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Theater: The Life and Times of Alberta Hunter
by Rick Reed
2004-01-01

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Pictured: Alberta Hunter

Playwright: Marion J. Caffey At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd. Phone: (847) 673-6300 Runs through: Jan. 11

Direct from a successful run Off-Broadway at the Melting Pot Theatre, Northlight Theatre brings jazz and blues icon Alberta Hunter to life in Cookin' at the Cookery: The Life and Times of Alberta Hunter. Written and directed by Marion J. Caffey and starring Ernestine Jackson and Janice Lorraine (who reprise their roles from the critically acclaimed performance at San Diego Repertory), the musical began performances at Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie Dec. 10.

Biographers differ on the exact age Alberta Hunter was when she left her home in Memphis, Tenn., and headed north for Chicago, with the idea of helping her impoverished mother, but most will tell you she was only 11 years old (some say 15). Whether she was 11 or 15, Hunter was self-aware enough to know that her voice was a true gift and could be the key to making some real money. About the Windy City, Hunter recalled, 'I had heard that girls could make as much as $10 a week singing there.' In the early part of the 20th century, the young girl made her way north and began working in some of the seamier dives on the South Side of Chicago. At first, she could only find work washing dishes, but within a few years, Hunter was making money as a singer (and sending some back to her mother).

Initially, the only way she could get herself a chance on stage was convincing the manager of a South Side dive called Dago Frank's to let her sing for tips. She made her first public appearance singing a popular song of the day, 'Where the River Shannon Flows.' There, much of Hunter's first audiences were made up of white prostitutes and pimps. But Hunter charmed these less-than-savory characters with her voice and what must have been a non-judgmental attitude. About the prostitutes she encountered, Hunter said, 'These girls were so nice to me. They knew I was nothing but a child, and they taught me how to be a good girl, how not to become like them.'

Apparently, their lessons took, as Hunter continued to dedicate herself to making a living from a remarkable voice that helped open doors for Black singers in America in the early 1920s. The Bronzeville nightclubs in which Hunter performed (such as Hugh Hoskins, a bar notorious for having pickpockets as regulars) began to get noticed by people from downtown Chicago. Word of mouth spread about the young Black woman with the incredible voice and Hunter was on her way.

Although never confirmed, rumors that Hunter was a lesbian were persistent from early in her life. Circumstances may bear this out. Perhaps because of these rumors, Hunter married Willard Townsend in 1919, although the marriage was never consummated. The couple lived with Hunter's mother and divorced quickly. She has been reported to have had a long-term, volatile relationship with Lottie Taylor, with whom she shared lodging in New York and Europe. Their relationship ended when Lottie fell in love with another woman. Hunter had other such close 'friendships' early in her life. Much of Hunter's latter years, however, were focused on one woman: her mother, Miss Laura.

As crowds grew and followed Hunter from club to club, she began to find more respectable bookings. Clubs with names like the De Luxe and the Panama began to welcome Hunter, along with such luminaries (nowadays) as Mattie Hite, Ada Smith, and Florence Mills. Hunter's audiences at the Panama included Bert Williams and Al Jolson.

'I made $17.50 a week at the Panama Club, and that was big money in those days, but it was nothing compared to the tips … I was getting big, but I didn't really go to town until I hit the Dreamland.'

The Dreamland was the pinnacle of success for singers like Hunter in the 1920s. Hunter was known as the 'The Southside Sweetheart' and was making not only a name for herself, but helping to blaze a trail in the history of jazz. She was backed at Dreamland by the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. It was at this time that Hunter began to record her music in what would now be considered prehistoric studios. Like many of her contemporaries, Hunter went on to record many disks, but seldom saw much of the profit from them. Still, these early recordings were a large factor in helping put her on the musical map. Hunter said, 'You could hit a town you had never been to and find that people knew your songs and even your style.' And this in spite of the fact that airplay was an unheard of concept during the time and that recordings from Black artists faced serious racial inequality. For example, Mamie Smith's 'Harlem Blues' was renamed 'Crazy Blues' to remove the racial connection.

In 1927, Hunter embarked for Europe, where more racially enlightened audiences (especially in Paris) embraced her. Before long, Hunter found herself starring opposite Paul Robeson in the London production of Showboat. She was becoming an international star.

Her career spanned 30 more years, when Hunter—with a cabaret act with a white chorus—performed in hot nightspots from New York to Paris, and was seen in more exotic locales, such as Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. At the Casino de Paris, Hunter replaced Josephine Baker; she played in London at the Dorchester with Jack Jackson's orchestra; and her recordings became crossover hits, demonstrating how far the little girl who sang for prostitutes and pickpockets on Chicago's South Side had come.

Curiously enough, Hunter decided to retire from music in the latter 1950s. Even more curious, Hunter moved back to New York and embarked on a career as a licensed practical nurse, working for 20 years at a hospital on Roosevelt Island. When, in 1977, the hospital decided that Hunter was getting too old for her position (they thought she was 70; in reality she was 82), they forced her into retirement.

But Hunter wasn't finished yet. 'Bored to tears,' as she put it, she was talked into doing a guest run at The Cookery, a club in Greenwich Village. The run turned into an all-out hit, as the tireless Hunter performed six nights a week to capacity crowds for several years. During that time, she also managed to write and perform the score for a Robert Altman film, Remember My Name, and appeared on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, and the Dick Cavett Show, among many others. Hunter passed away in her Roosevelt Island apartment in 1984 at age 89, shortly after completing another national tour.

With material like this to work from, it would be hard for playwright Marion Caffey not to write something formidable when he sat down to pen Cookin' at the Cookery. Alberta Hunter was a blues and jazz legend, but always her own woman. In 1978, when asked why she turned down an invitation to perform at the White House, Hunter replied, 'Because it was my day off.'


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