Josephine Baker – Beyond “Bronze Venus”

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Josephine Baker 1920’s

Josephine Baker is most celebrated as the “Bronze Venus” and her infamous “Banana Dance” in Paris c. 1927. However, the sum of her life is so much more! I was blown away by her boldness and sexual freedom, but it wasn’t until I saw the 1991 HBO movie starring Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker that I started doing research on her life. Whitfield won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special—becoming the first Black actress to win the award in this category which seems apropos since Josephine Baker was The Lady of firsts.

 

Lynn Whitfield - Josephine Baker Story 1991

I’ve always been intrigued by Baker’s provocative reputation but had no idea of her involvement in the fight for justice, racial equality, and the civil-rights movement.

Born  Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) she was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus” and even the “Creole Goddess”. Her parents were Carrie McDonald and Vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Growing up poor she started working early cleaning homes and babysitting for wealthy white families.

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Baker dropped out of school at the age of 13 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention from the Dixie Steppers which lead to her opportunity to appear in the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revue Shuffle Along (1921). She performed as the last dancer in the chorus line, a position where, traditionally, the dancer performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. Baker’s act set in motion the career which would make her an international star.

 

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Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926

 

Josephine traveled to Paris, France, for a new venture, and opened in “La Revue Nègre” on October 2, 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Her erotic dancing and performing in next to nothing made her a sensation in Paris. The bohemian culture of interwar Paris embraced Baker’s skin color, allowing her to catapult to stardom. At the Folies Bergère, she performed the Danse Sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas – voila! – a star is born.

 

 

Josephine Baker became the most successful and highest paid American entertainer working in France and the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. Baker starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.

However, despite her acclaim in Europe, upon returning to New York in 1936  to star in the Ziegfeld Follies, she walked right back into good ole American racism. Audiences rejected the idea that a black woman could be so sophisticated and she was replaced by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Time magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench”. She returned to Europe heartbroken.

 

Josephine Baker and the French Resistance of World War II

Josephine returned to Paris in 1937, married a Jewish Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany she was recruited by Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence, as an “honorable correspondent”. Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She was awarded the Legion of Honor and given a Medal of Resistance for her work during World War II. She was also the first American woman to receive the Croix du Guerre, a notable French military honor.

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Josephine Baker Legion of Honor

 

 Josephine Baker and the Civil Rights Movement

Though based in France, Baker fought for American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. When she arrived in New York with her fourth husband French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black. In 1951 when the famous New York Stork Club refused to serve Baker because she was black, she wrote letters to President Truman and enlisted the aid of the NAACP which focused a spotlight on the issues of inequality and racism in popular establishments.

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(Stork Club Controversy)

Josephine Baker was one of the few female speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, introducing “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Congressman John Lewis. The NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, named May 20th Josephine Baker Day in her honor.

 

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Josephine Baker in French uniform March on Washington 1963

 

“The Rainbow Tribe”

Long before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s multicultural family, there was Josephine Baker and her “Rainbow Tribe”. Josephine wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons; Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.

 

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Josephine Baker and “The Rainbow Tribe”

 

On April 12, 1975, we lost Josephine after she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she was 68 years old. She performed right up to her death, starring in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, (best known for recording the theme song to the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964), Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.

20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. She received a 21 gun salute, making her the first Black American female to be buried with military honors in France. Josephine Baker leaves behind a legacy of accomplishments including breaking color barriers and fighting for justice and equality around the world. I thank her for channeling her celebrity into championing the rights of all.

 

A celebration of Josephine’s Life and Legacy

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“Here ’tis, Mama’s Favorite 285 lbs of Jam, Jive and Everything!”🎶

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Fats Waller 

(May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943)

The title sums it up. “Jam, Jive and Everything!.”  Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is one of the most charming, talented and prolific artists to ever tickle the ivories of a stride piano.

We share a birthday – May 21st.  His last recording session was in Detroit, Michigan – home of my birth. I guess it was destiny that his music and spirit would come to bring me such joy!

What excites me about Fats?

When I was a kid and first saw the groundbreaking musical Stormy Weather (1943) I was familiar with its star Lena Horne because my father loved him some Miss Lena. But for me, the wonderful surprise of the film was Fats Waller.

Fats Waller and Lena Horne

When you see him you’re totally invested.  His personality jumps off the screen.  People talk about presence.  Fats created “presence!”

Fats is credited with advancing the musical style – stride piano.  Although known for his two most famous compositions:  “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, he penned many more uncredited hits such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street”.

Waller copyrighted over 400 songs and began his professional career as a pianist at the age of 15, working in cabarets and theaters.

His life and artistry became the Broadway musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin‘ produced in 1978.  (The show and star Nell Carter won Tony Awards.)

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Recordings of Fats Waller were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance”.

 

Here ’tis, a tribute to Fats’ brilliance and charm:

 

Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Stormy Weather (1943)

 

This song cracks me up!

Fats Waller – Your Feet’s Too Big! (1936)

 

Fats Waller – Honeysuckle Rose (1929)

 

Thanks, Fats for the jam, jive, and everything!

R.E.S.P.E.C.T – Aretha Franklin – Queen of Soul RIH💜🎶

Aretha Louise Franklin (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018)

 

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the 1960’s, every day on my radio I jammed to the greatest music of all time; Motown, Sam Cooke, the Godfather of Soul James Brown, and, the incomparable Aretha Franklin. She sang from the very depths of her soul becoming an icon and forever soundtrack of our lives.

Aretha began her career as a child singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C. L. Franklin, was the minister. In 1960, at the age of 18, she embarked on a secular career, recording for Columbia Records.

After signing to Atlantic Records in 1967, Ms. Franklin achieved commercial acclaim and success with songs such as “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Spanish Harlem” and “Think”. By the end of the 1960s, she was being called “the Queen of Soul“.

Recording 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries and 20 number-one R&B singles, Aretha became the most charted female artist in the chart’s history. She won 18 Grammy Awards and is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, having sold over 75 million records worldwide.

Aretha received numerous honors throughout her career including a 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in which she became the first female performer to be inducted. She was inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In August 2012, Aretha was inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame and listed in at least two all-time lists on Rolling Stone magazine, including the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Today we both mourn and celebrate the life of a musical pioneer, Civil Rights Activist, and without dispute the reigning Queen of Soul.

Let’s take a look back at her remarkable career and journey through the soul-stirring music of Ms. Aretha “Queen of Soul” Franklin.

 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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I love this film because of its unequivocal message to man. Earth, get your act together or you will be destroyed! If your inability to understand the gravity of your nuclear capability bleeds over into the galaxy, we will end this planet’s existence. Boom – Drop the mike!

The fact that humans continue to measure power by how many times over we can destroy the earth as if there’s a planet B never ceases to floor me!

Obviously, the need continues to heed Klaatu’s warning. “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration”

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” was released in 1951 during the Cold War period. (It could be argued that it never ended.) It stands as a classic sci-fi cautionary tale as relevant today as it was then, as we continue to deal with the tensions that arise daily by the ongoing threat of a nuclear war.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (a.k.a. Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World) is an American black-and-white science fiction film from 20th Century Fox, produced by Julian Blaustein, directed by Robert Wise, that stars Michael Rennie,(Klaatu) Patricia NealBilly GrayHugh Marlowe, and Sam Jaffe.

 

The screenplay was written by Edmund H. North, based on the 1940 science fiction short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. The score was composed by Bernard Herrmann.

The plot involves a humanoid alien visitor named Klaatu who comes to Earth accompanied by a powerful eight-foot-tall robot, Gort, to deliver an important message that will affect the entire human race.

But, when Klaatu’s flying saucer lands, a nervous soldier mistakes a gift for the President as a weapon and fires, injuring Klaatu. Gort has his back and immediately begins to disintegrate the tanks and weapons. Cue the pandemonium!

Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital but escapes and lodges at a boarding house as “Mr. Carpenter”, the name on the dry cleaner’s tag on a suit he took. Among the residents include young widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). The next morning, Klaatu overhears the boarders speculate about the alien’s motivations.

Not unexpectantly the talk turns to Communism and the “Red Scare”. And, of course, it’s a conspiracy because you can’t trust the government.

Producer Julian Blaustein set out to make a film under the working titles of Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World that illustrated the fear and suspicion that characterized the early Cold War and Atomic Age. He reviewed more than 200 science fiction short stories and novels in search of a storyline that could be used since this film genre was well suited for a metaphorical discussion of such grave issues.

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Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck gave the go-ahead for this project, and Blaustein hired Edmund North to write the screenplay based on elements from Harry Bates’s 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master“. The revised final screenplay was completed on February 21, 1951. Science fiction writer Raymond F. Jones worked as an uncredited adviser. (Wikipedia)

Trivia:

The robot Gort, who serves Klaatu, was played by Lock Martin, who worked as an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and stood seven feet, seven inches tall. Not used to being in such a confining, heat-inducing costume, he worked carefully when wearing the two oversize, laced-up-the-front or back, foamed neoprene suits needed for creating the illusion on the screen of a seamless metallic Gort.

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Wise decided that Martin’s on-screen shooting time would be limited to half-hour intervals so Martin would face no more than minor discomfort. These segments, in turn, were then edited together into film’s final print. (Wikipedia)

In a commentary track on DVD, interviewed by fellow director Nicholas Meyer, Wise stated that he wanted the film to appear as realistic and believable as possible, in order to drive home the motion picture’s core message against armed conflict in the real world.

Also mentioned in the DVD’s documentary interview was the original title for the film, “The Day the World Stops”. Blaustein said his aim with the film was to promote a “strong United Nations“.

 

The Music:

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The music score was composed by Bernard Herrmann in August 1951 and was his first score after he moved from New York to Hollywood. Herrmann chose unusual instrumentation for the film: violin, cello, and bass (all three electric), two theremin electronic instruments (played by Dr. Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure).

By using the theremin, Herrmann made one of music’s first forays into electronic music.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still was well received by critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1951. The film is ranked seventh in Arthur C. Clarke‘s list of the best science fiction films of all time, just above Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke himself co-wrote.

The Day the Earth Stood Still holds a 94% “Certified Fresh” rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

In 1995, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

 

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Klaatu made an excellent case for using Gort as the “interplanetary police” – accountability. Governments need to be held accountable for the death and destruction they are capable of wielding.

No individual has the right to take another’s life and no country or planet has the right to end our existence! I think we could use some Gort right about now!

 

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A Charlie Brown Christmas: Hark the Herald Angels Sing😇 🌲

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Premiered December 9, 1965

A Charlie Brown Christmas will always have a special place in my heart for its honesty, faith, humor, and appreciation of a child’s intelligence. I’ve watched every year since its premiere in 1965. I fell in love with Charlie and the Peanuts gang, relating to the familial relationships we all had as children.

 

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Charlie’s sad little Christmas Tree

Charlie Brown is the quintessential “nice guy.” Sweet, awkward and sincere. All the traits that guarantee a life of hell for an 8-year-old boy on the playground. In this musical special, Charlie is depressed about the commercialism of Christmas and seeks ways to enjoy the true meaning of the season; the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Charlie confides his feelings to his best friend Linus who’s also sweet, but also philosophical.

 

 

After Linus tells him to stop being so ” Charlie Brownie,” Chuck seeks the advice of his nemesis Lucy (aka Dr. Lucy). We’ve all had a Lucy in our lives. The kid who takes tremendous pleasure in the humiliation and torture of the sweet, awkward and sincere kid on the block. You know – Charlie Brown.

 

 

Charlie takes Lucy’s advice to become involved in a Christmas project and becomes the play’s director. However, his vision is the complete opposite of Lucy’s vision of becoming the Christmas Queen. (hey, don’t judge; what’s your fantasy?)  The result, my favorite scene:

 

 

OMG!! The dance scene is hilarious. Everybody who’s ever seen this has their favorite dancer. I see myself as one of the twin girls with their head and individual hair strands swinging side to side. They look so happy and diggin’ the groove. I love it! My other fave is the little boy doing what I call the Frankenstein. His arms are out in front of him and he’s doing some sort of “running man” dance move. Go ahead baby, get your dance on!

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For Charlie, the play’s a disaster. His decision for a Christmas tree being even worse; failing to bring any of the holiday spirit to Charlie Brown.

But ever faithful, his best friend Linus tells him what Christmas is all about and gives the most memorable soliloquy of my young life. (the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 14 from the Authorized King James Version)

I was raised in the church and heard this passage before but never in the context of a cartoon or animation. Quoting the bible in this realm was a bold move but is one of the reasons why I have such respect for the creator, Charles Schultz, and this project.

It reminds me, to this day, don’t forget the reason we celebrate Christmas; it’s the birth of Christ.

 

 

Even though Charlie’s day started with doom, gloom, and humiliation (including his dog Snoopy laughing in his face); in the end, he finds joy and empathy from his friends.

Let the choir sing:

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

 

 

I raised my children on this timeless classic and they continue the tradition. A Charlie Brown Christmas touches my heart in so many ways. The innocence of childhood, the unbridled excess of commercialism on what is a holy holiday. But also the friendships, experiences, and faith that shapes our lives forever.

 

 A Christmas Miracle – The Making of a Charlie Brown Christmas

Gratitude of the Heart💝

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – “There’s No Place Like Home”

 

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Yes, it’s that time of year again with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and everyone running around like crazy, gearing up for the big day – Christmas! But, it seems every year when I read about shoppers nearly killing each other over a 12-pack of socks or the last $10 cashmere sweater; my heart sinks with the realization that too many of us forget what the holidays should be about; Gratitude.

To quote author Melody Beattie:

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” 

 

A classic film I think represents gratitude and appreciation for what we already have is, “The Wizard of Oz”; it’s overflowing with gratitude! Dorothy (Judy Garland) accompanied by her little dog Toto, leaves home seeking a better place, but her journey becomes a revelation of what home really means.

Dorothy and her compatriots – The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) wishing to be more than they perceive themselves to be, learn to appreciate their unique gifts. The Great and Powerful Oz (Frank Morgan) realizes the blessing and value of truth and in this case, the truth truly does set him free.

 

 It all starts with a wish to be “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and results in unexpected consequences – the terror of being caught up in a twister, inadvertently dropping a house on the sister of the Wicked Witch of the West (oops) and inheriting both the wrath of said Witch (Margaret Hamilton) and a pair of coveted ruby slippers.

 

Sadly, “Over the Rainbow” doesn’t materialize into the idyllic place of which Dorothy sings, her personal vision quest. Dorothy’s longing for home dovetails with the desires of The Scarecrow, Tin man, and The Cowardly Lion. These three, also wishing for what they believe they don’t have – a brain, a heart, and courage – join the quest to the Emerald City to finally have their dreams realized through the power of the omnificent Wizard of Oz.

The trio’s perilous journey to get Dorothy home leads to the self-realization that they possessed the traits they sought all along and didn’t really need the wizard to bestow these attributes upon them.

Dorothy also learns a valuable lesson we all tend to forget, “there’s no place like home” and if we can’t find what we’re looking for there, then we won’t be able to find it anywhere. Home exists within us and it’s our outlook and attitude that dictates whether it’s a black and white existence filled with worries and that ole Gulch “heifer” or a technicolor world filled with musical munchkins and the love of three very special friends.

 

 

 

With Gratitude, we can appreciate and give thanks for the joys and blessings in our lives because the truth is we could be far worse off. My spiritual goal every day is to be mindful and thankful for the bounty which I’ve already received.

 

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Always remember!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director’s Cut – The Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)🎃🌷

 

IN THEATERS OCT 29th, OCT 31st

 

Warner Bros. Entertainment Presents

 

Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut

Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut

 

Business is bad at Mushnick’s Flower shop. Shy Seymour and brave Audrey will soon be unemployed. That is until Seymour pricks his finger and a sickly little exotic plant gets its first taste of human blood. The plant spurts ten feet tall. As horticultural interest in “Audrey II” sprouts, Mushnick’s business takes off. But fresh blood must be found—and people start disappearing. Love and business bloom at a hilarious yet bloody cost. (Fathom Events)

I’m so excited to see one of my Halloween favorites back on the big screen. And, fascinated to see  Frank Oz’s restored original dark ending, staying true to the play.

 

 

“It will be very interesting to see if, in this new political and cultural climate, if there will be any association with that, with the plant. Let’s just say that,” says Oz. The original ending, he acknowledges, “may still be too dark for people, and I accept that.

It may not be as satisfying emotionally, and I accept that. But on the other hand, the reason  screenwriter Howard Ashman and I wanted it was that it is the Faustian legend. Seymour does have consequences for his actions. We needed to omit those consequences to keep the audience happy, which I agreed with, by the way. I think we had to do it. But now it will be very interesting to see.” (Yahoo Entertainment)

Fans will not want to miss Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut, which features the rarely-seen original ending and an exclusive introduction from Frank Oz.

Purchase Tickets here.

 

The 1986 Frank Oz film is a remake of the hit Broadway stage production which was a remake of the 1960 movie.

 

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The original 1960 film was a  black comedy horror film directed by Detroit-born (my hometown) and celebrated B-movie legend, Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. The film is a farce about an inadequate florist’s assistant (Jonathan Haze) who cultivates a plant that feeds on human flesh and blood.

The film stars Jonathan Haze (Seymour), Jackie Joseph (Audrey), Mel Welles (Mr. Mushnick), and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked for Corman on previous films. Produced under the title “The Passionate People Eater”. It was a lot creepier and darker than either the 1986 film or Broadway production.

 

 

For a true Halloween treat, I highly recommend screening the original! Check out Jack Nicholson in one of his first film roles.

Check out this previous post for background and trivia on the Broadway stage production and the original 1960 film.

 

 

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Happy Halloween!