HERE AND NOW Tribute to Six Extraordinary Octogenarians
Jeni LeGon has spent her life dedicated to dance. As a 16 year old she danced in Count Basie’s chorus line. He performing career took her to Hollywood in 1931 where later she danced with Bill “Bojangles Robinson in the film “Hooray for Love”, (which also featured Fats Waller). She has amassed 24 film credits including “Broadway Melody 1936, and Easter Parade (1948). Her most recent film role was in Snoop Dog’s 2001 film, “Bones”. Jeni LeGon settled in Vancouver with her husband Frank Clavin in 1969, and founded a dance school, inspiring a love for her art in another generation of dancers. In 1999, she was honoured with a doctorate of performing arts in American dance from Oklahoma City University.
An African-American tap dancing legend and long-time Vancouver resident has died.
Jeni LeGon died Friday at age 96, according to Vancouver journalist James Oakes, who is a neighbour of the woman’s partner Frank Clavin.
The American Tap Dance Foundation says LeGon was one of the first African-American women to develop a career as a tap soloist — and she wore pants when all the other female dancers were sporting skirts.
LeGon was born in Chicago and landed her first job in musical theatre at age 13, the start of a career that brought her to Los Angeles, London and New York.
She played several leading roles in films, toured with the U.S. Army and performed in clubs and theatres internationally, performing with stars like dancer Bill Robinson and jazz pianist Fats Waller.
LeGon was described by People magazine in 2005 as a pioneer of Black Hollywood, who “battled frank racism, stereotype-constrained casting and on-set segregation to achieve memorable art and pave the way to put us where we are today.
You-tube video where Jeni shows that she still has all the moves!
On January 29, 2012, to open the celebration of Black History Month and International Woman’s Day, The National Congress of Black Women Foundation (NCBWF) hosted an event entitled Here and Now at the Shadbolt For The Arts Centre in Burnaby, BC as an honourable tribute to six extraordinary octogenarians whose presence has truly made a difference-in the Black community, within Canada and beyond.
The honourees: Eve Smith, originally from Washington DC, Jeni LeGon from Chicago, Eleanor Collins, from Edmonton, Marcella King a native of Amber Valley, Alberta, Thelma Gibson Towns, born in Athabasca Landing, Alberta and Vancouver’s own Barbara Howard have all made Vancouver their home and made significant and lasting contributions. Opportunities for women at that time were limited, even more so for Black women. When considering the historical context this makes the accomplishments of these honourees even more extraordinary.
The world was a very different place in that era when six young, eager and courageous women dared to chase their respective dreams. Young girls in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s were not encouraged to become elite athletes, artists or performers. They were not expected to have successful careers, pursue higher education and become teachers, or to become business people or community leaders…..particularly if they were Black. It is their undeniable talent, hard work and tenacity – a belief that there is “no such word as can’t” that has allowed these six women to succeed and serve as an inspiration for future generations.
Generally it is not polite to mention or discuss a woman’s age, but all these honourees wear their years proudly with grace and dignity. Please know that their stories and contributions are relevant today. Each of them has inspired countless others. Their presence and example have made a difference in our community and beyond. We thank them for showing us what we can aspire to.
Eve Smith-renowned pianist and vocalist aka Yvonne Lanauze- a graduate of Howard University and a teacher by profession, but music proved to be her true passion. Discovered by Duke Ellington she was invited to be part of his orchestra in the 1950’s. She enjoyed a distinguished performing career before moving to Vancouver in the 1960’s to raise her family, becoming a jazz icon, performing for CBC Radio and Television, later becoming a fixture at the 3 Greenhorns Restaurant in Vancouver, a hotspot for jazz at the time.
Barbara Howard was chosen at age 17 to represent Canada in the 1938 Sydney British Empire Games. She returned home with two medals- a silver and bronze in relay events and finished a very respectable 6th in the 100 yard dash. She was at one time considered the fastest woman in the Empire and was the first Black woman to represent Canada in international sports competition. Barbara Howard went on to pursue her education, attending Vancouver Normal School and obtained a degree in education from UBC. She was the first Black female teacher hired by the Vancouver School Board-where she taught for 43 years. Earlier this month and at the age of 91- she was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame. The late great Etta James said it best: “At Last”!
Eleanor Collins attributes cold prairie winters and singing around the piano as her music school. Moving to Vancouver in 1939, she was a well-known pioneer of the BC jazz scene. She became the first jazz singer and Black woman to star in her own national weekly TV series-the Eleanor Show (1955). In addition to her distinguished radio and TV career, she married Richard Collins and is the mother of four children.
Marcella King aka Choo Choo Williams was a showgirl with her husband, band leader and trombonist, Ernie King, co-owner of the famous Harlem Nocturne, the only official all-Black nightclub in Vancouver from 1957-1966. She enjoyed a 12 year performing career. I have seen her photos: and hot is an understatement! Tina Turner, Beyonce- you have nothing on our Choo Choo! After performing, she would then assume floor and cash duties at the club. (Add bit about Ernie…) She has also inspired another generation and gifted us with her daughter-the talented Lovena Fox.
Thelma Gibson-Towns came to Vancouver from Alberta in 1932 when her family was in search of a warmer climate. As a former Strathcona resident she has described a sense of community about that neighbourhood during that era. Her family always encouraged theatrical arts. Her mother owned a number of Chicken Inns, one of which was complete with a family show including singing, dancing and story-telling. Thelma has enjoyed a long career as an artist and performer, Appearing with her brothers in the live television show-Bamboula, and in nightclubs across Canada and internationally. She also went to John Oliver High school with my father Wally Alexander.
by The Hon. Judge, Therese Alexander