Monday, May 10, 2010

Thank you, Lena Horne

This was the first news I heard when I turned on my computer this morning and I nearly dropped my coffee. Lena Horne was one of my first "crushes" as a boy (Angela Lansbury, Mary Tyler Moore were right there with her). My dad was a fan, and I remember being about 5 or 6 watching movies with him and thinking she was the loveliest thing I'd ever seen. Her voice, beautiful - was not particularly "bluesy" but rather elegant and perfect . . . as everything about her seemed to be.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I remember being shocked when about 13 or so I found out Lena Horne was black. Color simply didn't register with me through my childhood (being Latino didn't help), but it still surprised me. Then it finally made sense to me as to WHY she hadn't been in more movies - as well as the types of movies she had been in. After college, I decided to attend theatre school and enrolled in the (overly-named) National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. There, my dance instructor practically made it a requirement that each of us go to see Ms. Horne in her new show: Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music when it came to DC after she (and it) practically claimed Broadway as her own. I cannot speak for the rest , but I believe each one of us has still not fully recovered from that amazing event. As my teacher said, "it isn't just a concert, it is theatre, she is theatre."

The gods were with those of us in Washington those days, and Horne quickly fell in love with DC and its rich African American culture, moving from Manhattan and settling into an enormous apartment building on Columbia Ave. in Adams Morgan where several friends of mine also lived. Not often, but occasionally we would catch her somewhere around the neighborhood and though we wanted to respect her privacy, it was impossible NOT to notice this legendary beauty and her casual elegance, so sometimes you'd hear someone (usually one of us) shout out "We love you Lena!" and she'd turn around and smile and wave as though you'd been a lifelong friend she was thrilled to see. You would melt right on the spot haaving made contact with a legend, still electrifying - and still soooooooo beautiful.

What she endured through her early and middle years makes me embarrassed for our history and its horrible legacy of inequity to non-whites - our own caste-system. That amazing people like Lena Horne endured and struggled and not only survived, but played the game her way, commanding respect and admiration along the way should serve as inspiration to believe that truly ANYTHING is possible.

I can still feel the rush and the gooseflesh as she closed that show with "If you Believe (in yourself)" and the unexpected, amazing high notes she interpolated into the line, and how she couldn't even finish the song before literally every single person in that theatre rose up in tears and cheering that seemed to go on endlessly. She stood there before us beaming. We believed. Rest in peace and thank you, Lena Horne - for believing.

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