restricted access 4: An Emergent Black Entertainment Showcase

From: Black Eden

Michigan State University Press colophon
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4 An Emergent Black Entertainment Showcase HARRY A. REED, IN HIS ARTICLE ENTITLED "THE BLACK TAVERN IN THE MAKING of a Jazz Musician: Bird, Mingus and Stan Hope," stated that young black musicians have always served a considerable period of an apprenticeship in juke joints and back bars. There they have learned acceptable professional standards and worked to improve their techniques, expand their repertoire, extend the range of their instruments, and internalize positive attitudes toward improvisation. Additionally, the entertainment site has been the place to experiment with new ideas. If the novices' competence has not matched their confidence, the negative response usually has spurred them to greater effort and sometimes final achievement or failure. The bar, among other things, has provided a location where companionships could be made and maintained. "In this setting a new language was learned, a new type ofdress was adopted, and, new social modes were accepted...."1 Besides making the rounds of the bars in the large urban areas, talents of all stripes found their way to Idlewild, where they contributed enormously to the growth and development ofthat area as a resort community. The contributions of these entertainers were complementary to such other summer activities as family picnicking, boating, and horseback riding. At one time or 69 BLACK EDEN: THE IDLEWILD COMMUNITY another, many of the most notable intellectual, musical, and artistic talents were nurtured at Idlewild, bringing that community in close harmony with the Renaissance movement in black communities such as that found in New York City. Desiree Cooper, a writer for the Detroit News and Free Press, makes the observation that: That movement was later dubbed the Harlem Renaissance, an era in the 1920S when blacks used music, art, literature and intellectual discourse to exhibit their humanity to the rest ofthe world. The hope was that, through their contributions to American culture, racism and bigotry would eventually evaporate. During the Harlem Renaissance, New York became the cultural capital of black America, spawning famous writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong; painters such as Palmer Hayden and William H. Johnson; and social activists such as W. E. B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That Renaissance also touched little Midwestern towns such as Idlewild.2 Some ofthe people mentioned in her article spent some time at Idlewild en route to becoming national and international figures. This chapter highlights many ofthe entertainers and a few of the other activities that made Idlewild "the popular place to be" during its heyday. THE CHITLIN CIRCUIT In much the same way that Jewish entertainers, between the 1930S and 1960s, got their start in the "Borscht Belt" resorts of the Catskill Mountains in New York and elsewhere, many up-and-coming black performers began their long road to fame and fortune via the Idlewild resort.3 In the 195os, Chicagoan Wendell "Paw" Lawhorn and the original Chicago Idlewilders began to hold benefit amateur shows consisting ofdancers, bathing beauties, comedians, male and female singing groups, and impersonators.4 The admission fee for adults and children ranged from $0.65 to $1.25.5 These shows became the forum for many soon-to-be famous entertainers. Furthermore, many already-established black performers exhibited their talents in either An Emergent Black Entertainment Showcase Vacationers canoeing on Lake Idlewild. Courtesy of the Ben C. Wilson Collection, Black Americana Studies Department, Western Michigan University. the Fiesta Room in the Paradise Club, the Flamingo Club, the Club ElMorocco , or the Idlewild Club House. Word-of-mouth about the splendid performances put on by Sammy Davis Jr., the leggy dancers, and the booming voice of Billy Eckstine made a trip to the resort a must for those who had never before visited the area. Idlewild in short order became a showcase for the talents of both well-known and lesser-known black entertainers. Because many of these entertainers went on to become nationally and internationally known, and because some, if not many, of them may be unfamiliar to the reader, we have provided a brief sketch of many of the notables who performed at Idlewild, followed by a description of some of the professional black athletes who frequented the resort. Among the performers who exhibited their talents at Idlewild were: LOUIS ARMSTRONG (4 July 1900-9 July 1971). Born in New Orleans , he was raised in very humble surroundings in an economically depressed neighborhood in New Orleans. Besides selling newspapers and...


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