SALUTING A GOLDEN ERA OF BLACK ENTERTAINERS
“Central Avenue during the ‘30s was in bloom with all the great black entertainers--like Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway, at places like the Club Alabam, with all its big, beautiful stage shows,” said Sammy Morrison, who played Sunshine Sammy in the first series of “Our Gang” comedies, speaking of the old Los Angeles. “When I pass by Central now, it hurts my heart to think about what it has been.”
Morrison will be one of about 60 current and former black entertainers celebrating “Living Legends of Black Hollywood Yesterday” at the Variety Arts Center today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event, sponsored by the USC College of Continuing Education and the L.A.-D.C. Connection, will focus on black entertainers decade by decade, including film clips and live entertainment. Silent and talkie shorts of the ‘20s (featuring Morrison, among others), TV and film clips through the ‘70s--including “Roots” and “Sounder"--and live performances will give an inkling of the range of black performers, said Valerie Shaw, who is producing the event.
Morrison got his start in motion pictures in 1916, sharing the screen with child film star Baby Marie Osborne. He went to work for Hal E. Roach, originator of the “Our Gang” comedies, in 1917. “I was working for Hal Roach before any of the Little Rascals, like Buckwheat or Stymie, were even born,” said Morrison, now 74 and a veteran of comedy, song, dance and big bands. “I’ve worked with Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and anyone else you can think of that was around anytime between 1925 and now.”
He got into show business by accident. His father was a chef in New Orleans when several California tycoons took him and his son to Hollywood, where they came into contact with some film makers. “Mr. Osborne (Baby Marie’s father) happened to see my father’s kid and he said, ‘I’m going to use a real colored baby,’ ” Morrison recalled. He said that had been done only once before--in “Birth of a Nation.”
“There weren’t many black people in Hollywood at that time, but I didn’t know I was a ‘black person,’ ” Morrison continued, “and Hal Roach was colorblind--he tried to give me a series of pictures, but because of being black at that time, they didn’t go through. Roach’s studio was like one big family; there was no such thing as black or white--if you had it, you had it, no matter what color you were.”
Frances Nealy, a ‘30s tap dancer who’ll be among those performing during a “That’s Black Dancing” segment, recalls definite color codes.
For a chorus girl in the ‘30s, Nealy said, the dancer’s shade of black was as much an element in getting work as talent: “Chorus girls were very fair. My color (medium brown) couldn’t get jobs at first because the movies wanted dark girls and the clubs wanted light girls.”
When she came to Los Angeles and saw a casting agent, she found out that darkness was a must. “When I got to his house, he said, ‘You’re the wrong color.’ I didn’t know what that meant then, but it meant I wasn’t dark enough"--to play a servant.
“Even today they like them darker for the movies,” Nealy claims. “The image of a maid is a big fat black woman, like the gospel singers you see, but it all depends on the individual, because Marla Gibbs (“The Jeffersons”) made it and she’s not dark and fat.”
Nealy, now in her 60s, teaches tap at her own studio, named after herself. She initially rented the space so that she’d have a place to work out and stay in shape, but soon the room grew into a beginners’ class for tap.
“Some blacks think tap-dancing is an Uncle Tom dance,” she said, “but it’s gradually being acknowledged as an art now.” Nealy started tapping at age 15.
She danced in films (“Finian’s Rainbow” with Fred Astaire, “Showboat” with Paul Robeson), on TV (“The Colgate Comedy Hour” with Sammy Davis Jr.) and, most recently, in the Olympic Arts Festival’s “All American Tap Show” with Lola Falana and Paula Kelly.
“The biggest part of the black heyday in Hollywood was over when I got here in 1939, but I did work on Central Avenue at the Club Alabam when Red Foxx, Slappy White, Johnny Otis and Dinah Washington were there. And back during that heyday there was a Cotton Club in Culver City, but by the ‘50s those places were all gone,” Nealy said.
She then turned to acting and has appeared on such TV shows as “The Jeffersons,” “Kojak,” “Roots,” “CHiPs,” “Columbo” and the films “WarGames” and “Blue Thunder.” Most recently, she played the maid who got zapped in “Ghostbusters.”
Nealy, like others in today’s program, hopes there’ll be more than bit roles for black actors in films and TV.
“Prejudice goes with the times. There’s still a certain amount of it, as there always will be for all minorities,” Nealy said. “But things are getting better--they just won’t be the best in my lifetime, anyway.”
For ticket and program information, call L.A.-D.C. Connection, (213) 931-9447.