I just wanted to share my good friend’s blog with everyone. You have some history behind you my friend. Thanks for sharing George.
As a young show business press agent in Chicago around 1960 I promoted an interesting “B List” of world-renowned performers visiting The Windy City. Bernstein, Belafonte and a bunch of others.
Last night’s powerful performance at Strathmore Music Center of “Porgy and Bess” brought back memories of John W. Bubbles. He was Sportin’ Life in the original Broadway production of the Gershwin classic opera.
Bubbles had appeared in Chicago on a bill with Judy Garland and the comic Alan King. I was hired late in the game, after it already was clear the show’s run would be standing-room-only.
Irv Kupcinet, the leading local gossip columnist, invited me to a private dinner at the Chez Paree nightclub, a couple days before the show opened. About ten of us sat around a table and listened to a clearly disturbed Garland swearing up a storm. That was a bit uncomfortable, but even more unsettling were the futile attempts by her husband, Sidney Luft, to calm her down. I didn’t want to get involved in that. But, I needed someone to promote, because I was being paid to do press agentry.
King was equally obnoxious. He didn’t need me and I not only didn’t need him, I didn’t want to be around him. He seemed to be mean and disdainful of everyone but himself.
Bubbles, meanwhile, came across as quiet, introspective and a genuinely warm human being. I only knew about him as a famous vaudeville performer where he partnered with a fellow who’s nickname was “Buck.” Their act was “Buck and Bubbles.” The name had intrigued me as much as another star team on the Negro Vaudeville Circuit, “Butterbeans and Susie.”
I arranged for Studs Terkel to interview Bubbles in a small WFMT radio studio. Terkel, probably the best interviewer ever, didn’t dwell on the obvious, like how Bubbles had taught Fred Astaire to tap dance.
Terkel zeroed in on Bubbles’ climb to stardom in Jim Crow America. Jim Crow was a popular 19th-century minstrel song and dance that negatively stereotyped African Americans It was performed by White men in blackface makeup. The mythical Jim Crow morphed into shorthand for a system of government-sanctioned wide-spread racial oppression and segregation, which fully captured Bubbles wildly successful career. Yet, successful as his career was, during most of it, he couldn’t walk into millions of front or side doors,or stay at most hotels, because of his skin color.
Studs delicately brought out the pain, suffering, and sorrow of Bubbles’ journey to greatness. Several poignant sounds of silence spoke volumes, as the three of us around the table and the sound engineer in a cramped “booth” behind a large glass window, gathered our thoughts and quietly reflected upon the discomfort pent up in Bubbles’ story. It was a story of simultaneously living the American dream and the American nightmare.
The temperature in the room began to heat up.
And suddenly I noticed. The four of us. Suspended in a tiny time capsule. In a soundproofed safe high above the hustle and bustle of “The Second City.” And each of us with tears in our eyes.
All of this flashed before me last night. A night with little if any silence and a totally different experience. Not at all like Studs’ studio. Not even like sitting near the orchestra pit during the early 1950’s revival of Porgy, where I was a teenaged usher in Chicago’s cavernous, classic, Civic Opera House.
As the lights dimmed, in the sleek and nearly perfectly-tuned modern Strathmore Music Hall, just 15 minutes from our apartment door, Susan and I focused on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s pleasing full, fluid sound. It was a sharp contrast to what I remembered as an equally pleasing, but brassy, Broadway-born Porgy pit orchestra.
But, the voices. Oh, those voices. Behind the orchestra in the loft, were the 60-or-so members of the highly acclaimed choir from Morgan State University a historically black college. In front, performing in an imaginary Catfish Row, were the lead performers. Some professional opera singers, some students. They deservedly took their standing ovation bows. And I thought.
Oh those voices. Oh, those emotions. Oh, those memories.