Friday, May 12, 2017

Harry Belafonte’s Reading Rainbow

Spanish-language poster for "Island in the Sun"
 I last wrote about singer, actor, and social activist Harry Belafonte on the occasion of his 90th birthday. That celebration took place on March 1 of this year. But I’m back to Belafonte again, because he’s just received an honor worth cheering about. The 115th Street Library in New York’s Harlem will henceforth bear his name. What makes this extra-special is the fact that Belafonte grew up in the neighborhood. He struggled with dyslexia and eventually dropped out of high school, but still thirsted for book-learning. That’s where the local library came in. It was a place where he could pursue his education on his own terms. And it was eventually in a theatre group at another Harlem public library, the noble Schomburg Center, that he developed his acting chops.

Belafonte was born in 1927. I first learned about him as a small child while taking classes at the remarkable (and remarkably multi-ethnic) Lester Horton Dance Theater in West Hollywood. His first album was often on the turntable, and I grew to love his way with gentle and humorous American folk ballads. That was 1954, and I doubt his Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites sold many copies. But two years later he was earning gold records for introducing the American public to calypso rhythms. Suddenly the whole country was shaking its hips to a Caribbean beat. The hit albums kept coming, and when a Belafonte ensemble showed up at L.A.’s Greek Theatre or New York’s Carnegie Hall, you were assured of an evening full of song, dance, humor, and a soupçon of social consciousness.
What was the best thing about Harry Belafonte? He had a warm, strong voice; a supple body; an impish sense of humor; a keen knowledge of showmanship. But beyond all that, he was so electrifyingly handsome that the ladies in the audience were swept away. Take my mother, the ultimate Belafonte fan. When he performed in Los Angeles, she bought tickets months in advance. When he brought his act to Las Vegas, she was there. Fortunately, my father tolerated her obsession. He might not have been quite as rapturous about the man’s sex appeal, but he enjoyed Belafonte too. 

So you can imagine my childhood. When Belafonte was in town, normal household routine came to a standstill. My mother and father would see a performance; then she’d return with me and my little sister. One year, when I was ten, we really had it down to a science. The three of us arrived early and scouted out the spot where the star would arrive. When he got out of his car, there were two little girls waiting with autograph books and big smiles. He politely commented on my dress, at which I proudly announced that my mom had bought it on sale. I don’t have a snapshop of that moment, but years later—at a press luncheon—someone snapped an excellent photo of Belafonte and a college-age me. My mom immediately posted it on the family bulletin board. Occasionally I got covered over by more recent images, but Belafonte’s radiant smile was on full display in the house as long as my mom was alive.    
Belafonte of course was far more than a singer. He did well in a number of acting roles, but largely abandoned Hollywood in order to stump for civil rights and other social causes. I confess I never thought of him in conjunction with libraries. But since books have always been my own magic carpet, I’m thrilled that this idol of my youth will now be associated with the written word.

I'm the one on the left.