AFS Texas Documentary Tour
Heather MacDonald's 'Been Rich All My Life'
Been Rich All My Life is the spirit-lifting, toe-tapping tale of the Silver Belles, five former Apollo Theater and Cotton Club chorus dancers of the Harlem Renaissance era who, well, just gotta dance ... and, so, they still do, even though the youngest is 84 and the oldest was 96.ÊÊ
Sure, the taps had to go, removed from the shoes years ago "We don't want to be breakin' nothing; no tellin' how long it'll take to heal, so we've just sacrificed the noise for the muggin'," quips Marion Coles, one of the gals but, believe it, their muggin' more than makes up for any silence from below. For anyone who dreads going quietly into that dark night, Heather MacDonald's (Ballot Measure 9) film will cause you to rethink the inevitability of that scenario.ÊThe message here is if you've got a driving passion and the requisite sass, you'll survive the broken bones, pacemakers, even bouts with cancer. For the Silver Belles, the journey has been a Shim-Sham Shimmying blast, as we see from the archival Cotton Club footage of the Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, and Duke Ellington era of the Thirties and Forties and all that fabulous honky-tonk, big band, and bebop music.
Of course, the ride was not always bump-free. In the old Cotton Club days, where the show and the waiters were black and the audience white, the pay was pathetic. At one point, 16 mad-as-hell chorus girls unionized and shut down the Apollo, holding out until management agreed to pay more for their brutal schedules, including time spent in rehearsal. During the war, the girls went on the first black USO tour but remarkably still had to abide segregated facilities; even at Fort Bliss, the restaurant and restrooms were "whites only." Then, of course, there was the forced change in career directions at that time when chorus girls were no longer in vogue and employable.
While the Silver Belles were keen to have MacDonald make their film, there were production challenges. Mainly, MacDonald recalls, "dealing with six very strong, stubborn, independent, opinionated, fierce women, too long on the Earth to do anything they didn't feel like doing at that minute and who was to argue with that earned privilege? If you're 89 years old, and you don't feel like doing an interview on a particular day, it doesn't much matter that the crew is waiting, the equipment is rented, and the lights are set. There was no cajoling or convincing of my point of view. I had to respect all their wishes and give them that respect. And of course, this very same ferocity is what made them such great subjects."
The five Silver Belles have been performing together since 1985, but, sadly, their collective spunk and sass can only carry them so far. When Cleo is temporarily sidelined by a broken hip, she can move her feet to the beat in her wheelchair while the others simply "dance bigger to cover her space on stage," but, well, at some point, the music has to stop, as it does for the legendary Belles organizer and mentor, the 96-year-old Bertye Lou Wood. Still, it's hard to avoid the feeling, watching the hootin' and hollerin' at Bertye's memorial service, that even for her, this will entail anything but a short intermission.
Been Rich All My Life
Heather MacDonald in attendance
Wednesday, Dec. 13, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown