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Harlem ’s Legendary Silver Belles

Dancing Through Life with Sass and Class

Written by Wendy R. Williams
Photographed by Mary Blanco


Geri Kennedy; Elaine Ellis (88); Fay Ray (86); Marion Coles (91); and Cleo Hayes (89).

“I’m going to dance, dance, dance, ‘till I can’t dance no more, and I’m going to live, live, live, ‘til I die.” (Bertye Lou Wood, age 96)

New York has always derived its greatness from its immigrants, both from outisde the USA and internal. We are populated by a self selected crowd – a group of people who were born somewhere else and when they could finally sit up in their crib, took a quick look around and said, “This will never do.”

Heather MacDonald’s documentary, Been Rich All My Life (opened July 21, 2006 at NYC’s Quad Cinema - www.tootscrackin.com ), is the story of one such group of self slected New Yorkers, Harlem’s hot legendary Silver Belles. The film tells the story of five chorines ( Bertye Lou Wood: Cleo Hayes; Marion Coles; Elaine Ellis; and Fay Ray) and their manager, Geri Kennedy. One of them, Fay Ray, literally left the South not soon after she learned how to walk; Fay hoped a freight train and left Louisiana at the grand old age of twelve.


Marion Coles, 91

These ladies became friends back in the 30’s when they were chorines at the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club. And they continued their friendship as the world of big bands and chorus shows died off, taking up other lines of work to support themselves. But then in 80’s (nudged along by their manager Geri Kennedy) they reunited to form the Silver Belles.  

One of the most remarkable thngs about this film is seeing how friendship and perfoming has kept the Belles forever young. MacDonald follows the dancers as they rehearse and perform. We get to know them both by seeing them in the film and also through the stories they tell about themselves and each other (these ladies are great gossips). And what stories they can tell. They travelled through the Jim Crow South, but they also took a triumphant tour of South America and perfomed with the USO during World War II. We hear about the Harlem Clubs that employed black workers but only allowed white patrons. And we get to watch them dance, because these ladies (some in their nineties) are still performing.

www.tootscrackin.com www.tootscrackin.com www.tootscrackin.com

New York Cool photograph Mary Blanco and I caught up with filmmaker Heather MacDonald and Cleo Hayes; Marion Coles; Elaine Ellis; Fay Ray and manager Geri Kennedy [Bertye Lou Wood died before the film opened] on July 11th at the Chelsea Studios where Fay Ray is still teaching tap lessons. I had a chance to talk with them briefly and afterwards I followed up on the phone.


Filmmaker Heather MacDonald
Photo courtesy of www.tootscrackin.com


The Interview with Silver Belles Manager Geri Kennedy:

 

Geri Kennedy is the manager of the Silver Belles; she was instrumental in forming the Belles back in the 1980's.

Wendy: Tell me how you helped organize the Silver Belles back in the eighties?

Geri Kennedy: Well I knew Bertye Lou, Cleo and Elaine. We were all barmaids and different bars in Harlem. [After the big dance show era ended, all the women took up different jobs, many becoming bartenders.] I became interested in women dancers when this dancer named Edna (Yak) Taylor used to come into the bar and tell me stories about the chorus line.

You know, men dancers are allowed to grow old gracefully. Older women dancers become almost extinct and no one knows their story. There was the woman named Tandaleo Levy who was the first black women dancer to own a club and no one knows about her. [This is true. I couldn't Google her so, it is like she did not exist.] You hear about Tommy Tune, Honny Coles, and others, but not about the women. And I wanted people to know about this part of our history.

Right now the Silver Belles only perform for benefits, especially if there are children involved. Because it is really important that young people get to know the history of black women dancers. Because if you don't know history, you won't know the future.


The Interview with Cleo Hayes

Cleo Hayes was born and raised in Greenville, Mississippi. After she graduated from high school, she left Mississippi and moved to Chicago, eventually coming to New York. During the film, we hear the story of how Cleo recently fell down an entire flight of subway steps and broke her leg. She was put in a cast from knee to toe and everyone was worried that she would never recover. But she not only recovered, she returned to dance.

Question: Who made your costumes?

Cleo Hayes: The Apollo rented their costumes back then and costumes at the Cotton Club were made by Veronica. That was the name of the company that was sewn in the back of the costumes.

Question: How did you do your hair and make up?

Cleo Hayes: I did my own. I just washed it and set it and I used Max Factor pancake make up.

Question: What about your clothes?

Cleo Hayes: Clothes were not very important to me back then. I didn’t have a lot of money for clothes. And now I just have my clothes. [Note to readers: This lady always looks stunning, so there is a story we are not getting.]

Question: Do you have any stories you want to tell about Lena Horne?

Cleo Hayes: Lena Horne is a friend of mine. I’m not going to tell stories about her.

Question: Do you have any stories to tell about the men? Were there any stage door Johnny’s?

Cleo Hayes: We weren’t that kind of women. We were some of the finest dancers and we were respected. All young girls have men after them but doors at the Cotton Club were locked.

[But inside the club] Bo Jangles did not like it when women followed [what later became] Nancy Reagan’s advice and ‘just said no’. And he was going to kick me out of the chorus, but Cab Calloway stood up for me.

Question: What was the problem?

Cleo Hayes: You know what the problem was.

Question: What is different about your tap dancing style?

Cleo Hayes: It used to be off the floor. Now it is more of a stomp into the floor.

Question: How is your leg?

Cleo Hayes: It hurts all the time but I am so lucky.

Question: What is your secret?

Cleo Hayes: Hard work. You know God let us live a long time.

 

The Interview with Faye Ray

After Fay Ray hopped a freight train out of Lousiaian at the grand old age of twelve, she joined a show on the vaudeville circuit. During the 1940's, she came to New York and joined the chorus lines. During World War II, Fay pitched in with the war effort by becoming a certified welder. Later she toured with the USO, worked on the Alaska pipeline and drove a New York City taxi cab.

Question: Who made your costumes?

Fay: It was back in the 1940’s and there was this man and he became famous and moved out to Hollywood. We just loved his costumes but he got so good he left. Oh what was his name? Bob Mackie, that’s it, Bob Mackie. [Fay and I have since determined that it could not be Bob Mackie because he was born in 1940, but if you are reading this and know who made the costumes, please email wendy@newyorkcool.com.]

Question: How about your clothes?

Fay Ray: I did not have too much back then but I shopped around for a few things that were different.

Question: How about your hair and make up?

Fay Ray: We used a soft piece of fabric called a rat. You turned your hair over it and made a page boy and then put a hair net over it. And my make up was Max Factor pancake make up. You just use a damp sponge and it just takes a few seconds.

Question: How was it traveling through the Jim Crow south?

Fay Ray: There were not too many places we were welcome so we had to make our own fun. In Ohio and West Virginia, they had these black lodges (the UBF lodges) that hired us to put on really great shows. We would perform twice a night.

Question: Tell me about some of the bands.

Fay Ray: I performed with some really good musicians like Tiny Bradshaw. One of his band members wrote that tune “The Jersey Bounce” (Words by Robert B. Wright; Music by: Bobby Plater; Tiny Bradshaw; and Edward Johnson.)  

Question: How about the men? Were they lined up outside the stage door for you?

Fay Ray: Well they weren't after me all the much. There were some really beautiful girls. But I did not suffer any because I was always standing in the back ground waiting for the right one to come along. I went with a couple of fellas, but it did not work out. I had one hell of a life and I did not want to screw it up. [Faye has now found the love her life.]  

Question: What do you think about music today?  

Fay Ray: I am interested in everything the young people are doing. I like hip-hop. [Heather says she dances to it at parties.] It just keeps going on.

 
The Interview with Elaine Ellis    
 

Until Elaine recently moved to Harlem, she had to ride two hours on the subway to get from Queens to 124th Street and Saint Nicholas to attend the Belle's rehearsals. And she made that trip despite high blood pressure, asthma and two bouts with cancer.

Question: Where are you from?

Elaine Ellis: Panama, I came to New York when I was seven years old with my family. My grandfather had a job running a lighthouse in Panama and we all moved there.

Question: Where did you buy your clothes back then?

Elaine Ellis: Best and Company – they would last longer.

Question: Fay said she did her own hair, making a page boy with a “rat”. Did you do that too?

Elaine Ellis: Well, Fay may have done that but I went to the beauty parlor.

Question: How often did you go?

Elaine Ellis: Once a month but in between my mother would “grease” it and comb it out so it stayed clean.

Question: What about your make up?

Elaine Ellis: I didn’t wear make up on the street, just in the shows. And I used theatrical make up – Max Factor.

Question: Were the men lined up outside the door for you?

Elaine Ellis: Even if they had been, it wouldn't have mattered. I had to rush home to take care of my son. One time after we performed at the Apollo, there was this big group of young black men waiting outside. We thought they were going to mug us but they only wanted to tell us how much they like us. They followed us to this bar where we were going to have a party.

Question: Tell me about the legendary black clubs?

Elaine Ellis: Well there was Mimo at 132 nd and 7 th and the Elks Rendezvous at 484 Lennox and Small’s Paradise at 135 th and 7 th. Small’s, before they tore it down, is where we organized the Silver Belles. It should have been designated an historical site [and saved].

And so should the Silver Belles. They are also a historical landmark whose story needs to be saved and cherished. Note: I was unable to talk to Marion Coles, but I saw her at the photo shoot and she looked just great.



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