Debbie Allen, then appearing in "Raisin," was sitting in her dingy Broadway dressing room when the stage manager called, "Debbie Allen, get down here." At first she ignored him, muttering 'oh phooey.' An instant later he bellowed, "Debbie Allen, Josephine Baker wants to meet you."
Allen, as gazelle-like as any limber, 108-pound dancer, almost broke her leg running to the stage.
"I was gasping for breath, and there she was, so beautiful, such a spirit," Allen said yesterday at the Ellington School for the Arts.
"She put her hands, incredibly soft, on my face and said," and Allen, her torso stretched the width of the desk, throws her head back, the Left Bank franglaise gurgling at her throat, "'You, you should play me when I was young.' Girl, it was breathtaking, all I could say was 'yes' because she had touched so many people and she didn't even have television."
No, La Baker didn't have the tube, but her spiritual, spirited sister of this generation, Debbie Allen, does. Allen has received enthusistic reviews for "3 Girls 3," a series about a trio of unknowns who beat out the veterans for a television variety series. Before the pilot was aired last March, before the reviews with the fireworks phrases usually reserved for space flights and Broadway smashes, NBC decided to give the time slot to "CPO Sharkey." When the "Girls" bright formula clicked, NBC reshuffled the lineup and, so, tonight, three more episodes of "Girls" will begin (Channel 4, 9 p.m.).
In the hour-long show, Allen, who studied drama and dance at Howard University, and then taught at the Workships for Careers in the Arts, the nucleus for the Ellington School, not only kicks up her well-trained heels, but sings commendably, and delivers a strong, flippant comedy style: On the pilot she imitated Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Diana Ross. Tonight she sings, and dances, "The Music and the Mirror," from "A Chorus Line," and it's easy to think not only of a wide-eyed Baker, but a sweet-16ish Lena Horne or a smokey Dorothy Dandridge.
"I've been popping," says Allen, her fingers' action matching her words. "The television show wasn't THE BIG BREAK but it was one of many. And it was definitely the real thing, the auditions, the anxiety, the screaming over the phone and, then, Hollywood. There's danger of feeling you have made it, and of being intimidated. There I was, on the first show, tripping out in my Bob Macke gown, getting ready to do 'Sophisticated Lady.' Someone said 'Take One,' and the camera was on my face and I said, 'Oh Lord, this is it.' After that number I cried, I mean, I hollered, but I decided I couldn't cry every time, and I decided I was very comfortable with what I was doing."
Since Allen finished Howard six years ago, she has piled up some enviable credits; one month with the Broadway cast of "Purlie," then the road company, then "Raisin" (originally the chorus, then the role of Beneatha); then a flock of commercials - Excedrin, Pampers, Nice 'n Easy, Final Touch - and a feature role as J.J.'s addicted girl friend on a two-part episode of "Good Times."
For the next week Allen is in Washington filming a version of "Black Orpheus," choreographed by Mike Malone for public television. In August she will be back as Adelaide in the road show of "Guys and Dolls," at the Carter Barron Amphitheater. "I had auditioned for the Broadway version of 'Dolls,' but they told me I was too young. I didn't mind because a friend, Norma Donaldson, got the part, and because not everyone knows your rate of growth. So I turned to something else."
One of the many things that is going into Allen's formula for success, or, at least, her pattern of growth, is loyalty, continuing the associations that recognized her talent, helped develop it, and supported the ups and downs.
"I was lost in my first year at Howard. I did well in school, I grew up but I parties so much that I lost my focus," says Allen, who came to Howard to study the classics and anthropology but also wanted to dance. "I met Mike Malone at a party and he helped me organize myself. I appeared in one of his first shows, "The Music Man, at Burn Brae Dinner Theater."
Now Allen lives on the upper East Side in New York City with her husband, Win Wilford, director of artistic affairs and public relations at CBS Records. She was raised in Houston by active, community-minded parents who divorced early in her life but devote much time to their children. Her mother, Vivian Ayres, directs an arts center in Houston and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry in the early '50s. "She developed us individually. Even at an early age when people asked what my religion was I answered, 'I am a free mind.' She made us keep a diary, not on what we did, but what we thought."
If success accelerates, and Allen moves into films and records, as she plans, how will she cope with the notability? "By being a fool," and she laughs hard. "I'm an intelligent fool. I scream and holler but I'm sensitive, able to read people easily.I'm energetic and I don't have to psych myself for the next meeting. I'm up, happy, and I'm not intimidated."