Kaiso No 29 November 6, 1999

Regrettably, it has been quite awhile since the last newsletter largely due to extended travel for work. I continue to do research recently on the early history of calypso.

This issue I want to offer a first report on the first and so far only calypso Broadway musical on Broadway, Caribbean Carnival, from 1947. It followed Katherine Dunham's 1945 show, Carib Song, which featured a book by Trinidadian author, William Archibald - but it is not clear if there were actually any calypsos in the production.

The United State interest in calypso was at a peak in 1947 after the popularity of the Andrews Sisters' Rum and Coca Cola and Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald's duet on Stone Cold Dead in the Market. While unsuccessful, Caribbean Carnival stands as an important milestone in calypso in the United States. This little known show was directed by Samuel Manning, one of the most important early calypso artists and featured Duke of Iron, one of the leading New York based calypso artists. His career is about to be better exposed as two full CDs are in the process of production and should be out in the spring from Jazz Oracle Records in Canada. Full details forthcoming. Meanwhile, this show is less than year after the Calypso at Midnight show with Duke of Iron, Lord Invader and MacBeth that Rounder Records just issued on two CDs and I'll be reviewing shortly.

Caribbean Carnival

Certainly the most important effort to mount a Broadway production of calypso music and dance was staged by Sam Manning and his then partner Adolph Thenstead in the fall of 1947. The production was clearly an expensive and lavish gamble from all reports, featured over 50 dancers and singers, and was reported had wonderful costumes. It was originally called Calypso, though its name was changed to Caribbean Carnival by the time it opened at the International Theatre in New York on December 5 and was billed as 'First Calypso Musical Ever Presented'.

It had brief runs in Philadelphia and then Boston prior to coming to Broadway and, after an overhauling, had only a short stay there. Initially, it was to open on November 28 but got delayed. A press release stated that the delay was "to enable Pearl Primus additional time to complete the new dance numbers she has originated for the musical show."  Published newspaper accounts suggested it a labor dispute that resulted in delays.

The 'plot' was minimal:

"The revue is threaded on a vague idea of a photographer [played by Pamela Ward, the only white performer in the show] trying to worm her way into a voodoo meeting in Trinidad. The first half of the show is a series of specialties leading up to the ceremony which is most of the second."
Manning and Thenstead had hired one of the leading dancers both to star in the production and to do the choreography. Pearl Primus (1919-1994) was born in Trinidad but had moved to the United States as a young child. She graduated from Hunter College in 1940 with a degree in biology and happened to take up dancing and quickly became a leading star having won a New Dance Group scholarship and worked with Beryl McBurnie's troupe starring in Antillana in 1942. She had a 'smash debut' with the New Dance Group, went on to applause in nightclubs before joining the Broadway revival of Showboat where she was a featured dancer as Sal and the Dahomey Queen before quitting. She was featured in Time a few months before this production where she was hailed as "one of the U.S.'s most spectacular dancers."  Also featured as a dancer was Claude Marchant who had danced with her in Showboat. Primus supervised the choreography. The one dance noted in the reviews for Primus in the show was as a Shango Woman in "Rockombay."  Primus went on to have a very important career in dance that has not been adequately documented or properly celebrated.

The show featured Duke of Iron, certainly the leading calypso singer in New York at the time. A review of the performance in Boston noted him to sing Stone Cold Dead in the Market, Ugly Woman and Matilda. It is not clear if these songs remained in the show after it moved to New York. The ad when the show went to Broadway noted the show featured the following new songs: Love Sweet Love, Pretty, Mirabella, The Mothers of Today and When You're Dead You Don't Know.

The other featured singer was Josephine Premice who at the time a young and up and coming singer and dancer. She had recently done a cross country tour with Josh White and had a sell out show at Carnegie Hall. Richard Watts of the New York Post who gave Caribbean Carnival one of its few positive reviews noted that the show had good points:

"Point one is Josephine Premice,, a fine, tall, delightful girl, who sings amusingly, engagingly and with distinction."
Premice sang Mannings's Ice Cream Brick but what other selections are unclear. She later would go on to have a successful career on Broadway, in television, recorded at least a couple calypso albums during the Calypso Craze of 1957 and was featured with Lena Horne in Jamaica, a Harold Arlen musical that premiered in the fall of 1957 with a definite calypso flavor.

Besides being the writer, composer and director of the show, Manning acted in Caribbean Carnival but to little affect. As one reporter noted he was "a tropical comedian with a droll delivery, but with no material."  The band for the show was led by Ken Macomber who also did the arrangements. Featured in the Broadway version was one of the leading calypso bands, Gregory Felix and his original Caribbean Calypso Band. A brother and sister team, the Smith Kids, also sang a few numbers in the show including the folk calypso Peas and Rice. The critics generally panned the show and in general preferring Marchant to Primus and Premice to Duke of Iron.

At the time, producers Manning and Thenstead were also running their own record company, Cyclone, which issued a few releases although so far I have been able to trace information on only one release on Cyclone by the Peters Sisters. It appears that both Caribbean Carnival and Cyclone Records were financially unsuccessful and nothing more is heard of either.

Thanks for the newspaper clippings that formed the primary basis for the above to Michael Eldridge, who is doing important research on the early history of calypso in the United States.

Complete back issues of the Kaiso newsletter can now be found on the web at the excellent on-line world music journal, Musical Traditions. If you missed any, check them out at: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/kaiso.htm

Keep those email messages and news coming to the cold and Frozen North.

Ray Funk - 6.11.99
POBox 72387, Fairbanks, AK 99707, rfunk@ptialaska.com

Part of Article MT044

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