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You turned on the TV on Saturday afternoon and there he was, the envy of every black boy on the block. It was his high style and aspirational exhortations that drew us each week, mirrored more youthfully by the Soul Train dancers, whose moves we copied for use on our own dance floors: street corners, school dances and in the living room of my parent’s house. Soul Train was a watershed for black youth; sure the term black power had been bandied for years, but Cornelius, a kind of hip godfather, took the militancy out of the equation. He was a purveyor of soul, the kind that made hoods question whether a life of crime or profligacy was worth it. He turned a lot of cats around.
Our tendency to crown Marian Anderson is justified; after all, she had the weight of publicity (and the backing of Eleanor Roosevelt) to hone her mythical status. But it was actually Camilla Williams, a recitalist like Anderson, who claims the honor of being the first Black female to ever play a major opera house. Her 1946 achievement as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly at New York City Opera was a transcendent milestone for the daughter of a domestic and a chauffeur. In death, we are reminded of the ground she paved for others–Kathleen Battle, Wilhelmina Wiggins-Fernandez, and Anderson herself, who wouldn’t make her opera debut–at the Met–until 1955.
Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–mention him and our thoughts immediately conjure an image of a blue-eyed God named Paul Newman. But that was the movie–onstage, the role was created by Ben Gazzara. Sporting a glint in his eye and blessed with a face that could charm or pummel like a fist, this protean actor didn’t go on to have quite the career of Newman but he did alright, garnering Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for a body of work that included the TV series Run for Your Life and film collaborations with John Cassavetes, Mira Nair, Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz. The term actor’s actor is a bit of a cliche, but Gazzara exemplified it–and audiences loved him too. RIP, and thanks.