Film Review #109: Been Rich All My Life
Director: Heather MacDonald
Cast: Bertye Lou Wood, Fay Ray, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes, Marion Coles
The legendary Cotton Club’s current owner, John Beatty, lets them practice there each week. Making their way north through Manhattan by bus and subway to Harlem, dancers Fay Ray, Cleo Hayes, Marion Coles, Elaine Ellis and Bertye Lou Wood – ages 84 to 96 when this film was completed – by turns look mild-mannered, stylish and sassy. Whether baseball-capped or mink-coated, there’s no doubt these elders are ladies. On-stage, once the music and foot-lights go up, the Silver Belles are also “very flirty,” says the choreographer Mercedes Ellington. The Duke’s granddaughter, who knows a thing or two about such matters, adds, “The audience goes crazy!”
The Community Folk Art Center here in Syracuse recently screened Heather MacDonald’s Been Rich All My Life (2006), about the lives and fortunes of the Silver Belles, 1930s and ‘40s-era chorus line tap-dancers extraordinaire, who reunited in 1985 and are still dancing. Since CFAC’s monthly movie coincided with opening ceremonies of this year’s Juneteenth at City Hall, there wasn’t a big crowd. Not to worry: netflix.com carries the movie’s DVD and the locally-owned Emerald City Video was happy to order it.
Been Rich All My Life is a treasure, and it’s really not one story but several.
First, it relates the reunion of five vivid, opinionated, self-possessed women who met in the 1930s at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where Bertye Lou Wood was dance captain of the chorus line. In 1985 Wood and Geri Kennedy, who has served as their manager ever since, looked up the others and formed the Silver Belles. They may be unique, but they’re no passing novelty act. MacDonald’s film picks up seventeen years later to follow this enduring late-life career through rehearsals, performances, reminiscences, dance classes for sharp, appreciative younger performers and raucous stops at Nikki’s Bar.
In an early scene, one Belle stops mid-wisecrack and asks, “This is gonna be edited, right? We don’t want any arguments in it.” Life provided unplanned difficulties in the two-year shoot – loss of partners, a tumble down subway steps (followed by rehearsing temporarily with a walker), cancer treatments, a new pacemaker. Bertye’s a hospital stay ends in her decline and passing. But as the film goes on, you’re just grateful that MacDonald – who has some award-winning PBS documentaries under her belt – was there at the right moments to record scenes ranging from intimacy to triumph.
The earlier lives of the Silver Belles personify an era roughly bounded by World Wars I and II. This means the Harlem Renaissance and more. Been Rich contains abundant archival photos, clippings and footage of the dance clubs and entertainers. Behind the glitter, the Apollo Theater strike in February 1940 established the American Guild of Variety Artists, the first performers’ union with clout (“Sixteen chorus girls closed down this theater!” relishes Cleo Hayes). After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Cleo and Bertye, with Eubie Blake’s band, were part of the first Black USO tour to US Army bases – at Fort Bliss, Texas, they weren’t allowed to use the post’s restaurant or toilets.
These women’s lives also recall a fluidity in US life that might surprise us now. They came from all over. Fay Ray, who started dancing in front of a mirror while her family was at church, hopped a freight train at age 12 from Shreveport, later toured Beirut and Vietnam with the USO during the 1960s, and fit in working the Alaska pipeline too. Paris and Buenes Aires made the dance itinerary too. Composer Pete Whitman of the jazz sextet Departure Point furnishes a dazzling score that surveys the musical styles of those decades, which he describes in the DVD’s interview.
Been Rich All My Life both emphasizes and illustrates passing these steps and traditions on to younger dancers, who seem to be legion. One is Karen Callaway Williams, already a tap star in her own right, whose red shoes fly in a spectacular mid-chorus solo at Bertye’s wake. Footage of the Belles’ rehearsals provides uncommon detail about how dances are put together. The DVD’s generous bonuses include a “dance lesson” in which Williams learns tap’s “national anthem,” the Shim Sham Shimmy, one sequence at a time.
There’s something triumphant about tap dancing and the people who do it. You can see it in this movie. You saw it last weekend at the Civic Center too, when Cheryl Wilkins Mitchell’s Onondaga Dance Institute students gave their annual recital, triumphing over the late-semester loss of their dance space to construction. Either one will lighten your own step, along with deepening your appreciation for the other.
This review appeared in the 6/28/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that did not open theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.