HAMPTON, Virginia – What do Betty White and Lena Horne have in common? I will answer the question, but please let me tell you a story first.
At the entrance to the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel between Hampton and Norfolk was a motel called Strawberry Banks. Though it was a motel, it was on the water, so it wasn’t one of those motels. It had a spectacular dining room that overlooked Hampton Roads, the home of N.O.B. Norfolk and the Atlantic Fleet. As they say, it had a view.
Strawberry Banks was much more than a motel; it was a waterside motel made in the image of a larger resort, and was owned by a Democratic state senator and run by the local Ferguson family. My friend Mary Kendall Ferguson White, whose uncle ran the place, liked to go there as a child and get Shirley Temples. It was that sort of Sunday lunch place.
Strawberry Banks, designed by Anthony F. Musolino, was named for the wild “strawberry banks” of Hampton Roads that early English settlers found; today the property is owned by Hampton University. I do not recall if the actual building is still there there. What I recall from it was that as a child, I would see the giant strawberry on the sign. The hotel was right at the toll plaza, and you often had to wait there. I remember, and I could have remembered wrongly, but I recall Lena Horne’s name on the sign, advertising upcoming performances. I think it was more than once, but not sure.
As a child in the 1970s, I didn’t know of Lena Horne’s legend. I just knew that she wasn’t the sort of artist I would hear on WGH, which was the top 40 station that played all the hits in the area. Lena Horne was out of fashion, she needed the work, and she found in smaller venues an appreciative audience who liked to have have a drink and listen to a pro sing the right songs, the right way.
She died the same week that Betty White pulled of a genius performance on Saturday Night Live.
So what’s the point? What’s the connection?
Talent. Mislaid, forgotten and overlooked talent. Older talent.
The video above is Lena Horne on Rosie O’Donnell’s show, talking about her 80th birthday benefit party for Save Our Singers. Said Horne, who talked of musicians who were past their prime and needed help: “I’ve known a whole lot of indigent singers.”
I see older actors who cannot find a role and I see the parallel between old stars, and old brands. Consumers still want the old brands, but companies do not know how to market or position them. And instead of it being the company’s fault, we blame changing fashions and youth culture.
In entertainment, we have country that obsessed with finding new talent. And thank goodness we find the new talent. But there is room for lots of types of talent. Ironically, it is the programs that embrace talent of all kinds that seem to be hits.
The Monday after Betty White’s performance, I was curious about whether I, as a 45-year-old fogey, was more a fan than, say, a 22-year-old. So I asked one. He said he had missed the show, but please not to tell him about the skits because he was waiting to go home and look at it himself. Everyone was talking about it.
Now, Betty White has been a smart performer, and she has had many different careers in her career. But what if someone hadn’t started the campaign on Facebook? What if there weren’t places for Lena Horne to have played in the 1970s? Yes, they both became classics, but it didn’t have to happen.
I think about it with many 1960s and 1970s singers and actors, who were well known in TV shows and Top 40, but now that they are in their AARP years, are finding it hard to find a role. Yes, thank goodness that voices like Keely Smith and Marilyn McCoo can find a gig at the wonderful Palm Beach hotel The Colony, but wouldn’t it be great to see them occasionally on the Tonight Show? How recently was Julie Andrews on The Tonight Show? The one performance she lists on her site is certainly over 10 years old.
And what of the artists I used to hear on WGH? Most of those artists are prisoners of their history. They are trotted out at those T. J. Lubinsky PBS fund-raising specials, and made to perform old songs. Yes, the artists are glad to have the work. And the fans are glad to see their old favorites. But what was exciting about seeing Betty White was that she was utilizing her talents to do something new. Would that T.J. and PBS took the idea to a new place, and began developing programming that was interested in these performers as more than museum artifacts, perhaps pairing them with younger artists.
This is not an essay written to beg programmers to book more old stars out of guilt. The point is that there is a large body of talented folk, aged 55 to 90, who have alot of skills, and could bring new life to the entertainment industry. And a most important point. A hint: these artists come cheap, and they work hard.
As tired as many of us are getting with American Idol, its genius is its respect for the body of work of older artists. Older artists are mentors, and no matter how tired they are, they are given respect, and share their talents with a new generation.
Editor’s Note: Lena Horne will be buried at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue.