A 103-Year-Old Harlem Renaissance Dancer Sees Herself on Film for the First Time & Becomes an Internet Star

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:

Alice Bark­er
c/o Brook­lyn Gar­dens
835 Herkimer Street
Brook­lyn, NY11233

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Great­est Jazz Films Ever Fea­tures Clas­sic Per­for­mances by Miles, Dizzy, Bird, Bil­lie & More

Cab Calloway’s “Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary,” A 1939 Glos­sary of the Lin­go (the “Jive”) of the Harlem Renais­sance

A 1932 Illus­trat­ed Map of Harlem’s Night Clubs: From the Cot­ton Club to the Savoy Ball­room

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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