Recent news suggests that he did not die naturally of congestive heart failure stemming from pneumonia but that he was murdered. I know little about these reports, but they made me think back to all the times I had loved seeing him on TV and that I became excited because he was coming to the RKO Albee Theater, just a few blocks from my apartment.

The RKO Albee was one of those grand vaudeville/movie theaters built in the 1920s. It was said to be the second largest theater in New York City after Radio City Music Hall. The Albee, by the time I made it there, was in serious decline. It was situated in downtown Brooklyn that once had many similar theaters, but neither the Brooklyn neighborhood nor large movie houses remained fashionable. The grandeur that had once been in the Albee was there, but seeing it took some faith and imagination, except for the bathrooms which were still magnificent.

Going to a movie there, however, was a bit creepy not only because of the auditorium’s deterioration, but also because of the size of the place. It is only a guess, but the theater held three or four thousand, and the first time I went there, for Diary of a Mad Housewife (who remembers Carrie Snodgrass? Richard Benjamin?), no more than a hundred of us attended. These numbers added up to a lot of empty seats, and an eerie feeling. (Diary remains in my mind not because I remember much about the movie, but because it was my first exposure to people talking back to the movie screen. With the size of the audience, it was easy to hear all the words of those who conversed with the on-screen characters.)

Now, however, it was not a movie coming to the RKO Albee, but James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.  The Godfather of Soul. Mr. Dynamite.

The spouse and I got tickets.  Good seats. Fourteenth row, just a little right of center. This time we did not feel as if we were alone in the Albee. I could not see an empty seat. We had a great view of the stage for the opening act, a comedian (perhaps, but I am not sure, Clay Tyson). The audience made it clear that it wanted him off the stage and James Brown on. I could only feel sorry for the comedian, and the clamor was made worse when James Brown with an entourage came down the side aisle. (Huh? The Albee did not have a stage door? Didn’t seem likely. Oh, you think that this was a ploy to whip up the crowd?)

Finally, the warmup was over, and there he was! Our good seats started to be less desirable.  Not because anything happened to them, but because it seemed as if everybody who had been behind us left their seat and rushed towards the stage. Still we could see, but then all those seated in front of us stood up. Now to see we, too, had to stand, which we did. But then those in front of us stood on their seats so we had to stand on our seats. And finally, those in front of us stood on the arms of their seats, and soon, feeling precarious, we, too, were standing on the arms. And we saw a great show.

As we were leaving and I saw the crowd heading towards the exits, it hit me then that besides the spouse, I was not seeing another white person. I had not been uncomfortable before, but this realization made me a bit uneasy. Would all those thousands of black faces think there was something wrong with whites going to see James Brown? There was no reason to think so. The crowd was noisy and excited, but everybody was as polite as you could be in a crowd that size. But still, we seemed to be the only whites. Wasn’t there a good chance something bad might happen to us? At least this white had not confronted this situation before—one that many blacks no doubt had faced—of being the only one of his race in the place.

The Duffield theater was only a few blocks from the RKO Albee, but it had never been a palace, only a neighborhood movie house. It was there we saw The Great White Hope, with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. (I have had the privilege of seeing Jones on the stage a number of times, but from years ago the most memorable performances were Fences and Othello, the latter in a production with Christopher Plummer, Dianne Wiest, and, in a much smaller part, Kelsey Grammer.) The Great White Hope is the fictionalized account of the black boxer Jack Johnson. Once again, we seemed to be the only whites in the theater, but this time during the performance we were acutely aware of that. In the James Brown concert, our reactions were not much different from the rest of the audience, but that was not true at this movie. In this story about an extraordinary man’s confrontation with race and racism, there was a scene with a country preacher encouraging Johnson to prayer. The spouse and I were moved, but, to our surprise, the scene brought derisive laughter from around us, the kind of laughter reserved for an Uncle Tom. I was acutely aware that I had not experienced what others in the audience had, and as we left the theater, I did wonder if all those other exiting people were wondering what that white couple was doing there.

(concluded February 27)

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