HELLO AMERICA!—I was very anxious to view the Harry Belafonte documentary which premiered on MSNBC this last weekend. As expected, it revealed an expected picture of the man I first worked within the film “Carmen Jones.” The documentary was well-done capturing a time in our nation that erupted with racial discourse and explosive anger that touched human aspect of the country.
During the 1950s, there were tons of laws, boundaries, and restrictions involving colleges, housing, hotels, and even religious organizations. There was no one of color represented in commercials, if one was publicized to appear on a special show, nearly every person of color watched it.
This was Los Angeles along with all the glitter of Hollywood. Growing up during the 40s outside of Philadelphia, I realize how fortunate I was to be selected to appear on such shows as “The Stanley Broza Children Hour Show,” as well as “The Paul Whiteman TV Teen Club Show.” I was the only performer of color to appear basically because others of color believe it wouldn’t be possible. This is one reason why it was rather difficult, at first, to settle down in Los Angeles, even though being a student at USC, was an extraordinary opportunity opening doors that were special involving the arts i.e., music, theater, and so much more.
Oh, yeah “The Trojan Marching Band” under the baton of Bill Shaeffer and John Green. So, when Belafonte arrived on the scene, his music, the way he performed, it was something America had never seen before. Most of the stars, in order to be able to work at a major club, were forced to project the image of the Bill Robinson type (all were extraordinary performers) or Steppin Fetchet who was an outstanding comic, or anyone stemming from the old days of American entertainment.
Belafonte rocked the entertainment industry and millions of fans right across the color line made it known. Whenever he was guest on a major TV show, the ratings were always out of sight. People gravitated to him and the networks and clubs realized it, quickly moved to figure out ways he might be signed for a special kind of “appearance” deal.
I was also mesmerized by these appearances, the easy way he appeared on stage, capturing the attention of everyone sitting in an audience of a thousand or doing his electrifying moves singing his Calypso songs. I was overwhelmed, I decided to perform folk music as well. As a result, I was able to get several Coffee House gigs singing that music as well.
When it was announced that Otto Preminger was directing and producing the film “Carmen Jones,” I immediately made an appointment to have a session with Preminger. After all, I did meet him briefly during one of my New York sessions concerning different shows. However, I really had to seriously convince him that I could play the comic role of T-BONE in Carmen. It wasn’t easy to deal with him, he nearly kicked me out of his office, but I believe that he was somewhat amused by my genuine determination to be taken seriously and allowed me to audition. Well, I got the part and some people who were seriously involved, they would never forget it.
Since Belafonte was one of the major names along with Dorothy Dandridge and every female in the cast was hypnotized by his looks, music, and his natural charm, he was in demand in every conceivable way, if you know what I mean. When learning that I was an entertainment column for the “then” Los Angeles Eagle newspaper, he tried to keep a distance, except when we were on camera together.
I had met his wife the first week at a luncheon on the RKO lot and I found her charming and delightful to chat with, especially when discussing filmmaking. As a result, after 3 weeks of production, she surprised everyone during a break in filming. Obviously, she was visiting Harry, when spotting me, she waved, indicating she needed something. She needed to know if I knew where Harry was, and I quickly indicated, since we were all on a break, he should be in his trailer. I also knew that one of his special friends who was a classical dancer was with him as well.
She quickly thanked me and rushed off to the trailer. Minutes later, loud screams and yells were heard coming from Harry’s trailer. Hearing lamps and other houseware crashing against windows and walls, all of the neighboring trailers with actors gathered what the explosion was all about. Since it involved someone like Harry and one of the cast on the actual lot where “Carmen Jones” was shooting, as a reporter I believed I had to write about in my column. The publisher of the paper definitely agreed with me.
When someone indicated they had seen me speaking with his wife, he assumed that I was responsible for everything that happened. Then he began labeling me as the little “s….” He also saw that I would not be invited to the cast party. Of course, I was deeply hurt. When the filming was complete there was a mention in The Hollywood Reporter that Harry Belafonte was being divorced.
When watching the documentary on Belafonte, I am so pleased that I was made aware of all the impressive things during the civil rights struggle in our country. Deep down I wanted so much to respect and admire him. Now I do, realizing we all have things in our life which shadow all the good and decent things who we really are.