Monday, May 10, 2010

The Late,Great Lena Horne

Singer and actress Lena Horne passed yesterday at the age of 92.

Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917 to an upper middle class, family. Her parents separated when she was two. Until she was six she was raised by her paternal grandparents, after which her mother took her back. She was only 16 when her mother took her out of school to audition for the chorus at the Cotton Club in Harlem. It was only a year later she made her debut on Broadway in a small part in Dance of the Gods. It was in 1938 that she appeared in her first film, as the female lead in The Duke is Tops, a quickie musical for which she was never paid.

In 1938 she returned to Broadway in the musical revue Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939. She had been performing at the Café Society, a nightclub in Manhattan, for some time when Felix Young hand picked her as the star of his new nightclub in Hollywood, the Trocadero. At the time Hollywood did not allow African Americans to live there, so Felix Young signed the rental contract for the house as if he planned to live there. While there were those in the neighbourhood who did not want Miss Horne to live there, she found a powerful champion in her neighbour from across the street, Humphrey Bogart. He let it be known to Miss Horne that if anyone bothered her to let him know.

Composer and arranger Roger Edens had been to the Café Society when Lena Horne was performing there, and went to see her at the Trocadero as well. He convinced Arthur Freed, the producer of many MGM musicals, to go to the nightclub to hear her sing. Mr. Freed insisted that Louis B. Mayer also listen to Miss Horne sing. In the end Miss Horne was signed to a seven year contract with MGM. She appeared in her first film for MGM, Panama Hattie, in 1942. Over the next few years she would appear in several of MGM's films. Miss Horne was the female lead in Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), and  the musical short Boogie Woogie Dream (1944). She appeared in the films Thousands Cheer (1943), I Dood It (1943), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Ziegfield Follies (1945), Til the Clouds Roll By (1945), Words and Music (1948), Some of the Best (1949), and Duchess of Idaho (1950). At the same time she had a successful recording career. scoring  a hit with the single "Stormy Weather" and recording three albums in the Forties. Miss Horne also toured with the U.S.O.

Miss Horne's contract with MGM ended in 1950. While Miss Horne would only appear in one film throughout the Fifties (1956's Meet Me in Las Vegas), she appeared frequently on television. She made her television debut on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951 and went onto appear on Your Show of Shows, Music '55, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, What's My Line, and The Steve Allen Show. She also appeared in the musical Jamaica on Broadway in 1957. She performed at nightclubs in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York City. Miss Horne also recorded six albums.

The Sixties saw Miss Horne continue to perform at nightclubs, as well as appear on television. She appeared on such shows as The Dupont Show of the Week, Password, The Jack Paar Programme, The Judy Garland Show, The Perry Como Show, The Andy Williams Show, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. She recorded twelve albums. In 1969 she appeared in the film Death of a Gunfighter. In the Seventies she appeared on such shows as Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show, The Bruce Forsyth Show, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and The Tonight Show. On Broadway she appeared in her own show with Tony Bennett entitled Tony and Lena Sing in 1974. She recorded three more albums. She played Glinda the Good in The Wiz in 1978.

From the Eighties into the Naughts Miss Horne appeared in many awards shows, including ones for the Tony Awards, Essence Awards, and the Grammy Awards. She guest starred on The Cosby Show, Reading Rainbow, and A Different World. She was narrator and co-host for That's Entertainment III (1994). In 1981 she appeared on Broadway for the last time, in her own show entitled Lena Horne"The Lady and Her Music." She recorded six more albums.

Lena Horne was certainly a ground breaker. While she was not the first black actress ever signed to a movie studio, she might well have been the first black, female movie star. Indeed, it must be pointed out that Miss Horne had the very qualities that would make her a perfect movie star. Not only was she beautiful, but she was arguably one of the greatest singers of all time and a very good actress. It is unfortunate that most of the time MGM only allowed to sing one or two songs in a film, without allowing her to interact with the characters. She was also a tireless fighter for civil rights. During World War II, while touring with the USO, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. When the United States Army refused to integrate the audiences, she performed for African American soldiers and German POWs. Miss Horne took part in the March of Washington and worked alongside Eleanor Roosevelt to pass laws against lynching. She often spoke and performed on the part of the NAACP. Lena Horne was not simply a talented woman, but she was a very remarkable one as well.

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