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Stormy Weather

By Emma Redmer

Rated: G

Disclaimer is on the Introduction page.

October 12th, 1943

"Hello, WENN, can I help you," asked a bored Gertie Reece over the copy of Photoplay she was reading.

"Yes," said a soft, velvety voice, "I'm here to see Mrs. Betty Sherwood about the singing job." Gertie looked up and into the large, deep brown, almost-black eyes of a tall, well-dressed woman. Her black hair was pulled back into a smooth pageboy under her large-brimmed hat. Her skin was a light shade of coffee and her lips were deep carmine. She carried a dripping black umbrella in one hand.

"Well," Gertie said, waving her hand in the general direction of the Studio, "Mr. and Mrs. Sherwood are holding auditions for Monogram Records' new musical show in Studio A while Mackie and Giselle perform 'The Masked Man' for both stations in Studio B. Maple is out sick with the flu. Victor's in Washington, getting briefed about something. Mr. Foley took his daughter Mary to nursery school."

The woman laughed. "Well, we can safely say that this is a full house." She put out her hand. "I'm Alice Martin, 'The Sweetest Songbird in Harlem', as the boys in the clubs there call me." She leaned closer to Gertie and whispered, "They call me a lot of other things, too, but I'm not at liberty to say what they are."

Gertie decided to steer the conversation toward a more neutral subject. She nodded at the umbrella. "That's quite a storm out there, huh, Miss Martin?"

"Mrs. Martin," she corrected. "Jake's overseas, in Sicily, last time I heard." She sighed and her face tightened. "I hope he's still there. He's in one of the black regiments. We used to have an act together until he enlisted." Her gaze found the five stars hanging on the door. "I see you have boys in the war, too."

Gertie sighed. "One of the blue ones is for Jeff Singer, the husband of one of the actresses who works here. The other three are for C.J McHugh, who used to work here and is now in the Navy and for Privates Chris Tracer and Josh Manley. They're in Italy, too, though the last anyone heard from them they were on the continent. The gold one is for Doug Thompson. He used to be our lawyer, but he died after Guadacanal."

Mrs. Martin looked truly concerned. "That's awful. I've lost two brothers, three cousins, and the husband of one of my friends to this war already. I'm worried about Jake, too. I just heard from him, but I know what Italy's like right now."

Hilary Booth entered at that moment and broke the mood of melancholia that held the two women. She toted two-month-old Ophelia Singer in one arm and her purse in the other. "Gertie, are Betty and Scott still..."

The woman recognized her. "Hey, you're Hilary Booth, the great actress! I was wondering what became of you when you gave up Broadway."

Hilary hadn't glowed so brightly since she'd given birth to her daughter. "Well, it's nice to see that someone in Pittsburgh recognizes natural talent. I didn't give up Broadway, you know. Broadway gave up me."

"And it's a darn shame that they did," Alice Martin proclaimed. "You were one of my idols, Miss Booth, when I was a little kid growing up in Harlem. You wouldn't believe some of the stories I heard about you and this director and that actor." Hilary's face darkened and Alice realized that she said something wrong. "Can I hold the little one?" the taller woman asked.

Hilary nodded. "Certainly. Her name is Ophelia Beatrice."

Alice nodded. "Oh, like that Shakespearean play about the prince and the ghost. I read that in high school. I was the only person in my family who ever made it to eighth grade, much less high school. I loved plays. I read everything. Oh, I got all that talk about 'a Negress should know her place', even from my black teachers. My mama wanted me to make something of myself, though. My brothers and my sisters didn't care the way I did. They were happy being no-nothings for the rest of their lives." Alice made silly faces at Ophelia and she burbled happily. "Jake and I plan on having a family when he comes back. I love kids. I don't have much of a choice about it. I'm the middle child in my family and I always seemed to get stuck baby-sitting my younger siblings."

"How many brothers and sisters do you...uh, did you have, Mrs. Martin?" Gertie asked.

"Well, I had five brothers and three sisters, not counting me," Alice explained. "My two youngest brothers aren't old enough to fight yet, but they're raring at the bit to go and serve their country."

Betty rushed out of Studio A and Alice handed Ophelia back to her mother. "Hilary, 'The Crimson Blade' is on in two minutes! Would you like the Irish colleen Eileen to suddenly develop a French accent?" She took the baby from Hilary and handed her a script. "I'll put Ophelia to bed. You just get on the air before Mackie and Giselle decide to let the Crimson Blade run for public office." Ophelia reached for her Aunt Betty as Hilary huffed and dashed into Studio A.

Alice chuckled. "Miss Booth's quite a character, isn't she?"

Betty nodded and walked into the green room to put the baby down for a nap. Ophelia fussed a bit and wouldn't let go of Betty at first, but Betty eventually placed the baby girl in her crib. Betty and Alice watched her as she dropped into a deep sleep. She turned to Alice, who stood in the doorway. "I didn't catch your name, Miss."

"Not Miss," Alice explained. "Mrs. Alice Martin. I'm here for the audition for the new musical program 'Times Square'."

Betty led her to Studio A. "Maple is out sick, I'm supposed to be staying off my feet, and Hilary and Giselle aren't very good singers," the writer told Alice. "We have enough male volunteers from the Pittsburgh Canteen, but we can't seem to find musically talented WACs and the guys can only imitate female voices for so long."

Alice laughed, but then became serious. "I need this job, Mrs. Sherwood. There's only two ways a woman of my race can prove herself, and I'd like to avoid the other way for as long as possible. I watched Mama serve whites for twenty years and I promised her and me that I would never have to make food and clean house for anyone other than my husband and my children."

Scott got up from the piano and limped over to Alice and Betty. Alice noticed how he heavily favored his right leg. He shook Alice's hand. "Hi, there. I'm Scott Sherwood. I'm usually the station manager with Betty, but today, I'm the pianist for the audition. Our regular organist is doing the kids' shows with the Staff."

Alice looked down at his leg as she handed him his music. "Did you get that bad leg in battle, Mr. Sherwood?"

Scott's face fell. He hated it when his leg was noticeable. "No, well, not exactly."

Betty steered Alice to the microphone and away from conversation about Scott's injury. She went into the control booth and listened to the tall, beautiful black woman perform.

Don't know why
There's no sun up in the sky
Stormy Weather
Since my man and I ain't together
Keeps rainin' all the time...

October 17th, 1943

Tess Bracken, WENN's publicity agent, looked at Betty and Scott like they'd both lost their minds. "Betty, you're crazy! This isn't going to work!"

Scott joined her at the green room table with a cup of Ingram's Coffee. "Aw, come on, Tess! Monogram Records is begging to see this wonderful new singer that we have under wraps here. I just got the ratings for that new show of theirs yesterday and they love her!"

Tess looked worried. "You don't know Archibald Baker. He's the kind of bigot who gives the word a bad name. He whole-heartedly supported the DAR's decision to not allow Marion Anderson to sing in Washington DC a few years ago, and he won't permit black artists of any kind to make recordings for Monogram. He once fired three women because he found out that they were blacks passing for white. He'll have this woman that you hired for breakfast and then eat the rest of you for lunch and maybe have me for desert. I can't hide her forever, you know."

The plump, greasy-looking man barged into the green room at the same time as Alice, who was waving around a script and didn't look thrilled. She looked even less thrilled to see the man. Tess wearily put her head in her hands. Betty jumped up as well as she could with her bulging stomach. She took his hand. "Hello, sir. Welcome to WENN and the W.E.N.N. I'm Mrs. Betty Sherwood."

The fat man took one look at her and burst out "Hello, Mrs. Sherwood. I'm Archibald Baker, but you can call me Arch." He nodded at Betty's obvious pregnancy. "Shouldn't a woman in your delicate condition be at home resting and making dinner and watching the kids?"

Scott got up at that moment. "Betty's the co-station manager of WENN with me, Mr. Baker. I'm her husband, Scott."

Alice cleared her throat. She ignored Arch for the moment and turned to Betty. "Betty, I want to talk to you about the maid, Hugette, you have me playing on 'The Lady and the Drifter'. I hate to tell you, Betty, but real black women don't talk like a five-year-old, they don't spend their lives scolding their lazy husbands, and they don't fall for every evasion trick in the book. My Jake was a hard-working, honest man. He taught me every dance step I know, and I taught him how to project his voice to the back balcony."

Arch eyed Alice. "Oh, it's you, Negress. I thought I told you and that husband of yours not to come within five miles of my wife or me or anything that Monogram Records was involved with. I don't want your kind to pollute my kind. You're no good. All of you're kind are no good. You're all a bunch of watermelon-eating, lazy, blacks! You ain't wanted around here."

Alice raised her eyes. "Pollute? I seem to remember reading in Time Magazine that you didn't make it out of the third grade and had to work in a factory to make the money to start Monogram Records. I had a high school and college education, and I worked for it. I worked so many greasy spoons in Harlem that I never want to see another hamburger or soda as long as I live. I have a husband that I love, just like you have a wife that you love. We both love music, Mr. Baker. You run a record company and I run an act. Isn't that what's important?"

Tess stood. "Mr. Baker, I had no idea that you and Mrs. Martin already met."

Arch sneered. "Oh, we met. She and her spouse came around, begging for a contract and a chance to prove themselves."

Alice became angry. "We weren't begging! We got an appointment with you and asked for you to hear us out, just like any other performers! Jake and I never beg."

Betty looked at her watch. "What's important is that Alice has to be on the air. 'Times Square' is on in five minutes!"

Arch gritted his teeth. "That...that...woman ain't gonna play Ruby Keeler on my program, and that's an order from your sponsor, Sherwood! And you," he turned to Tess, "don't let it get in the papers that a black woman appeared on my show. It would ruin my reputation."

Scott clenched his teeth and his fists. Betty went to restrain him as best she could. "Then Betty will play Alice's part," Scott hissed.

"I don't want a pregnant woman playing the part of a kid who's just come to the city to make a name for herself," Arch whined. "That wouldn't look right. Pregnant women have their place..."

"Like me, Arch?" asked a deep, feminine voice that didn't belong to Alice. A very large, middle-aged woman swathed in a deep brown mink coat entered the green room. Her belly was even larger than Betty's was.

Tess went to greet her. "Ethel," she said, smiling, "how are you?"

"I'm fine," she said. "The baby is due next month." She turned to her husband. "Arch, I heard this woman sing over the radio yesterday. She has a gorgeous voice. She could be the next Lena Horne, if you'd only give her a chance to show her stuff on record."

"But Ethel," he whined, "she's black."

"Maybe some of our customers will care, but there are many who are just as impressed by a pretty voice. She has talent, Arch. As co-head of Monogram Records, I won't let her slip away."

"But Ethel..."

"Don't 'But Ethel' me," she said. "I know that you believe that everything and everyone has its place." She put her arms around Alice. "This woman's place is with us. If we don't grab her now, some rival company will snatch her up and reap all the glory."

Alice grinned. "Thank you, Mrs. Baker." She nodded at Arch. "I have to be on the air right now. Little Polly Maynard can't get a part in Todd Merrick's newest extravaganza without a voice."

Tess took Alice's arm. "Alice, honey, have you ever considered hiring an agent? I know someone who does excellent work with talents that are small-time and big-voiced. Right, Scott and Betty?"

Scott and Betty beamed at each other. "It just so happens that we know someone who could help you too, right Scotty?"

Scott grinned. "Sure, Betty. Tess would be wonderful for your career, Alice. Look at what she does for us!"

"Yeah," Tess shot back, "if you people didn't have me, most of Pittsburgh wouldn't even be aware of your existence."

"Most of Pittsburgh still isn't aware of our existence," Scott muttered as Tess led Alice out of the green room.

"Mrs. Martin, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership."

This war won't last forever...

To be continued...

How is Hilary faring as a single mother? Is Jeff still alive? What is Victor being briefed about in Washington?

On the Edge of the Precipice Series

Go Back to On the Edge of the Precipice#14 - Stardust!
Go Back to On the Edge of the Precipice#12 - The Birth of a Singer!
Go Back to the On the Edge of the Precipice Introduction Page!
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