Jester Hairston, nearly 80 and still going strong, leans back for a minute and reflects on the unusual career that has brought him to conduct the Youth Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center.
"I have run naked through more Tarzan films than I care to remember, wearing a ring in my nose and yelling 'bwana,'" muses the quiet, scholarly old man, and a brilliant smile gleams for a moment in his mobile face.
The Tarzan bit was better than starving, he recalls. Other jobs that were better than starving for his Juilliard graduate included vaudeville, writing songs for Phil Harris, conducting choruses in Hollywood soundtracks, teaching music on three continents, supporting roles in "Amos 'n' Andy" and playing the butler in a lot of movies.
"I remember once many years ago auditioning for a butler role at MGM, and the director asked me what kind of education I had. To walk in with a tray of glasses, you had to be a Phi Beta Kappa," Hairston says. "On radio, the problem was the opposite. To get radio jobs, I had to lose my Boston accent and learn to say 'yassuh.'"
Hairston is in town for the International Youth Choral Festival this week at the Kennedy Center. In the festival's final concert tomorrow night, he will conduct a combined chorus including the D.C. Youth Chorale and visiting groups from Ireland, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Argentina, Canada and North Carolina in a program of spirituals and some of his own compositions.
Most people who have earned degrees in music town Tufts and Juilliard enjoy less diversity in their careers than Jester Hairston, who restricts himself to choral teaching and conducting these days, and says a little bit busier than he wants to be.
He began as a musician, and was the assistant director of the Hall Johnson Choir - the most noted black singing group of the '30s - but had to fall back on Tarzan and butler roles during the lean periods between musical jobs.
The Johnson Choir went out to Hollywood to perform in the film of "Green Pastures" and stayed around for a while to do more movie work. "But all they would use us for was cotton-pickin' pictures," Hairston recalls, "and they only came around once every two years. So I signed up as an extra to get work - mostly playing Africans; but I had a problem. To be a movie African, you had to be 6-feet-5 and jet black; I was too small and too high for some directors."
In one picture, "Tarzan's Hidden Jungle," (1955) though, his size was an advantage. "I was waiting for my turn to audition, and one of my friends came out from his tryont and told me, 'Jester, I think you've got it: they want someone Tarzan can lift.' So I became a witch doctor. That picture is still running somewhere, every now and then I get a check for residuals. The last one was for about $3."
Later, as choral arranger for Dmitri Tiomkin, he organized the first integrated chorus in Hollywood, working on such soundtracks as "Red River" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" ("all those white cowboys - they were my boys") and "Land of the Pharaohs" ("I came of age in that picture - the music was so difficult.")
When there was no choral work to be done, he has played butlers in such pictures as "In the Heat of the Night" and "Lady Sings the Blues," and he worked in "Alamo" with John Wayne - who, he says, was not as bad as people think he is.
"John Wayne has a poor reputation, as far as blacks and other minorities are concerned, and I went down there with a chip on my shoulder, but he treated me all right. While we were on location, the mother superior of a Catholic college heard I was in Texas and she asked me if I could come over and conduct a choral workshop. "I told her to ask John Wayne, and she wrote to him and he made an awful fuss. In the middle of lunch, he stood up and yelled across the room as loud as he could: 'Jester, I don't want you trying to turn those Catholic kids into Baptists.'
"Somebody told me then that Wayne liked me, and I thought I would hate to see how he would act if he hated me. But two weeks later, he gave me the day off and let me use his private plane to fly into San Antonio and conduct the workship. The day, waiting to take me back."
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In addition to his other roles, Hairston was also a regular for 16 years on "Amos 'n' Andy," playing Leroy, a sort of hobo, and Henry Van Porter, the good guy who spoke very properly and always had hesitations about the title characters' schemes for getting rich.
"You get protests and pickets now when the subject of 'Amos 'n' Andy' comes up," says Hairston, "but I do not think it was a bit worse than "The Jeffersons" - for one thing, you never heard the word 'nigger' on it. We were made to look like clown then, and they are still looking like clowns then, and they are still looking like clowns - for that matter, you get white clowns in white situation comedies.
"We had a hard time then fighting for dignity. I remember Bert Williams - a great singer; Phil Harris just copied his style - he had a light complexion and had to put on blackface to perform. We had a lot of legitimate beefs, not just myself but Bert Williams and Bill Robinson and, yes, Stepin Fetchit - but we had no power, we had to take it, and because we took it the young people today have opportunities."
"Most prejudiced people are just stupid," Hairston reflects, "and it doesn't do you any good hating them; you spend all your time worrying about how to get even and you can't get to do anything worthwhile. I couldn't write my music if I let it bother me, so I try to laugh at it."
He recalls an incident in Salt Lake City, where he has given training sessions for Mormon children periodically for the last nine years ("I have a lot of friends there, and they have been hoping I could conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; now that the Mormons have had a revelation saying I'm okay, maybe I'll do it").
"I was doing some choral teaching in the Mormon Tabernacle - they never let anybody in there - and I went out to lunch; naturally, I was the only black man in the lunch room and I got into a conversation with the man next to me at the counter and told him what I was doing.
"'You're conducting in the Mormon Tabernacle?' he asked, and I told him I was.
"'Do you know what building is the Mormon Tabernacle?" he asked, and I pointed it out to him: 'That building over there.'
"He thought it over for a long time; he couldn't come to grips with the idea of a black man conducting in the Mormon Tabernacle. It was something that just didn't happen. At last he turned to me and said: 'Mister, do you know that you're the first Oriental that ever conducted in that Tabernacle?"
"That night, I called my wife, Marge - and she grew up in Salt Lake City and know how it is - and she asked me how I was doing.
"I told her. 'I'm doing just fine; I'm passing for Chinese.'"