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Mike Wallace Cross-Examines Harry Belafonte

The hottest new personality on television today is Mike Wallace, who steams up millions of TViewers by putting celebrities on the hot seat on ABC-TV’s “The Mike Wallace Interview.” The hottest new figure in show business today is Harry Belafonte, whose performances and offstage statements are equally explosive. Photoplay is proud to bring the exclusive interview of this highly combustible combination to readers for the first time. Now, let’s get on with the fireworks:

MIKE: Harry George Belafonte, Jr. has made a million twice, although he never got through high school. He has been called “the first Negro matinee idol.” He is hailed as King of Calypso, a title he claims to loathe. In the “New York Mirror” on April 6th, he stated, “I’ll never pose in one of those straw hats.” The March 6th issue of “Downbeat” carried a picture of him, complete with straw hat, with an article titled, “The Responsibility of the Artist.” He has been accused of being pretentious. He does not allow waiters to serve while he sings. Last February 28th he was divorced by his first wife, child psychologist Frances Marguerite Byrd, mother of his two children, Adrienne and Shari. On March 8th, he secretly married Julie Robinson, formerly the only white dancer with the Katharine Dunham troupe. He has been quoted as saying, “I have a great impatience with intolerance.” Would you please explain.

HARRY: By that, I mean intolerance of any sort. Racial, economic, religious or artistic intolerance.

MIKE: Your last picture, “Island in the Sun,” caused a great deal of controversy. How do you feel about it?

HARRY: To be truthful, it’s far from the greatest picture ever made, but Darryl F. Zanuck and the other people involved deserve a great deal of credit for attempting to truthfully portray a controversial subject, on the screen. I think the sociological implications of the motion picture itself far surpass any artistic shortcomings that the film may have.

MIKE: How do you feel about yourself as an actor?

HARRY: I feel I have a lot to learn. I’m very hopeful and anxious to learn. Speaking of “Island in the Sun,” I thought my performance in that picture left a great deal to be desired.

MIKE: It has been reported that you would rather act than sing. Is that true?

HARRY: No. It’s true that I wanted to become an actor before I became a singer. I like acting, and I want to be a good actor. But I’ll never give up singing. I really love it.

MIKE: Harry, Broadway is buzzing with rumors that you have half a dozen aces up your sleeve, careerwise. That you’re turning to composing, that you’re giving up nightclub appearances for making films, and so on. Now before we tackle those specific rumors, tell us: What’s wrong with your career the way it’s been going?

HARRY: There’s nothing wrong with the way my career’s been going. As a matter of fact, I’m more than gratified at the success that has been mine in the last couple of years. It is just that I feel an artist must expand creatively in order to stay alive. I want to get into other areas of endeavor—concerts, composing, acting, etc., because a performer who keeps doing the same things year after year, becomes stagnant and loses his perspective.

MIKE: But you must have some reservations about wanting to change, in any way at all, a career that earned you an estimated $350,000 last year. What is it you fear most about turning to a different path?

HARRY: I’m not really turning to a different path; I’m just expanding and broadening my present activities. What I fear most is mediocrity on any level. I feel when an artist does not present his audiences with something constructive and worthwhile that they can take away with them after listening to him, he should be afraid of his lack of longevity and the ability to be versatile and change with the progression of time.

MIKE: Back to one more new development in your career, Harry. We hear (from your agent) that you’re planning many fewer nightclub appearances, which have made you a small fortune, so that you can make more concert appearances. Is this move based on the theory that nightclub patrons come to drink and—incidentally—be entertained, while concert audiences come to listen?

HARRY: Not necessarily. I feel that many nightclub audiences come to be entertained and to listen. At times one cannot be done without the other. Actually, I find that more people can be reached in the concert medium and that younger people and those of limited economic means can see us—in a media where there are no high tariffs. The youth of this country is very important to any artist and traveling about the country gives you a real insight into what the people want.

MIKE: But isn’t it true, Harry, that you have a strict rule that nightclub waiters are not permitted to serve while you sing? Some people have called you pretentious on that score.

HARRY: The songs that I do vary in content and tempo so greatly, and the climate in a nightclub is such that the slightest distraction can ruin the dramatic effect of a number. At times it’s difficult enough to combat alcohol. I feel that it’s only fair to the audience and to the other artists that in an act of my type, service should be discontinued while we are working.

MIKE: Let’s talk a bit, Harry, about your singing. First of all, the production. You’re one of the few folk singers who doesn’t play his own guitar, but uses an accompanist. Why?

HARRY: When I first began as a folk singer, I had discovered that no one had ever really done dramatic interpretations of folk music. I found that our folk music was filled with dramatic fare that was easily adaptable to dramatic gestures, using your hand, face and entire body. This makes a song better visually and theatrically.

MIKE: You’ve been accused of playing up your personal magnetism with the open-necked shirts and the tight fit of your costumes. What about that?

HARRY: With the kind of songs I sing, about chain gangs and workmen, and all the basic cultures of the people, it would be a little pretentious and condescending of me to do these numbers wearing the usual tuxedo. I can’t find anything more simple than a shirt and a pair of pants! My collar is open, of course, because it’s more comfortable to sing that way. The fact that the shirt is well-cut and the trousers well-fit is only a comment on the need for correct costuming. I wear clothes of a better quality and fit now than I used to because I can afford them. But they’re not tight!

MIKE: Speaking of costumes, Harry, how did it happen that you were quoted as saying, “I’ll never wear one of those calypso straw hats,” when a picture of you was printed in which you wore one?

HARRY: The picture in a straw hat was taken two years ago, in costume in Los Angeles. That was a full year prior to the synthetic calypso craze, when everybody began to commercialize on straw hats and other calypso gadgets. It was when that happened that I made that remark, and I meant it. I still do.

MIKE: What about calypso music anyway? I’m sure a lot of listeners like the tricky rhythms and tunes. But at the same time, suspect that the lyrics are loaded with just as much double entendre as rock ’n’ roll. What about that, Harry?

HARRY: Real calypso music stems from a need of the people, who live in the islands, to communicate with each other. You might say it’s a living newspaper by which current events of importance are exploited to the fullest. Ethnic calypso music has a real, honest beat and a story to tell. The songs that are loaded with double entendre are synthetic calypso that are being turned out on a mass production level by the men of Tin Pan Alley. They have no real relation to and no understanding of calypso folk music as originated in the Islands.

MIKE: While we’re talking about rock ’n’ roll, what do you think of Elvis Presley, who seems to have stolen your theory of dramatic action, and with a vengeance?

HARRY (Laughing): No comment.

MIKE: You gave up straight pop tune singing back in 1950 when you were making good money at it—about $350 a week. Why?

HARRY: I found no personal satisfaction in singing the “June Moon Tunes.” I wanted to contribute something and I just felt I wasn’t doing it as a pop singer.

MIKE: Your press agent’s publicity release says you quit pop songs because you thought they were artistically shallow. Is that the way you’d characterize the singing of Crosby, Sinatra and Como?

HARRY: Definitely not. Crosby, Sinatra and Como are great artists. They can do to a pop tune what many others cannot. I certainly don’t consider pop composers like Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, etc., as artistically shallow. It’s just that some of the pop tunes being written nowadays aren’t even worth humming and will not, I think, stay popular.

MIKE: Let’s tackle some of the more serious problems of show business now, Harry. First of all, what would you think of a plan for all Negro entertainers to boycott the South until desegregation is completed?

HARRY: Im in favor of it. I have played the South before, during which period, however, I conferred with the leaders of the NAACP, who told me the best thing I could do at the time was to appear. I have since then, however, refused to play the South because of their disrespect for the edict handed down by our highest tribunal.

MIKE: Nat King Cole is the first Negro to get a regular network TV program. Do you think he’ll become the Jackie Robinson of TV?

HARRY: Yes, I would say that Nat could become the Jackie Robinson of television, and it is indeed a healthy sign that he is getting an opportunity to prove the only gauge for an artist should be his ability to entertain.

MIKE: How do you feel about your own title—“the first Negro matinee idol?”

HARRY: I don’t like it too much personally, but I think it’s more of a credit to the tempo of the times rather than to the individual man, because it is a gratifying thing that a Negro today can reach the level where he is called a matinee idol.

MIKE: You’ve often been called the most exciting male performer in show business. Who do you think are the three most exciting women in either Hollywood or Broadway?

HARRY: Marilyn Monroe, Lena Horne and Gina Lollobrigida.

MIKE: Harry, does success have any shortcomings, besides high taxes?

HARRY: I guess time to spend with your family, time to do the little things you like to do just for laughs, and the blessing of anonymity.

MIKE: If you were called upon to give a five-minute impromptu speech on something besides theater and music, what would you talk about?

HARRY: Youth, and the opportunity afforded to most young people of this country to make something of themselves. Of course, to be perfectly candid, this subject would lead into the question of equality on all levels.

MIKE: Some artists have strong feelings about performers participating in politics. Have you any hesitancy about expressing your political opinions, verbally or musically?

HARRY: No, I haven’t. Of course, I don’t think my political opinions should enter into my art when I’m performing as an artist, but in my function as a private citizen there’s no reason why I or any other member of the entertainment industry should not express his political beliefs and participate in politics if he or she is so inclined.

MIKE: If you were endowed with some power to make three major corrections in the world, what would they be?

HARRY: 1) I would eliminate prejudice as an area of evil. 2) I would provide for equal educational facilities for all qualified youngsters regardless of their economic bracket. 3) I guess everyone would like to end war forever.

MIKE: Thank you very much, Harry Belafonte.




1 Comment
  • graliontorile
    21 Haziran 2023

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

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