When my dad died, over 20 years ago, I remember thinking nothing would be the same again in my life. The first of my parents had passed on, I lost part of my world. When my mom followed 10 years later, I felt I had no core or "North Star" to be my base or guide. I obviously am not the only person to experience this, but I've been feeling a similar response to the transition of Harold Cromer this past weekend. He was the last male link I had to a certain era that has been long gone, an era of history and show business. I also realize that I have been so emotional for the past few days because Harold, like my father, grew up in a part of Manhattan called Hell's Kitchen and he had a particular New York City accent (I think most people would not have noticed) from long ago that my dad also had. So there were times when talking with him was like talking with my father.
Harold Cromer was the fifth African American male tap dancer who had an influence on my life and art. The first was a man whose name I only remember as Mr. Dow. He was my tap teacher at Mable Hart's Dance Studio in Harlem in the late 1950s, where I learned to tap dance in my late adolescence. I did it only as an activity, like some kids were doing in learning piano, and had no interest in doing it as a living but always loved it to see and do. Time went by and I went to college, studying TV production so I could direct variety shows (a popular TV genre in the 50s, 60s and 70s). I actually began college in Pre-Engineering, but that's another story. Now the thing is, I was a closeted performer who wanted to be near variety productions but fearful of being IN them. Well, eventually I did wind up performing mime (another long story) while working in TV and in my late 20s decided I wanted to get back to tap.
In the 70s I discovered Tony White and studying with him got me back to tapping. By this point, I had a knowledge of African American performance history and soaked up what Tony knew beyond just teaching steps. The third person was Charles "Cookie" Cook, who started teaching at a place called Clark Center. Tony was a mentor, but Cookie became even more of a mentor and introduced me to The Copasetics. So, in my 30s I got to perform tap with Cookie and others of his students in some shows we did. I also continued to soak up stories from Cookie as I had done with Tony. By the late 90s the man I got to know very well, more as a colleague than a mentor, was James "Buster" Brown. He was the one who really helped me gain confidence to be on the stage and really do my thing, which he also did for a whole bunch of people! It's during this time that I began to "get out there" and develop my style as a performer and entertainer, in my late 40s into my 50s. After Buster died, Harold took over the host job at the Swing 46 tap jam, that Buster had started, and this is where I got to know Harold.
Now, all of these guys had distinctive personalities and Harold, needless to say, had a real particular one. He could drive you nuts sometimes....or a lot of the time. He was adamant about a lot of things, often said exactly what was on his mind, without censorship, and would say it on and on and on! I admit there were times when I could handle but so much of "Harold time" and some of his humor, but the thing is he just had points and information that he felt really needed to be out there. Particularly in regard to the image, depiction, history and representation of African Americans. He knew a lot! So, the challenge would be to put up with him sometimes because there might be something worthwhile coming out of his outbursts. He had done a lot of things in show business and had seen a lot and a big reason I'm going to miss him is because I could come up with a name of an actor or performer that most people know nothing about (yeah, I'm a bit of a show biz geek/nerd when it comes to certain trivia) and Harold would not only know who I was talking about, but probably had personally known the person, too.
Some of us would often hang together in the Westway Diner on 9th Ave., which was convenient for Harold since he lived a block away at Manhattan Plaza. He always liked company and eventually a tradition developed of some of us tap folks gathering with him at Westway on New Years Day. Actually, it was usually just me, Toes Tiranoff, Megan Haungs and sometimes Traci Mann who would show up to be with Harold. That Westway "hang" thing, which began with Buster after Swing 46 sessions, was legendary in what would go on. We sometimes developed shows that we wound up doing at Cobi Narita's "Cobi's Place" while sitting at a table eating. One show we did included Harold and I singing Cole Porter's "Well, Did You Evah?", which came about from a conversation he and I had a Westway "session".
There are too many memories to try and relate here, plus I already may have run the risk of going on too long to hold your interest. I'll just mention one memory about the college where I teach, Bloomfield College. Harold came a few times to be a guest in my class, "African American Performance History", thanks to the assistance of Hillary-Marie Michael, who was always able to get him there. We usually had a good time during those visits, where we would talk and I'd show pictures and videos I have of him. In 2008, The College gave him an honorary doctorate and from then on he was Dr. Harold Cromer. He gave a speech at commencement that a few of my colleagues on the faculty still talk about as being inspirational and unforgettable, even though at the time I was very concerned would be too long! But Harold seemed truly moved to receive it and I'm happy that I had something to do with him getting it. In true Harold form, when he was given the degree and the Dean put the sash over his head, to go around his neck, he joked that for a moment he wasn't sure what was happening (alluding to lynching imagery). It was a great day, with a number of tap folks showing up for the occasion.
I just needed to write something to help process his passing. Many have been touched and affected by him and more information will be put out there about him. Below are some clips of and about "The Captain"
Harold with The Hoofers (Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde & Lon Chaney)
Harold rehearsing his choreography, "Opus 1"
Harold receiving honorary doctorate from Bloomfield College, 2008