MEMORIES OF SIDNEY POITIER – GARRY ARMSTRONG

When Sidney Poitier was shooting For the Love of Ivy in New York city — about 1968 when the movie would be opening — he had a nice little romance with Abby Lincoln in the title role. That movie was particularly enjoyable because Sidney was playing a regular guy, not a symbolic hero as he did in so many of his early films. It also allowed him some comic moments which he would use in later films as actor and director. 


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Leon Bibb, a popular folk singer was, back then, a frequent guest on the folk show I hosted at WVHC at Hofstra University (it was still a college then) in Hempstead, New York.

Leon Bibb became a friend. He lived in Queens (as did I) near Forest Hills. He invited me to join him for an evening at the Village Gate. The Gate was a popular folk and jazz club in Greenwich Village. He said he wanted me to meet some “friends”.

So, there we were at the Village Gate, the corner of Bleecker and Thompson — the heart of the village. Dark, smoky, noisy with a mix of folk and jazz. Live music!

I followed Bibb–on his heels–through the crowd. He says, “Garry, come over here and meet some of my friends.” Over to a corner section of the bar, people sipping drinks and laughing, That was when I saw Leon’s “friends.”  Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, and James Earl Jones and others. All I could do was blink. I blinked several times.

Leon pushed me over and did his introduction: “Hi, guys and girl, meet Garry Armstrong. He’s a friend who’s been kind enough to give me time on his radio show.”  I kept blinking, wide-eyed.

“Sidney,” he said, smiling widely, offering me his hand, “Hey, man. Be careful of this Bibb Dude. He’ll steal your show, your concepts and your money.” Grinning that broad wonderful smile, flashing dimples with laughter, Poitier shook my hand, winking at Bibb as everyone laughed loudly.

“Harry” stepped in front of Sidney and greets me. “Hello, Garry — good to meet you. Yes, be careful of Bibb. Say, what kind of stuff do you play?”

I mentioned some of the artists I frequently played like Odetta, Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, plus lots of Caribbean stuff because my folks were from the “Islands.” 

Which Islands?” Harry asked. 

I mentioned St. Thomas, Barbados, Antigua among others. “Harry” beamed. I told him I played some of his stuff like “Come back, Liza”, “Scarlet Ribbons”, and so on. 

He blinked at me “What? No “Day-O?”

I added, “One of my favorites is “Fifteen.” Harry blinked harder.  It wasn’t one of his popular hits. It was the love theme from his movie The World, The Flesh and The Devil which co-starred Robert Ryan and Inger Stevens. It was one of my favorite flicks but not well-known. I told Harry I’d seen the film several times and enjoyed its theme and purpose. He beamed and introduced me to Diahann Carroll who gave me a polite handshake and a wonderful smile which left my body doing strange things.

Next up was James Earl Jones whose greeting seemed to thunder through the music and chatter. The greetings segued into chatter between the celebrities as if I was a member of the group. I just listened, nodding occasionally and marveled at the notion I was in this gathering.

This went on for an hour or maybe more, with me actually sharing some stories about movies and music. I talked about Bright Road, an early 1950s MGM film that starred Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Also, Cry, the Beloved Country and noted my admiration of Canada Lee, the lead actor.  When I got into character parts done by little known actors of color, I had the spotlight.

I avoided the usual stuff and jabbered about the actor who was framed by Bette Davis in In This Our Lives. I noted that he played his part with subtlety and nuance. Harry was nodding vigorously, Diahann seemed impressed and James Earle smiled. Sidney? He had that Virgil Tibbs look on his face. This was years before In The Heat of the Night.

Sidney Poitier get the Oscar

I asked Sidney about the sets on the film he did with Gable and Yvonne DeCarlo (Band of Angels). Sidney’s role was equal to Gable’s. He was the freed slave who becomes the hero which let Gable escape the racist thugs who didn’t like Gable — who treated colored folks with actual respect. Sidney said Gable was pleasant enough but had been having trouble with his work (health issues). Sidney said Gable was open to sharing above the title billing credits with him, but Jack Warner balked at the notion, afraid of his Dixie audiences.

As I recall, the rest of the conversation centered on Caribbean food. I had fond  memories of fish and rice dishes, including a favorite dish called, “Foon-JEE.”

The celebs laughed when I recalled my most recent visit to the Islands, St. Thomas and Antigua (my Dad’s birthplace). I was treated as a “main-lander” even though my family and relatives were well known on the Islands. I apparently was also “shopped” as marriage material for some of my “cousins.”

This brought gales of laughter with Harry actually crying with laughter. Sidney just smiled and shook his head in mirth. I tried to sneak looks at Diahann who just gave me sweet smiles. All in all, an amiable evening. Bibb (who had a featured role) suggested to Sidney that I should get a visit to one of the “Abby” sets in NYC.  Sidney nodded but it never happened.

As we parted company, Sidney offered encouragement and a reminder to be myself, avoiding stereotype work. I smiled and said, “That’s very White of you.”  Sidney stared at me for a very long second and then burst into laughter. I was doing Sidney’s hand bits (twisting of palms) and he smiled, indicating my mimicry was okay. Hey, I did those hand bits before ever seeing Sidney. Maybe it’s an “island” thing. Quite an evening.

So I was thinking about Sidney for much of the day and didn’t know until late that Sidney Poitier died today. I must have known somehow.

Marilyn had a separate “meet” with Sidney. She met him in the Russian Tea Room during lunch but was too shy to talk to him.



Categories: Anecdote, Celebrities, Hollywood, In Memorium, Movies, Remembering - Memories

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23 replies

  1. Thanks for the memories… A wonderful share, Garry!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bette, thank you. There’s an “add” to the story.

      Leon Bibb called me several days after the memorable Village Gate Evening. He told me his “friends” liked me. Bibb also told me that Sidney Poitier commented on my chutzpah. Apparently a reference to my “That’s very white of you” remark to Mr. Poitier. My puckish sense of humor has followed me over the years. I’m glad ‘Sidney’ got it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do think you somehow knew. Great write up Garry πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cee, thank you.
      In my senior years, I marvel at the good fortune I had to meet so many of those legendary celebrities and “socialize” with them. My anecdotes are never meant as name-dropping but rather a remembrance of those times — usually dotted with funny moments (that’s the key) when young Garry spent time with legends.

      Sidney Poitier was very special – in so many ways. His impact is not diminished by his passing.

      Like

      • I never get the sense you are name dropping. I love how you tell stories of when you meant the legendary celebrities. Not many people I now have had the fortunate of meeting so many people. I like how you bring these people to life “off screen”.

        I have always adored adored Sidney Poitier. I am a huge fan of Kate Hepburn and naturally as a kid that is where I first saw Sidney Poitier and watched him over the years.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The first film I recall seeing Poitier was Lillies of the Field. I saw that one on TV and was mesmerized by the performance as were so many others. A few years later when I was going to the movies much more often I saw To Sir with Love. I was the right age teenager to understand it completely. Yes, it is a bit sappy at the end, but I loved it anyway. The theme song was on the radio all the time.
    I saw In The Heat Of The Night in the theater as most movies should be seen. Poitier was larger than life. I already had a taste of life in the south, but this film helped me understand it better. I never cared for the Carroll O’Conner sanitized version. Rod Steiger was a better southern sheriff.
    I had to see Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in the theater because I was a big Spencer Tracy fan. There were great performances by all. It’s a bit dated, but still true for some, I would guess.
    I saw many other films over the years. He was versatile and could do comedy as well as drama. Thanks for sharing the lovely story above.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Buck & the Preacher” was a movie that I didn’t like very much the first time I saw it — but it really grew on me. It was also fun watching the two best friends — Sid and Harry — take on the old west. If you see it on one of you streaming services, it’s worth watching. It’s got a lot of snap, crackle, and pop.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rich, thanks for sharing your views on the Poitier movies. I agree (as usual) with everything you’ve said.

      “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” – always a favorite here. Like you, I caught it in the movies. And, like you, I was there for the incredible trio of stars. Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier. I remember there was an undercurrent of criticism about Poitier’s “Dr. John Prentiss” as being too perfect – ‘what’s NOT to like about him – even if he is a black man who wants to marry a white woman — He’s SIDNEY POITIER, for heaven’s sake!” — That banter was heard from a number of critics who also reluctantly agreed it was an enjoyable old fashion rom-com with the updated social theme.

      Rich, I especially enjoyed the scene between father and son. Roy Glenn, Jr and Poitier. Dad is warning son about the hazards of the interracial marriage and it’s residual impact on folks. Finally, Sidney loses it and rages back at Dad that he is trying to burden him with the shackles of the past. Poitier is talking about the social divide between generations of Black families. Boy, THIS hit ME so hard. It felt very personal. I could definitely relate to the family squabble.

      I loved Tracy’s final monologue – his last hurrah. It always leaves me in tears.

      Sidney Poitier held his own with Tracy and Hepburn – no small feat.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. you are so lucky to have had these amazing experiences with these legends

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beth, YES! I keep pinching myself about all of these encounters with legends. Usually, they are sprinkled with laughter because of the social or “down” time I had with these folks.

      Sometimes, I think I go too far with my puckish sense of humor. But the words jumped out of my mouth before I could edit them. Imagine me saying to Sidney Poitier, “Thanks, that’s very White of you”.

      I’m so glad he got it and laughed. Heck, They all laughed!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was sad to read of Sidney Poitier’s death this morning although he reached a grand age. He was an actor that I admired a lot from the time I first saw him in “A Patch of Blue” when I was about 14.
    I haven’t seen everything that he appeared in but “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” are two favourite films. Of course, the latter had a brilliant cast. I also liked him a lot in “Sneakers”.
    I did think of you and wondered if you had met him so I really enjoyed this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tas, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed this story. I haven’t had the chance to read the myriad other Poitier appreciations that are pouring out today. They probably deal with his social and artistic achievements.
      What a wonderful life!

      My story is personal. Hopefully, it shows the warmth and congeniality of Mr. Poitier and his celebrity friends – to a 20 something young man who was lost in the stars that wonderful night – more than half a century ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. hi garry
    awesome that you got to meet sidney! So awesome!
    I bet you treasure the memory!
    xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m insanely jealous. Especially since I sort of had my chance, but I just could intrude. But I didn’t have (obviously) the right friends πŸ˜€

      Liked by 2 people

      • Marilyn, this one really is the WVHC/Hofstra College radio connection.
        If I hadn’t been doing “The Myth and the Music”, I wouldn’t have met Leon Bibb.
        If I hadn’t met Leon Bibb, I never would have receive the invite to meet Sidney Poitier and friends.

        Our old college radio station – the gift that just keeps giving.

        Like

    • Hi, Carol Anne.

      You betcha – I so treasure the memory. I’m immensely saddened by Sidney Poitier’s passing. But – in some form of serendipity – I shared my story, oblivious to his death. It made the day more bizarre for me with sad feelings about Poitier’s death and the joy of my recollection about our encounter over half a century ago.

      It’s hard to put into words, Carol Anne.

      I think there were (and are) lots of young men of color who wanted to be Sidney Poitier.
      It’s been said often. Sidney Poitier gave a generation of people like me — movie fans — a face and personality to recognize, admire and emulate.

      Carol Anne, I can still see myself on that long ago night, smiling and talking to Virgil Tibbs, Homer Schmidt and all of those indelible Poitier characters who were REAL. Truly, a night to remember.

      Like

  7. Absolutely wonderful memories Garry, right on the edge of a new era for black actors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ben. I thought of you immediately when I heard of “Sidney’s” passing. We are from the same era and appreciate all that Sidney Poitier meant to young men of color. Consciously and unconsciously, we tried to mimic Sidney the way other movie fans copied their Bogies, Gables, Waynes, etc. We finally had a star, a hero, a role model and, probably, a reluctant idol.

      Ben, I know there is a thin line between admiration and gushing purple prose.

      But he was SIDNEY, dammit.

      Like

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