“I wear white when I want to look brown,” says Geoffrey Holder, “and black when I want to pass.” He is wearing a white safari suit and pounds of turquoise jewelry. Draping his 6’6″ frame over the sofa in his all-white West Side Manhattan apartment, Holder talks of his multiple careers in a voice as deep as Othello and as smooth as Caribbean rum. Which is he first? Painter? Dancer? Designer? Director? Choreographer? Singer? Actor? Author? Host?
“That is the hardest question of all,” muses Holder, who was recently awarded two Tonys—for directing and costume design—of the seven given to The Wiz, the smash soul musical based on The Wizard of Oz. Nationally, Holder is best known as the “un-cola” man and the “ring-around-the-collar” man of television commercials. Holder finally decides about his talents. “Even when I am working in the theater, there is always the smell of turpentine backstage. So I must be a painter first.”
Holder, 44, got his first whiff of creativity while growing up the son of a salesman “with brains” in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Holder’s parents encouraged Geoffrey and his older equally multifaceted brother Boscoe to develop all their talents—as painters, singers, musicians. The family remains close; Holder returns to Trinidad every couple of months and runs up an $800 monthly phone bill calling them on weekends.
Holder first came to New York in 1953 with his own folk dance company and the following year danced on Broadway in Truman Capote’s House of Flowers. There he met dancer Carmen de Lavallade and proposed four days later. She did not accept until she visited his apartment and, laughs Holder, “discovered that all the paintings on the walls looked like her.” Married 19 years, Holder and de Lavallade, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama, have one son, 18-year-old Léo.
Over the past two decades Holder’s talents have blossomed. His lush impressionist paintings have hung in the Barbados Museum and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, as well as in the homes of such luminaries as Marietta Tree, Lena Horne and William F. Buckley. For two years Holder was a principal dancer of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. He still performs dozens of college concerts each year and has choreographed works for the Dance Theater of Harlem and Alvin Ailey. In August he will mount a new ballet for Mexico City’s Ballet Folklorico.
In films like Dr. Dolittle and Live and Let Die, Holder the actor was excessively flamboyant. But in each case too much seemed just right. He is soon to begin work on a film with Jeanne Moreau called Death Is My Pardon. On the subject of commercials, Holder is firm: “I’m no snob. The commercial is an art form unto itself. After all, you are seducing people.”
After designing the costumes for The Wiz, Holder was brought in as director to rescue the show from disaster on the road. Morale was rock-bottom. Holder, raised an Episcopalian, instructed the cast to pray while he burned incense in a voodoo ritual and exorcised evil spirits from the theater. Something worked. Before long Holder’s fertile imagination had produced such innovations as the dazzling Tornado Ballet that plops Dorothy down in Munchkinland—and thrills packed houses at Broadway’s Majestic Theater.
Holder immodestly considers himself no less a wiz in the kitchen. He has even written a book on the subject, Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Cookbook, in which he interweaves island lore and autobiographical sketches with tantalizing recipes for orange rice, king turtle stew, coconut chicken sigurd and salt-fish pie.
Although he confines himself to cooking for small groups of friends—”more than 15 is vulgar”—Holder now wants to open his own restaurant and is scouting a location on Manhattan’s chic Upper East Side. There will be no menu, plenty of chamber music and “fantasy dishes” like Scotch and ice cream. Try getting that out of a cola nut.