HELLO AMERICA!—Late New Year’s Day I received a call informing me that actress Juanita Moore had died. She was 99 years old and preparing for “I Feel Sin Comin’ On,” a play based on my book “Hollywood Through the Back Door.” I was shocked after all; I had spoken with her that morning. We were discussing the character of “Granny” that she admitted she loved and understood and related to her sense of humor. “I love the play and the characters,” she said. “I’m excited about the Pre-Broadway Reading at the Saban Theatre” Hearing this from Juanita made me feel good, after all I had known her most of my life; I was a student at U.S.C. when we first met.
Juanita was a member of the Ebony Showcase Theatre, founded by Nick Stewart who was known for his character role of “Lightning” on the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV show. The Ebony, at that time, was the place to be if you were an actor or performer of color. It seemed that most of the greats like Ethel Waters, James Edwards, William Marshall, Rex Ingram, Madie Norman, Nat King Cole and so many other accomplished, recognized artists made their way to that little theatre; I was totally overwhelmed, mesmerized by them. After all, I had seen them on the screen most of my life. I simply idolized them!
When Juanita sensed I was having problems with a character, she would make an effort to take me aside to discuss the issue as well as the disciplined it takes in making a character come alive and believable. “Never lose who you really are inside,” she would say. “After all, how can you make a character believable if you don’t know who you really are as a person? Anything creative begins there! An audience will always recognize honesty and truth!”
When Juanita was nominated for an Oscar for film “Imitation of Life” I was so excited I fought back the tears, after all, finally I was witnessing an Afro-American being recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures in my time. I called Juanita and yelled, “Nita! You did it! You’re up for an Oscar. You are a STAR!” She laughed and thanked me for calling but, warned that this is just the beginning. Of course, she was thrilled and thankful but she also realized the journey of full recognition was still long. And she was right.
Because of the love and support that Juanita offered through the years, I was able to work in almost every facet of the industry i.e., entertainment columnist, national magazine editor, actor, singer, composer, associate in Casting at MGM, Public Relations at 20th Century Fox, Associate Director/NBC and On-Air Entertainment Reporter in San Francisco and N.Y.
When writing the play “I Feel Sin Comin’ On” I was ready to explode with things to say; it was a thrilling eruption of emotion and emotional liberation. Juanita Moore filled me quite early in my life with the determination to never give up. When she read my play and eagerly wanted it to mark her last theatrical stage appearance I was thrilled! I felt I had arrived. She was my Oscar and I will miss her quite seriously! I know she will be with us all when the play is dedicated to her memory and career on January 31 at the SABAN Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
By Michael St. John