Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leslie Uggams "Quiet Legend"

Recently, I spotted Leslie Uggams on the UWS. Three men laughed heartily as she delighted them with an anecdote. She looked absolutely radiant! Later that day, I googled why the famed 68 year old actress-singer was in town and noticed that she was appearing as Fauna in Encores! Pipe Dream, hosting Amateur Night Broadway at the Apollo Theatre (where she became a Board member last year), and appearing in a staged adaptation of Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which will broadcast on public radio in September. 

I then began look back at Ms. Uggams' career, taking notes about the TV star, recording artist, cabaret performer and Broadway actress. After perusing site after site for hours, I noted highlights such as the following: 
  • At the young age of 6, Leslie Uggams made her show business debut playing Ethel Waters’ niece on the Beulah TV show. The little singer and mimic would become a hit on several shows and Ella Fitzgerald would called her the “greatest kid performer I’ve ever seen.”  By the age of nine, she had over 50 TV appearances under her belt. 
  • In May 1958, Ms. Uggams would appear on Name That Tune and win $25K, which she planned to use to help with college costs. While watching the show, A&R man Mitch Miller (instrumental in grooming Johnny Matthis' sound) discovered Ms. Uggams. She would sign a recording contract with Columbia Records and become a regular on Sing Along with Mitch (1961-1964) which was seen each week by more than 50 million Americans. She would get more fan mail than any other on the show. At the time, there were no black stars on recurring shows on TV. She would become one of the few teenagers to achieve fame without the help of rock and roll.
  • In 1969, Ms.Uggams would become the first African American woman to host a variety show on network TV. The show was unfortunately cancelled mid season by CBS due to low ratings;  Ms. Uggams felt that it was not given a chance and was “set up to bomb” from the start. However, she hoped that another network would pick up the groundbreaking Sugar Hill segment featured on the show. It would never be picked up but years later, Sammy Davis Jr would commend Uggams for paving the way for black situation comedies such as Good Times, and The Jeffersons.  
  • She would win a Tony award for her 1968 Broadway debut in Hallelujah Baby!, a show originally written for Lena Horne. Time Magazine would write "Apart from being lovely to look at, Uggams has a shy sly smile that burgles the theater house. She can cradle a song with her voice or rifle it toward the night sky like a tracer bullet. At 23, she is a Broadway find with a future."  She would go on to do seven other Broadway shows including replacing Patti LuPone in Anything Goes and starring in On Golden Pond with James Earl Jones. She would also perform in three Off Broadway shows and many national/regional shows including Guys and Dolls and biographical musicals about Ethel Waters and Lena Horne.  
  • She would perform in a slew of TV show and movies purposely staying away from roles depicting Blacks in a negative light. Her most notable - playing Kizzy in the historic 12 hour TV miniseries Roots based on Alex Haley's bestseller - sealed her a dramatic actress for the first time. She also starred in another miniseries Backstairs at the White House about a maid who served several US presidents, and Sizzle. She would earn an Emmy for Fantasy, a show about making the dreams of ordinary people come true.
  • She would play nights clubs and theaters in NYC, Las Vegas and other cities across the country and abroad (she met her husband playing Chequers Night Club in Sydney during her first Australia tour). Throughout her career, she would hold recording contracts with MGM, Columbia, Atlantic, and Dionne Warwick's Sonday Records.

As I ruminated on the information gathered on Ms. Uggams, I wondered why the NYC native was not more famous. With the exception of a not unusual bankruptcy from the 70s and marrying a white man from Australia in 1965 a time when it was uncommon for a black woman to cross the color barrier and Australia had a non-white immigration policy some quipped compared to South Africa’s Apartheid laws, there were no improprieties or scandals I could find. In fact, she remains married to that same man some 47 years later. Character-wise, she has been described as charming, mild mannered, winsome, personable, lovely, and wholesome. Talent-wise, she is absolutely amazing and received a lot of love from the audience at the recent Encores! Pipe Dream performance I attended.

I also wondered how (for this profile) could I possibly encapsulate the career of this amazing woman, who Sammy Davis Jr said "captured every phase of our business." Then I discovered there was no need to; the late Bob McCann had already done so in his profile of Ms. Uggams in the Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. He writes:
Leslie Uggams might be described as a quiet legend. She has gone about excelling in every aspect of the entertainment industry, she has broken her share of racial barriers, and she has an outstanding Tony Award-winning Broadway career. However, her generally low-key demeanor and her ability to make her extraordinary talent seem almost effortless is perhaps why this woman is a ‘quiet’ legend. But a legend she is.
I honestly could not have said it any better. 

Ms. Uggams just released a CD of her musical autobiography Uptown Downtown and she is scheduled to appear at the new Broadway nightclub 54 Below in November 2012.

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