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Leslie Uggums moves the Playhouse to Uptown Downtown

November 19, 2010

update! I have a handful of free tickets to see Leslie on Tuesday Nov. 23 at 8pm; Wednesday, Nov. 24 at 2pm or 8pm. Call 626-356-7529 or email: boxoffice@pasadenaplayhouse.org. BE SURE TO MENTION: Friends of Steve. TICKETS ARE FIRST-COME, FIRST-SERVED.

“My first gig was just acting, which is interesting,” says Uggums, now 67 and sitting in the library above the Pasadena Playhouse’s foyer. “When I was growing up in Philadelphia there were a lot of schools for singing and dancing and acting. My parents, in order to keep me off the street said, ‘Let her take all of those lessons!’” 

Uggums ventured to New York as a young woman and wound up at the Apollo Theatre. She only recently joined the theatre’s board of directors. “They saw me as a tap dancer who sings. And then the singing evolved more and more and I said ‘forget the tap dancing’ but I think of myself more as a singer than actor because I sing every day. But,” she quickly adds, “I studied acting with Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis, so the acting was not a fluke.” 

Alex Haley’s movie Roots brought Uggums, who portrayed Kizzy Reynolds, a heightened public awareness in 1977. “After Roots was shown I had so many people coming up to me saying they were so sorry, they never knew, and that’s the fault of our school system. There’s not enough history about what African Americans have contributed. And the only way you know that is you have to buy a book about African Americans and you would be stunned by the contributions that we have made in so many ways.” 

Roots, she says, got people to say “‘Oh, my goodness, I should know this history.’ I find a lot of young African Americans not learning about their own history themselves. It’s a new kind of generation and we’ve got all these new electronic kinds of things and kids’ minds are a whole different way – it’s all about Facebook and all that kind of stuff. But unfortunately the books in the school system are just so inadequate; it makes me so angry.” 

I mention Ted Lange’s recent play Let Freedom Ring at the Stella Adler Theatre, the second in his 3-part historical trilogy of African Americans in the United States. “That’s wonderful. The way to get people to learn sometimes is through entertainment, through theatre. Right now on Broadway, for example, is the Scottsboro Boys, telling about a thing that happened in history that a lot of people weren’t aware of. It’s very controversial, but that’s good. It gets people talking. That’s what Roots did – it got people talking.” 

Uggums’ first bout with racial discrimination came in the early 1950s. “I was on a contest kind of show called [big band leader] Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club. I was like 7. If you stayed on for five weeks you won a prize and the big prize was a Nash Rambler. I kept winning and winning and then the producer said something to me, but as a little girl I didn’t get it. I was on the stage in the fifth week and was going for the big prize.” 

What they had tried to tell Uggums was that the sponsors already had given a car to an African American tap dancing boy about ten weeks before. “And they didn’t want to give another car to an African American. So at that time they had the [volume] meters. I’m standing on stage and it’s between me and a trumpet player. At that time they put their hand over your head and the audience would respond. He had tied the meter so when it came to me I wouldn’t win. I just burst into tears. Of course, looking back, my parents didn’t drive.” 

It was her father, Uggums says, who gave her confidence. “He said to me ‘Yes you can. Always believe that: yes you can.’ I always had that attitude that when I walked into a room, I think, you lucky people, here I am!” She laughs. 

Uggums and husband, Graham Pratt

She has had her own television show and sung with most of the top vocalists of the past 40 years. As for the songs she includes in Uptown Downtown, Uggums believes they have evolved over the years. “Well, I’m more mature. I’ve lived. So the songs take on more maturity when I sing them. Some of the songs I sang years ago, when I talk about my career, the interpretation is different than when I originally did them.” 

While she loves the songbooks of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and others of the 1940s and ‘50s, she’s also attracted to some new writers. “I like some of Adam Guettel’s melodies and lyrics. I think he’s got a great tradition of writing for the theatre in a big scale. He did Floyd Collins, a wonderful show. I love the composers [Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens] who did Ragtime. I think they write great music.” 

She married Graham Pratt in 1965. He has gone on to manage her career; the couple has two children. After living in Trousdale Estates for 20 years, they relocated to New York, a place where Uggums can put on her walking shoes. “I walk down the street humming, always humming. Music is always in my head. I don’t have to be working on something – it just is for me. It always has been.”

Uptown Downtown opens Friday, November 19, 2010 at the Pasadena Playhouse and runs through December 12. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. One matinee on Wed Nov 24 at 2pm. Tickets or call 626-356-7529.

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