Jeni Le Gon: The first black woman to sign for a major Hollywood studio

 

In 1987, America's Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame honoured an artist who should have gone further in Hollywood movies. They gave the tap dancer Jeni Le Gon their Oscar Micheaux Award, even though Hollywood in the 1930s hadn't taken full advantage of her musical talents. In 1935, Le Gon had become the first African American woman to sign a contract with a major studio (MGM), but she later reflected: "I never had a good working contract with MGM because they never really had anything for me to do."

Le Gon was born Jennie May Ligon in Georgia (according to the 1920 US Census) in 1916. She discovered on a visit to London in 1935-36 that she was descended from General Henry Beauchamp Lygon (1784-1863), the 4th Earl of Beauchamp, through her father, Hector Ligon, a "Geechie" from the Georgia Sea Islands.

After moving with her family to Chicago, Le Gon attended Mary Bruce's School of Dancing. At the age of 16, she embarked on a professional career after successfully auditioning for the chorus of the Count Basie Orchestra. After arriving in California in the mid-1930s, Le Gon's energetic and expert dancing skills were noticed by Earl Dancer, a black producer and talent scout. Dancer took Le Gon under his wing and he was instrumental in bringing her to the attention of various Hollywood studios.

She made her film debut in RKO Radio's Hooray for Love (1935), in a lively musical sequence in which she was teamed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Fats Waller. The trio's rendition of "I'm Livin' in a Great Big Way" was sensational and, after Hooray for Love, Fats Waller employed Le Gon as a vocalist and dancer with his band. Le Gon explained to his biographer, Alyn Shipton, how Waller helped to shape her stage act: "I danced like a boy – I did flips and knee drops and toe stands and all that sort of business so, when I had to sing after I'd danced, he gave me these cute little numbers so that I could talk-sing." In 1984, referring to her toe stands, and to Michael Jackson, Le Gon commented: "That Michael fella, they say he invented it. All the girls from my era did that."

Following her screen debut, the vivacious Le Gon was signed by MGM and paid the huge sum of $1,250 a week. They gave her a role in Broadway Melody of 1936 but, she said, "MGM hosted a party for the mayors of various cities and the cast of Broadway Melody of 1936 entertained them. Eleanor Powell, the famous tap dancer from Broadway, had also been signed for the movie and after I stopped the show on performance night at the mayors' party, MGM decided they couldn't have two tap dancers in the picture and I was dropped from the studio. If I had been white, they would have kept me because I could have developed into something, but they let me go. While I was at MGM I was told I wasn't allowed to eat in the main dining room. Here, they were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn't good enough to eat in their dining room. But Hollywood was no different to the rest of the country in that respect."

Le Gon was warmly received in Britain when she opened at London's Adelphi Theatre on 4 February 1936 in CB Cochran's revue Follow the Sun. Later that year, she was featured as a cabaret dancer in the British film Dishonour Bright. She said: "I experienced being a real person for the first time. On board the ship and in Europe I was referred to as Miss Le Gon and that had never happened to me before."

On her return to America, Le Gon combined occasional appearances in independently produced, black-cast films such as Double Deal (1938) and While Thousands Cheer (1940) with small roles in Hollywood. She played maids to Maria Montez in Arabian Nights (1942), Ann Miller in Easter Parade (1948) and Betty Hutton in Somebody Loves Me (1952). Tiring of maid roles, Le Gon faced humiliation in 1950 when she joined a group of black actors to call on Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. They raised their concerns about the stereotyping of black actors, but Reagan showed no interest: "We tried to get him to intervene for us, but he wasn't the least bit sympathetic. He didn't even lie about it."

After she quit Hollywood in 1953, Le Gon's interest in African and Caribbean music led to a serious study of percussion instruments. Eventually she formed a band and performed her own style of music, which she called Jazz Caribe. On a tour of Canada in 1969 she found herself in Vancouver and agreed to hold a few workshops during the two days she was there, "but the students began lining up before we had even rented space. In Vancouver, I found out I was a person. Period. I didn't have to worry about going somewhere and hearing somebody say, 'No, you can't come in.' That's one of the reasons I stayed in Canada."

Almost 50 years after Follow the Sun, Le Gon returned to London in 1985 with Toronto's Pelican Players Neighbourhood Theatre with whom she worked as a choreographer and dancer. Britain's Temba Theatre Company showcased Le Gon and the Pelican Players in a black performing arts festival at the Battersea Arts Centre and Edinburgh Festival. During her stay here, Le Gon made several guest appearances on BBC radio, including an edition of Start the Week, with fellow guests Kenneth Branagh and David Hockney.

After making a new life for herself in Vancouver, Le Gon did not make another appearance in America for 20 years, when she agreed to appear on stage with the legendary Nicholas Brothers in the revue Jazz Tap! (1989). She told a reporter: "I made a living as a tap dancer when I was a youngster. And now it looks like I'm going to be earning my living again at tap. It's come full circle." In 1999 the National Film Board of Canada released the documentary Jeni Le Gon: Living in a Great Big Way.

Jennie May Ligon (Jeni Le Gon), dancer: born Georgia 14 August 1916; married twice; died Vancouver 7 December 2012.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up