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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Geoffrey Holder, 1930-2014

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 17, 2014

Geoffrey Holder outside Loew's Metropolitan Theater, Brooklyn, New York, April 1957

Geoffrey Holder outside Loew’s Metropolitan Theater, Brooklyn, New York, April 1957

Dancer, choreographer, painter, actor, bon vivant…I’m hardly the first to remark that Geoffrey Holder was a towering figure—literally and figuratively—in Trinidadian and American culture.  A year after coming to New York in 1953 with help from Agnes DeMille, Holder shot to Broadway fame as Baron Samedi in Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers, and soon he was the toast of the town’s smart set, the poster boy for an urbane, cosmopolitan version of Caribbean culture.

Holder danced in Aida at the Met and acted in an all-black production of Waiting for Godot, but some of his other projects, even in those early days, were more schtick than sophistiqué. During the Calypso Craze of 1957, for example, he played the title role in a TV adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp”; promotional tie-ins included a Glamour magazine photo spread and a 45 rpm single.  Somewhat more respectably, he let his name be attached to a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece that weighed in on “Manhattan Calypso” and its attendant craze (“That Fad From Trinidad,” 21 April 1957). At the same moment, he was doing his best to help producer Michael Myerberg cash in on the Calypso Craze, headlining “Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Calypso Festival” at Loew’s Metropolitan Theater in Brooklyn. The revue certainly looked good on paper: its cast of 60-plus included Maya Angelou, Lord Flea, Lord Kitchener (flown over specially from London), and a house band led by Tito Puente. It must have looked great in person, too. But pitted as a publicity stunt against a Jocko Henderson Rock ‘n’ Roll show at Loew’s State in Manhattan, it flopped badly, an early indicator that the calypso fad was fizzling. Once the show ended its run, Holder had nothing more to do with the commercialization of calypso.

The Carl Van Vechten Collection at Marquette University Library contains some two dozen portraits of Geoffrey Holder (alone and with other dancers) dating from the mid-1950s. The photos may be viewed online and downloaded, but they may not be reproduced without permission.

I interviewed Holder (badly) back in 1998 but have never transcribed our talk. One day I may swallow my pride and post some excerpts here. In the meantime I’ll remember him as he appears in son Leo’s account of his last hours, dancing his way into the afterlife.

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