HELLO AMERICA!—Having lived in Los Angeles during the 1950s, facing and understand the obvious challenges to remain in the functioning lane to success has been extremely clear. After all, I escaped with the assistance of my classmates at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, catching a Greyhound Bus to Los Angeles to attend USC. Even though the university offered tremendous advantages being on campus, the surrounding area and other parts of the city did not. Motels, apartment buildings, and certain streets in the beach areas like Beverly Hills or certain places involving the Hollywood Hills, especially after midnight.
One of my English professors at USC suggested I contact Nick Stewart who was opening an Ebony Showcase Theater near the campus. Stewart was one of the featured stars of the famed “Amos ‘n’ Andy Show,” he was known as the character of LIGHTNIN’ and everyone loved his humor which seemed to explode in front of the camera. He took an immediate liking to me, possibly, because I didn’t hesitate to ask questions or posing questions concerning an assigned character or if I had any doubts about creative ideas that he, himself, claimed as gospel for an actor.
As a result, he introduced me to Juanita Moore one of the most respected Black actresses in Hollywood. Later, she was nominated as the second actress of color to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the film “Imitation of Life.”
When observing her technique and how she explained quite clearly in feeling creatively secure when working in front of a camera, especially, when surrounded with possibly a thousand people on a studio set. Because I had been working since the age of 12 with the likes of music legend Paul Whiteman Orchestra in Philadelphia, a TV weekly show (WFIL- NBC), I was used to questioning the director, conductor or any other creative entity on the show. This was acceptable and expected during that period in producing, especially, a musical weekly production. Fortunately, Juanita Moore spotted something in me as a determined, hungry performer who would stop at nothing in realizing his dream.
Juanita who was an extraordinary actress made it extremely clear that she accepted roles as a maid or any other “servant” kind of character to receive the experience as well as the respect of directors, producers or anyone who might open the door for an opportunity to show how much she was prepared to perform in any film or theatrical production that is up for grabs. She proved how serious she was numerous times when it came to the casting of a character she believed I would be perfect in developing.
When the film “Carmen Jones” was announced to be filmed, she insisted I audition for one of the “character” roles and begged me not to try and direct the film myself. “I’m tellin’ Mike,” she pointed her finger at me in a warning way. “Do you hear me, MIKE?” I quietly responded with, “Ok, Juanita, I promise!” Well, I tried with all my heart, but I must confess there were a few times when director Otto Preminger threatened to fire me from the film.
Juanita had a hand in most of my decisions made performing in musicals, Shakespeare classics, concerts, and nearly all of my creative or artistic endeavors. As a matter of fact, her last months were spent preparing to play the “grandmother” in my pre-Broadway play, “I Feel Sin Comin’ On.” We were in rehearsal when her grandson, Kurt-Kelly Kahn called to inform me that my friend and teacher passed.