Sportin’ Life … a legend
Yesterday a book review in The Washington Post reminded me of this from April 10, 2016.
poor georgie’s almanack
John W. Bubbles
As a young show business press agent in Chicago around 1960 I promoted an interesting “B List” of world-renowned performers visiting The Windy City. Bernstein, Belafonte and a bunch of others whose names began with B.
Last night’s powerful performance at Strathmore Music Center of “Porgy and Bess” brought back memories of John W. Bubbles. He was Sportin’ Life in the original Broadway production of the Gershwin classic.
Bubbles had appeared in Chicago on a bill with Judy Garland and the comic Alan King. I was hired after it already was clear the show’s run would be standing-room-only. I guess the producer’s contract said there must be a press agent.
Irv Kupcinet, the leading local gossip columnist, invited me to a private dinner at the Chez Paree nightclub a couple days before the show opened. About ten of us sat around a table and listened to a clearly disturbed Garland swearing up a storm. That was a bit uncomfortable. Even more disturbing were the futile attempts by her husband, Sidney Luft, to calm her down. I didn’t want to get involved in that. But, I needed someone to promote, because I was being paid to do the press agentry.
King was equally obnoxious. He didn’t need me and I not only didn’t need him, I didn’t want to be around him. He seemed to be mean and disdainful of everyone but himself.
Bubbles, meanwhile, came across as quiet, introspective and a genuinely warm human being. I only knew about his being in vaudeville where he partnered with a fellow who’s nickname was “Buck” and the team was “Buck and Bubbles.” The name had intrigued me as much as another star team on the “Negro” Vaudeville Circuit, “Butterbeans and Susie.”
I quickly arranged for Studs Terkel to interview Bubbles in a small WFMT radio studio. Terkel, probably the best interviewer ever, didn’t dwell on the obvious, like how Bubbles allegedly taught Fred Astaire to tap dance.
Terkel zeroed in on Bubbles’ climb to stardom in Jim Crow America. Jim Crow was a popular 19th-century minstrel song and dance that negatively stereotyped African Americans. It was performed by White men in blackface makeup. The mythical Jim Crow morphed into shorthand for a system of government-sanctioned wide-spread racial oppression and segregation, illustrated by Bubbles career. Successful as his career was, during most of it he could not walk into millions of front doors or stay at most hotels because of his skin color.
Studs delicately brought out the pain, suffering, and sorrow of Bubbles’ journey to greatness. Several poignant sounds of silence spoke volumes, as the three of us around the table and the sound engineer in a cramped “booth” behind a large glass window, gathered our thoughts and quietly reflected upon the discomfort pent up in Bubbles’ story. A story of simultaneously living the American dream and the American nightmare.
The temperature in the room began to heat up.
And suddenly I noticed. The four of us. Suspended in a tiny time capsule. In a soundproofed safe high above the hustle and bustle of “The Second City.” And each of us with tears in our eyes.
All of this was flashing before me last night. A night with little if any silence and a totally different experience. Not at all like Studs’ studio. Not even like sitting near the blaring orchestra pit during the early 1950’s revival of Porgy, where I was a teenaged usher in Chicago’s cavernous, classic, Civic Opera House.
Now, last night, in the sleek and nearly perfectly-tuned modern Strathmore Music Hall, just 15 minutes from our apartment door, the house lights dimmed, then Susan and I focused on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s pleasing full, fluid sound. It was a sharp contrast to what I remembered as an equally pleasing, but brassy, Broadway-born Porgy pit orchestra.
But, the voices. Behind the orchestra in the loft, were the 60-or-so members of the highly acclaimed choir from Morgan State University a historically black college. In front, performing in an imaginary Catfish Row, were the lead performers. Some were professional opera singers, some students. They deservedly took their standing ovation bows. And I thought.
Oh those voices. Oh, those emotions. Oh, those memories.
The Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, and the all-Caucasian team creating the original Porgy in the Jim Crow mid-1930s were creating one of America’s first operas. Jim Crow was blocking the door to the audition stage. There weren’t many stage doors for Blacks wanting to be opera singers. The show’s creators reportedly worried they would have casting troubles. Of course, in time, they did find those voices.
One was John W. Bubbles, who also was one of America’s greatest dancers.
Then last night at Strathmore, as the performers took their bows, to a well deserved standing ovation for a performance that soared with current and future stars. Jim Crow is not dead, but at least one wing has been clipped.
It is a weak pun to say we walked out on a high note.
George Kroloff May 23, 2022
The book reviewed in The Washington Post is
Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles, an American Classic by Brian Harker.