Transcript:

Speaker And my first impression of Linda was that I knew her as an icon, but not as a person, and what a wonderful thing happened early on in the rehearsal process. I was sitting on the floor of the rehearsal with my back to Lena, but a mirror in front of me and Lena was rehearsing behind me. But I could constantly see her and she could see me if I looked up and she looked into the mirror and during the she was saying, can't help loving that man. And while I was working on the floor doing the souvenir book and pulling pictures out of her old scrapbook, she walked over to me and sang the song about 12 inches from my face, full out performance.

Speaker And it was such an amazing experience to see Lena Horne that close, doing a performance that most people say at best 30 feet away. And the experience left me dazed, but I didn't realize how dazed at the time. About an hour later, I left the rehearsal studio, which was a fifty sixth and Broadway, and I could not find the subway entrance. And I walked to Third Street before I remembered where it was.

Speaker And I had passed three stops and went, This is amazing. I am in her spell and I had stayed there continuously since then. Is her spell I mean, what is it about? There's a line that Leanness would say in Lena Horne leading her music, she said, I do my most intense living on stage. And that's the truest sentence, I think, of the of the production. There is an honesty and an intensity to her performance that reads, whether you're sitting close, whether you're far away. She's telling you the truth at that moment and you know it. And there is no bull in what her message is. And I think that that's what that goes through, that that's it.

Speaker Now, what is she like to deal with on a personal.

Speaker I was ultimately it was great fun, but I think that it needed it was great fun to work with Lena, but we needed to get to a certain place. And that place was full of questions that she gave me, the questions that she asked very early on in our relationship, where where are you going to be leading the black critics when they see the show? What are they going to be invited to the show? Are they invited to the party? Is there a special table for the black press? And I went through it and said the black press is going to be treated equally to the to the other press or white press because it was just all of the press that there was not going to be a black table press table at party, that everyone was going to be mixed together, that she was very, very specific in wondering what I was doing, not just saying, OK, you do your job, I'll do mine. She wanted to know and I asked her much later, maybe six months into the run, why? And she explained to me that for so many years, the black press had been treated separately, that when she was at the Cotton Club, the black press was only invited to see performers at rehearsals, that they couldn't come to the actual performance, that there was a period of time where it was, if they would, they were invited but not treated as equal to theater. And this was an opportunity to bring together a lot of people joyously. And she wanted that known and she wanted to know where they were sitting and what seats and and so forth. So it was she was very specific in her asking me things, why are we doing this? What's the purpose of it? And I think that she also understood that a great deal of her energy had to be devoted to doing the show, not to doing publicity, so that she she marshaled her her energies and there was a rhythm. But then once we got into the show, that rhythm was really marvelous. I mean, one thing was really neat. She said, I really don't I really have to save my energy while I'm doing the show for my end. I thought, oh, gosh, she maybe she won't be doing very many interviews. But then something really neat happened. The press used to call me every day and say, who's coming to see Lena Horne tonight? If you'd like to come backstage after, show the show and take pictures. And all I had to do was tell them who was coming. And after the show, Lena would come out, stand next to the two celebrities, we'd get a picture and the next day all around the country is who we went to see. Lena Horne, how easy was it? One night and then one night they called me up and said, Who's coming tonight? And I didn't know at that time. I got to the theater and found out that Coretta King and Jackie Onassis were coming on the same night. I thought, oh, my God, the two most famous widows of the 20th century are coming on the same night. It's not a benefit night. It just happens that this is how Lena Horne is. It's the place to be in New York. So backstage, we took a picture that probably lasted about three minutes and we all just lifted the gravy in that picture for weeks and it broke everywhere. So it was fun. Some of the other celebrities you remember.

Speaker Let's see Kurt Waldheim, though, this was like this was the pre Nazi business about him, and I remember I asked him if he'd like to come backstage for a picture and he said, I do not do pictures. And then at the during intermission, I was these two men said, Dr. Waldheim would like to see you. And I thought, oh, what is the. And he said, I have changed my mind. I would very much like to meet her. So, I mean, clearly, I mean, she could she could penetrate through anyone.

Speaker I guess everyone came to see the show, I mean, it was really it was like it was social people and showbiz people, movie people, theater people.

Speaker There'd be odd nights where you have like Steve Lawrence Neede Gurmai and Yul Brynner and Rod McEwan, Molly Peacon and Alberta Hunter.

Speaker I remember that was like one night. And you go, what do these people have in common? Nothing. But they're all there because it's the place to be in New York, though I do know that night and she gave that performance to Upper Hunter, I mean, right to her. And she was sitting on the first row.

Speaker Did you have any trouble initially and then Michael Frazier talked about, you know, people what is this? What how do you how do you market this show?

Speaker How do you describe it? Did you have any trouble? I think we have to remember that early on we had to give the context of that season and advertising person came up with the idea that the season was going to be called live Lauren and Lina because Liz Taylor was going to be the voice coming to Broadway. Lauren Bacall was going to be do a musical. And Lena Horne, so that early on that year, I guess January and February for show that opened in May early on, that was the feeling of the season. And each of those two women open to success, but nothing compared to the impact that Lena had, though. When you talk about how to sell it, there was no question in my mind that before the show opened, a lot more attention was devoted to Liz Taylor. You know, this was, I believe, her Broadway debut.

Speaker And it was everywhere you looked. It was Liz Taylor. This list that you know, and early on in the show, I mean, Lena was listening to music was not wonderful at the first preview. So the question was not only how to sell it. You know, it it wasn't in this. It was not just in this Daljeet trip and. Early on, i.e., the first performance, it hadn't taken shape yet. How did how did we come to sell it? Well, I would say first and foremost was was Lina and 63 years of goodwill that happened before I ever met her. Second thing is that she was a great editor of her own work. The first preview didn't go well. And at the end of the preview, she said this song about this song, about this song out, this song out, this song out, and then took her wig and threw it, pulled it off and said, I'm never wearing that again. And she edited it herself immediately. This was no. Well, let's see how the people are going to be tomorrow night and see if they like it. You know, this was self editing and knowing that the show needed to be tighter if it didn't work that night. That was the end of that number the second night the show started to sell itself. I could I could set up interviews, I could set up pictures, but she on that stage was doing it. We also knew, I think, in our hearts, as the previews went on, that we were not talking about a three week limited engagement, we were talking about Halley's comet that comes once every 100, some years, 75 years.

Speaker This was an amazing experience. And part of my job was to feel it inside, but not give it away, because I thought it was very important for people to have that experience without me saying you're going to have that experience.

Speaker There was a lovely interview with her in The New York Times the Sunday before the show opened, but. That's selling. I don't want to call it selling, but it would make something seem that vulgarized is something that I don't want to vulgarized. At the time, there were two nights, there was a critic's night and then opening night, critic's night is when all the New York critics this night went, all the New York critics come to see a show. It's the night before opening night and. Something happened that night. Anyone who was there knows something happened that night.

Speaker What was it? Was it electricity, was it that she came out and the person was from this moment on, bang, she had a bullseye hit Hit the Bull's Eye. Second song, I got a name, Bullseye. The second song got a standing ovation. People were limp after the second song. And you think, where do you go from there? I mean, it's like it's a little early for a standing ovation. It doesn't make sense for there to be a standing ovation. But that frenzy kept building and building. And that night she did 25 definitive versions of the songs that she did. It was it. How do you know? It's amazing. The ushers don't leave. The ushers are allowed to leave at ten. After eight, they stayed. I remember the head usher said it's really happening tonight, isn't it? I said, you you up. There's no mistaking it. She says, look, my all my girls are still here. They knew these are kind of hard-bitten ushers. They've been around. They've seen it all. They didn't want to leave at intermission. I go back to the critics and to see make sure that everyone go back to their seats. At the end of intermission. As I was walking up the aisle, every last critic shook my hand at intermission. The only two who didn't shake my hand hugged me. OK, critics do not hug a press agent ever, let alone on the critics night. And one critic said to me, if the second act is as good as the first, it will be the best night I've ever had in the theater. This never happens. So by the end of the second act and going through. A version of yesterday when I was young that just ripped your heart out to stormy weather is the first of which was brilliant in the second of which just was in the stratosphere. It was an amazing night, so how to sell it, you know, buy reflected glory. She was amazing. And I had the telephone with the article to get in.

Speaker Well, once, once. I just moved out of and this is what.

Speaker The little first began that none of the. I first read about the reviews, my job on opening night is to collect the reviews and for better or for worse, tell the producer and the star of the show. The reviews I got the reviews and I met Lena Horne and her personal manager, Sherman Need in the lobby of the Meridian Hotel. The opening night party was in two separate rooms on the second floor. There was not a lot of space to tell Lena about the reviews because we only had a floor in which to do it. So what we did, we got in the elevator and Sherman stopped the elevator between the first and second floors and said, Josh, OK, how are the reviews? And I said, the best reviews you will ever read in your entire life about anyone.

Speaker They're just stupendous, and Lena looked at me and went, OK, let's get a party and we and push the button and we went up another half a floor. The door opened and there were TV crews and. Flashing lights, and it was it was like, you know, curtain up, this was this is it. But, you know, she I think she she took that criticism.

Speaker Let's flash forward a little bit, you know, we talked about the reviews and I once asked her about how she felt to get those reviews, I guess maybe this was maybe a year into the run.

Speaker And in light of that, I should mention that there wasn't that one really bad review and that bad review was not only negative, but was written in African-American dialect and it was really a very racist review. And I sure.

Speaker It just started one. There was one really bad review, it was written in African-American dialect and it was full of. Well, way it was written was really full of racial slurs, not the words themselves, but how it was said. And she said to me, when she discounts the top 10 percent, she just kind of the bottom 10 percent is of the average between the two. And if if that if that if in that middle ground there was it was favorable and she was well received, that gave her that that made her feel good. But the fact is that it didn't. It wasn't. I think it was doing the show, not the reviews that mattered to her. It was her truth in that she was conveying night after night. Did you get a sense as the show was coming together of.

Speaker Let me think about that.

Speaker I think that there was a passion to tell her. I think Lina wanted to tell her story truthfully, which she does. But I also think that she was keenly aware of the fact that people were paying money to see entertainment so that I wouldn't say that she quoted a story so much as she she framed everything in in a context of entertainment so she could look back and talk about the fact that she was always stuck against the pillar singing a song. And she knew perfectly well that the numbers would be cut out when they played in the South and she could do it from a kind of distance. But I think that there were painful elements of the performance of her life performances that just wouldn't necessarily be part of an entertaining evening. So that I don't think that she compromised so much as she shows the pieces and gave them an entertaining context. Um, you had mentioned earlier about yesterday when I was young, which is like. All right, stop it for me. Do you call it all Chasez?

Speaker No doubt.

Speaker You need to get to.

Speaker I sometimes find it hard to believe that the whole experience for me started when I was 32 years old, I was relatively new in the experience of working on Broadway shows. I had done The King and I with Yul Brynner and I had had some successes, but it it was early and I. I think. If I look back and think, what did I learn from that experience is I had I think that she gave me a new understanding of what it means to be in one's 60s, to be an African-American.

Speaker And to tell the truth.

Speaker And I want to elaborate a little bit on this. I think that we live in a youth culture and she showed that you could be vibrant and sexy and alive and worth listening to if you were over 60.

Speaker And that, yes, she would get you there because she was glamorous and could be fun, but she taught you a lot of lessons and I watched that lesson being taught to old and young, black and white, every color. Every kind of audience that that message got across, and I think that we know we live in an age where were people over the age of 60 or starting to be respected. And I think that's just great, you know, that Lena Horne is going to be 80 cents to make these people are being listened to at last. We're not just casting them aside in terms of understanding. An African-American woman. I think that the lesson I learned was that we could accept each other's similarities and differences simultaneously, that it didn't there was not a blurring to say that we each thought we were the other, but that we could respect each other for what we were and not have to be something else to be appreciated. And I think that that message also came across because there was no there was no color barrier in terms of who came to see the show and who got the message. And in terms of telling the truth. She told the truth first, she didn't come around to telling the truth. Sometimes it could be thought of his bluntness. I think that is as I'm getting older, I realize that that's a pretty wonderful option to tell the truth first. I used to be afraid of it and I watched her. And maybe because I watched her doing it, I'm a little afraid of it now, too. We had a major problem on opening night because we had so many people, but the party had to be in two separate rooms because the hotel in which we had there have been a party couldn't accommodate that many people in one room. And the greatest fear you have is that one party is going to be like the A room and one's going to be the bedroom. And oh my God, there's people in the bedroom, particularly in light of like I thought, oh, like.

Speaker God forbid, like the like presses, like in one room, and it's not like the good room and I mean a million fears I had about just people not being perceived like they're being in the wrong room and getting complaints from weeks after that. And what was quite amazing about this opening night is that there were two a rooms. I mean, there was Sammy Davis and Tony Bennett in one room and the entire MGM backlot in the other room. And Lena played those two rooms. I don't know how she did it. I mean, I have to assume that that night she cloned herself because there was no sense that she was in the other room, even if she was in the other room and kept switching back and forth. And I thought, you know, she knows how to play a party the same way she knows how to play a stage. And this is this is amazing. And the fact that when people came up to her, there was that no, it wasn't all that kind of. Oh, darling. You know, and kind of the vague notion of who these people were. People from her life were coming up to her and she connected to them as individuals, not just as Blur's to come up to you on an opening night.

Speaker And she had that quality throughout the run and at the closing night party and on the tour that. If you mean something in her life, it sticks. In terms of relationships, tell me about Raymond Sherman.

Speaker Let me say about the relationship with Leanne and Sherman first, I have to say that I love each of them as opposed to saying that I love both, because to both is to make cheapens that relationship.

Speaker There were numerous times when a female performer will have a man in their life to do the dirty work and. At first blush, I thought that that's what this might be and it's not. They have an interesting relationship that works, he's protective of her, and yet at a certain point, he I think they both realize that it's that like it's protective as he was like I could be like let in, as it were, and.

Speaker It's it's it's it's a it's a joyous relationship to behold, I think if I can just show one really funny story on the night of the Grammys, the Grammys were held that year, I believe, in Los Angeles. But whatever reason, I mean, it must be in Los Angeles. And Lena was in New York and Lena was up for best cast recording and female vocalist female vocalist group was I mean, everybody else was easily 30 years younger than she, if not more. And that was the category that was clearly not going to go her her way to her. And the album she was going to get that because that she was clearly the favorite in that area and during the first act.

Speaker We found out that she got, in fact, the cast recording and we celebrated during intermission during the second act. We found out that she won outstanding female vocalist, but there was no way to tell her because she was on stage the whole time and. She so at the end of the show, during the curtain call, Sherman came out and and tried to tell her and he was so excited that he kept saying, lady, lady. And she said, what is it? What is it you want? And she says, Yes, I know I won. You know, you told me during a commission. And he goes, No, no, you won. And it was like and I had invited the press to come to the edge of the stage was rimmed with TV crews and cameras and still photographers and shooting and shooting and shooting. And she she still thinks it's because she won Best Cast Album. And then finally, Sherman was able to say, you won outstanding female vocalist.

Speaker And he started to cry. And.

Speaker The craziest thing about it was it was this it was so sweet that he got to share that moment with her on stage because. You know, it really not that a word was really quite amazing, I think what was her competition that I can't even remember? But I mean, clearly it Lenahan winning that category was like this says it all. You know, you are absolutely. You're on terra firma everywhere. I mean, they even like you in the music industry. This is not just Broadway, you know, 41st Street. This is the whole, you know, the whole shebang.

Speaker He's very, very caring and very loving. And.

Speaker They're each very lucky to have each other.

Speaker Well, fortunately, all things didn't come on the same night, but we had a VIP reception area and.

Speaker That we had and people would go into that area during we'd invite them to come back during intermission so that that's when we would entertain them there and and then they would also go back to that area sometimes if well took me in a certain amount of time to get, like, presentable and presentable. That's a wrong word to get ready for for meeting people, particularly if you were going to take pictures after the show. I mean, she was sweaty and everything, so there would be a place for them to wait for about 15 minutes. I think what was really fun is to find out like what happens with people who don't like one another who in the VIP room. So we have to have like we had like the VIP room and then we had like the sub VIP room. So if there were two people who both wanted to see Lena but didn't like one another, we would like move one to one and one to another. And then there'd be like troop movement after the show. I mean, Group A would go to see Lena and we take pictures and then they'd be escorted outside and then Group B would come in so that they didn't have to meet one another. And that was a little challenging.

Speaker Um.

Speaker Did you get a chance to witness how she was with her musicians?

Speaker More and more, her conductor, I would say more than the musicians themselves, particularly her her relationship with Linda Twine, because what was? I think that she had enormous pride in the fact that Linda twined was an African-American female conductor, a young African-American. Female conductor, and the fact was that it's a very small field in the fact that not only Linda was in a small field, but Linda was quite wonderful and that they would play off one another. And clearly this is not the show, but had a structure and a script, basically. But there'd be there'd be variations from night tonight, musical variations and think Linda had to be like right there for those those changes because it is not like a book musical. Actually one night is exactly the same as the next. And I think that I saw that pretty wonderful relationship happening for them. Not not for the others. I don't know.

Speaker Well, the other thing I want to ask you is how how did she keep it fresh? How did you keep the show fresh?

Speaker That's a great question to ask her. I used to just be amazed by it. You know, I would know you think, OK, doing it fresh, OK? Yes. This opening night, how about those nights where she didn't want the air conditioning on the Nederlander Theater and it was 2000 degrees and she was telling people in the audience, take off your coats. You know, this is just this is as cool as it's going to get, you know, and then do it, you know? And people's attention is going to be kind of wavering because it was warm there and it did get warm there. I mean, let's you know, we can say it now. We're not going to hurt ticket sales to Dmitra. Got a little warm there and I don't know how she did it.

Speaker I used to be amazed that she could, you know, did you know Oscar Hammerstein would talk about the big black giant being that the audience had changes every night? You know, there's that, but. Maybe it's kind of I think maybe the fact is that she was telling the truth every night. And she was telling the truth to a different group of people when I asked her, that's a good question.

Speaker Thank you. Well, that's all I have.

Speaker If there's anything else you want to add something OK about the press, Josh?

Speaker Hmm? I mean, she had to keep. Did she do interviews 12, 14. Once, did you say the same thing all the time to somebody, did she like different people? I'm just curious how she handles.

Speaker I think Lena understood the value of press and at the same time and also understood that I'm just not sure the camera was.

Speaker Lina knew the value of press. I think that from my experience, anybody who ever worked at MGM had learned that way, way, way before I ever met them. But. There was also the sense of when not to do press, there was a certain sense of not being overexposed, that if you wanted to see Lena Horne come to the Netherlands theater or whatever, we were on the tour and see her there. I think that certain people would ask the same questions over and over again.

Speaker And I think that she probably had standard answers for standard questions, but she's smart. So when she was with the reporter who was smart, they would they would spark each other. And that was exciting to see. And if and if the interviewer was intelligent and bold, it was a great combination because. She should rise to the occasion. She would and she would she would tell just enough, and that was it. And I think that also that she understood where her areas of privacy were, where her boundaries were, and she wasn't afraid to say that to somebody and saying, you know, this is this is my own personal life.

Speaker This is, you know, let's go back to the career so that that there'd be there'd be there'd be a this as far as I want to go.

Speaker And that's it. And yet I would see other interviewers ask a question that was very personal and at the same time intelligent.

Speaker And and she she'd go right for that question. It made her want to answer. So I think it had a lot she liked she liked to be around smart people, you know, that they have an interviewer who who had done research, who knew what they were talking about, who were on a wavelength, who didn't ask, you know, what was it like to tell, you know, the same old question that she'd been asked for 30 years? You know, those people. She she flew.

Speaker What did you say? We came up with the Michael Fraser said that Jackie Kennedy came with Nichols.

Speaker Oh, I don't remember about Jackie Kennedy coming with Mike Nichols, were you around?

Speaker Yeah, that was late with Predicator, OK.

Speaker Is there anything that to say about her coming out would like?

Speaker But because Michael Fraser had said they asked Mike Nichols to direct it and then Jackie found that out and said she couldn't believe that he had said no, I didn't know that.

Speaker I never heard that before.

Speaker OK, they left Mike Nichols to direct it at some point at some. Wow.

Speaker But I also want to ask you, in terms of how you handled llena, how did you get her to do things that sometimes maybe she didn't want to do?

Speaker I'm sure I don't think I ever explained something that you didn't want to do, that I didn't think made sense that there was a certain point of mine where I would I would think I don't think that this makes sense. Sometimes I would talk it over with Sherman's need, her personal manager, and say this doesn't feel right or this.

Speaker This doesn't make sense.

Speaker If by the time that I would ask for something, I have a very good reason for wanting her to do it. Mainly selling tickets. That's what our job was to do, and I didn't have to do it, wouldn't it, wouldn't have worked to strong arm her into doing something, wouldn't make sense.

Speaker And I'm sorry you said that you had a very good way about you where if she you know, you would hang in there and.

Speaker Find a way usually to convince her to do something. She may be reluctant to.

Speaker Hmm, if I did, I wasn't really aware of it, I just, you know, if something seemed like it was important, I might ask and then if she she wouldn't she wouldn't say no. She would say, like, I don't want to do that now.

Speaker So I figured that that meant, you know, that I was free to ask it at another time so I would pick my time and say, oh, well, now seems to be a good time. But I would always come armed with things like advanced projections on ticket sales and what else was happening in town and what the competition was. And I didn't ask you to do a lot.

Speaker That's why I want to say that I didn't ask you to do a lot of a lot of junk, I would say, you know, perhaps five percent of the requests that came my way made made real sense to do and.

Speaker She did the creme de la creme, but then again, when you're working with a legend at the top of her of her career and she's the toast of the town.

Speaker Mean, why would I ask you to do anything other than the creme de la creme, did you see the Ed Bradley interview?

Speaker Oh, yeah. Tell me about not only did I see the interview, I was there when they did the actual interview to see what it was. Oh, OK.

Speaker Not only did I see the Ed Bradley interview with her on 60 Minutes, but I was also in the hotel room when they did the actual interview. What was quite amazing to me is the fact that while the interview was happening and it went on, I'm guessing for about an hour and a half that both Lena Horne and Ed Bradley got to a place where each of them was crying. But when the piece finally ended up on 60 Minutes, only Venit was crying in it. But. I think that Lena interviewed Ed Bradley as much as Ed Bradley interviewed Lena Horne and what you saw on TV was the interview that Ed Bradley did with Lena Horne. There was a lovely, wonderful other piece about what Lena did with him. And I feel very privileged, privileged to have seen that.

Speaker How was she with the.

Speaker I think the interview with Ed Bradley is probably the definitive interview that I've ever seen.

Speaker It's.

Speaker Honest, and it's right there. They were matching each other minute from minute. The intensity that she talked about feeling on stage was exactly the intensity that that interview had for for each of them. This was not something that when the interview is over, you just sort of go, oh, that's nice. This was kind of like.

Speaker I hope that he does it for 60 Minutes. It's no surprise it's. That was it's a definitive it's a definitive piece as far as I'm concerned, and some of the outtakes.

Speaker Josh, who hired you? Did you get interviewed for the job? Jimmy and I.

Speaker Well, we had less than.

Speaker Well, a prestigious high president is hired by the production, so I was hired by three producers, as it were, Shamis need well for, I guess, showman's need Fred Walker, Michael Frazier, Jimmy Nederlander. I was brought to Lenoy originally because of Fred Walker, because we had worked on the King and I with you Brynner, which was about four years before. So I knew Fred and I had also worked with Jimmy NIDA Landau. So that's how I met Lena originally.

Josh Ellis
Interview Date:
1996-02-09
Runtime:
0:40:03
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-1z41r6nh92, cpb-aacip-504-7d2q52fv98, cpb-aacip-504-sq8qb9vw7x, cpb-aacip-504-513tt4g779
MLA CITATIONS:
"Josh Ellis, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 09 Feb. 1996, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/891
APA CITATIONS:
(1996, February 09). Josh Ellis, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/891
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Josh Ellis, Lena Horne: In Her Own Words." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). February 09, 1996. Accessed December 01, 2021 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/891

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