“Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Black Beauties of Broadway!”
The roar of the crowd hit like a tidal wave.
Ray King, the head of our company, stood in the centre of the line. He nodded and, in unison, we bowed. More feverish applause and a few shouts of “Bravo” came before the curtain fell, cocooning us from noise.
“I’ll miss that,” I said to the crew member who operated the pulley.
He clapped me on the shoulder. “You darkies can’t half dance. The next season is nearly sold out.”
We were the oddities of the West End. All-black reviews were commonplace on Broadway, but we were the first to hit London. People had travelled from all over the country to get a look at us. They loved us, which made a change from the heckling we got back home in the States.
We split down the middle and ran offstage, ready to meet in the dressing room. A few stagehands patted me on the back as I dashed through.
I might have been fast, but the room had already descended into a hubbub of noise and activity by the time I made my way through showgirls pulling feathers from their hair and tap dancers ripping off their shoes and massaging their feet.
My chair sat right in the middle of this commotion, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I sat next to Dorothy Brady, who had scooted in behind me and flopped in her seat. A cloud of the powder she covered her body in to make it less shiny erupted around her.
I sat next to her, throwing my boater hat onto the makeup stand.
“We did it, Georgie. A whole season behind us,” she said, leaning forward and giving me a kiss on the cheek.
“We certainly did. They say we’re sold out for the next run. We’d better enjoy the rest. Now let me get this grease off my face. I need a drink.”
Dorothy wriggled out of her gold-sequinned dress. She had no qualms about standing there in just her bloomers and I had given up trying to stop her.
“Oh, don’t look like that, you prude,” she said with a mock scowl. “I know I ain’t got anything in here for you, sugar.”
I lit two cigarettes and handed her one. She took a long drag, exhaling and sending the smoke swirl up to the already-nicotine-stained ceiling.
“This might not be the Palladium, but I sure am going to miss it,” she decided.
“It’s only a month,” I said, checking my neck for that awful tidemark the relentless makeup left.
I nudged her and pointed to the dazzling array of lotions and potions she had on her station.
“Get a shift on. I’d like to get out of here before the cock crows.”
She groaned, throwing her cigarette into an ashtray before dutifully scrubbing at her face with one of her pieces of kit.
Three claps reverberated around the room and the din suddenly stopped. We all spun around to see our lord and master, Waldo Waddington, standing in the doorway. One of the middle-rank theatre impresarios of New York, he’d seen profit in dragging us to these shores. Luckily, he had a smile on his face. Everyone returned to clearing the last vestiges of the stage from them as he weaved his way through the wooden chairs.
“Well done, Alvin. The highest kick yet,” Waldo said in his trademark Brooklyn drawl. “Betsy, if you drop that hat one more time, I’ll fine you.”
He reached our station and clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Georgie, what can I say? Not a dry eye in the house.”
“And we know what that means,” Dorothy said and covered her face with her towel, scrubbing hard at the panstick.
“I’m glad to see you’re taking care of your looks, Dorothy,” said Waldo, circling like a portly shark. “They go and you go, my dear.”
He carried on walking through. Dorothy stuck her tongue out before towelling off her face.
Once he’d reached the stage door, he clapped again.
“Thank you for tonight, ladies and gentlemen. As you know, the theatre is going dark for a month. They can fix all those little problems you’ve been busting my ass about for the last six months. Peggy has your cheques at the stage door and your Uncle Waldo has put a little something extra in, seeing as he’s so kind and all.”
A ripple of excitement ran through the room.
“You have a few days to yourselves, then I want you here for Wednesday rehearsals.”
A mutter of disappointment replaced the excitement. He’d said the theatre was closing for a month.
“I thought we were getting some time off,” I whispered to Dorothy.
“Sounds like that miserable bastard has changed his mind.”
“We don’t need rehearsals. We do it every night,” piped up Ray King, mirroring our thoughts. Ray was a dancer from Minnesota who could Charleston as though there was no tomorrow.
Waldo whirled around and scowled at him. “And what trouble would you get into if I just gave you a month off? Wednesday without fail.”
Dorothy made a face at me. “Oh, Georgie. Looks like your adventure won’t happen now. Please come to the park with me instead. I don’t want to be stuck with these parakeets on my own.”
I opened my mouth to respond but shut it again immediately as Dorothy spritzed herself with the perfume she’d been obsessed with ever since we’d sneaked out of our digs and gone to the stores on Bond Street. We didn’t care that we hardly had any money—just to be able to go into the shops was enough. Sure, we got stared at. White people aren’t all that different, no matter what side of the pond.
Once the haze had cleared, I made a big deal of choking.
“You said you loved the smell of this Channel Five.”
I threw back my head and roared. “How many times? It’s Chanel Number Five.” I used my French accent for the last bit.
She sprayed in my direction.
“Georgie,” Waldo shouted across the room. “I’ll be waiting outside.”
All eyes were on me.
“Looks like you’re up.” Dorothy grimaced.
There went my gin and tonic in the theatre bar. I resumed getting the makeup off.
“So?” Dorothy continued. “The park would give you an excuse to get away early.”
I had toyed with the idea of telling her my plans or not.
“Keep a secret?” I asked.
“I’m going on my adventure whatever he says.”
She looked around in case any of the company were listening. People would use anything to dodge a night with Waldo.
“Are you crazy? Where are you going?”
“Remember that guy who I talked to the other week? The one who lived on the coast?”
She screwed her face up as she tried to remember. We were expected to entertain select patrons in the bar after a show and they did all tend to merge into one.
“The old guy in the wheelchair?”
“That’s the one. He told me about a place called Safe Haven in Brighton. Sounds like it’s right up my street.”
Dorothy put her hand on my thigh. “I don’t like it, Georgie. Waldo will be after you when he finds out.”
With most of the makeup off, I stared at the door that exited where Waldo’s car would be waiting.
“I guess I’ll have to be extra nice to him tonight then. It’ll only be for a week or so. He keeps us under lock and key.
Dorothy looked worried. “Don’t come crying to me when he puts you on the first boat home.”
I shrugged, getting my things together. “I thought we’d have more freedom coming to London. One trip to a store in three months? We could be anywhere. I want to see something.”
“Lucky you got another rave review tonight. Maybe he’ll go easy on his star.”
I winked at her and walked out of the dressing room. No one jeered or laughed. They would be relieved it wasn’t their turn.
As I walked out onto the rainy London street, the car waited in the alleyway. Henry leapt out and opened the door, smirking at me as I climbed in.
“Georgie,” Waldo said, his hand instantly falling onto my thigh. “Glad you’re free tonight.”
He loved to play the game that we had any choice in the matter. I think he actually believed we would choose to spend our time in his room.
Henry got into the front and the car zoomed off through the busy streets. I stared out of the window at the couples going for a late dinner or the gangs of friends out for a drink. To them, freedom came easily. It was taking me all my nerves to grab a tiny slice of it.
Waldo’s rooms were in the Empire Hotel near to our digs, but a world apart. A lounge full of red velvet furniture led through to a bedroom complete with four-poster bed.
The routine had become second nature. We all compared notes after one or the other had been “invited” up here.
I poured Waldo a bourbon on ice. I still got a kick that I could do that so openly. In the US, a black man wouldn’t be allowed in this room unless he were cleaning it. As for pouring drinks, I could end up in the slammer if someone saw in the window.
I handed him his drink and took a sip from my gin. He came over and pulled my jacket off my shoulders and massaged my arm.
“It’s been a while, Georgie.”
I tried to look petulant. “You’ve had Ray up here all week.”
Waldo kissed the top of my head. “Don’t get jealous.”
He walked over to the ruby-red velvet sofa and flopped his great body down. The furniture creaked in protest. I knew the feeling.
Patting the seat next to him, he kicked his shoes off. Dutifully I sat down next to him.
“There’ll be crowing in the Hen House tonight,” Waldo said, leaning back and closing his eyes.
Our digs were a small block of rooms a few streets away from the theatre. When we’d arrived, we’d been so excited that we were in the middle of London, but our faces had dropped when we’d seen Mr Bridge and Mr Mitchell, doormen at the “Hen House” as it was dubbed. We weren’t allowed out. Not without Waldo’s permission.
“I don’t want my investments damaged,” he’d proclaimed.
We were working most nights and slept into the morning, but the afternoons dragged. Dorothy and I smoked cigarettes in her room and listened to the people rushing by outside.
“Couldn’t you let us have just a week or two? We’ll be careful.”
Waldo opened his eyes. “The fuck I can. If you get run over by a trolley bus, where do I find a headliner negro with a New Orleans accent? No, Georgie. You’re way too precious.”
We were just a money-making venture to him.
“Now, why don’t you go run us a bath? I’ll be right in.”
I feigned a smile and downed my gin in one. The rest of the night’s performance stretched out in front of me…I’d need all my acting skills for this.
* * * *
Three hours later, I lay in his bed, staring at the clock on the wall, lit by the last embers of the fire. Waldo snored heavily next to me. I’d used every trick in the book to please him and get him off to sleep. He said I was the best at making him happy, but I happened to know he said that to everyone.
The clock chimed five o’clock. I had an hour to get to the station for the first train. I edged my way slowly out of the bed, taking care not to wake him. He snorted a bit and rolled over—my heart leapt into my mouth, but he resumed those revolting snores.
I quickly threw on my clothes and tiptoed out of the room. It would take me twenty minutes to get to the digs to get my case.
I could do this.