We recently came across a picture of iconic entertainment legends, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. on the cover of Life magazine. When we investigated the origin, we discovered that this event that is barely remembered today, was a cultural touchstone for Black entertainers in the height of the Civil Right’s movement.
Belafonte, during the 1960s, took a sabbatical from working in motion pictures to focus his energy on the emerging Civil Rights movement. Dissatisfied with the film roles available to him, he returned to music during the 1960s, also engrossing himself in his political pursuits. He was one of many entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. During that decade, Belafonte also introduced several artists to American audiences, most notably South African singer Miriam Makeba. His album Midnight Special (1962) featured the first-ever record appearance by a then young harmonica player named Bob Dylan.
He received Grammy Awards for his album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965), which dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under Apartheid. In 1965, Belafonte interviewed Martin Luther King live on The Tonight Show shortly before both joined the walk to Montgomery, Alabama.
It was in this climate that Belafonte birthed an idea that would become a historic television special. The Strollin’ Twenties brought together the top Black Entertainers of the time to recreate the excitement and atmosphere Harlem during the Renaissance period. The one-hour special aired on CBS in February 1966 and featured a screenplay by Langston Hughes and music created by and played on the special by Duke Ellington.
A reporter from Life magazine reported from the set and the cover story was featured in the February 4, 1966 issue with the caption, ” Sammy Davis, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier in a TV salute to old-time Harlem.” The four-page spread (70-74), “A Big-Time Stomp through Oldtime Harlem,” is reprinted below.
“Never, not every in your in your whistling lifetime, was so much big-time Negro entertainment crammed into so brisk an hour. Harry Belafonte had an original idea – a TV spectacular on old-time Harlem in the gaudy days of the ’20s. To put it in motion he cast himself in the role of TV producer and virtually subpoenaed a galaxy of top Negro stars – Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Diahann Carroll, Nipsey Russell, Joe Williams, Gloria Lynne and George Kirby – to duty for a command performance.
What Belafonte set out to create was a rubbernecking tour through the biggest big-city Negro cosmos – not the one of the bitter, troubled present but the one of the blithe bygone days when, as his scriptwriter, Poet Langston Hughes puts it, “Every Sunday was Easter Sunday in Harlem” and folks would dress up in their finery and stroll around, eye the girls and catch on the gossip. Belafonte’s old friend Poitier performs as the tour-guide narrator, stopping in on such rituals as a rent part to save a family from eviction, street corner song-and-dance routines and a Savoy Ballroom finale set to Duke Ellington’s jazz.
The Strollin’ Twenties, soon to be shown by CBS, is a promenadee through Harlem’s lore, legends and way of life – a world that brought forth the very stars whose swinging get-together is quite plainly a labor of love.