They met at the rehearsals for Sheba, a 1973 off-Broadway musical in which he was a chorus boy and she a featured dancer. The show lasted only one week, and Debbie Allen kept her distance from Win Wilford until the day before it closed. “He was so good-looking,” she recalls. “He drove a Mercedes-Benz, he had fine clothes and he would come in late and no one seemed to get mad at him. I never dealt with him.” When they did finally break the ice, though, they discovered that they had a lot in common. “It was like magic. It was overnight, really scary,” says Debbie. “Ever since we started dating,” Win adds, “we’ve been together.”
Not literally. In December Debbie went to work on Fame, the bright new TV series, and the Wilfords, who wed in 1975, have been a continent apart. While she toils through 13-hour days taping the NBC show in Hollywood, Win is 3,000 miles away in Manhattan, where he is a vice-president at CBS Records and publicist for its Epic label. The two have been able to get together only on the rare times he can manage a four-day weekend in L.A. Laments Win: “The one thing to be said about us being separate is that at least we are busy.”
So they are. Allen, 29, is currently in double exposure. Onscreen, she’s appearing in Ragtime as Sarah, the star-crossed love of Coalhouse Walker Jr. And since January she’s been lighting up the tube Thursday nights as Fame’s Lydia, the diminutive, demanding dance class teacher at Manhattan’s High School of the Performing Arts—the same role she had in the hit 1980 film. For her pay (an estimated $20,000 per episode), Debbie also rehearses the 15 young dancers and choreographs’ the show. Her multiple duties require her to be on the set at 6 a.m. each day and almost constantly in motion. Marvels executive producer Bill Blinn: “Sometimes I think she must be twins.” Or triplets. When Allen gets back to her one-bedroom rented apartment in a high rise at 7 p.m., she starts exercising her 5’2″, 108-pound frame for an hour or more. “With these teenagers in the cast, if I don’t do my plies I’m in trouble,” she says with a laugh.
Abandoning his career as a performer after Sheba and settling in behind the scenes, Win, 39, has had to deal with pressure too. For Epic, his responsibility is the care and promoting of a flock of black artists such as Lou Rawls, the Jacksons and Teddy Pendergrass. At present he’s focusing his efforts on a promising new singer, Luther Vandross. Win says his relationship with all his stars is “close, but I’m not a baby-sitter or anything. They know the direction they’re taking.”
The same goes for Win and Debbie. As kids growing up in the South, they set their sights on showbiz early on. Wilford’s parents were teachers in Baton Rouge (his father later worked for a chemical company), but he decided that his future was in music. At 19, he left town to play bass guitar for a local R&B group called the Upsetters. When it folded he moved on to Philadelphia, joined an outfit called Kenny Gamble and the Romeos as a bassist, and parlayed that experience into session work for Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, the Delfonics and the Soul Survivors, with whom he cut the 1967 hit Expressway to Your Heart. By 1969 he was in New York trying to build an acting career as a member of the first apprentice program of the famed Negro Ensemble Company and working at modeling jobs to pay the rent.
In 1972 Debbie arrived in Manhattan from Houston, where her father was a dentist and her mother an artist and director of a cultural center. (They divorced when she was 4.) Debbie had all the spunk of her mother, Vivian Ayers, who in 1963, when Debbie was 11, took her and her older brother and sister to Mexico City for a year’s exposure to a foreign culture. This included weekly visits to the Ballet Folklorico. On their return to Houston, Debbie took ballet lessons and eventually won a Ford Foundation grant that would have supported her dream of becoming a professional ballerina. Instead, she veered to Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, where she became enamored of antiquity, studied Greek, and emerged with a bachelor of fine arts degree cum laude.
Though at one point she thought seriously of becoming an anthropologist, she headed for Manhattan and a job with George Faison’s modern dance troupe. (Her sister, actress-singer Phylicia Ayers-Allen, had preceded her to New York, where she is now the understudy for Dreamgirls star Sheryl Lee Ralph; brother Tex Allen is a jazz musician in SoHo.) Debbie was a Faison dancer at the time she met Wilford.
After the disaster of Sheba, Wilford turned to public relations work full-time for a couple of big agencies; among other assignments, he helped coordinate a TV special starring Roberta Flack. By 1974 he caught CBS’ big eye and joined the company’s record division. Allen, meanwhile, had taken her act to Broadway, having made her debut in 1972 in Purlie and winning a starring role a year later in Raisin, the musical version of Raisin in the Sun. More raves came her way when Leonard Bernstein cast her as Anita, the fiery Puerto Rican girl, in the 1980 revival of West Side Story, and then came the film role in Ragtime. Says Allen: “I loved playing Sarah. I thought I couldn’t match the high of West Side Story, but Ragtime proved me wrong.”
Although Fame has yet to prove itself in the TV ratings, critics have praised it as “attractive” and “disarmingly sassy,” as the New York Times’ John O’Connor put it, and NBC hopes it will become the next Hill Street Blues, a slow starter that eventually scored in the Nielsens. Allen finds the show “a big innovation” and believes it may lead to a new genre of made-for-TV musicals. At the very least, she says, Fame is fun to tape. “One day we did a number, and it was a print”—meaning perfect. But then, she relates, “everyone was sad because they’d enjoyed doing it so much, so we did it again, and it was even better.”
She was not so happy when her commitment to Fame forced her to turn down plum roles in two upcoming movies, Cat People and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. “I screamed, I cried, and my husband really had to hold me tight,” she says.
They find a bicoastal relationship, however temporary, no great joy. Just before she went West, Debbie and Win built a 25-foot-square dance studio in back of their home in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y. “The sad thing is,” says Win, “Debbie hasn’t been around to use it a lot. ‘When she’s alone in L.A., Debbie pals around with chums like dancer Hinton Battle of Sophisticated Ladies, who lives in her apartment building, but too often she finds herself just worrying about Win’s well-being. “I know he’ll go for several days and just eat sandwiches because I’m not there to see that he’s fed,” she says. “That’s not good.” And, too, “The people on Fame notice I’m different when Win’s been away for some time,” she says. “When he’s out here I brighten up a little.
“This living apart is tough,” Debbie concedes, “but things will work out okay. I bring a level of energy into Win’s life, and he calms me down. We complement each other very well.”