Each night as "Ain't Misbehavin'," one of the many songs of a bygone Harlem in the hit revue, "Bubbling Brown Sugar," fills the National Theater, Charles "Honi" Coles doesn't have to strain to remember.
He was there. And when the song starts, Coles sees Fats Waller, the great jazz composer, bent over his piano, bouncing his portly figure as the melody flowed.
"I see his image. I remember 'Hot Chocolates', the enormously popular play with the song. All of the Ellington staff in the show I remember . . . I can hear 'Sophisticated Lady' done with three horns. Every night I hear Billie Holliday, when it's time for 'God Bless the Child,' and I remember . . ." and he goes on, settling his lean frame back in the chair, momentarily lost in thought.
Perhaps he's recalling the time he and Holliday, both slightly green, both a little nervous, performed at The Log Cabin, one of those now-lost names that made the Harlem of the 1930s renowend for its swinging night-spots. Coles, a robust, handsome man in his 60s, aas earned his own footnote in that history.
He's danced on top of pedestals and dice from the old Cotton Club to the old Howard Theater; he's perfromed with the Big Bands up and down the legendary chitlin' circuit, and done his stint in Europe, on Broadway, even in the television soaps. He was production manager and amateur-hour emcee for 16 years at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.
For Coles, therefore, the ultimate nostalgia trip is "Bubbling," the black musical revue that returned to the National Theater this week. "Each song is entirely familiar," says Coles. With Jay "Flash" Riley, another show-business veteran and an old friend, Coles plays the part of a guide down memory lane to 40 years of great names, moments and songs.
"In many ways, the 17 months Coles has spent on the road with "Bubbling" completes the extensive circle of his career. It represents a revival of the all-black productions, now done by choice and partly inspired by the profit margin, but the experience is an heir to the spirit of the black vaudeville circuit, enforced black by society's segregated laws.
"Vaudeville was a school because experience of not only watching the greats theaters of the day, the Lafayette, the Apollo, the Royal, the Lincoln, the Howard. Now legitimate theater is the only trai ing ground," says Coles, who spends his afternoons not only telling stories of the past but teaching tap dancing to the younger members of the east. It was shortly after the Apollo closed that Coles joined "Bubbling."
Just like the Palladium in London and the Palace on Broadway, an entertainer's name on the top of the Apollo marquee meant the seal of stardom. For the fans, going to the Apollo was similar to a day at Coney Island, a day of fun. It was also a place where generations lived their fantasies, waiting for Nancy Wilson to smile in the direciton of the second balcony, or Billy Eakstine, or later, Smokey Robinson.
"The performers approached it with fear, says Coles, who knew the audience's notorious candidness as performer and manager. "The Apollo audience was hightly critical and knowledgeable. They knew when the b.s. was being handed down. On stage I got along with the audience because I wasn't haughty, I didn't have an air," and he says , his husky voice very definitive, "I was also a good dancer."
When the Apollo closed in April 1976, mainly because of the spiraling entertainer's fees, Coles wasn't exactly heartbroken. "I was frustated. In recent years the younger rock acts had no respect for the theater, especialy the ones who were on the corner one night, then making $10,000 a night the next day. I learned how to Uncle Tom in those last years, how to rub people down. I hated myself, I had never been a Tom. I loved the theater."
So great was his attraction to the theater that Coles would sneak out of high school in Philadelphia and go down th the Pearl Theater and watch John Bubbles of the famous Buck and Bubbles dance team. At night he would dance on the corners, finally getting together with two other guys in a tap trio called The Miller Brothers.
"At that time there were so many great dancers - Tip, Tap and Toe, The Step Brothers - that you had to have a novelty. So we worked on pedestals 17 feet high and 18 inches wide," says Coles.
The pedestals got them from Philadelphia to New York.
It was 1932. And, as many have said and Coles again testified, Harlem was heaven. "It amazed me. It was so clean, the trees lined Seventh Avenue. In the evening no man walked down the street without a coat and tie. People were well-mannered," says Coles. Harlem was also a novelty for the whites, a playland for royalty, artists and gangsters. "It was part of the excitement. We didn't resent them at the time. We wanted the whites to come," says Coles.
The voguish aura of the black entertainer created some fierce competition among the acts. And Coles has his stories. "The big Band era gave me a lot of work. I loved working with Cab Calloway, it was rewarding. I also worked with Ellington and I admired the man but, well, let's day that his organization was loosely run," says Coles, who as a member of the The Lucky Seven Trio appeared with Ellington at the Cotton Club, a lavisn spot with a revue like the Zeigfled Follies.
"The Ellington thing was to take your music and substitute his. During one rehearsal I handed him my music and he was peeved because Will Vodrey, a great composer and arranger, had publicly criticized him for disregarding other people' music. He took mine and said, 'lts's get on with this (deleted) thing.
"On opening night we went through the first two numbers of the Lucky Seven. Then it was my turn, the number was 'I Love You Truly,' and he played it at a gallop. Sonny Greer leaned over and said 'Duke, it's too fast,' and Ellington replied, 'It's my band,' I called him a few names and he and I didn't speak for two years.
One of the most volatile performers of the era was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. "We got along splendidly, Bill was only extremely jealous if another dancer took his material," says Coles. "But I did cross his path one night. We were in a bar and I told him the Yankees were the worst team in baseball. He stormed out, got in a cab, left his car at the curb, and didn't speak to me for one year."
As he looks back, Coles is pleased that he eventually made up with all his temperamental associates, and he counts among his friends many of the personalities that left a vast imprint on American culture - Armstrong, Basie, Calloway and Walters are only a few.[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] but he does have one regret, And "Bubbling," with all its personal memories, brings it constantly to mind.
"What is so unfortunately is that so many of the great performers of that time didn't become known. The Lafayette Theater Players were as fine a group of Shakespearean actors as any. Or that people became known for the wrong thing, like Tim Moore, who played 'Kingfish' on Amos 'n Andy. People were doing absolutely sensational things, and the audience today doesn't know their names."