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Louis J. Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson
November 1, 1989
LJM: Today is November 1, 1989. This is Louis Marchiafava along with Charles Stephenson interviewing Ms. Daisy Richards for the Texas Jazz Heritage Society and Archival Collection. We will begin the interview by getting basic background information. Where were you born and what year were you born?
DR: I was born in 1917 in Franklin, Louisiana.
LJM: Can you tell me something about your early years?
DR: Well, when I was one year old, my father and mother broke up. My Father was Charles Richards. My Mother was Daisy Blakesman Richards. And we moved to New Orleans, Louisiana from Franklin, which was ninety miles. And I stayed in New Orleans and went to school in New Orleans until I was ten.
LJM: What school did you attend?
DR: I attended Tomley for high school and St. Mary’s Catholic School, Tomley Florence public School and then in between that, I went to school in Mississippi with my step-grandmother in Glauchester [phonetic], Mississippi. I was in Glauchester, Mississippi when Warren G. Harding died. I remember that because I went to the mailbox to get the mail, and I think I was five or six years old. And then when my Mother died in 1927, I moved to Houston, Texas, to live with my Father, my stepmother and my sister Ernestine.
LJM: How many sisters and brothers did you have?
DR: I have two sisters and one brother. I have a sister that lives in Port Arthur, Willie Mae Shields; a brother that lives in Glenco [phonetic], Louisiana, Ernest Richards, and a sister that lives here, Ernestine Richards Phillips. And I came here in 1927, and I went to this little school right down the street: Blackshear Elementary School. And from Blackshear elementary School, I went to Jack Yates Middle and High School. And after I finished Jack Yates High School, I went one year to the Negro College which is now Texas Southern. And then I got into show business. And after that, I traveled all over.
LJM: Well, that’s where we’re going to start filling in some of those gaps. When were you first introduced to music or dance?
DR: Well, my Father was a music teacher. And he had a little jazz band. So, I was introduced to music when I was ten, when I came here. But I still have the piano in there that he bought then. It’s an old one. And he was working for Gordon and Parker’s Music Store. Plus, he was driving [as] a chauffeur for the Waddell’s Furniture Store. And he taught me piano music. But I didn’t like that so much. At school we had plays, and I was always in the minstrel plays and always in the drama plays. But the way I started dancing was at the Majestic Theater in 1933. Cab Calloway was here at the Majestic. At that time the Majestic was already integrated. We could go to the Majestic every day. Yes, sir! We had a doorman on Travis Street dressed in his doorman uniform that held the door open for you. It was high class! You had to sit up in the balcony, but that’s the best place to see any show anyway because you don’t have to look up. And on a Wednesday night, I won a contest. I was in a little revue called “The Tan Revue.” And there was about six of us. And this particular Broadway play that had come out was 42nd Street. And we did 42nd Street and won first prize. And Cab Calloway played the music. And every Wednesday night from then on, I would go back. And some nights I would do lindy hopping or whatever the dance was of that week. But I always won something. If I didn’t win first prize, I never won no lower than third. So that’s how I got started into dancing.
LJM: When you were talking about beginning at the Majestic, how old were you then?
DR: I was fifteen years old.
LJM: How did that come about? How were you introduced to that? How did you get involved in the Majestic?
DR: Well, I got involved through school. I was a cheerleader and all that kind of stuff at school. But this teacher, Mrs. Osborne, taught physiology at school [where] I took biology and physics. But she taught physiology, a low class science, like down in the eighth grade, you know. And her son was a physics teacher at Booker T. Washington, but he taught dance. He could dance! And his father was the President of Bishop College. His name was J. C. Osborne. He is retired now, and he lives somewhere out here. And he put us together and got us to dancing. [He] just picked us up from out of school. And I used to walk from Holman and Dowling [Streets] to where that little church is sitting right now, down there behind the Doubletree [Hotel]. But at that time that street was called Robin Street, and they lived right in front of that church at 315 Robin. And right behind their house was a library [which] was between Saulnier and Robin, and on the corner of Salnier was Booker T. Washington High School. And where the Doubletree Hotel is, that used to be the Pilgrim Auditorium, a black-owned building. [It was] a great big building [which] had a roof garden, a dance hall, and all the black doctors and lawyers and things, that was their own building. The Pilgrim. So that’s where I started, right there.
I used to walk there. We used to go by and buy ice cream cones and walk straight out on Gray until we got to Heiner. Well, it had a place out there called the Phoenix Dairy. On Smith [Street], there somewhere along in there. And we’d walk until we got there, and then we’d cut on over to where that little church is still sitting there. Right there. That’s where I started dancing and got introduced. He’d taken us to the Majestic for this night. It was called “The Tan Revue.” He just named us that.
LJM: I want to pick up on that in a moment. Let me just go back to your father a bit. You said he taught you how to play the piano. Was he involved professionally?
DR: Yes. He taught music all his life. He has a few little stars out there, like Amos Milburn and Don Wilkinson that just died; the great tenor saxophone player. And Curtis May that was playing with Ray Charles. . . And there’s a few of them around here now like Little Jackie Chambers. She plays a lot of religious music. She’s been on television a lot. And there are a lot of other kids he’s taught that are still around here; that go to school and teach school, things like that. He taught up until he died in 1980. I have an organ right in there.
LJM: What about your siblings? Were they musically inclined?
DR: My sister could play every instrument, but she got burned out on it because you’d see her going down the street with a horn in this hand, a horn in this one, one under each underarm and whatever was missing, she had to play it. Well, I didn’t like all that. I wanted to dance. But she got stuck with the music. But she taught music up in Sulphur Springs, Texas. She minored in Music and majored in Business Administration. So, she taught school. She used to teach the eleventh grade. And she taught the music, and she taught the Business.
CS: Where did she go to school?
DR: She went to Jack Yates, Blackshear. She went to Prairie View a while. She went to Negro College a while. Then she got her degree from Texas Southern. And all between the Walkers, she stopped and went to California to live during the war. And she used to work for Reynolds out there in the daytime, and she rack pool balls at night. She was married, and her husband was over in the South Pacific. So, then she came back in 1948 and went back to school.
LJM: When you lived in Louisiana and in Mississippi, were you introduced to any music whatsoever? Except the usual radio or something of that nature? Were you personally involved in any music?
DR: Not me. No. My Mother would go to dances and things like that, and I’d go peek through the crack, but I wasn’t doing anything in music then.
LJM: But she wasn’t a professional dancer?
DR: No. She wasn’t professional. Nobody in my family was a professional dancer outside of my cousin.
CS: And you did not sing as a child?
DR: You mean out in public? No. I just did recital things like on Easter, or something like that in the church. And on Children’s Day.
LJM: So, when you came to Houston and lived with your father, there began your musical career?
DR: Yes. At that time I could play exactly like Eddie Duchin. I could play every song he played. I could play it by ear. Every song Eddie Duchin played! Just like him! But my Father would knuckle me on the hands for that, and I got angry.
LJM: Why did he do that?
DR: He wanted me to read the music, not hear it. He didn’t want me to be an Erroll Garner. He wanted me to play by music, and he didn’t like it when you played by ear.
LJM: What was his reasoning for that?
DR: He said you would never learn how to play nowhere. You wouldn’t know how to read the music. It’s better to know how to read music because at that time I remember people that used to sing in bands. They had to read the music. They had to know the notes or else they couldn’t get a job singing in the band. Even if they just were a singer. I know that’s the way Jimmy Lunceford was. You had to be able to sing with notes instead of just going up there hollering.
CS: What got you started into the show business aspect of your life?
DR: With all those amateur contests that I would win. That’s what got me started. But you mean how did I get started after? There was a fellow that used to be in California, he was a big comedian called Troy Brown. I don’t know if any of you remember him, but he was a big, fat comedian. And he came through here with a show. That was in 1939. You see, I had graduated from school and had been around here doing other things, but not in show business. And he came by here with a fellow called Jimmy Gibbons. And they were looking for a girl, and I auditioned to sing. And I think the song I sang was I’m Through with Love, I’ll Never Fall Again. So, he asked me could I dance. So I told him, “Yes, I [can] lindy hop.” And, at that time, the lindy hop was very popular because it was going on in the Big Apple.
So, he’d taken me to Shreveport, Louisiana, and we stayed there a week. That’s how I got started in professional dancing. And from Shreveport, we went to Texarkana, Texas and Arkansas. And we went to Hope, Arkansas. And Prescott, Arkansas; Little Rock; Pine Bluff;[and] North Little Rock. And then that was all in 1939. We were in Little Rock when Chick Webb died. And then from Litle Rock, we went back to New Orleans, to my home town, and I danced in New Orleans for a year-and-a-half. At the palace Theater, the Ritz Theater, the Lincoln Theater, the Circle Theater, the Gypsy Tea Room, the Tick Tock, the Astoria and the Rhythm Club. All of those places around in New Orleans.
CS: Each club would be for a certain length of time, say six weeks or two months?
DR: No. It was like every Sunday, every weekend. You danced at a different club. Or, the theater was in the week. But the theater was like if you danced at the Palace Theater on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and at the Ritz on Tuesdays and Fridays, and at the Lincoln on Monday. And at the Circle on midnight ramble. They used to do the midnight show.
Then I stayed in New Orleans dancing around there, even from New Orleans to Algiers down in Biloxi, Mississippi; down in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Pass Christian and Gulfport. I danced at that big, fine hotel in Gulfport. All around there. Then I stayed there in New Orleans until . . . . They drew a number out of a hat for the boys to go overseas or something. Well, I stayed in New Orleans until that December. And in December of 1940, I came back to Houston. And then from then on, I would just dance around on the weekends. They had a place here call Ye Olde College Inn. They had the Ranch Club. They had a lot of clubs out there on Gray and Taft [Streets]. All along up in there. Because one of those clubs Pat Kelly played in, and I danced there with him. I did the hoochie-koochie dance while he played the piano. Yes, I did! I can’t remember exactly where it was, but it was going on down Shepherd [Drive].
CS: Where was Ye Olde College Inn?
DR: Ye Olde College Inn was out here on Main. That was a hotel, wasn’t it?
LJM: When I saw it, it wasn’t.
DR: Well, it was some kind of old, big barn. And they had a Plantation Club, the Ranch Club was out there, too. And I danced in one club where they didn’t have a band. You put a nickel in the machine, and I would dance to Begin the Beguine by Artie Shaw or either that thing Tommy Dorsey used to play. I danced to that because I had a routine set for that.
Well, anyway, after that, I stayed here, and I wasn’t in the business long. I went to work at Lerner’s Dress Shop, and I was driving the elevator. But when Pearl Harbor struck, I was at Lerner’s Dress Shop that Sunday. We were changing the window for Christmas, fixing the windows. And Mr. Bernstein told us to go home because the war had broken out. They had “extras” on the street. Well, then I stayed here, and the Lincoln Theater [was] where the Wortham [Theater] is now. Right there on Prairie and Milam, they had the Lincoln Theater. And across the street was the Art Felder’s Building called the Downtown Grill. It had lot of taxis. It was nothing but black business on that street from Travis [Street] on back to Louisiana [Street]. And the Lincoln Theater was there, and we used to dance. I have some pictures from the Lincoln. We used to dance at the Lincoln Theater On Tuesdays and Fridays. And I danced there all from 1940, all of 1941 and 1942. Then I left here in 1942 after dancing there, and I would dance at the Eldorado night club on Sunday night. There was just one night they would have shows there, and the people from Abe and Pappy’s would dance there, too. Abe and Pappy had a club here [and] in Dallas and Fort Worth. Three clubs. And the bands made the rounds, and stars made the rounds. And that was right up over Krupp and Ruffley’s on Main Street. That’s where we worked, too, dancing. But that was every night you danced there. That was a big time place.
Then I left Houston on November 2, 1942, and my first stop was Peoria, Illinois [where] I worked the Fox Club for two weeks.
CS; How did you get that job?
DR.: Through the same Jimmy Gibbons that had taken me away at first in New Orleans. He sent me a ticket and asked me to come. There were some girls left here working with me at the Lincoln, and they knew I was here. So, they told him when they got to St. Louis. So, he told me to come to St. Louis. Then before I could get to St. Louis, he sent me a telegram saying, “Meet us in Peoria, Illinois.” And come to think of it, I lived in Richard Pryor’s grandmother’s house, but I didn’t know him then. I don’t think he was even born because that was in 1942. Well, we stayed there for two weeks. We left there and went to Cincinnati, and I danced at Duffy’s Tavern for six weeks. Duffy was a team. He and his wife had a team together, but he owned this nightclub. And during that time, I think Cincinnati was what you would call a “blue law state.” They didn’t have whiskey on Sunday. But you had to work anyway [because] they sold beer. And from Cincinnati for six weeks, I went to Detroit, Michigan. And I danced in Detroit, and I worked with Billy Holiday and all of the great names at Broad Nightclub for four months. It was on Holbrook and something: Broad Night Club. Because they had the Plantation, which was under the Norwood Hotel. They had the B & C on San Antoine. They had the Cozy Kitchen, and they had Broads, and they had the Paradise Theater. I danced at all those places.
And that’s when I left and went to the Rhumboogie [Club] in Chicago. And there was Milton [Larkin] and them there. Because they had left here in June and went up there. They went for six weeks and stayed almost a year. Well, anyway, I stayed in Chicago at that Rhumboogie until 1945. I went to New York and opened up in the Elks Rendezvous. From the Elks Rendezvous I danced in Muraine’s , Small’s Paradise, the Apollo Theater and a lot of little clubs over in New Jersey. And I used to dance at Farb’s Beach in Atlantic City, at the paradise and the Club Harlem. And [I] used to dance at the Apollo [Theater]. [I] danced at the Harwood Theater; the Royal theater in Baltimore [and] the Earl Theater in Philadelphia. And I worked in Bel Air, New Jersey; for Easy Door in Washington for Lewis and Kelly.
There are just so many places! I worked in Virginia once for a lady called Ma Green. She was the booking agent, but I don’t know where it was in Virginia. I know it was in Norfolk, but I forgot the name of the club. And I worked in a little place called Dundock, Maryland. That’s right down the street from Baltimore because it was just a street car ride, but it was a little suburb. It was an all-black town, and it was run by black people, the Adams family. It looked like they owned everything in the town. They had the nightclub, the whiskey store, the pool hall, the after-hour joint, the numbers running and everything else. They just owned everything in that little town. It was called Dundock, Maryland. Because the street car ran on, and you went to Baltimore.
I worked the Apollo every other week. If I wasn’t dancing, I was doing comedy with the comedians. And then when I wasn’t working, I was tending bat at Sugar Ray’s Bar. I was passing out the drinks. I had to work! The real Sugar Ray Robinson. He had a bar in Harlem on Seventh Avenue between 123rd and 124th streets. And I lived on 122nd [Street] and Seventh Avenue. His wife had a dress shop. He had a barber shop. And he had a clean, impressive place, all in that block. Then he owned the building upstairs.
LJM: How would you classify you dance style?
DR: I was what you’d call a chorus girl. But you know, sometimes chorus girls could get out and do something by their selves. So then we would just do a flash dance or an exotic dance. A long time ago, we used to call it shake dancing. Hoochie-koochie. But then you would flash dance. I have a picture of me flash dancing over in Trenton, New jersey, somewhere. Most of the time, though, I was a chorus girl. I danced with a line of girls. Sometimes there would be sixteen. Sometimes it would be twelve. Sometimes it would be six. Sometimes it would be eight. And sometimes it would be just four of us who would get up there. We would make the gig. We had a gig. Maybe it was in Perth Amboy or somewhere. You’d split them up. Like, in New Orleans, we’d split up the band, the girls and everything on Mardi Gras time, and we’d play three or four places.
CS: Did you have your dance choreographed?
DR: Yes, by producers. Yes. In Chicago, I had Joe Johnson and Charlie Morrison and Hortense that had the Body Outlet. Those three were producers while I was in Chicago. They came and went. And Detroit, my producer was Leonard Reed. We used to run around with Joe Louis. And in New York my producer was Charlie Morrison again, Norma Miller and some other fellows. A lot of boys. Spizzy Canfield. I had a lot of different producers to work with. Clarence Robinson. They used to call him “Senor”. He produced the shows at the old Cotton Club. And then he produced the shows at the Zanzibar. The Zanzibar turned into Bop City. Everything got so . . . The music came in and just broke up night clubs. We didn’t have nowhere to dance. I danced in the Roxy once in a show [but] the Roxy closed down.
I made my television debut on Uncle Miltie’s Show. In 1948 he did a show called Creole Babies. Well, I mean it was in his show. He just had us that night. Because he was on every week. And I danced on “Creole Babies” with Milton Berle. And I did what they call videos now [but] we called them “soundies.” Well, I made soundies with Basie, Louis Jordan [and] different people like that. And then I made some black movies. We’d work all day long in the movie and all night long at the theater. And when I was in Chicago working, we’d work all night long. And on Sunday morning we had to do a breakfast show. Because the Delisa [phonetic] did a breakfast show on Monday morning, Joe Hughes did a breakfast show on Saturday morning. That’s where Joe Williams came from: out of Joe Hughes. And when we would get through with that, we had to get on a bus and go to Fort Sheridan. And that’s where the soldiers, all day long, that Sunday, and we’d just got off from work a five o’clock. And we’d stay out there at that Army base all day and come right back into town, no sleep, and go to work that night, and dance all night long and play cards.
LJM: How did you get interested in comedy?
DR: Well, I started trying to do the comedy work with the great Troy Brown. He was the first one who started me. He used to have a little skit that he and the [Master of Ceremonies] would do. The Master of Ceremonies was the straight man, and he was the comedian. But they had to have fill-ins, and girls come in. Just like with Pigmeat Markham, I did skits with him on the Ed Sullivan Show and at the Apollo [Theater]. And I worked with John Mason, but his stage-name was Spider Bruce. And I did work with Tim Moore before he did the Amos and Andy stuff. He was Kingfish on “Amos and Andy.” I worked with him on the stage, and I did a picture with him called Boy with a Girl. That’s one of those black movies. And I did The Fight that Never Ends. And I did Jiving in the Beebop with Dizzy Gillespie.
So, when I didn’t have anything to do, I would work with these comedians at the Apollo: Crackshot; Dusty Fletcher; Rastus Murray; George Wilshire. All those kind of people like that. And I would be one of the girls: me and Edna May Harris and her sister Vivian Harris or Sybil Louis. We had out own dressing room, and we’d just wait for out time to come on. And when I would be doing my comedy, when I did the last show around ten o’clock, I would be in a cab putting on my costume to go around the corner to Small’s to hit the floor for the dance. We called that “doubling”
And when he danced in the Apollo, you had to rehearse between each show because they’d change the show every week. Every Friday, it was a new show because it was a new band. And the show opened up on Friday. Well, you didn’t rehearse Friday, Saturday and Sunday because on Sunday, you did a show. As soon as you came off, you had about a thirty-minute rest, and you were right back on. Because the show would open about two o’clock on Sunday, and you had to go around the clock. And you’d do five shows, and I mean shows! They had chorus girls. They had all kinds of acts in-between. Vaudeville.
CS: Would this be like vaudeville, a review?
DR: Yes. But the chorus girls had to change their numbers. We had to learn three numbers, and in between the show from Monday through Friday, while we were up there dancing all day, we had to go down in the basement and rehearse for the next show. You never had time off. You had to work.
CS; So, you were really working seven days a week.
DR: Oh, yes. You didn‘t have no day off. And during the war, you didn’t have no day off. No, chorus girls didn’t have no day off. Not then. But later on, after the war, you would get a Monday off, or one club would close Monday or one would close Tuesday, something like that. Now, Sherman Billingsley, he used to be partnership in Small’s Paradise. But he pulled out and moved on downtown and started the Stork Club. Then we couldn’t go there. But they all could come up to ours. Like, the Cotton Club was on Lenox Avenue. The Savoy Ballroom was on Lenox Avenue. When the Cotton Club moved off of Lenox and moved downtown, well, we could go there. But when it moved downtown, the Sudan opened up in the Cotton Club’s place, and I worked there. Sudan was owned by some real Indians from India.
CS: I never knew exactly where the Cotton Club was.
DR: It was on Lenox between 40th and 41st Street. That’s where it was. And Small’ Paradise was on Seventh Avenue between 34th and 35th [Streets]. It’s a double theater that has a club downstairs and a club upstairs. The Orchid Room is upstairs. And Adam Clayton Powell’s Church, the Abyssinian was down the street. And Jumping at the Woodside, that old Woodside Hotel, 137th and 7th Avenue. And Ed Sullivan lived on 150th and Seventh Avenue in an apartment. He and Bill Robinson, they all lived in those apartments, up there on Edgecomb and Seventh Avenue. Just before you used to go across the [Brooklyn] bridge, and when you crossed the bridge is The Bronx.
CS: Weren’t there a lot of white people who lived in that area?
DR. Yes, they did. A lot of them. Because the Theresa Hotel had plenty of whites, and then the white-owned businesses, all of them down 125th Street plus black businesses, too.
CS: Was there strife at that time?
DR: Not that I remember.
CS: People got along well?
DR: Yes, and everybody was working then. I think the riots started after I left New York because I broke my neck up in Boston in 1954. I was working for George Williams, the man that brings the jazz bands here. He had a place in Boston called Storyville like the one in New Orleans. I was working there with Sarah Vaughn that week. I had closed Harlow, went to the Howard Theater, closed there, and then we went to Boston. When we were going to leave Boston, it was like a Wednesday, [and] we were going to close that Thursday night and open back up in the Apollo that Friday. I broke my neck that Wednesday morning.
CS; How did that happen?
DR: [It was] raining, and coming from a party in Framingham, Massachusetts, and the driver just turned the car. He hit the sign in the esplanade. Didn’t nobody hit us. He did it all. He must have dozed off. He had been drinking, and the policeman that found us said he was going ninety miles an hour. The truck driver stopped, and they said I hit the back of my neck on somebody’s step. It threw me way out of the car.
CS: You were thrown out of the car?
DR: He lost a tooth. I sued him for the insurance of his car, and he was supposed to pay me $135,000. But I didn’t get the money. He finally had so many accidents he finally died. He played bass fiddle with Duke Ellington. A little before Duke Ellington.
LJM: He died before Duke Ellington?
DR: He had three or four more accidents during his lifetime, and he was supposed to pay me this money. He was supposed to pay me so much a year. Jerry Sweeney was the judge, and my lawyer was Eddie Brook, the first black senator, but he wasn’t a senator then. He just was a lawyer in Boston. Then he became commissioner of the police, and he became Secretary of the Commerce or something there in Boston. Then he became a senator. I hear from him now. He’s with a law firm in Washington, D. C., but he lives in Virginia.
So, I stayed in the hospital for fourteen months. I would take exercises and get on the mat and do different things. I got so I could get up and sit in the wheelchair, which was about six months later. Well, they made me exercise on a mat on the floor. The boys came from the Cushing Hospital and gave you exercises. It was an army hospital. If I didn’t exercise, well, I couldn’t go out. They’d make you go out, back in the street, up there in Boston. They make you go back out there in that street to get used to it again. And on Tuesdays, they made me go to movies. And on Sundays, they made me go to matinees to get back with Duke Ellington or Sarah Vaughn [or] whoever was in town. But one day I didn’t go, so they asked me why I didn’t go out that Sunday. They said, “Did you have a good time?” I said, “No. It snowed.” They said, “Well, don’t you live in New York?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, you’ve go to get used to the snow.” I said, “Well, supposing I fall out of the chair?” He said, “Learn how to get back on it,” and [he] kept on walking. His name was Dr. Sissin, [and he and ] Dr. Donald Monroe and Dr. Sissin and Dr. Warner were my doctors.
So, when I got ready to come home, they took me to a hotel called the Leonard’s Hotel in Boston. It’s a hotel that was fixed up [for paraplegics. Liberty Mutual Insurance [Company] paid for most of these paraplegics that lived there. And nobody was supposed to help me. I was supposed to do what I had to do, try to learn how to do it by myself. And I stayed there on that weekend, and they came and go me [and] brought me back to the hospital. Then they said, “Well, you can go home now.” So, when I called up my girlfriend in New York to come and get me, and Milton Larkin came and got me from Boston. He was living in New York at the time, so he’s the one that picked me up and brought me back to the hotel. [He] didn’t take me to my apartment. [He] took me to the Theresa Hotel and said, “You stay there. You’ll be all right.” I said, “I don’t have no money.” He said, “You stay here. You’ll be all right.” And I stayed there for four years until I came back to Texas.
But I went to school at the University of New York Vocational School because they start you with that at the Crippled Institute on 23rd and First. And I would go to the Crippled Institute three times a week to learn how to do something, and I wanted to type. So, while I was in Boston, they had brought me a typewriter. Some show people had given a benefit for me [and] bought me a typewriter. They gave a benefit for me in New York. And saved the money. And they gave some to my sister to bring back here and put in the bank. So, I had a pretty good start. And then when my case was settled, by that time I owed it all to the lawyer. But at least I got six thousand dollars. I didn’t get but ten thousand dollars from his car. But he was supposed to pay me so much money. But every once in a while he’d give me twenty-five dollars or thirty-five or forty or fifty dollars . He never paid it all. But every time Duke[Ellington] would come to Houston, when he got with them, he was playing with Sarah, then. Well, I would go down to the International Club and pick up me my money! So, that’s how I got along.
But after I got back here, I sat around for a year, and I said, “I’m tired to feeling sorry for myself.” And I looked in the paper, and they were offering some classes in Medical Secretary. I said, “That’s what I want to be.” So I went back to school, and I graduated. I got the pictures in there with my diploma as a medical secretary. I went to work over here at Riverside General Hospital to work for two weeks, and I stayed twenty years! That was pretty good. So, I don’t want nobody to offer me a job for two weeks no more! That will be twenty years. And I became this medical secretary, and I could do shorthand and everything. But then dictation came in and shorthand went out the window. But while I was being this medical secretary, I went to school in the hospital and learned how to become a medical librarian. And that’s what I did. I knew everything about everybody in the hospital because I had their charts. I had to see that they were completed by the doctors and everything. So, I became an A. R. T. which is Accredited Registered Technician. I didn’t become the librarian because you had to have your degree from college to be the big Librarian, but I was the next thing to it. I could run the hospital because who really runs the hospital is the medical record librarians. So I became that.
In the meantime, while I was going to school, I became a Notary, and I could do income tax, and I’d do medical transcription[s].
LJM: The accident must have been a shattering experience.
DR: Yes. But do you know what? I never did feel sorry for myself. I never did say, “Why me?” or nothing like that. The doctor told me, “You’re going to have to learn how to do something else because you’ll never be able to dance again.” I said, “Well, Roosevelt ran the United States in a wheelchair. I can sit and run my mouth!” So, that’s what happened. Because I remember Roosevelt, you see. So, I said, “He got along so I’ll get along.” And I came on back to New York and never looked back. And I came on to Houston and never looked back. I just went on hobnobbing and going where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do. I had to learn how to take care of myself, though, with different things and learn how to keep myself clean and different things like that from being in the wheelchair. But as you grow older, and the longer you sit in [a wheelchair] you learn some easier ways to do things. So, that’s what’s happened over all these years. And I retired from the hospital.
LJM: Did you go through any rehabilitation program?
DR: Yes. At the Crippled Institute in New York. That’s where I started the vocational school before I came back to Texas.
LJM: Did you have to give up all forms of music?
DR: Oh, I gave that up when I started dancing. I didn’t play any more. And what I could play, I forgot it. But since I’ve been back home now I’ve tried to learn the guitar. I’ve got one in there, but I don’t do no good. And I got in there sometimes and plug the organ in and pick a ride on it. If my father was still living. . . . There’s a studio on that side. That’s where they are, in there. So she teaches for me. See, that’s my studio. So she teaches for me.
LJM: Somewhere back in the early stages of our interview, you talked about “The Tan Review.”
DR: That was just the name of it. That’s what he named us that night.
LJM: So, everybody in it were black people?
DR: In this revue, yes.
LJM: But it was a production for both whites and blacks?
DR: No. At the Majestic. We were all at the Majestic, but our little group was called The Tan Revue. They had couples that did tangoes and waltzes and ballroom dancing and things like that. And they would hold up over your head to see who would win the prize. Whatever you could do . . . . If you couldn’t do anything but spin a top, you’d go out there and spin the top. That was J. G. Arseman [phonetic] and His Tan Revue. We did 42nd Street, and we divided it into parts. You know, like “Sexy Ladies from the Eighties,” “Little Nifties from the Fifties”. I was a “Niftie.” Things like that. They would choreographe that stuff there. It was nice.
LJM: How successful do you feel you were as a comedienne?
DR; Well, I was the prop girl. I wasn’t the star because the man was the star. But I was real good. I used to do the thing called “Here come the Judge,” and I didn’t crack a smile. And I used to play the deaf-and-dumb girl, and you could feel me laughing, but there wasn’t a smile on my face. My belly would be jumping. Because I had to play the deaf-and-dumb girl. And he had a line in there [but] I always had the punch lines. And he had a line in [another skit] that said, “Her memory ain’t that long.” But I’m supposed to get raped in Central Park. And he’d say, “Her memory ain’t that long.” And I would say, “This long?” You know, as long as my arm. I thought he was talking about something else, you see. So that was the punch line. And then I had another punch line where he used to call me up. I would sit there in the black dark, and right there, just like you, he and another girl is sitting there. And he’d say, “I’ve got to go call my wife.” And he would call his wife, [he would] call me and say, “Baby, I’ll be home in a minute.” I’d say, “Okay.” I would just hand up the phone. And way up the while, he would call again [and say], “I’ll be home in a minute.” They [the audience] could still see him clowning with the woman, see, but they never could see what I was doing. Just one spotlight would come on me when he called. So, when he said he was on his way home, the spotlight hits me good, the lights come up, and I go and wake a man up out of the bed [and say] “Get up! My husband is coming home!” That was the blackout [and] that was the end of the joke.
LJM: Do you remember the line from “Here Comes the Judge”?
DR: Not all, because the comedian had it. I don’t remember all of it. I’ve got a record up there of some things we used to do. Hew did so many things, and we did so many different things because we had to work every other week we was on, with him or somebody. It was pretty good while we were out there. But I think I’ve had a pretty good life as it is: to live this long, born in 1917. I’m seventy-two.
LJM: You look pretty spry.
DR: You just have to think young.
LJM: Well, apparently you have.
DR: That’s the way you’ve got to do that: you’ve got to think young.
LJM: How were the wages during the heyday of your career?
DR: Well, $22.50 a week. Chorus girls didn’t make too much ‘way back there: $22.50; $26.00; $30.00 or $40.00. But things weren’t as high as they are now. If you had forty dollars a week, back in the 1930’s, well, you were living good because things were kind of tough in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Everybody went to war, and everything was rationed. You had those books where you had to buy sugar. You didn’t have to pay for the stamps, but you had to give up a stamp when you’d go buy something. You couldn’t buy shoes unless you had a stamp. You couldn’t buy sugar. I lived in the hotel in Chicago, and I would take my stamp books, and I’d buy the sugar, and I’d sell it to the nightclub. I’d sell them a cupful a night because they had to make Tom Collins and things, and I’d sell them a cupful. You had to do a lot of things.
Like the Metropolitan and Loew’s State Theaters, we couldn’t go to them. The only time I ever went to the Loew’s State [Theater] was at midnight on a Saturday. The picture was Green Pastures, an all-black movie. They let the black people come at midnight one night at midnight. That’s the only time I went to the Loew’s State [Theater]. I went to the Metropolitan [Theater] once.
That was another thing. The black bands could play there in the shows. All the show people could play there, but you just couldn’t go there. But you could always go to the Majestic [Theater]. It was real nice.
LJM: Of all the people you’ve worked with, who did you enjoy working with the most?
DR: You mean the girls or just the stars?
DR: I enjoyed working with all the stars like Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, the Basie band, even Tommy Dorsey’s band. All of those that came to the Apollo [Theater] to work. Charlie Barnett, I worked with his band, but I enjoyed working with all of them because they all had something different to offer. Billy Eckstine. I worked with him a lot. I worked with mostly all of those old acts: Mills Brothers [and] things like that because they would come to the nightclub. I really enjoyed working with Moms Mabley. She was real good. She had her own act. There was another comedienne named Kitty Murray. She was married to Rastus Murray. He was a comedian, and she was a comedienne. She had her own act. She looked something like Bessie Smith. I met Bessie Smith here in Houston at the Harlem Grill [at] Dallas and Heiner. And she picked up some school boys for her band in 1937. That’s the same year she got killed. She picked up a tuba player from Jack Yates High School. He had finished school because he finished in 1934. And she took him with her. She’d come through here.
All of the big bands would be here. Every week [there] was some big band here. When they would get through playing at the Majestic [Theater] they wouldn’t leave town until they played a dance at the City Auditorium. The old City Auditorium used to be down there on Texas [Street]. Well, then they would play there, and then they would play [at] the Pilgrim Temple, and then they would go to Galveston and play. They’d make the rounds down there.
Now, Louis Armstrong go married here in 1938. He married his third wife here in October of 1938. She was from Chicago. She was a chorus girl in Chicago from the Grand Terrace. He married her right here. I went to that wedding. I did a dance for them at the reception: the hoochie-koochie. I sure did! I had on a little old feathered costume, and that’s what I did with them. I remember that. His first wife was named Daisy. She was from New Orleans. His second wife was Lil. And this third wife was Alpha, and his fourth wife was Lucille. Lucille is the darkest girl that ever danced in the Cotton Club. They called her “Brown Sugar”. At that time most of the girls had to be my color. They just didn’t hire the dark, dark girls. We were prejudiced against them, too, just like everybody else.
CS: Is that where the term “Brown Sugar” or the title “Brown Sugar” came from?
DR: From her. They nicknamed her “Brown Sugar, whoever owned the Cotton Club at that time. She had to make [use] make-up. You can catch some black girls real light, [that] look like white. Well, they have to make down a little bit so everybody could be tan. You “make up” and you “make down” [so] everybody’s body would be the same color. Don’t care how light they were. But you couldn’t get too dark because you couldn’t make to be that. It’s just like T
he Rockettes. They are all the same height and practically all have the same hair style. And we had to wear our hair sometimes that way.
CS: Now, where you say you worked with Charlie Barnett [and] Tommy Dorsey, would that be like when they were going through town and you would go on stage with them
DR: Yes. They would be at the Apollo, or they would be at the Strand, or they would be at the Paramount. And then they would have shows. Chorus girls stayed at the Apollo. That was regular. The band changed every Friday. So, whatever band came in, we would pick numbers out of that band and do a routine off of that number, and they’d already know that number, see, and we’d put a routine to it. Just like every time Jimmy Lunceford would come, we would [dance to] For Dancers Only. That would be one of our routines because they already played that. If Duke Ellington came, we’d do The Creole Love Call or something. Whatever the band could play. If Earl Hines came, you had routines for his band. You had standard routines.
That’s just like at the Roxy [Theater]and Radio City [Music Hall]. They did the same show every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It never changed. But they had thirty-six girls on the stage, ten in the ballet chorus and ten girls waiting in the wings if somebody got sick. They always had ten [girls] off standing in the wings. But everybody had to learn the routine. If you had one girl out in front and the rest of us out there, she was called the “subarette”. She was the lead dancer, and she would be called the “subarette.”
LJM: Well, we’re almost at the end of the tape, and we’ve covered your career at this point.