Friday, July 31, 2009


Broke, unemployed, divorcee -- there I was, a trained dancer, with reviews -- "Little lithe and utterly lovely" said Walter Terry in the NY Herald Tribune; and no income. (In the divorce deal I got what I wanted -- the company, the studio, the sound equipment, the $600 debt my ex husband and I had borrowed from his mother. He got what he wanted, a new wife, and a teaching job at a major university.)

Meanwhile ... rent, utilities, food ... I had to get a job. A friend of a friend knew the producer of the Bell Telephone Hour. Strings were pulled. They needed a "go-fer" -- pay was $450 per week, starting immediately.

I hated the title. I didn't know what to wear. In blue jeans, blue silk blouse, sneakers, hair in a pony tail, I arrived at NBC. Upstairs on the twelfth floor I was given a list: props to assemble, music to deliver to the rehearsal; dressing room assignments to give to the star -- told to follow Mr. Louis Armstrong around and run errands, act like a hostess, "make the Negro comfortable."

GULP! In the arts, prejudice takes a different form. Blacks were moving in, taking over, getting grants, directing, choreographing, contributing fantastic music. Secretly I resented them for being IN, me being just another white dancer and a white choreographer, with white artistic ideas -- nothing fascinating like black people in the arts were now contributing. But the tone of my boss at NBC, the way he said "Negro" was scary.

Mr. Louis Armstrong sat in the star's dressing room, with his wife. He was friendly, and kind, and he asked my name. The guys in his band were in the other rooms. A huge guy said to call him "Big Daddy" and get him some ice. I did. I whirled and whizzed around hyper-efficiently. I knew how to do income tax, book tours, run a dance company, make costumes, drive a bus, and stand over a mal-functioning engine at a gas station and not be sold a ridiculous repair.

Now, I copied music for Voorhees the conductor. I helped the choreographer stage the entrance and exit of the singing chorus. By the third day, I was definitely a member of the Bell Tel production family. The associate director said "You're doing the work of an associate producer. A girl like you -- if you join the union, you could be earning $900 a week."

Louis Armstrong, the star, was going to be performing on a set (they called it a wagon), which would be slid onto the main area, just below Voorhees and the Bell Telephone orchestra.

The producer told the choreographer who told me -- "Get Armstrong and his boys on their wagon during our orchestra's tune up."

I said, "That's ten minutes before Armstrong's going to perform. Why not get Mr. Voorhees to announce him? Then, hit Satchmo with a spotlight, follow him as he and his men take their places." (That was the way people were usually introduced on the Bell Telephone Hour shows which I'd watched as part of my preliminary training in the NBC office.)

"I don't think so" said the choreographer. I made a beeline for the director. "No," the director said, "They don't want a spotlight on Armstrong."

The producer, the big boss came into the main stage, with a list of the guest stars for the next show. It tickled me, sort of ... and worried me, sort of ... Was I going to be a regular nine to five employee now.?. What about my daily ballet class, and getting bookings for the company?

I cleared my throat and told him -- "It would be easy for me to stage Mr. Armstrong and the band, and keep the Telephone Hour tradition -- I can get them to march in as Mr. Voorhees announces them. "

He said, "No %x@#$& nigger with a snot handkerchief is making an entrance in my show."

But-but-buts filled my mind. I guess my jaw dropped because he laughed a not pleasant laugh, and said, "You take care of errands, dear, I'll take care of the art."

So, the distinguished Mr. Armstrong on the Bell Telephone Hour waited on the wagon, and then the lights faded up as Conductor Voorhees said, " The Bell Telephone Hour is proud to present -- Louis Armstrong, and his "boys" (Click the link! It's a great band!)

The tech on Camera One told me afterwards, he'd been told "No close-ups!"

The tech on lights said, "No spot -- they don't want to see Satchmo sweating."

I went back to life as a single woman, worrying about money. I taught kiddie classes, booked a tour, and never did get to be an associate producer.

Our president had a summit meeting yesterday -- beer and talk with the Cambridge cop and the black Harvard professor, and put out that small fire ...

After many, many years, that's what we have to do ... Birthers, blue dogs.. twitterers, bloggers, Tea Party People, all the media publicizing it -- repeating the ugly words the cop and prof exchanged, scrutinizing each word, debating them, booing them, alleluia-ing them -- paying profoundly close attention to racial aspects of having a black president -- everyone repeating the ugly stuff over and over and over and over ... Aren't we brain-washing ourselves even though we know that electing Obama was, and is a wonderful beautiful thing for our nation and the whole world?

We have to stop fanning that old fire -- put it out, put out the embers of a fire that's been burning in America since the first black slaves three-hundred years ago.

1 comment:

Carola said...

This is a fascinating story.
Did I take your kiddie classes? I seem to remember taking classes from someone else, but using your studio.