By Leslie Simon
The Real Life Inspirations Behind the Characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical
Harlem in the 1930’s was filled with lively music, delectable soul food, and most of all- larger-than-life inhabitants that not only inspired people around the country, but also the characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical. We spoke with Gary Holmes, Co-Bookwriter and personal friend of J.C. Johnson to talk about the real-life inspirations behind these warm, funny characters.
Gary Holmes: I will tell you about the characters, but first, this: J.C. told me many stories about Harlem that helped form the whole structure and feel for the show, not just the characters. These range from the heavy presence of and respect for the church, to the idea of a successful businessman helping out others (this was VERY BIG in J.C.’s life). The church suppers, the ballrooms, the migration from the South, the Tree of Hope, the Renaissance Ballroom- all were parts of stories J.C. told me and I then did research further on…..
THE CHARACTERS: Well, I also got most of the characters and their names from the stories J.C. told me about folks he knew or worked with. I used them as jumping-off points for the stories told in the script, but never intended for them to be ‘documentary-style’ representations; more of an homage to J.C. and his world.
GEORGE – J.C. told me many stories about him and his best buddy, Fats Waller, with whom he co-wrote (sometimes with Andy Razaf, as well) over 50 songs, among them the famous “The Joint Is Jumpin.” J.C. was quiet and reserved, Fats was always the life of the party, and as J.C. put it, “Wherever Fats was, there was a party.” So, I tried to think of George as being halfway between Fats and J.C., a mix of fun, very gregarious and the thoughtful and reflective. Which, by the way, is how I always saw the whole show; a lot of fun, but also thoughtful and heartfelt.
By the way, George is named after George A. Whiting, who, while not a Harlem composer, was a great friend of J.C.’s and collaborator on dozens of songs, as well. J.C. (and J.C.’s wife, too) told me stories of Mr. Whiting and of his total intolerance of intolerance and how kind and true a friend he was to J.C. I did run through all of J.C.’s collaborator’s names, from Fats to Chick Webb, and not only was George a perfect name for that character, but it honors Mr. Whiting, as well.
BILLIE – Named in honor of Billie Holiday. The first song she sang (a whole story to that) was J.C.’s “Trav’lin All Alone.” However, the character’s story came from a lady named Pigfoot Mary, who was a street cart purveyor of boiled pigfeet. She came up from the South and eventually, through her entrepreneurship and good cooking, became a very rich lady, ultimately owning her own restaurant in Harlem. Pigfoot Mary, however, was a person from the 1910s into the 1920s.
It was my friend Micki Grant, who directed the first staged reading of TRAV’LIN at the York Theater in NYC that got us from pigfeet to fried pies. While directing the reading, she advised me on many aspects of Harlem and African American life that I would not be directly familiar with. Among the gentle suggestions she gave was that the whole idea of pigfeet being a street cart item, especially in the 1930s, was wrong. And a modern audience would not respond to them well. And that we should instead make them fried pies. Which we did – and it works extremely well, not only in a historical context but in fitting the idea into the script as a whole.
ARCHIE – Is based on J.C.’s own numbers runner (who may have been named Archie, but it could have been Eddie). J.C. described how he was a nice guy, just a neighborhood businessman, really. And how he would come by every Monday (I think) morning and how J.C. would be waiting for him. That the stage Archie is a scamp came from J.C.’s stories about the fighter Joe Louis, with whom J.C. had a great friendship.
Archie is a bit of a lady’s man, as very much was Mr. Louis, but not to the same extent. Archie is more of a flirt and a big talker, but far less real action. (TRAV’LIN is a 1930s style romantic musical comedy, after all!)
ROZ – Is modeled after Rose Morgan, a very well-known and successful hairdresser who worked her way up to owning the most successful hairdressing salon in Harlem. AND…she was also married – for a time – to JOE LOUIS! (The rough template for Archie!) However, Roz and Archie make out much better and happier than Rose and Joe did, so it’s just the basic set-up that I copied.
A side note: For a time, we tried to have Roz also be based on Madam C.J. Walker, who was a very successful businesswoman in the early 1900s in creating various hair straightening formulas (popular at the time) and fashion items. But it was dropped for two reasons – all of her success happened 20 years before the time frame of the show (so it was old hat) and also the whole “inventing a formula” sub-plot was slowing down the main love storylines. So, we stuck with Roz being the nascent shop owner and dropped the Madam Walker storyline.
NELSON – Started out theatrical life as Darryl (the name of a good friend of J.C.‘s, as I recall) – an insurance man. J.C. told me stories about buying weekly insurance from him; He would stop by J.C.’s apartment like clockwork. This storyline changed, as there was little development in what we could do with that character. So we created a new character, this one NOT based on J.C.’s stories, but for plot reasons had to be a “trav’lin man,” one who George could help along, and it would be good to tie him into the church. So the Bible salesman came to be. The name Nelson is to honor my own best buddy, Nelson, who passed in a car accident, and who was always helping with TRAV’LIN and anything else I needed help with. And it turns out the name “Nelson” fits the character perfectly.
ELLA – Is named in honor Ella Fitzgerald, three of whose first recorded songs were written by J.C. and who not only co-wrote a song with him, but also recorded several more. However, Ella started out her stage life very briefly as Alberta. This was in honor of Alberta Hunter, who also sang many J.C. Johnson songs. The whole idea of Ella going to nursing school comes from Ms. Hunter’s own later-in-life decision to give up singing and go to nursing school herself and in fact become a nurse for something like twenty-five years before going back into a much-heralded late-life return to the stage.