Opinion — Her first is not the last

Published 12:15 pm Saturday, February 19, 2022

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In the entertainment industry many performers strive to not be pigeonholed into stereotypical roles. Dorothy Jean Dandridge fit that bill. Dorothy was born on Nov. 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio to entertainer mother Ruby and father Cyril who was a cabinetmaker and Baptist minister. Just before Dorothy’s birth her parents divorced. Dorothy had an older sister named Vivian.

At a young age Dorothy got her start in the entertainment business by performing in a song and dance act with her sister Vivian called The Wonder Children. Their mother Ruby had created this venue for them and for five years the Dandridge girls toured the Southern United States almost nonstop which rarely enabled them to attend school. While Dorothy was performing on the road Ruby worked performing in Cleveland. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression work basically stopped for the Dandridge’s, as it did for many traveling performers. Eventually, the family relocated to Hollywood, California where Ruby found steady work on radio and in film in small domesticate parts while Dorothy attended McKinley Junior High School. In 1934 The Wonder Children became the Dandridge Sisters in which their schoolmate Etta Jones joined them.

The Dandridge Sisters were booked in several high profile nightclubs including The Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater. In addition, Dorothy appeared in numerous films with some of them being minor or uncredited roles. Her first appearance onscreen was a small part in an Our Gang comedy short Teacher’s Beau in 1935.While with the Dandridge Sisters she appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1936 with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and with The Marx Brothers in A Day at The Races and The Jackson Brothers in It Can’t Last Forever in 1937. Through her continuing nightclub performances Dorothy earned nationwide recognition. In film Dorothy’s first credited role was in 1940 for Four Shall Die which was cast as a murderess, but, unfortunately, it did not advance her career. The stunning actress rejected stereotypical African American roles which limited her options, yet, numerous work opportunities followed and she continued to appear in the occasional film and onstage throughout the rest of the 1940s. Hers singing credits included Hit Parade with Count Basie and Atlantic City with Louis Armstrong in 1944.

Subsequently, the year 1953 catapulted Dorothy into the performance stratosphere when she was cast as Carmen in 20th Century Fox’s Carmen Jones, an all Black musical film based on Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 Broadway musical. This was an updated version from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen with a World War II African American setting. Dorothy’s performance in Carmen Jones earned over $10 million worldwide and was one of that year’s highest grossing films. Moreover, Dorothy became the first African American woman nominated for Best Actress for her role. On Nov. 1, 1954 Dorothy became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of LIFE magazine. Her leading lady status made her one of Hollywood’s first African American sex symbols and her acting garnered her positive reviews. In addition, on April 11, 1955 Dorothy became the first African American performer to open at the Empire Room inside The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, which led to other Blacks being booked such as Count Basie, Joe Williams, Pearl Bailey and Lena Horne. Also, in 1959 Dorothy won a Golden Globe nomination for performance in Porgy and Bess.

In her personal life Dorothy experienced happiness and sorrow. In 1942 she married Harold Nicolas a world renowned dancer and in 1943 they had a daughter Harolyn Suzanne but sadly the little girl suffered from cerebral anoxia at birth. This was due to surgical instruments that were used during her delivery, yet, Dorothy blamed herself because she wanted to delay Harolyn’s birth waiting for her husband to arrive to be with her at the hospital. Harolyn could not speak by age four and would need constant care throughout her life so she was placed in a private institution. Dorothy and Harold divorced in 1951 and in 1959 she married hotel owner Jack Denison later divorcing in 1962.

The bright light of this stunning starlet dimmed forever when on September 8, 1965 Dorothy died at age 42 in Los Angeles, California Throughout her 32 year career she received many accolades and posthumously received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1984. Dorothy was a trailblazer in the performance industry for African American women rejecting stereotypes yet, demonstrating her talent and beauty with the respect of an artist’s work as the focus. That’s as it should be.

Judy Moore can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com. She works as a tour guide at The Central High Museum living in Wylliesburg.