Saturday, June 30, 2007

Hear Preer!

Evelyn Preer, surely must qualify as the first or near-first example---regardless of race---of what has since come to be known in the entertainment industry as a multi-media entertainer. In the 1920s when most performers were getting their feet wet in one medium alone, Preer was firmly established not only as a film star, but also on recordings, in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage (Preer's biggest multi-media competition Ethel Waters was still years away from working legit).

Mississippi native Preer toured the Orpheum and other vaudeville circuits in the teens; then, simultaneous to her work with the Lafayette Players in the 1920s she appeared on Broadway as the star of such productions as Lulu Belle (1926), Rang Tang (1927), and the '27 dramatization of DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy. All the while, she also managed to record countless numbers with such jazz stars of the day as Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams. So prolific was Ms. Preer's career on discs that she had to resort to a number of different pseudonyms to account for all of the sides she was cutting. Among the other names she recorded under were Evelyn Thompson (her married name), Hotsy Jarvis, Sinclair Franks and Radio Red.

1928 found the Lafayette Players, along with Ms. Preer and her husband, Edward Thompson, relocated to Los Angeles, a pioneering move made by not just with hope of stage but film opportunities as well. Preer's film activities had actually begun a decade earlier when she established herself as Oscar Micheaux's leading lady---she played Dietrich to his Von Sternberg---in such titles as The Homesteader (1918), The Brute (1920) The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921) Birthright (1924) and at least a half~dozen others, copies of which, for the most part, are believed to no longer exist. Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920), long thought to have also vanished, was eventually discovered in Spain and subsequently shown in November 1992 at New York's Lincoln Center. In attendance was Preer's daughter, Sister Francescia Thompson, PHD, theatrical historian and leading scholar on the Lafayette Players.

One of the busiest actresses in Hollywood circa 1928-'32---by the early 1930s she was also heard on radio---Preer appeared not only in numerous black cast comedy shorts, but also in major studio features. It was shortly after shooting her last feature, Blonde Venus (from which she was eventually cut) that Preer died of pneumonia in Los Angeles on November 18, 1932.

In his 1930 book, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson included Evelyn Preer in a small, select list of the most distinguished African-American artists of the day. Of those he saluted (including Bill Robinson, Eubie Blake. Ethel Waters, Noble Sissie), perhaps only Preer and one or two others would strike an unfamiliar chord with most knowledgeable readers of today. Such anonymity would probably not be the case had she not died in 1932 at the height of her career.

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