with some 250,000 others in the March on Washington, D.C. when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. That same year Horne spoke at a NAACP rally with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just the weekend before his assassination.
 
In the early 1970’s Horne went into seclusion. In a period of just over a year, her father, son and husband all died. She became too grief-stricken to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. Oddly enough, comedian Alan King was the one who convinced her to return to the stage and public life.
 
Horne had her first big Broadway success as the star of  Jamaica in 1957, but in 1981, for her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, she won a special Tony Award and the 333 performances still hold the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history. In it, she sang two versions -- one straight and the other gut-wrenching -- of "Stormy Weather" to give audiences a glimpse of the spiritual odyssey she had taken in of her five-plus decade long career. In 1984 she was Kennedy Center Honors recipient for extraordinary talent, creativity, and perseverance. And of her four Grammy Awards, the one she received in 1989 was the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.



The Nicholas Brothers

Posted by Whitmore, February 26, 2009 07:09pm | Post a Comment

Back in the hey day of the Hollywood Musical, during the 1930’s and 40’s, there was a plethora of extremely talented high flying family dance troupes, starting with the ballroom sophistication of Fred and Adele Astaire to the lightning fast feet of the Condos Brothers to the tap dancing brilliance of Four Step Brothers to the over the top athleticism of the Berry Brothers. But the best, most explosive, and daringly innovative were the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000). With their highly acrobatic "flash dancing" tap style and spectacular choreography, they are considered by many to be greatest dance team not only of the era, but of all time.
 
Growing up in Philadelphia, Fayard and Harold were the sons of vaudevillian musicians-- a pianist mother and drummer father who led their own band working the circuit. In 1932, when Harold was 11 years of age and Fayard 18, they became the featured act at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club. That same year they shot their first film, a short subject musical called Pie, Pie, Blackbird.
 
The Nicholas Brothers made their Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936, directed by Vincente Minnelli and choreographed by George Balanchine, they performed alongside stars such as Fannie Brice, Bob Hope, and Josephine Baker. Two years later in a packed Cotton Club, Fayard and Harold reigned supreme in the legendary dance-off against the other leading tap dancing family of the day, the Berry Brothers. By some accounts the Berry Brothers trio showed perhaps more bravado, but the Nicholas Brothers brought down the house with sheer finesse and artistry.   
 
Shortly thereafter, Fayard and Harold found themselves in Hollywood starring in a series of short subject films and guesting in several big budget musicals, like Down Argentine Way and Tin Pan Alley. In 1941 the duo appeared in both Glenn Miller movies, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. The former included the definitive version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo;” the brothers' dance number also included Harold’s future first wife, the incomparably beautiful Dorothy Dandridge.
 
In 1943 the Nicholas Brothers filmed what Fred Astaire has called the greatest dance sequence ever put to celluloid. In an amazing display of strength, agility and timing, they danced to Cab Calloway’s hard swinging “Jumpin' Jive” in the classic film Stormy Weather. The routine included Harold and Fayard hopping from table to table and over music stands, bounding between musicians in the orchestra and finally leap-frogging over each other down a flight of stairs, landing a complete split each time. Mikhail Baryshnikov called them the most amazing dancers he’d ever seen.
 
They’ve received numerous awards and accolades. In 1948 The Nicholas brothers gave a royal command performance for the King of England at the London Palladium and over the years they danced for nine different Presidents. Retrospectives of the Nicholas Brothers' work in film include a special presentation at the 1981 Academy Awards and a Kennedy Center Honors in 1991. They were awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University where they taught master classes in tap dance as teachers-in-residence. In 1994 they received a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Blvd and were inducted into the first class of the Apollo Theater's Hall of Fame and the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame. The Nicholas Brothers were also recipients of the 1998 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance.
 
I once met Fayard and Harold back in the 1980’s while I was attending LACC. They were invited to give a talk about their careers and incredible lives. Both of them still looked pretty damned fit, but unfortunately neither danced. I wanted to ask a question about life with Dorothy Dandridge, but I figured the conversation might take a gloomy turn, so I just kept my mouth shut; I suspect it might have been the right decision. Her life ended prematurely and tragically. Somewhere in my pile of papers I still have the program signed by both brothers.  
 
Harold died July 3, 2000 of a heart attack following minor surgery. Fayard died January 24, 2006 of pneumonia -- a complication from a stroke.
 
Check out the footage below-- some of the dance routines are simply mind blowing.