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#BornThisDay: Actor / Singer, Pearl Bailey

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Bailey In Her Dressing Room, 1942. photo by Paul Henderson via Maryland Historical Society Archives

 

March 29, 1918Pearl Mae Bailey:

“I’m not a comedienne. I call myself a humorist. I tell stories to music and, thank God, in tune. I laugh at people who call me an actress.”

The Celluloid Closet’s Vito Russo named Norman…Is That You? (1976) the ”first pro-gay fag joke”. This very odd little film stars comic Redd Foxx and the iconic Pearl Bailey as an African-American couple who discover their only son is gay and that his lover is white. Adapted from a Broadway play of the same name about a Jewish family, director George Schlatter (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) translates Borscht-belt Gay Jewish jokes into a bunch of stereotypes about black culture. To make it more peculiar, it features appearances by Wayland Flowers and Madame. Norman…Is That You? is dated, offensive, fascinating, and yet is an early positive attempt to show a father trying to understand his gay son and acceptance of interracial relationships.

The film also features the star of Cleopatra Jones (1973), Tamara Dobson, as a hooker Norman’s father hires for him. Still, it’s not the nutty cast that makes the film interesting. The Broadway production was one of the earliest plays to deal honestly with gay men, and the film version’s producer’s decision to change the central characters to African-Americans makes it the first major film to focus on homophobia within the black community, a distinction that makes it a landmark LGBTQ film. Still, it is especially, worth seeing not just as a curiosity, but to watch pros Foxx and Bailey do what they did best.

Bailey was a Holy Roller-style revivalist preacher’s daughter who sang and danced her way from the Depression era shipbuilding town of Newport News, Virginia, to Vaudeville, to Broadway and Hollywood.

A comic, stage, film and television actor, social and political activist, author of six books, Bailey considered herself primarily a singer, but she scoffed at all labels. Bailey:

“People say, ‘Pearl, what style do you have?’ I say, ‘It’s God, not style.’ “

Among her shtick, the Social Security jokes, the dancing and the strutting, there was a voice that remains rich and warm and true. Bailey’s versions of standards Unforgettable, For Once In My Life, and Read My Mind are superb. She was a woman known for being able to move nimbly between Popular, Jazz and Blues songs. Her much-loved signature tunes included Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home, Birth Of The Blues, and That’s Good Enough For Me.

Baily made her singing debut when she was 15-years-old. Her brother Bill was beginning his own career as a tap dancer, and suggested she enter an amateur contest at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia. Bailey won and was offered $35 a week to perform there for two weeks. She later won a competition at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater and she was hooked on performing.

Bailey got gigs at Philadelphia’s black nightclubs in the 1930s, and soon started performing in clubs on the East Coast. In 1941, during WW II, Bailey toured the country with the USO, performing for American troops. After the tour, she settled in NYC. Her solo success as a nightclub performer was followed by acts working with other black entertainers such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She appeared at the Village Vanguard for an extended run and then for eight months at the Blue Angel on Manhattan’s East Side. It was there she was asked by Calloway to join his show at the Strand Theatre.

Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman (1946), a musical with songs by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, based upon Arna Bontemps’ novel God Sends Sunday (1931). It was designed for the talents of Lena Horne. Although Arlen and Mercer created an exceptional score, the musical had a troubled production. The N.A.A.C.P. was critical, stating that show “was offering roles that detract from the dignity of our race”. Horne agreed and refused to star in the show. When it eventually opened there were protests by African-Americans outside the theatre, which negatively affected sales. It ran for only 113 performances. Yet, for her performance, Bailey won a Donaldson Award as the best Broadway newcomer and stopped the show nightly with her version of A Woman’s Prerogative.

In the early 1950s Truman Capote was approached about adapting his recent story House Of Flowers to a Broadway musical with Harold Arlen doing music and lyrics. The show opened on Broadway at the end of 1954 and played for 165 performances. The director was Peter Brook. The amazing cast included Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Carmen de Lavallade, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder (who also provided a section of choreography). The musical received mixed reviews, but raves for Bailey and the cast, and the dance-rhythm infused score was praised for its mix of blues and calypso, two genres not associated with musical theatre.

Her appeal translated to films, and she appeared in the musicals Carmen Jones (1954), St. Louis Blues (1958), Porgy And Bess (1959), and dramas All The Fine Young Cannibals and The Landlord (1970).

Bailey then went on tour, did summer stock, and recorded albums.

The very height of her long, successful career was in 1967 when she was selected by producer David Merrick to play Dolly Levi in an all-black version of Hello, Dolly!.

It was the era of the Vietnam war and protests, and racism and hate. To take a white show and use an African-American cast seemed revolutionary.

The score and the book were exactly the same as for the previous Hello, Dolly!s but Bailey brought her own personality, and added a “child” or a “honey” her and there. Her rich, inimitable voice proved perfect for the role.  It was sometimes hard to tell where Dolly Levi ended and Bailey began, and she was quite aware of that. She became noted for her “third act” after the curtain call, when the company would stand on stage behind Bailey and Calloway as they continued to entertain the audience.

Photo from Tams Whitmark

 

Clive Barnes, the tough theatre critic for The NY Times wrote:

“For Miss Bailey, this was a Broadway triumph for the history books. She took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa. Her timing was exquisite, with asides tossed away as languidly as one might tap ash from a cigarette, and her singing had that deep throaty rumble that is always so oddly stirring. The audience would have elected her governor if she’d only named the state.”

Delighted with the accolades and with the role, for which she won a special Tony Award, Bailey said:

“All this has been worth waiting for. At last I can sing, dance, say intelligent words on stage, love and be loved and deliver what God gave me, and I’m dressed up besides.”

I was so fortunate to see Bailey in Hello, Dolly! in a 1975 revival in Los Angeles, and it was perfection. I remember a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times from a theatergoer who called it “The Pearl Bailey Show” and wrote disapprovingly of Bailey’s asides to the audience and felt the show suffered because of them. Yet, her greatest loves had always been singing and telling her humorous stories on stage, so who could blame her?

Among her humorous and inspirational books are Hurry Up, America And Spit (1976) and her memoirs The Raw Pearl (1968), Talking To Myself (1971) and Between You And Me (1976).

Bailey’s heart problems began in the early 1960s, and she joked about her “heart strain”:

“Singing does bring out the soreness . . . but when I get on the floor, baby, you know nothing hurts.”

It was not unusual for her to collapse after an early nightclub show, be given oxygen, and then resume singing more songs for a second show.

In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon named her America’s “ambassador of love” to the world. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford named her special adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She also served in that role under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Bailey who dropped out of high school for a career in showbiz, enrolled as a freshman at Washington University and graduated in 1985 with degree in Theology.

Noting that she belonged to no organization except “humanity,” Bailey broke down barriers to blacks in the entertainment world and lent her voice for the cause of Civil Rights. Bailey:

“People ask me why don’t I march. I say I march every day in my heart. When I walk in the street with humanity, I am marching, and you know, my feet are killing me all the way.”

Bailey was an especially good friend of Joan Crawford and sang a hymn at her funeral in 1977.

Bailey was married at least three times, no one is sure, but she married Louie Bellson, the talented white drummer with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1952. They married in London because interracial marriage was mostly illegal in the USA. It proved a happy and enduring marriage of 38 years, until her final bow in1990, taken by heart disease.


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