Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2020-05-27
About WCMG Publications News  Entertainment Features Donate Bars & Clubs Calendar Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage



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

facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

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.'

facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


Gay News

47th annual Non-Equity Jeff Awards postponed 2020-06-03 - June 3, 2020 — Chicago — The 2020 Non-Equity Jeff Awards program has been postponed. Originally scheduled as a virtual gathering for Monday, ...

Gay News

STREAMING THEATER REVIEW Improv House Party 2020-06-03 - Playwright: Second City ensemble. At: Second City online, at Tickets: Free. Runs through: June 13 All of Chicago's theaters, along ...

Gay News

THEATER Larry Kramer (1935-2020), polemicist and playwright 2020-05-30 - Larry Kramer was an angry man and he made sure people knew it. The language of his public discourse—the hundreds of articles he ...

Gay News

Jeff Awards Nominee Night cabaret concert online June 1 2020-05-29 - The Non-Equity Jeff Awards Nominee Night concert, a version of the annual event at Sidetrack to showcase Jeff Award nominees, will be broadcast ...

Gay News

Chita: A Legendary Celebration to stream May 29 2020-05-27 - Chita: A Legendary Celebration , Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS' one-night-only evening of song and dance celebrating the legendary Chita Rivera , returns this ...

Gay News

SHOWBIZ Rufus Wainwright, LGBTQ films, Billy Porter, Janelle Monae 2020-05-27 - Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright unveiled the latest single from his eagerly anticipated new pop album, Unfollow the Rules, a press release noted. "Alone ...

Gay News

THEATER Pride in Place Festival brings LGBTQ theater to stay-at-home audiences 2020-05-26 - The upheaval of the Stonewall riots had barely settled before the weekend preceding Independence Day was set aside to honor the right of ...

Gay News

BAMtheatre starting virtual classes 2020-05-26 - In response to the stay-at-home and social distancing orders implemented by the COVID-19 pandemic, BAMtheatre has reimagined its musical theatre-focused programming through a ...

Gay News

Steppenwolf names first woman Executive Director 2020-05-22 - Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced that Brooke Flanagan—who previously worked at Steppenwolf for seven years—will return to the organization in the role of executive ...

Gay News

STREAMING THEATER REVIEW To Master the Art 2020-05-22 - Playwright: William Brown and Doug Frew. At: TimeLine Theatre, streaming. Tickets:; $15-$25. Runs through: June 7 TimeLine Theatre commissioned To ...


Copyright © 2020 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG Publications News  Entertainment Features Donate Bars & Clubs Calendar Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Post an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.