I just simply love this video. I read a lot of vintage/historical web forums in my free time- you could say I’m obsessed with Music, Film, Fashions and Culture from between the two World Wars. I guess I’m just infatuated with history generally, and was lucky enough to run across this short film in a forum. In it, a former African-American chorus girl from the 1930s and 1940s gets to see archival footage of herself dancing in three different historical Jazz Era films. After watching herself so many years later, she says, “Making me wish I could get out of this bed, and do it all over again!”
Born in Chicago in the year 1912, Alice Barker, picked up stakes and moved to New York when she was in her twenties to be a dancer. And dance she did, becoming a professional chorus girl during the Harlem Renaissance and performing at such famous nightspots as the Cotton Club, The Apollo and the Zanzibar Club, as well as on Broadway. She performed alongside such legendary entertainers as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Throughout her professional career, she appeared in theater shows, films, commercials and TV spots- when interviewed it seems that they were too numerous to even count. Unfortunately, unlike in todays world where we can access every classic TV rerun on demand, Alice never got see to her old film clips again, and lots of her old memorabilia was lost as she aged and went into full-time care. It was only until some academic jazz archivists were able to track her down to a nursing home in NYC at the ripe old age of 102 that she was able to see this old footage of herself. At this point, Alice was probably the only living link to this lost world and all the memories of how it really was.
What’s also great about this video is that it went somewhat viral- looks like its had over 16 Million hits on Youtube, making Alice an unexpected minor celebrity in her final years. According to her website, she was even able to reconnect with some old colleagues, friends and their children whom she had lost track of over the years. The fan mail she received from people inspired by her story gave her newfound enthusiasm and joy in her life. On her 103rd birthday, a troupe of dancers from Harlem even came to her home and performed for her and the other residents, I think that’s just fantastic.
And I love Alice’s reaction around the 5:50 mark as she exclaims, “It’s just fabulous!” And the childlike excitement that washes over her as recalls all those old memories from 70 years earlier. “I used to often say to myself, I am being paid to do something that I enjoy doing and I would do it for free. Because it just felt so good doing it. Because that music, I would just get carried away in it”
She goes on to tell a story of her one of her earliest childhood memories, “My mother told me, she was getting ready to bathe me. And on the corner there was a band playing. She had forgotten something, and she went back into the house to get it. And when she came out, I was gone. And I was down there naked! Just going, dancing. And I can see me, down there, naked, just dancing. And then, if the band would stop playing, I’d look at ’em and: ‘come on, lets get it going- let’s get it going here!'”
The Power of Music: how it holds it sway over us, marking our earliest memories, the most important moments, our most vivid emotions. Maybe that’s how we all are: we come into this world tiny, naked and enthusiastic, just dancing to the music. Guess some of us just get to dance to it more and for longer than others. We start off young, beautiful and beaming, but eventually all of us lose the energy, sexiness and youth we once had. And Alice was most definitely a hottie back in the day!
Alice Barker passed away in April, 2016 at the age of 103, spending her last day on Earth in good cheer, listening to her favorite tunes and having her caretaker read her fan mail. Alice even gave her a wink as she left for the day. I hope I get to live as long as Mrs. Alice, and if not as long, at least as joyously and with clarity of mind. Time is indeed a thief. Rest In Peace Mrs. Alice Barker: keep on dancing in that great chorus line in sky…
If you live to be 100, how will you look back on your life? And is there anything you could be paid to do that you would do for free anyway?