Rosetta LeNoire, 90; Actress Founded Group for Multiracial Productions
Rosetta LeNoire, who surmounted tremendous physical hardships and racism during a seven-decade career as an actress and theatrical producer, died after a long illness Sunday at a hospital in Teaneck, N.J. She was 90.
The winner of a National Medal of Arts in 1999, LeNoire got her start under the tutelage of two show-business legends, jazzman Eubie Blake and dancing great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who was her godfather.
She went on to dance with Bojangles on Broadway and later developed and produced shows such as “Bojangles” and the Tony-nominated “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She also founded a theater group that helped to pioneer multiracial productions and an acting school for children in Harlem.
Her career enjoyed a late-life bloom in television, where she won the adoration of fans for her long-running role as Grandma Winslow on the sitcom “Family Matters,” which aired on ABC and CBS for 10 years beginning in 1989. She also played Nell Carter’s argumentative mother in the NBC series “Gimme a Break.”
She was born in 1911 in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Her father was an immigrant from the French West Indies and one of the first licensed black plumbers and electrical engineers in New York state. Her mother died of complications from giving birth to a younger brother when a Harlem hospital refused to treat her because she was black. The hospital later relented when an Irish policeman who went to the same Catholic church intervened, but doctors left her in the hallway, where she died of pneumonia.
LeNoire had been born with rickets, a crippling disease that doctors treated by breaking the bones in both her legs and requiring her to wear braces for 13 years.
At 13, she began to study music with Blake, who became a close friend and mentor. It was Blake, LeNoire often recounted, who taught her to regard humanity the way he looked at his garden, to behold people as “beautiful flowers of so many colors.”
At 15, LeNoire was tap-dancing in the chorus with Robinson, who knew her father from the Elks Club and had convinced him that dancing would strengthen her legs. She called him Uncle Bo, and he called her Brown Sugar. “I worshipped him,” she told the Toronto Star several years ago. “He was the best dancer of all time. Period.”
At 25, she was performing the role of First Witch on the New York stage in a landmark, all-black version of “Macbeth,” directed by Orson Welles. She remembered Welles for “treating everyone as equals” at a time when such equality was far from common.
Three years later, in 1939, she made her Broadway debut in Mike Todd’s “The Hot Mikado,” an all-black version of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera that also starred her Uncle Bo. Other Broadway roles followed in shows such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Blues for Mr. Charlie” and “The Sunshine Boys.”
But she never forgot what it was like to be a struggling black actress during the 1930s. She was traveling through the Deep South as a member of a road company of “You Can’t Take It With You” when she saw what she thought was a group of people going to Christmas Mass. It actually was an angry mob that had just lynched a black man for--falsely, as it later turned out--raping a white girl. “Things like that,” she said, “never leave you.”
She played a maid in that show, a role she would repeat many times during her long career. In later years, she would quip that she played “every maid’s role on Broadway.” She endured some criticism of her acceptance of such roles but defended her choices, saying she always sought to “find the humanity underneath the stereotype.”
In 1968, she founded the AMAS Repertory Theatre (later renamed the Rosetta LeNoire Musical Theatre), a nonprofit group dedicated to nontraditional, colorblind casting. She also founded the Eubie Blake Children’s Theatre, to teach youths not only the rudiments of performance but life skills. LeNoire provided hot lunches and taught hygiene and nutrition while other teachers offered classes in singing, acting and dancing.
At AMAS, she oversaw the development of the musical “Bojangles” and conceived “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” which told the story of the golden age of Harlem. The latter show moved to Broadway and to London’s West End and toured internationally.
She acted in television soap operas such as “Guiding Light” and “Another World” before landing a recurring role in “Gimme a Break” and a regular role in “Family Matters.” The sitcoms earned her a core of fans who were so aggressive in their admiration that on two separate occasions she ended up in a neck brace and an arm sling after being hugged by them.
In addition to the National Medal of Arts, her honors include the Paul Robeson Award from Actors’ Equity Assn. and the Kennedy Center Black Playwright’s Award for excellence in developing new works.
“I get lots of letters asking for my secret of longevity,” she said in 1992 when she 80.
“I tell people I’m against retirement, I’m for God, I believe in goodness and also luck.”
Survivors include a son, William M. LeNoire; a sister, and two brothers.