Soaking up the sound, a movement comes from the side of the stage causing the audience to turn. Behold, a living treasure shuffles out from the wings and the audience gasps. Dressed in a stripped jacket, brown pants, and a well-worm hat, the stocky man moves in time with music down towards the audience.
It's him, Stumpy himself, Mr. Harold Cromer. He lifts his head and begins to sing.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. They say there's always magic in the air.
But when you're walking down the street and you ain't had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere.
Harold moves his feet around, creating the most intricate sounds and rhythms ever heard. Clear and crisp, you can tell he's had many years to perfect this art. He bends at the waist, balancing his body and watching as the taps come floating from his feet. Such talent, such history resides in those weathered tap shoes. They've danced across America on stages that we dreamers can only hope to grace someday. He pauses for a moment, the thud of the bass still resonating on stage. Harold turns towards the audience, looks out into the light, and beings his story.
Harold Cromer came to speak at OCU last night. This was a rare treat for our school as he is a treasure to the tap history of America. It was a great honor to sit in the presence of one who has experienced so much and was gracious enough to share it with our young generation. For the rest of the evening, I heard tales from this man about his life, his career, and the lessons he wanted to share.
Harold Cromer was born a twin in Hell's Kitchen in New York City. He was born to be a song and dance man, destined to be one of the greats. His first introduction to tap came from none other than Mr. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. As a child, he watched Bojangles perform his world renowned staircase act, a dance sequence most would recognize from The Little Colonel, starring Shirley Temple.
Harold was captivated by the incredible sight of this staircase routine. He decided right then and there he had to learn how to dance. With a pair of roller skates strapped to his shoes, Harold began to teach himself how to tap. His first big success came from winning first prize at a local dance competition. The winnings? A bag full of groceries he brought back to his mother to feed their large family of ten.
Throughout the rest of the discussion, Harold entertained the audience with his animated face and colorful stories. He's seen a lot in life and it's shown in his heartfelt discussions on tap and life as an African American performer. From dancing on Broadway to vaudeville circuits, from Vegas shows to mopping up stage floors, Harold has seen it all. He's performed with such stars as Ethel Merman and Betty Grable. He headlined with musicians like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. Harold took part in the rising age of Rock and Roll by working with such stars as Buddy Holly, Paul Anka, and Marvin Gaye. The man has truly moved through the changing times of entertainment.
However, he is probably most noted for his comedic act with partner James "Stump" Cross as Stump and Stumpy. The two men partnered together in 1948 and performed with several of Duke Ellington's shows including Jump for Joy and This is the Army. Their Stump and Stumpy act is right up there with other famous tap acts like Buck and Bubbles and Chuck and Chuckles.
Fifteen years ago, the Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Arts Management honored Harold with a Living Treasure in American Dance Award. This award was started by Department Chair Jo Rowan and Dean John Bedford as a way of honoring the American living legends of the entertainment world. Over forty-seven of these awards have been given to treasures such as Deborah Mitchell, Honi Coles, Arthur Duncan Gus Giordano, and many more.
Unfortunately, when Harold was to receive this honor, he was stuck in Minneapolis, MN due to a snow storm. An arrangement was made so that Harold would receive the award during his run of Babes in Arms from his co-star, Kristin Chenoweth. The man was touched by this recognition and expressed his sincere gratitude last night during his lecture. As a parting gift, Jo Rowan asked that Harold please perform Mr. Bojangles for the audience. Even without a pianist, who never showed for the rehearsal, Harold agreed to this request.
Words can only say so much and I could never write exactly what it was like to watch this man perform this final number. This song represents many performers who's passion for dance has never gone out though their bodies may have. He shuffled across the stage and sang with all his heart, giving the audience a piece of it, too.
I knew man, Bojangles, and he'd dance for you
In worn out shoes.
With silver hair, a ragged shirt, and baggy pants
The old soft shoe.
He'd jump so high, he'd jump so high
Then he'd lightly touch down.
While singing, he reached into his left breast pocket that held a red handkerchief and pulled out a silver harmonica. He put his lips to the instrument, closed his eyes, and began to play. The sweetest sound you've ever heard filled the theater. There was so much feeling in notes that rang out. A story was told in the way he titled his head back and played. Even as he swayed, feeling the rhythm and letting the song soak up inside his soul, the music carried across the stage and reached out to the people. Everything about this moment expressed his journey, his life, and his work. The audience watched, captivated by the intense emotion and undeniable talent of this man.
The crowd jumped to their feet with a thunderous applause and I gently wipped a tear from my cheek. I have never been more moved by a single performer than I was by the authentic dancing man that stood in front of me.
Before he lef the stage, Harold had one more treasure to share, the Shim-Sham Shimmy. The Shim Sham is a tap step that has been performed since the 1900's and is a well known step in the tap dance world. What a perfect way to end the evening, seeing this tap legend bust loose with such a time standing, classic piece.
Leaving the theater last night, I took the memory of a remarkable experience in watching history move and speak intimately with a group of strangers. He spoke of finding his passion, working through the struggles, the joy of his triumphs, and the sorrow of his let downs. He shared his ultimate life secret that I hope you will carry, too. The struggles we experience, we need in life. "Dancing," he said, "will keep you alive."
Information was collected from a live lecture with Harold Cromer, the American Tap Dance Foundation, Youtube, Washington DC Jazz Network, and Jacob's Pillow Dance web sites. For citation, please contact me.