A few years ago, for the second time in as many months, I gave media interviews on the subject of thirties jazz star Valaida Snow: for the NPR radio show Jazz Rhythm; and a few weeks later I taped a segment for a new TV "magazine" show hosted by Tim Reid of Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, WKRP, and Frank's Place fame.
I'd appeared on TV before and was never too happy with the way I looked, but Reid took some pains to light me and when the show finally aired I could actually look at myself and not flinch. While Reid worked on me, like a veritable von Sternberg achieving those modest results, he talked about the making of "Once Upon a Time," one of the most underrated films of the nineties. While he shifted light stands and ran about, he also told me a bit about its making.
The film was actually one of the first black ensemble cast films ever to turn a profit by playing almost exclusively theaters in African-American neighborhoods. And what a cast! If you had dropped a bomb on the film, you risked wiping out black show business: Al Freeman, Jr., Felice Rashad, Paula Kelly, Leon, Richard Roundtree, Isaac Hayes, Taj Mahal, Bernie Casey, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Anna Maria Horsford, with the one significant white role played by singer-actress Polly Bergen.
"Once Upon a Time" cost less than three million dollars for a film that appeared to have a budget many times that amount. "Not to sound like a braggart at all and not to diminish Steven Spielberg's talent," Reid confided to me, "but I'd like to see him make the same film for anywhere near that small an amount." Reid's cast and crew worked way above and beyond the call of duty to make the film possible. The 1940s-period film had more than 200 costumed extras and speaking parts with (hang on to your hat, Ruth Myers) the entire budget allotted to dressing them amounting to a little over a measly $20,000. The costumer had to work so diligently bringing the miracle off, Reid informed me, that she suffered a stroke during the film’s making and had to be hospitalized.
There was yet another calamity. The gas lines of the forties antique cars were forever getting clogged. Whenever this happened, filming would cease long enough for the technical assistant to go and suck gas from the line and spit it out. It became such a common occurrence that one day when he did this, either because he acted too reflexively or maybe he coughed, he accidentally swallowed gasoline and went into cardiac arrest.Reid ran and began to apply CPR to the man who was out cold. After a minute or two, the TA's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at a relieved Reid. Almost soundlessly he muttered the same words over and again to his rescuer. At first, Reid could not quite hear what was being said and bent closer. Then very faintly he could make it out.
“I don’t want to come back.”
“Well godamn it, you ARE going to come back whether you like it or not.”
“And,” Reid told me, “I continued pounding on his chest with all my might.”
"And did you manage to save him?,” I ask.
“And was the man grateful?”
“I suppose. Later I went to see him in the hospital and asked him, 'And so. . .was it warm and peaceful with beautiful bright white light everywhere?'”
By this time in his retelling of the episode, Reid has momentarily stopped fiddling with the lights and is doubled over from mirth recalling this darkly humorous tale ripped from the pages of reel movie life.“Oh, well,” says the ever cost-conscious Reid, as he abruptly returns to familiar quadruple duty as a producer-director-lighting/camera man, “back to work!” And I began to tell some of what I know about just plain Valaida (as she was sometimes billed) to his camera.
Valaida Snow was a beautiful, multi-talented entertainer, a first-rate jazz arranger, trumpeter, dancer and singer who was once as well-known a performer as Ethel Waters, but who has since fallen into obscurity. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her story from a dramatic point of view was her long internment by the Germans in a concentration camp during WW II.
Eventually freed in a prisoner exchange, she returned to the U.S. and was able to somewhat obtain to a modicum of her former celebrity before suffering a fatal stroke backstage at New York's Place Theater. Her story has everything, almost including, to invoke Thelma Ritter in All About Eve, "the hounds yapping at her rear end."
There have been a number of failed attempts, including one by Diana Ross, to develop a movie based on Snow's extraordinary life and career. To the best of my knowledge Reid, with the segment on his TV magazine show on which I had the honor of appearing, is the first to have widely disseminated Valaida's amazing story.
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