The Harlem Renaissance lives in the form of Alice Barker, a soft spoken lady who just last week received a belated Happy 103rd Birthday card from the Obamas.
That’s her on the right in the first clip, below. She’s in the back right at the 2:07 mark. Perched on a lunch counter stool, showing off her shapely stems at 9:32.
Barker’s newfound celebrity is an unexpected reward for one who was never a marquee name.
She was a member of the chorus—a pretty, talented, hardworking young lady, whose name was misspelled on one of the occasions when she was credited. She danced throughout the 1930s and 40s in legendary Harlem venues like the Apollo, the Cotton Club, and the Zanzibar Club. Shared the stage with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Racked up a number of film, commercial and TV credits, getting paid to do something she later confided from a nursing home bed she would have gladly done for free.
Barker’s chorus girl days had been mothballed for decades when she crossed paths with video editor David Shuff, a volunteer visitor to the nursing home where she lives. Shuff seems to be a kindred spirit to the writer David Greenberger, whose Duplex Planet zines—and later books, comics, and performances—captured the stories (and personalities) of the elderly residents of a Boston nursing home where he served as activities director.
Intrigued by glimmers of Barker’s glamorous past, Shuff joined forces with recreational therapist Gail Campbell, to see if they could truffle up any evidence. Barker herself had lost all of the photos and memorabilia that would have backed up her claims.
Eventually, their search led them to historians Alicia Thompson and Mark Cantor, who were able to identify Barker strutting her stuff in a handful of extant 1940s jukebox shorts, aka “soundies.”
Though Barker had caught herself in a couple of commercials, she had never seen any of her soundie performances. A friend of Shuff’s serendipitously decided to record her reaction to her first private screening on Shuff’s iPad. The video went viral as soon as it hit the Internet, and suddenly, Barker was a star.
The loveliest aspect of her late-in-life celebrity is an abundance of old fashioned fan mail, flowers and artwork. She also received a Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Award for excellence in music and music education.
Fame is heady, but seems not to have gone to Barker’s, as evidenced by a remark she made to Shuff a couple of months after she blew up the Internet, “I got jobs because I had great legs, but also, I knew how to wink.”
Shuff maintains a website for fans who want to stay abreast of Alice Barker. You can also write her at the address below:
c/o Brooklyn Gardens
835 Herkimer Street
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her play, Fawnbook, is running through November 20 in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday
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