HELLO AMERICA!—This is a time of year when introspection comes into focus. One suddenly looks back, sometimes a long way, in order to see the reality of yesterday and so many before. Since I have interviewed tons of stars, celebrities, politicians and achieving regular folks for so many years, I suddenly have a need to interview the so-called OUTRAGEOUS MICHAEL ST.JOHN who, some believe, I might have dated even the likes of Mary Pickford.
One director considered quite terrifying yelled one day at a meeting, “Who and hell are you, St. John!” That question and the way he spit it out with such contempt still lingers with me, no matter what I do as an actor, writer, composer, director and all the rest I have done to stay alive in this terrifying industry of ours. Now, it is time for MIKE to interview MICHAEL ST.JOHN, a guy who still is in search of who he is.
MIKE: Where did you grow up as a kid back east?
ST. JOHN: I grew up in a place called Green Tree Hollow, a little village with about 250 people; Blacks, Greeks, Italians and Jewish people all lived together. As a small kid during the 1930s, we didn’t realize that not having electricity, running water inside, no bathroom and reading by an oil lamp at night or seeing your parent cooking over a wood stove placed you as a member of the poor in our country at the time. To me, it was quite normal, and we joined the ritual of our daily life with acceptance and, yes, a kind of gratitude for simply being there.
MIKE: Since there was no electricity or newspapers to refer to, how did your parents know what was happening anywhere else?
ST. JOHN: Roosevelt was President, the WPA was one of his programs, so my dad not only was a boxer, but worked as a construction worker as well. He would bring a paper from Philadelphia or the city of Chester when possible. Then too, my grandmother lived a few miles away, she had electricity and running water in her house and when I visited her, she had a few magazines and papers I was able to look at. My aunt who was attending Boston University taught me at an early age to read a bit, so this was an advantage in a big way. I would sit for hours staring at the words in a paper or one of her magazines she brought home. I was fascinated with all the images and things I managed to understand in the publications.
MIKE: How did you become so overwhelmed with music and the arts?
ST. JOHN: My aunt brought a huge record of the singer Ella Fitzgerald [and the] song “A Tisket A Tasket” and I was fascinated with her voice and the rhythm of the song. Every day, I woke up with that song ringing in my ears. Before I knew it, I was singing or humming it wherever I was. It possessed me, it made me feel free and excited inside, I began hungering to hear more songs, more music, even dream about singing songs. On another one of her trips home, she brought a movie magazine which had a stories about Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and I was so fascinated with them, I fantasized being a part of their world, one of the characters in one of their stories.
MIKE: How long did you live in Green Tree?
ST. JOHN: When I was six years old, I was a victim of rape by a man called Big Ben who was an alcoholic and gambler. When it was found out that he was the one who attacked me, three months later he was killed. I watched from my bedroom window. I was so emotionally affected by it all that my mother insisted that we had to move. We moved to a place called Morton, 10 miles from Philly. It was a much larger town than the “Holler.” Instead of living in two rooms as we did before, we found a 5-bedroom house with 2 baths and a huge yard with fruit trees. To me, it was heaven!
MIKE: Were there other advantages, as well?
ST. JOHN: Are you kidding? We, again, had neighbors of different cultures; the school was a few blocks away from our house, they were all Black teachers who taught us about ourselves as well as the history of Black people living in America. I was thrilled to hear about Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Roland Hayes, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fredric Douglas, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and so many others. I was so struck by their accomplishments I read anything and everything having to do with their journey to acceptance and success available tome. The teachers of the school, Phyllis Whetley, went out of their way to inform the students of our history and why we should struggle with all our might to prepare to build a better life for ourselves. Because one of our teachers, Rosa L. Watson who lived in Philadelphia was very much into the arts, I was one of the students she took extreme interest in and went out of her way to introduce me to those she knew in the arts, stars such a Robeson, Anderson and Josephine Baker when appearing in the City at one of the theaters; she made sure I met them back stage after the performance.
MIKE: How did you prepare for this possible new journey?
ST. JOHN: Because of Miss Watcon, I began taking piano and singing lesson; she worked with me after school on my speech, after viewing a film or concert, she took time out to discuss it with me and what was most important, she drove into me how important education was and I had to realistically look at the world we are living in Black people had to work harder and become dedicated to winning and making every move forward mean something which might make difference for all those who follow. By the time I graduated from the 8th grade and managed to be accepted in the most highly rated high school in the area, Swarthmore, I was quite ready and determined to make my life mean something. Radio and TV followed, becoming the first Black student at the school named as Class President, the First Black to play Hamlet in the senior production and then winning scholarship to Earlham College a Quaker school in the Midwest.
MIKE: Did you have dreams of heading for Hollywood after graduation?
ST. JOHN: Hell, NO! After graduation I was set to go to Broadway…New York City bound!
MIKE: Then what changed that decision?
ST. JOHN: When I was voted CLASS PRESIDENT at the college, the first Black during that time, after all, it was 1952, people of the town decided it wasn’t going to happen and during the homecoming parade, the KKK attacked my class, I was stoned, physically attacked, my dorm room was fire bombed. So, the dean of the college who had a close friend at U.S.C. strongly suggested I should transfer to Los Angeles to continue my studies there. This totally changed the direction of my life. This is why I have dedicated my life in opening doors for others who have dedicated their lives in making life itself easier and better in which to survive. HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!!