Speaker Could you tell me what?

Speaker I grew up in the 50s in Texas at a time when a trip to the movie theaters was a rare occasion, there was only one movie theater in town that black people could go to the Dowling Theater.

Speaker And I grew up watching musical films on television. Television was like the new thing by the time I was a little one. And I grew up watching Lena Horne singing and beautiful and gorgeous in those movies.

Speaker And as a kid, you know, five years old, the image was so powerful I already had visions of myself as a dancer and what I might want to do. And my mother was so encouraging of all of that. But seeing Lena Horne made me know that it could happen. She was such a beautiful black woman and so elegant and refined. I knew I might not ever be that refined, but I might have somewhere that I could fit in somewhere. So Lena Horne was like royalty for us, if you will, just royalty and beauty and grace and such a so exemplary of of who black women can be as well.

Speaker Certainly, you have to understand, I grew up at a time where the images were so, you know, either one way or the other, it was either, you know, an image of of a a woman who was a working domestic, usually like the beautiful Hattie McDaniel, who I loved was Lena Horne.

Speaker There were no Diana Sands. There was nothing in between. There was just one or the other. And the way Lena carried herself, she never gave you the sense that she felt uppity or that she even worried about being beautiful. She just was. And it made me want to emulate something like that.

Speaker I used to go in my backyard and put on my bathing suit and tie towels around my neck and climb a tree and pretend.

Speaker Tell me about the first time I actually met.

Speaker I'll never forget the first time I met Lena Horne. I was in New York. She was doing her one woman show Lady and a music. And I sat there in that theater and I I swear she was singing only to me.

Speaker There's something about the way she impacts an audience that she makes. I think she makes everyone in that audience feel like she's singing just to them. But I was sure Lena was only singing to me that night and it was like a baton being passed or there was a ritual going on that maybe she wasn't aware of, but it was doing it for me. It was beckoning me to keep going, keep trying. And I had never seen anyone so sexy. I mean, she could just you know, I'm so used to kicking my legs up, spinning and sweating, you know, Lena Horne would sing a song and just maybe her fingers would move. And it became a big thing. It became huge. And I remember going backstage and kind of waiting in a corner, in line a long line of people there to greet her and admire her and say hello.

Speaker And she looked over there at me and she was aware of me. She knew who I was. She knew my name. I was so flattered that she was aware of the young people. They were coming up and I was one of them. And she's like, What you doing in there?

Speaker Come on over there. Come over here.

Speaker And, you know, I went over to her and she embraced me and I just cried. I was so excited and she was so sweet to me. And after that meeting, every time I would open in a Broadway show or anything, I would always get flowers from Lena Horne. She would she was keeping up with me. So, I mean, she might be in Europe somewhere or wherever. I don't know where she was all the time, but she seemed to keep a pulse on, you know, those that she could see were ready to do and had gotten the message. So it was a great meeting just to be in the room with her, to see her up close and how beautiful she is.

Speaker Can I ask you please, could you just give me the half that again? Just about when you first when she saw you and she said. What are you doing?

Speaker Yeah, okay, well, I was in her dressing room and I waited, you know, in a long line of a lot of people, and I was in a corner in her dressing room and she looked over and she said, David, what are you doing in that cottage?

Speaker Come on over here.

Speaker Oh, I just loved it so much. It was so wonderful. She embraced me. She hugged me. And I just I was in tears just to be in her presence. And she was just so down to earth with me, something I was not really expecting.

Speaker What is your relationship with her?

Speaker Well, I feel like there's a kindred spirit between us. I feel like she is my, in a way, a mother figure to me, a big sister figure to me. She's accessible to me.

Speaker I was producing and directing a show called A Different World, and we had tried for so many years to get Lena to do the show. And finally, after about four years, she finally said, All right, I'll get on a plane or something. I'll be out there, you know? And she came and it was just incredible that she would do our show.

Speaker And my relationship with her now is so warm and close. We don't see each other often. But when we do, it's always as if we just, you know, been together all night the night before.

Speaker Tell me about that show, because I've seen the show and you did a wonderful thing of the year. Tell me how you put that together.

Speaker Well, Susan Fales, who is my executive producer, head writer, her mother is Josephine Promise, a woman who came up with Lena Horne. So Susan Fales, another beautiful, talented sister, grew up with her own image of Lena and a certain closeness to Lena because of her mother and the whole, you know, business of the arts and entertainment in the world of the theater right there in front of her.

Speaker So we wrote a show that really just wanting to really just bow down and praise to Lena. And all the children were learning about who she was. They were we had some young children who were young students who didn't know who she was.

Speaker We were just educating young people about our history and the legacy of Lena Horne. And they did a whole show about her and they, you know, did her life story a little bit. You know, I think one of my best performances with her was the Kennedy Center Honors. When I performed in her honor, it was one of the most subtle performances I ever gave. And it's really one of my favorite. Whenever I look back on that, it was emulating Lena Horne just pulls certain things out of you.

Speaker It pulls strength and power, but it also pulls economy and simplicity because that's who she is. That's why she is the eternal diva. Because she is grand. She is grand. Lena Horne, a synonym for Lena Horne is grandness diva, you know, and grace. I mean, she just exudes that without trying. You know, she doesn't have to try.

Speaker You told me something really funny about her when you were at the end of it.

Speaker Yes. Well, when Lena Horne came in town to do a different world, it was the same time we were getting ready to have the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. And I'm on the board. And we were celebrating the achievement of Elizabeth Taylor. And when every studio in town found out that Lena Horne was in town, every studio invited her to come and sit at their table.

Speaker And she was like, I'm going to sit on an argument as a common leader. Come and go with me, Lena. We'll all get dressed up in red together. We're going there. We're just turn it out. She said, Oh, no, no, David, don't be so excited. Just slow down. She was always going to slow down. So say, come on, Lena, get the limousine. I'll even go and get you some clothes. I sent her about three or four outfits and too much. Too much. She wanted something simple. Some, you know, palazzo pants and a great jacket, something simple. And we were all dressed in red. It was me and Susan Fales, Jada Pinkett. And we walk through that hall. You would have thought, you know, it was truly her night the moment she walked in. And Wesley Snipes was also a guest at my table. And he was doing that Demolition Man movie with Sylvester Stallone. So his hair was dyed line. So he was wearing a kerchief on his like a drag on his head. And Lena kept looking over at him and everybody was coming over to say hi to her. And, you know, Wesley was busy talking.

Speaker And finally she leaned over and she says, Debbie, who is that over there with that rag on his head?

Speaker I said, That's Wesley Snipes. He's doing a movie. So he's he's just covering up his hair.

Speaker I'm glad you told me. I didn't know what was going on. And you and I, you don't Wesley. You know, she just so I never missed a beat. And they were Lena Horne. What I mean, with Elizabeth Taylor walked it. It was just classic because, you know, people were running to go and say hi to Elizabeth and. You know, I'm still angry about me, I always feel like a bubbly teenager whenever I'm sitting next to her and I said, Lena, Lena, there's little she said, I say, Elizabeth. She said, Debbie, I've been a diva a lot longer than she has. I said, All right, darling. And that was the truth. And I said, well, let me be still. And of course, they all came by to say hi to her. She was the queen. She didn't have to get up.

Speaker That's beautiful. I think you've covered it.

Speaker OK, but wait, don't move. Let me just make sure I know we've got to get the heck out of here. The one thing I did want to ask you about doing an episode of a different world was what was the feeling among the cast when Lena was it when they knew it was coming, when they knew Lena Horne was coming on the set of a different world?

Speaker Everybody was just excited and running around and race. And I mean, it was as if. I mean, the only excitement that I can compare it to is.

Speaker What can I compare it to?

Speaker I can only compare to when Martin Luther King came to Houston, Texas, one time and he was going to be a dinner guest at our home and all the neighbors were like, going insane. I mean, I don't know any other experience that comes close to that. Lena Horne, the idea of just being in the room with her had everybody on pins and needles. It had everybody wanting to, you know, just say something to her, but certainly not say the wrong thing.

Speaker Everybody was just on their best behavior.

Speaker Everybody was just waiting with bated breath. And there she walked through the studio door and she was so full of life and so down to earth and just regular. And everybody was, you know, she was generous to sign autographs and to talk to people and to the little children.

Speaker And, you know, and she this machine that, you know, when she was tired of talking, she go on right now, I have to go do my hair, that's all.

Speaker But it was incredible that Lena Horne actually, you know, was on our stage and it made us all remember and dream.

Speaker That's what it did.

Speaker Did Jennifer Lewis have trepidations about saying, OK, all right, I answer this.

Speaker The judge thought that trepidations about sitting in the presence of Jennifer Lewis never has any trepidations about singing in front of the village.

Speaker You see the you know, Jennifer Lewis does a whole act called the Diva is dismissed. So, you know, she was in rare form when Lena Horne was around. I wouldn't begin to even mimic her routines. It was so brilliant. And Lena loved it. We all wanted to entertain her. You know, that's what you do when royalty comes around. You want to serve them and serving. Lena was talking to her, her entertaining her, getting her coffee, water, whatever. And Jennifer Lewis was certainly on and, you know, a lot of fun. And Jasmine Jasmine guy, I still have a picture of all of us together.

Speaker It's on my wall at home, everybody, Jasmine Guy, Jennifer Lewis, Kadeem. And we had a lot of visitors that week. Two people just popped in because the issue was.

Debbie Allen
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Debbie Allen, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 09 Feb. 1996,
(1996, February 09). Debbie Allen, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Debbie Allen, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). February 09, 1996. Accessed December 07, 2021


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