When a record five of this year’s Oscar nominations went to black actors, the buzz began: At last, perhaps, African-Americans had fully arrived in Hollywood. But Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle—not to mention Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and even Sidney Poitier—might never have reached the movie world’s heights if not for some earlier arrivals. In the early 1940s, Lena Home became the screen’s first black sex symbol. Herb Jeffries rode into town in 1937 and became a hero with two six-guns and a white hat. Fleet-footed Fayard Nicholas started stealing movies from their stars back in 1932. Meet six surviving pioneers of Black Hollywood—men and women who battled frank racism, stereotype-constrained casting and on-set segregation to achieve memorable art and pave the way “to put us where we are today,” says Cheadle. “They fought against all odds and they forced the movie industry to make a place for them,” says historian Donald Bogle, author of the new book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. “To do what they did took courage, fortitude and passion,” says Berry, who in 2002 became the first black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. “Had they not been, I might not be.”
The marquee on the Hollywood Boulevard theater read “Down Argentine Way…starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable.” But soon two young, elegant African-American men in tuxes arrived on the screen, and for the next 3½ minutes Fayard and Harold Nicholas burned up the celluloid with a display of flips, splits and footwork as graceful as it was breathtakingly athletic. Bursting into cheers, the white audience demanded that the projectionist rewind the film and show the sequence again. “They took all the other names off the marquee and just put up ‘The Nicholas Brothers,’ ” says Fayard, 90, of that night back in 1940. “We always knew we’d steal a movie, no matter who was in it.”
Dance virtuosos since boyhood—when they performed with Duke Ellington at Harlem’s Cotton Club—the Nicholas brothers astounded movie audiences in the 1930s and 1940s with a style that combined tap, ballet and acrobatics at near-superhuman speed. “They were geniuses from another planet, whatever color they were,” says Halle Berry. “They should be revered like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.” Their stylish sophistication also stood out at a time when other black actors were forced into roles that played to base stereotypes. “We were the opposite of the shuffling Stepin Fetchit type,” says Fayard. “We got respect. Black audiences loved to see these two guys on the screen with class.” While sequences starring blacks were often shot so studios could cut them when movies played in the South, that frequently proved impossible in their case. “The audience would get so loud yelling our names that they would finally have to show us,” Fayard said.
Yet the Nicholas brothers never got speaking parts, never got the girl—never danced with one, with the exception of black screen star Dorothy Dandridge. “They weren’t ready for it,” says Fayard. “One time we were photographed with Betty Grable and the movie studio destroyed the photo. We couldn’t be seen rubbing elbows with her.” He says he would have liked to have tried dramatic roles. “It would have been interesting to play a doctor or a lawyer. I’m disappointed, but I’m not too bitter. The Nicholas brothers were famous all over the world.”
As the age of the Hollywood musical faded, the brothers toured stages around the globe and found success on Broadway: Fayard won a Tony in 1989 for co-choreographing the hit Black and Blue. Harold (who was married to Dandridge from 1942 to 1951) died in 2000, leaving his brother a solo act. Fayard, who lives in Toluca Lake, Calif., played a supporting role in the 2002 movie Night at the Golden Eagle and still sometimes performs with his dancer wife, Katherine Hopkins-Nicholas, 54. (He has two sons from his marriage to Barbara, who died in 1998.) “If my brother and I were doing our thing in this time, there’s no telling what we would have accomplished,” he says. “But we got along pretty well in this prejudiced world. We had such wonderful times. And I’m still having a wonderful time.”
In the early 1940s, a 24-year-old singer named Lena Horne was about to sign a contract with MGM. The daughter of a socially connected New York family, Horne came to Hollywood shouldering the expectations of many. Walter White, head of the NAACP, had already told her that she was to represent “a new kind of Negro woman” in films. So before she signed, Horne and her father met with the studio head. “I can afford to hire a maid for my daughter.” Teddy Horne told Louis B. Mayer. “Why should she act one?” Mayer promised she never would.
Lena Horne was the first African-American to get true star treatment in Hollywood—glamor shots, wardrobe, full publicity. “They never choose us, but they chose you,” she remembers bandleader Count Basie telling her. “For the first time, people looked at a black woman and really considered her beautiful.” says Halle Berry. “She was breaking ground just by breathing.”
She didn’t often get the chance to do much more. While maids were taboo, so were leading-lady roles. “They believed that audiences weren’t ready,” says Horne. “They didn’t know what to do with me. So they did nothing.” With rare exceptions, Horne was only given solo singing spots. “Every scene I was in was shot to be edited out in the South,” she says. In the all-black 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky, a sequence with Horne singing in a bubble bath never made it to any theaters, North or South. “A Negro woman in a bubble bath,” she says, “was just far too daring.” So was her 1947 wedding to composer and musical director Lennie Hayton, which had to be done in secret and in Paris because interracial marriages were illegal in California.
Horne left Hollywood in the mid-1950s, “bitter,” she says, “at the whole Hollywood system,” and went on to tremendous success as a stage actress and consummate jazz singer. Now 87, widowed (Hayton died in 1971) and living in Manhattan, Horne looks back at her Hollywood career as a wasted chance. “I was a test case.” she says. “I could never feel like I was just a person working in movies. For MGM and the NAACP, it was always, ‘Look, here is our Negro woman.’ ”
As Herb Jeffries tells it, the Bronze Buckaroo was born one hot summer day in 1934. On break from a singing gig in Cleveland, Jeffries saw a group of white children racing down an alley. A small black boy ran behind them, crying. “Did those boys hit you?” asked Jeffries. “No, they’re my friends,” answered the child. “I want to play cowboy with them. But they say I can’t ’cause there ain’t no such thing as a colored cowboy.”
The handsome 6’3″ Detroit native figured he could fit the bill. Talking his way into the B-movie business, he made four all-black Westerns (as Herbert Jeffrey), starting with 1937’s Harlem on the Prairie, appearing astride his steed Stardusk as the first black singing cow-poke star. When in later films he broke into his theme song “I’m a Happy Cowboy,” black audiences “just went crazy,” he remembers.
When the backing for his independently produced films dried up in the late ’30s, Herb Jeffries left Hollywood. “What am I going to do, work in a Tarzan picture?” he asks. Instead he became the principal singer for Duke Ellington’s orchestra and later made guest appearances on TV shows such as Hawaii Five-O. Still singing in jazz concerts, the father of five, who lives in Idyllwild, Calif., is working on his autobiography with help from his fifth wife, Savannah, 48. In September Jeffries was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “He wore a white hat, but Herb Jeffries was a cinematic outlaw,” says one fan, actor-director Mario Van Peebles. “He did something outrageous and then rode off into the sunset. He did us proud.”
In 1947 Jeni LeGon was cast as a maid in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire. She was excited to see Astaire again. They’d traded dance steps on the RKO lot more than a decade earlier. But LeGon’s anticipation soon soured. “He never spoke to me, never acknowledged me,” says LeGon, now 88. “He knew I was the same person, I’m sure of that. I was really hurt. It’s inside and I can’t get rid of it. Hollywood was a black and white world.”
At 19, the Chicago-raised LeGon earned a long-term contract with a Hollywood studio, a rare achievement for an African-American actress in the 1930s. But it didn’t last. LeGon’s first job was a small role in Broadway Melody of 1936, starring dancer Eleanor Powell. Just before the start of filming, the cast performed at a Hollywood charity benefit. “Unfortunately, I went onstage before Eleanor,” says LeGon. The next day MGM called and canceled her contract. “It was a color thing,” says LeGon.
Despite the dismissal, LeGon quickly found work in Hollywood musicals. Her sexy and exuberant performances earned her monikers such as the Chocolate Princess. But as her career continued, she often found herself cast as a maid. “You had to eat,” she says. “But I was a good actress. I played an American maid, an African maid, a West Indian maid, an Arab maid—you name it.”
In 1969, inspired by Canada’s lack of a racial divide, she opened a dance school in Vancouver and has shared her life with drummer Frank Clavin, 72, since 1975. When she last acted onscreen in 2001’s Bones, star Snoop Dogg wasn’t aware of the path she’d helped to pave, she says, but it didn’t matter: “I know I’m a pioneer.” And while she was never nominated for an Oscar, after 70 years in films, she would like once to attend the Oscars. “That,” she says, “would be nice.”
Breaking all protocol, the angry young extra went right to the star of the film. “Mr. Gable, would you come with me? I’d like to show you something,” the 18-year-old boldly asked. Lennie Bluett then led Clark Gable through the MGM backlot to the portable toilets that had been brought to the outdoor set of 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Signs on the toilets read “White” and “Colored.” “Clark Gable stalked back to his dressing room and called the director on the phone,” recalls Bluett, now 86. “Gable told him, ‘If you don’t get those goddamned signs down now, you don’t have a Rhett Butler!’ ”
Such victories were often outweighed by frustrations for Bluett, who in many ways typifies the working African-American actor in early Hollywood. While never a star, the L.A. native appeared as a self-described “glorified extra” in approximately 40 movies, acting with everybody from the Marx Brothers to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Though he made a good living, “I felt degraded,” he says. “Here I am, young and handsome, and the only parts they would call me for would be as an African native or sitting in jail or working on the levee singing ‘darkie’ songs.”
Since resigning from the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s—”I didn’t want to sit on the levee anymore”—Bluett, the divorced father of one daughter, has made a career singing and playing piano in L.A. and Morocco. When Halle Berry won the Oscar in 2002, “I jumped up and down,” says Bluett. “I was so proud of her.” Still, he feels that Hollywood continues to cast black actors as types rather than allow them the full spectrum of roles. “I’m optimistic, though,” he says. “I’ve lived long enough to see how it was.”
By 1942, anthropologist-turned-dancer Katherine Dunham was known as an authority on the culture of Haiti. So she was a bit surprised when producers asked her to choreograph the Abbott and Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong, set in the South Pacific. “The producers confused Haiti with Tahiti,” says Dunham, now 95. “They expected us to come out wearing grass skirts, with flowers in our hair. By the time they discovered their mistake the contract was signed, and we were ready to go. They had to use us.”
Famous for melding Afro-Caribbean influences with classical dance, Dunham is now considered one of the great figures of American arts. But Hollywood money helped her company survive, and Dunham’s regal, sensual performances in movies such as 1943’s Stormy Weather gave moviegoers rarely seen screen images of black women. “I knew the unusualness of what I was doing,” she says.
After the Chicago native’s onscreen career ended in the 1950s, she started a school and taught movement to James Dean and Marlon Brando. Today Dunham, whose husband, John Pratt, died in 1986 (they have one daughter), lives quietly in New York City, occasionally giving lectures. “People,” she says, “appreciate that I opened doors.”