BITS AND PIECES OF HOLLYWOOD
HELLO AMERICA! Growing up in the 40s and 50s I relished the times I could fall in front of our radio and listen to some of the most exciting programming ever. It was expiring to listen to the music of the Hit Parade, Mary Martin, Al Jolson, or Patty Page. Then, of course, their wonderful comedy moments with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, or Red Skelton, and to top the week off, some of the world’s most talented, exciting performers appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, all of it worth the challenging hours of daily homework and after school responsibilities. Every time I listened to the magic voices of Kate Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra, it was inspiring making me realize that there was an easier, better life out there in which I might find creative satisfaction and a genuine respect for life itself.
Radio played a very unique role in our dream of becoming a special part of the entertainment industry. Listening to such shows as “The Johnson Family” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy” both centered on comedic lives of black people, made millions of young people of color believe they, too, would be able to find their place in the world of make believe. I was one of those kids who was captured by the sound of music; all types of music, such as, spiritual, jazz, including that of Broadway and extreme classical works.
When at thirteen, I convinced my parents to allow me to journey to New York for an audition for the “Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians” choral group. My parents had to be convinced that I could handle myself on a trip to New Your City alone. Every mile traveled on the Greyhound Bus was filled with excitement and the expectation that this trip or opportunity was the beginning of something I had always dreamed of.
When we finally arrived at the Bus Depot in the big city, the way the streets were filled with moving, laughing people exploding through doors of bars, clubs, and restaurants was something to behold. It was as if a film was being shot, which made me even more excited to be in this great city of opportunity. Allan Craig, the young choral director, after listening to my audition, took an immediate liking to me and convinced Fred Waring to sign me up for their summer tour. This, of course, was a blessing from heaven. He even arranged for me to stay at the YMCA and the following day, insisted that I meet the exciting, outrageous Talulah Bankhead. In my book, “Hollywood Through The Back Door”, I reveal my special, outrageous time spent with this iconic, unpredictable star.
The experience was so effective, I was determined to prepare myself in every way in becoming a serious part of the entertainment industry. I took speech lessons, dance, piano, bass violin, acting; traveled to Philadelphia whenever there was a Broadway show or play opening or made sure I was able to attend concerts at the Academy of Music, especially when Art Tatum or Marian Anderson scheduled to perform. Again, it was radio which opened the door to achieve something special as a musician, or performer. When finally, while attending high school, I auditioned for “The Children’s Hour”, a WCAU radio station and was accepted. Being signed to the weekly show for two years, allowed me to reach out in the area of TV and even the legitimate stage where I was heard or seen on a weekly basis. Again, it was radio that inspired me in nearly every artistic way. There is absolutely nothing on radio today which might inspire anyone to reach for the stars in a creative way. There are only unprepared radio hosts, people who don’t speak proper English, political programs to insight anger and division among the nation and mindless talk shows which simply unveil how illiterate so many of us are.
The decision to complete my education at U.S.C. was one of the best ideas I ever had; being a part of that campus opened opportunity doors in every direction of the arts. In one year, after moving on campus, I was signed to be featured in the Otto Preminger film “Carmen Jones” which starred Oscar nominated actress-singer, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters, and the late Diahann Carroll. Of course, radio was still dominating the industry; even as a student at U.S.C. I managed to be signed to its script department, working around Lionel Barrymore, Agnes Moorehead, Marie Wilson, Eve Arden, and Cecil B. DeMille. I was the first person of color to have the door opened to me at the CBS Radio Studio on Sunset Blvd. Because of my early background in radio, it was extremely easy to settle in, and feel comfortable with the stars, directors, and producers releasing shows being heard across the nation.
As the 60s chimed in is when radio stations slowly began losing their power, dealing with drama and music, it affected the way every singer, or actor prepared for survival in the industry. However, I realized how fortunate I was to have the type of early beginning in radio that I did. Learning to work with other creative people was invaluable, meeting deadlines, respecting those who have the awesome responsibility of putting a show together, making it marketable. Let’s face it, THOSE were the days!