By Eric Andrews
Becoming the first to achieve something — whether it is first of one’s race, gender, or orientation — is rarely news these days. It appears that the same opportunities are available to all. But it hasn’t always been that way.
As a black woman in the 1900s, Lena Horne was an outstanding performer who didn’t have access to the same opportunities as her white counterparts. She spent her life fighting for what many take for granted these days.
Ms. Horne would have been 99-years-old today.
Joining the Cotton Club chorus line at age 16, Horne toured with many orchestras and took over for the great Dinah Shore as a featured singer on an NBC radio show. She also made an early film appearance in a 1938 all-black cast musical, “The Duke Is Tops.”
In 1942, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures took a chance on signing Horne to the first long-term contract ever given to a black performer. But unlike most singers-turned-actors of Horne’s time, the honor came at a difficult price.
With few exceptions, MGM never really knew what to do with Horne. The studio had experimented with all-black casts, but was afraid theaters in southern states would not show films that featured a black actress in the lead role — among white cast members. Complicating matters, Horne had made it clear that she would never portray a servant.
As a result, Horne often appeared in movies as herself in sequences that had no relevance to the plot. This way, her scenes could easily be removed for screenings in the South.
In 1951, she was devastated when a role she coveted — the biracial Julie in a remake of “Show Boat” — instead went to her friend Ava Gardner. Horne reported that this may have been because film censors of the time banned the portrayal of interracial relationships. Even so, MGM’s makeup department had already come up with a foundation for Horne to wear as “Julie,” called light Egyptian. But Gardner wore it instead.
By the mid-1950s, Horne had had enough of Hollywood, and left movies to again focus on live performances. When she appeared in the MGM documentary “That’s Entertainment, Part III (1994),” Horne was brutally honest in recounting her treatment by the studio.
Although she would make only a few more films, Horne remained a fixture in nightclubs, on stage, in recording studios, and especially on television. This is a moving clip of her 1976 appearance on The Muppet Show, singing the Jim Croce classic “I Got A Name.” Even Kermit the Frog introduced Horne as a “performer whose name is synonymous with style, taste, and talent.”
It is an apt performance coming from Horne, who fought her whole life to be accepted as an actress on her terms, fought to sing for integrated audiences, and fought to just walk into an establishment she was performing in through the front door.
Lena Horne passed away on May 9, 2010 at the age of 92. Among the thousands who attended her funeral were performers like Diahann Carroll, Audra McDonald and Vanessa Williams. All of whom could say they owed their careers on stage and screen to the doors Horne opened for them.
Time Magazine wrote a tribute to her after her death. The article opened with a fictionalized obituary highlighting the roles and opportunities she should have received had “Hollywood and America hadn’t suffered from a corrosive racial prejudice.”
As part of our school’s tribute to Lena Horne, check out this scene-stealing performance with the Ziegfeld Follies. We know you will enjoy it! (Check out the other June Musician Birthdays)