Transcript:

Speaker When was the first time that you became aware?

Speaker It must've been around 1949 or 50, I was working in radio here in Los Angeles and of course, leader leader was a major attraction at that time. She was in films and when heard of her great success and important clubs and Broadway and that sort of thing.

Speaker Had you ever seen her? I do everything in the movie.

Speaker Yes. I don't recall which of her films. Just one person who she comes down and you have a truck. Oh, sorry. Sorry. The taxi was down.

Speaker Someone will have to do that for me because I if I had a mirror, I could help you. But I can't. If I straight. It was horrible to go even more sideways.

Speaker Thank you. Oh I see. I thought you went up. No, no, no. Great. Thanks.

Speaker OK. You were about to tell me about the. Could you tell me about the first time you saw the screen?

Speaker It must have been in a movie sometime around 1950 because Lena was already a major attraction at that time.

Speaker And simply as a lover of good music and talent, I immediately became her fan when I forgot to mention to you that my questions are going to be heard when we are. So I should repeat some of the OK.

Speaker Did you see Kevin in the sky? Did you see him?

Speaker I don't believe I did.

Speaker Probably won't be able to use that answer, but I don't think I did as a performer the first time you witnessed her. What struck you about?

Speaker I think the thing that hits you first at about 80 yards is her beauty. Of course, when she gets closer and when you attend to her many qualities more carefully than the talent, the singing talent and the general dramatic intensity immediately presents itself. I have always worshipped talent, other people's talent. I guess that's because my mother and father were vaudeville entertainers and my early childhood was spent not in the sandpile or the play yard, but out in front in vaudeville houses and movie houses around the country watching various people. And to this day, I'm very sensitive to talent of a thousand yards and I can spot no talent of 2000 yards, I think. So as soon as I saw Lena Horne, I automatically in that moment was a Lena Horne fan.

Speaker Did you ever see Lena Horne perform in nightclubs? And if so, what was that experience like?

Speaker I don't believe I did. I did see her perform at private parties. I don't mean she was hired for that occasion. She was simply one of a number of famous entertainers present. And sometimes if there's a grand piano in the living room and two or three good players, it's not that difficult to get Tony Bennett Opera Mel up or Donald Duck or whoever it might be. And in a couple of instances of that sort, I enjoyed hearing Lena perform in living rooms in the early 1950s.

Speaker Uh, excuse me. Were you ever at any of the famous Gene Kelly parties, the famous Gene Kelly one parties?

Speaker No, I don't believe I was.

Speaker I just wondered maybe if you can remember whose party you may have seen perform.

Speaker The parties I referred to were in New York City, and they were, as I say, in the early 50s, might have been at the house of a woman named Jean BOQ, who's always been a wonderful supporter of jazz in the modern cultural arts generally. Or it might have been Bill Hardbacks apartment. He's a television producer who also has always greatly appreciated talent.

Speaker Oh, no, I'm sure I want to talk about the Black List for a moment in her book talks about basically being the only ones who would go on their show. Hmm. Let me just ask, in terms of your memories, what was it like for you as a television personality? How did it respect you?

Speaker Well, directly at the first stage as a performer, it didn't affect me. It affected me more as a producer of programs, as a host of a show that needed guests.

Speaker Thought I just needed to go back. Of course you're right.

Speaker Well, selfishly speaking, I was not affected by the blacklist. In other words, I was not blacklisted.

Speaker But it was a great annoyance and inconvenience to me in my capacity as one who had a show, various shows over the years that needed guests. I suppose I could entertain alone, but the public wouldn't be very interested in that for more than two or three nights of that. And I recall one instance when I had seen Larry Parks and Betty Garrett, who had just distinguished himself playing Al Jolson in the movie, and I saw them perform in Miami, said, I'd love to have you guys on the show. They said we'd be delighted. And about two months later, it occurred to me I'd never heard any more about it. At that point, I was told that Mr. Parks was not bookable. It was terribly unjust. He was not a communist. And even if he had been, there's still room for philosophical argument. So that was a great annoyance. And I never actually knew in terms of up front, full, familiar knowledge about Lena's situation. I just have a vague memory now that there was some difficulty, I think, that applied to her and to a very funny gentleman named Abe Burrows at the time and a few others. And of course, for those who finally were able to fight through it and get on the air, there were many who were not. My sister in law, Audrey Meadows, became able to play the part of Alice Cramton with Jackie Gleason Honeymooners sketches only because the woman who had originated that role, an actress named Pert Kelton, was blacklisted in her career and life ruined by it. So this was not just a passing annoyance, it was a major social problem.

Speaker We have a show of yours that appeared on where she was with the whole cast in Jamaica performant. Do you recall that you're going to see Jamaica? First of all, did you ever say.

Speaker I'm almost certain I did. We're talking about the early 50s, early.

Speaker This was the musical with Ricardo Montalban and Ossie Davis.

Speaker Yes. Yes. I'm about 98 percent certain I saw it. The reason the percentage is not 100 is that over the years I've seen so many films and tapes and live performances and repeats that I'm sorry to say the consciousness is not fully in order and all those particulars, but I am almost certain I did see it.

Speaker Do you remember? I don't know if you remember the show itself when you had her on. I understand Alvin Ailey was one of the lead dancers. Do you remember anything about that?

Speaker I wish I could give you something to see there, but it's very, very apparent that the question was that the show from which two ladies in the shade of the banana tree came or said another one, I think I pushed the button, I. I have a thought about that Lina had the good fortune to sing a lot of great material, but she was one of those rare performers who could overpower even second or third rate material. We will never see any any. It doesn't matter what he or she sings, it's better with good material. But most of us would not be of any interest to an audience at all. Singing a third rate song, Lena is one of those with such vitality, such energy, such beauty, such a wonderful sound and the ability to use it that she, I repeat, could overpower her material and entertain you greatly, even if the what was on paper did not justify your reaction.

Speaker Did you know that?

Speaker Yes, I knew him just as a fellow musician. We were not fishing buddies. There's a way that people know each other in showbusiness, as you know, and sometimes it's a matter of intimate friendships. But in most cases it's that you worked on the same show or the same record album or did the same benefit together or were together on The Ed Sullivan Show one night or something of that sort. So I knew him in that sense.

Speaker Well, let me ask you just in that sense, what what did you know or what was his reputation?

Speaker He had a reputation as you. Of course, if Lennie Hayton had a reputation as a good musician and arranger, a conductor, and, of course, was noted also for his important work with Lena. Other than that, I don't have any particular details.

Speaker I can talk about hate mail and things of that sort if you want to, which I suppose is that would that would be helpful because in one instance I was on the Perry Como show and they touched and it was like a major thing.

Speaker Could you. Yes.

Speaker I don't know how it was for Perry Como and Jackie Gleason and the hundreds of other entertainers who were doing comedy and variety shows in the 1950s, but for me, it really awakened me to some problems that I only knew about abstractly. We had all seen pictures of idiots with white sheets over their heads and, you know, the Ku Klux Klan nonsense and burning churches and lynching. We all knew about that. It was in the history books. But there are degrees of knowledge. And until something affects you personally, you do not fully know it. I don't care how sensitive you are to the problems of others unless some of it splashes on you. As I say, your knowledge is clearly incomplete. And I never knew about the stupidity of racism, whether what we were talking about was antiblack feeling or anti-Semitism, that that emotion of any kind until I began to function on television. Whatever you do, if you do it in your family garage or your neighborhood drugstore, there may only be 14 people on Earth who care for or against what you're doing. But if you do something on television with 30 million people watching you, which was the average size audience in those days, there will be a wide variety of reactions. And in the entertainment field, we're in the habit of giving what has each other sometimes called the Hollywood air kiss, especially in a man woman basis. Hi, honey. And a little one of those when you enter a party room or whatever. And those of us who did that in our personal lives often did it on television. And I don't recall all the details now, but I remember the first time that there was one black woman or another who I greeted in that way, which is the way I would greet them, you know, at the corner of 40 Second and Broadway. Suddenly this almost meaningless gesture, just a sweet, friendly, innocent gesture doesn't make you a great liberal or a great humanitarian. And I was treated as if we were talking about, I don't know, miscegenation. Then somehow the pope involved in it was blown up out of any reasonable proportion, certainly. And we began to get hate mail. And then in cases where I was simply the host in some such context and we had to Harry Belafonte or in another case, the great prizefighter, Sugar Ray Robinson. And there were white women either in the chorus or crossing the stage at the same time. Again, not only angry mail, but the anger at one would expect, I suppose, from angry people. But the idiocy, the idiocy of the argumentation, the ugliness of the emotions was what depressed me. In fact, I wrote a short story about that time, which is still being published in various parts of the world, called The Public Hating simply because of my reaction to such depressing experiences.

Speaker Were you at all familiar with Nat King Cole experience on television and.

Speaker Trying to keep the show going, I was not intimately familiar with Netz experiences and trying to keep the show going. Now, tonight were personal friends.

Speaker What I do recall about him, and this relates to the treatment that great black artists have been accorded over the centuries in the entertainment context is one night I remember it because it was the night that we heard of poor Marilyn Monroe suicide. I was the emcee of a big fundraising dinner here in town and that I forget where they were either honoring him or he was part of the show anyway. They wanted to spring us as performers on the audience as a big, happy surprise. So they didn't lead us through the room, but they took us through the basement, in the parking lot, in the kitchen and where they wash the dishes and all that sort of thing. And I didn't object to that in principle. But as we began to do it, it was inconvenient. We were ducking under steam pipes and thing. And I just happened to Mutter and I happened to be standing walking next to that. At that moment, I said, this is a pretty dumb way to have to come into a hotel and equally low key. He said to me, this is the way I always have to come in to hotels. And again, that was one of those moments. That means more in terms of what the impression was on me than 19 sermons and 14 books and a couple of essays. And the important thing is that since we're talking about Lena, one can be certain that exactly that sort of indignity, that sort of lack of sensitivity happened to Lena because it happened to all black performers, musicians, singers, comedians, whatever they were.

Speaker Mm hmm. All right. OK. All right, you sure? Yeah. Let's just start right now. Yeah, OK.

Speaker There is the social custom, which originated, I think, in in showbiz, but it is now pretty much all over. It's sometimes called the Hollywood Air Kiss. It's where you you see a woman or man, for that matter, that you feel warmly toward, and you haven't seen him in a while. So you go over and give him maybe a little half embrace of a little kiss about an inch from the side of his face. And it's almost close to meaningless. It's better than just saying hi from 12 feet away, but it's not a great show of affection and nevertheless slight of gesture as it is.

Speaker I did it one night on one of my shows in the 50s, and I'm reasonably certain that the woman involved was Lina. And the only reason I recall it at all since, as I say, I would have greeted her that way if I saw her on a busy street corner was the vicious, really sexually vicious male that resulted. If, you know, if I'd put my arm around her and said, ladies and gentlemen, I'm divorcing my wife and marrying this, well, they'd still be wrong to criticize that. But at least one can understand such reaction. It was just a half a second gesture and it was one of those moments that was very educational for me. We all have seen the pictures of idiots with sheets over their head and holes through the, you know, the eyes and all that. We know there is such sickness, such hatred, even organized hatred. But until you are personally touched by it, until it splashes on you, so to speak, you don't really understand it. Otherwise, it's all book knowledge. Or you heard a sermon once from some nice clergyman. But when you come up against that, even if you are not personally harmed by it, you're appalled by the ugliness you're witnessing.

Speaker That's that's really what. Oh, I just thought of one other little thing, throw it away later if it's in real good.

Speaker Perhaps the first item in my Lena Horne memory file and my internal computer concerns my oldest son, now a 50 year old successful physician, works in the New York area. Very fine lecturer, good guy, Steve Jr. when he was five years old, I came in from outdoors one day and he was sitting on the floor with his back up against a large record player that we had. And there were tears running down his face. He wasn't sobbing, but I could see tears. And I said, Hey, Stevie, what's the matter, honey? And he said, I'm just listening to this music. And when he was listening to was an album of Leena's, all I remember is that the word blue and the color blue was on the cover. It was wonderful. Collections of 78 might have been called Little Girl Blue, something of that sort, or blue and sentimental. Anyway, the songs that she was singing, she was performing with such emotion and the material was sad to begin with that here's this little five year old white kid who didn't know anything about jazz and not much about anything. What do we know? At five, he sensed her emotion and he reacted to it.

Speaker Now, the lady and her music, you know, the music which which came out in 1981. Could we talk about come back here?

Speaker Did you. Do you remember your response to that? Sure.

Speaker I remember having two reactions when I was in the audience one night. First of all, just. Yeah, you know how you feel when your team wins a football game or your daddy's on stage getting a standing ovation or anything of that sort.

Speaker Just as a pal of Leon is an admirer as a performer, I was very happy with the great stuff I saw happening on stage and the great reaction from the audience around me. But there was a second separate reaction that I also felt very strongly it has to do with the word comeback. There were those critics and even fans who at the time referred to it as Lena's comeback. That always annoyed me. Lena Horne never looked at her watch one day and said, I think I'll go away for a few years. She was always performing, always performing brilliantly. She never had a period where she lost her jobs. As we say, she was always great. How dare we as the American audience suddenly wake up four or five years down the line and refer to that as a comeback? So the people are coming back are us. We got off the train somewhere. We lost track of brilliance and talent, so we came back. That's, oddly enough, only an American problem in Europe. Once you achieve the stature that your talent entitles you to, that never changes. 30 years later, even if you retire, you are still respected and sometimes knighted or whatever. And there's a certain kind of an ongoing respect for for cultural matters generally that is not that common here. God help. So there was, as I say, that reason, too.

Speaker It was just so great to see Lena Horne talent being acknowledged, affirmed and recognized. And again, it was the audience that was coming back, not Lena. She'd been there all along.

Speaker It in that performance, different from that she had presented in the 50s and 60s.

Speaker Mm hmm. Did you notice a difference?

Speaker I did notice a difference. That's a very important point. It had to do with her attitude toward audiences or maybe her attitude and capture backstage, for all I know. But I don't know anything about that. She was always beautiful. And the world, at least some parts of the world, want beautiful young women to be sweet and dainty and feminine and pretty much at the service of men and against the centuries long cultural assumption. I think Lena originally went along with it. This is my guessing. You'd have to put the question directly to her. And very often, regardless of what you might feel like in your heart, if the script says Suzy is 21 and a very demure bride, you have to act 21. If I could do me a bride. So her first impression on the public was of the sweet, young, beautiful thing who sang well. Then later, when I got to know her, I became aware and did not disapprove at all that there was a strong woman with her own mind there. She was not just a pretty woman with a pretty voice, much more to her than that. She could act and she could, as a performer, control a stage that is really quite rare. That latter ability in the context of even the top 100 singers in this country, many singers didn't mean a damn except when recording. They had very little stage presence. They could never have worked the Copa or Caesar's Palace unless the records were so big, people would pay to see them anyway, looking klutzy on stage. But then there are the other performers who took command of a stage. This is true of some comedians, some singers, some instrumentalists. They do far more than their basic demonstration of their ability, whatever it might be. And Lena is in that latter category. She was in thorough command of a stage, not in a masculine, dominating way. She was always a woman capital W and a very attractive one, too, but it just gave her an added dimension of importance that many popular American singers have never achieved.

Steve Allen
Interview Date:
1996-02-09
Runtime:
0:22:25
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-n872v2d267, cpb-aacip-504-tm71v5c832
MLA CITATIONS:
"Steve Allen, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 09 Feb. 1996, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/884
APA CITATIONS:
(1996, February 09). Steve Allen, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/884
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Steve Allen, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). February 09, 1996. Accessed October 19, 2021 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/884

© 2021 WNET. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.