About 11 years ago when I was an undergraduate at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, I took a film class that had a research component, where we had to research a topic and write a paper on that topic. At the time (well, and even now) I was over the moon about swing dancing and wanted to do my research on something swing dance and film related. My friend Dave Fillmore once told me about a documentary he saw on a film made in Greenville in the 1940’s that featured some of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and I knew that I wanted to dig into this topic and find out more.
How did a couple of Harlem Lindy Hoppers end up in a film made in a tobacco town in the 1940’s? Of course there’s a story. 🙂
In the years building up to the making of the film, Greenville saw a number of touring jazz musicians, who would hold big band dances in the tobacco warehouses nearby, including Louis Jordan, Lucky Millinder, Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, and Earl Hines. In addition to these national touring bands, there were local and regional big bands that would play dances – it seems that just about every larger town in North Carolina had their own band for dances: Jimmy Gunn from Charlotte, The Carolina Stompers from Wilson, the Blackhawks from Kinston, the Mud (if I noted this correctly) Stompers from Elizabeth City, the Rhythm Vets from Greensboro, and I’m sure there were others. There were other entertainers who traveled this circuit, including minstrel and variety shows. A favorite was Irving Miller’s Brown Skin Models from Harlem. All of this to say that Greenville had its share of jazz, dancing, and entertainment in the 1940’s.
The film is called “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” and it was made in 1947 by a man named John Warner who owned The Plaza Theater. The Plaza was located in the hub of the African-American community in Greenville, NC, an area called The Block. Warner, though a white man, was a part of the community around The Block, and fancied himself a filmmaker. He would shoot footage of people on The Block, local talent shows, and other local events, and would show these films at The Plaza Theater. It was a brilliant idea that kept people coming back to the theater, to see if they had made it into some of the local footage Warner shot.
Warner had bigger ideas about his filmmaking so he formed a corporation, Lord Warner Pictures, with his brother, William Lord, who worked on Broadway as a songwriter. Their first endeavor was a 30 minute documentary called “Greenville on Parade,” which was followed by the 1947 featurette, “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.”
“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” had a mostly local, all-African-American cast, including the stars of the film, Tom Foreman and Herman Forbes (incidentally, Herman Forbes went on to become the NC Teacher of the Year for 1975). Warner brought in a few ringers for his production, to round out the entertainment for his “backstage musical,” including some of Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels, chorus girl dancers, actress Evelyn Whorton, tap dancer Cleophus Lines, and a couple of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers named The Count and Harriet. The Count got his name because he loved to play Count Basie on the piano.
There is no direct information about how The Count and Harriet ended up in this film. The other performers had a connection and were specifically mentioned as performing as part of troupes that had performed in Greenville before. Did Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers come through Greenville to perform in earlier years? Or did other Harlem performers who had been through town recommend them? Did the theater patrons see films like Hellzapoppin and want something like that in their film? Or did William Lord know of them through his connections in New York? There are definitely still gaps in my research, but I like to think about the possibilities.
Also of note in this film is footage of local Greenville residents social dancing – you see some Lindy Hop and some solo dancing.
The soundtrack was written by William Lord and originally performed by Don Dunning’s Orchestra, but the original soundtrack had too many issues and was later overdubbed by the Rhythm Vets from Greensboro. I find it interesting that there were so many soundtrack issues, especially with Lindy Hop clips (Hellzapoppin’, A Day at the Races) – members of the Rhythm Vets noted that it was difficult to try to fit the music to the dancing in “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” post-production.
“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” premiered on January 28, 1948 at The Plaza Theater in Greenville, NC. It was a huge local and regional success, but never saw distribution outside of the South. Shortly after the premiere, Warner got into a disagreement with distributors and was blacklisted. Then, the African-American community boycotted the theater following an incident at The Plaza where the police arrested a disorderly patron, who was taken to the police station and beaten.
The Block faded, The Plaza closed, another theater named The Roxy opened and closed near The Block, and in 1975 some people using The Roxy building discovered one of the remaining reels for “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” The nitrate film was restored by the American Film Institute, and the film re-premiered in Greenville on February 8, 1986 with the living members of the cast and the Rhythm Vets in attendance. In 1988, the UNC Center for Public Television put together a documentary of the making of the film and the rediscovery of the film called “Boogie in Black and White.”
It has taken me a long time to get this information and video posted. I still had my research paper, but the copy of “Boogie in Black and White” I used belonged to ECU’s Joyner Library. A few years after I graduated I decided I wanted a copy of “Boogie in Black and White” and wrote to UNC-TV to try to obtain a copy. They wrote back that they could not locate any archived material on this program, but to call a number and speak with someone else. I called the UNC-TV number given to me and the person I spoke with said they had no idea what I was talking about.
I gave up on trying to obtain a copy until last year, when I thought about all the great Lindy Hop clips on YouTube and thought I’d search the Interwebs to see if any clips or information would come up on The Count and Harriet. The only hit was the Joyner Library archives at ECU. It was important to me that these clips survive because of my research, my love of dancing, and that this footage came from my home state and my mother’s home town.
I thought to email ECU professor Alex Albright, who was one of the people I interviewed for my paper, who was also a driving force behind the “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” restoration, conducted much of the research for the documentary, and wrote most of the content for the UNC-TV documentary. He was not surprised at UNC-TV’s response to my request and was as disappointed as I was at the possibility that this film might be forgotten. The only right he retained to the documentary was the right to make VHS copies of the documentary for a small fee. I was elated that I could finally, after 10 years, get my hands on a copy of this film. Dr. Albright also told me that Tom Whiteside, a technician at Duke University, still has a film copy of “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” so there’s still hope for the film beyond the VHS copies.
I hope you enjoy the clips I have posted and this bit of background information. I’d like to give special thanks to Alex Albright for his initial research, assistance with my research, and for the VHS tape of the film. Additional thanks to Chris Owens for converting the VHS tape to digital format. I’d also like to thank Bobby White for suggesting that there should be a post on this topic and for offering to do a story on this for his Swungover blog. I believe that there are many things already on his plate, so I decided to play swing archivist for the day.
(Edited to add that Norma Miller has identified that these are not Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers; however, Peter Loggins and Harri Heinilä have posed possible theories that could place them as Whitey’s. I suppose we shall stay tuned to find out the answer to the question – who are The Count and Harriet? To tune into the discussion visit the Jassdancer Facebook page)
(Edited again to add that Harri Heinilä found verification that The Count and Harriet were members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, or were at least trained by Herbert “Whitey” White: “Count & Harriet were former members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers according to Willie Jones, who was possibly one of the oldest members of the group…you can find that from Robert Crease’s Willie Jones interview, which was published in New York Swing Dance Society’s Footnotes in Spring 1990.” Both Peter and Harri are checking their sources for information on Southern tours that might place them in or near Greenville, NC)
***The sources listed below are from my research paper, which focused more on the local theaters and the climate that gave rise to the film, but are also relevant to the information in my post.
Albright, Alex. Personal interview, December 4, 2001.
Boogie in Black and White. Written by Alex Albright and directed by Susan Massengale. Videotape. UNC Center for Public Television, 1988.
John Warner Papers. East Carolina University Manuscript Collection. East Carolina University.
Kammerer, Roger. “The Movie Houses of Greenville: Part II.” Greenville Times, January 5-18, 1994.
McLawhorn, Melvin. Personal interview, December 7, 2001.
Pierce, Candace. Personal interview, November 30, 2001.
Shiver, Charles. Personal interview, December 9, 2001.
Windley, Gayle. Telephone interview, December 9, 2001.