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.
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.
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.