Listen, if you want to get somewhere, you've got to get out of Washington," Harry Monocrusos advised. Harry should know, as owner and chief talent scout for Garvin's, the Connecticut Avenue restaurant and comedy showcase. He's been running his family-owned restaurant for the past 15 years and booking comedy acts, mostly locals, for the last three.
"Washington is a sleepy little Southern town. It's not a mecca for comedic talent," insists Harry, himself a native. "It's basically a conservative-type town that doesn't lend itself to performers the way it should. With New York as close as it is, why should anyone stay here?"
Indeed, scores of native talents -- including singer/dancer Debbie Allen, dancer Louis Johnson, Roberta Flack and, of course, Duke Ellington -- have waved goodbye to the federal city, headed for the bright lights and fast living of New York, most never to return.
"I don't know too many people who do come back," Harry says. "Washington isn't that cosmoplitan; there's nothing to hold people here." Harry is adamant. "When they leave Washington, they have absolutely no reason to come back, except to visit momma and poppa."
Well maybe not quite. But New York: home of the Village Gate -- and Carnegie Hall, agents, talent scouts, Broadway. Bagels and cream cheese. The Dance Theater of Harlem. It is an irresistible magnet for artists, but some come back home, for better or worse.
"I was well-prepared physically, but not mentally," said dancer Lettie Battle of her pilgrimage to the Big Apple 10 years ago. Now 29, she returned to Washington last year to teach at Bowie State College and the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, where she first began to study dance seriously while still a teenager at Sacred Heart Academy.
Before she returned, however, she appeared in "Raisin," the Broadway and movie versions of "The Wiz," "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" and two off-Broadway productions of the Negro Ensemble Company.A survivor of the fierce competition for steady dance work and a mother of three, Battle remembers New York as a plunge into an exhilarating tide whose waves grew harsher for a naive youg performer.
"I had these cousins that I stayed with one time," she recalled over lunch last week. "And I came home on eday, and they were sitting at a long table with bowls of white powder and little cellophane bags, and they were cutting the powder."
Her oval face is perfectly straight; the hands are telling the story. "So I sat down and helped them out, and we were cutting and folding. I was having a great time. So, I went back and told a friend of mine about it. "Wow, I was having a great time with my cousins,' I said. 'Only, I didn't know he was in the sugar business!" And my friend said, 'Are you crazy?' Then I knew I had to get out of there," she laughs, collapsing into her chair in mock desperation.
The eldest of five, Battle was an Army child who studied dance at her mother's insistence, first in the sehltered world of the Army bases, and then here in Washington, where the family finally settled. At 19 she accompanied her brother Hinton to New York when he won a scholarship to the American School of Ballet. Hinton, who later premiered as the Scarecrow in the Broadway version of "The Wiz," was 13.
"But I had already decided to leave home and go to New York and become famous," she says. "Oh, when did I decide? The day I was born." She enrolled in school in the city.
Just before her graduation from the Theater Arts Department at New York University in 1974, she met "Wiz" choreographer George Faison. She joined his first company and began to earn increasingly better parts in shows closer and closer to Broadway. Then, however, while her professional star was rising, her personal life nosedived. Three children, a marriage and a divorce later -- having in the same period bought and lost a house -- she came to a crossroads.
"All my kids had colds, and then, the way I was rehearsing, I wouldn't see them all week. I had to make a decision. Was I going to take care of them, or was I going to go to work?" Geoffrey Holder asked her to perform in a new musical called "Timbuktu." She left after one rehearsal. "I said 'No, this isn't it,'" she recalled, and after a few frightening months living on welfare and savings, she brought the family home to Washington.
"It was the best thing that could have happened to me," she said of her sobering personal travails. "Being an Army brat, I didn't have to deal with reality, like if you don't pay the rent you get evicted. I grew up believing in Cinderella, that if you were good, good things in life would happen to you. . .
"I had to learn what I wanted. I wanted to work; I didn't want to be a star, or I wouldn't have gotten married, had children. I think I always knew that. Now, dancing doesn't excite me so much any more, but trying to pull that out of someone else, that excites me. Dance taught me self-confidence, and now I have the ability to help people find themselves through dance."
Donal Leace hit New York in 1959. "I was living in New York after high school, because it was the thing to do. I wanted to be a beatnik, but I was too late for it," he says wryly.
"I hit Washington in '60 because I wanted to be a lawyer, so I enrolled at Howard." Leace,41, now chairman of the Theater Arts Department at the Ellington School of the Arts, quickly abandoned the chase for that most Washingtonian of professions.
"I started playing guitar," he says, "and it got to the point where the guitar became more important than other things I was studying. And I found that the most interesting people were in theater, so I transferred my major -- and, my vocal coach was Roberta Flack."
Leace began touring with Flack, and appearing with her at such places as Carnegie Hall, the Bitter End and the Shaefer Music Festival in New York. He also appeared on his own as a folk singer, and was the first act at the opening of the Cellar Door in Georgetown in 1963. He came off the touring circuit in 1976.
"I was tired," he said. "I just didn't like the way my life was going and I needed a rest." He enrolled in George Washington University, from which he received his Masters in Fine Arts in 1978. The same year, he started work at Ellington to support himself through graduate school, a move he now considers a lucky fluke. "Ellington is just such a fantastic place," he says. "It's such an incredible place; it's unlike any place I've ever been. You see such growth here."
He became head of the theater department last year. Having found his calling in teaching, Leace is no longer willing to put up with the travel and high life of the touring circuit, but he still performs, "at places like the Cellar Door, and Garvin's. The only problem," he said, "is, Washington has such a tremendous turnover, every two to three years I have to get rediscovered!"
Dorothea Hammond went to New York at 17, "a young ingenue," she says in clipped, geographically sterile infelction, "but the circumstances were that I had to come down here with my husband." Once here, however, she jumped right into the acting community.
"I started 30 years ago at the Hippodrome, which was before the Arena Stage, you see." The Hippodrome, at 808 K St. NW, was then the city's only professional theater, and opened two years after an actors' boycott closed the National over its refusal to admit blacks to its audiences.
Two weeks after the new repertory formed in 1950, Hammond joined. Now at age, "Oh please, you know I must be 50," Hammond says, she has since performed regularly at the Arena as part of the resident company there. Presently appearing in a critically acclaimed comedy called "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Hammond wouldn't leave Washington for the sweetest piece of The Apple.
"Of course I had the usual New York provincial attitude that if it wasn't New York, it wasn't well, you know, legitimate. But when I came here, the Arena was my lifeline, and I found that as time went by I preferred it.
"In a resident company," she patiently explained to the layman, "You trust each other and try more things. You know each other, and we take chances that, in the day-to-day, week-to-week acting, you're scared to death of. If you want to truly be a terreffic actor all your life, resident theater is the way to go. It's more creative. It's the European way. This is the way the Russian theater, after all, works."
Hammond, whose husband died after their move, remarried a man attached to the Italian Embassy here. The mother of two children, aged 19 and 25, she credits the slower Washington pace with helping her juggle both family and professional lives. "I'm from a large family," she says, "and I don't think I could have survived to middle age without a family. It makes the warp and woof of my life complete."
Of course, some performers return to D.C. only to realize that they should have stopped and turned around at Union Station. Singer Rick Carpenter, a two-time survivor of the New York nightclub scene and a native Washingtonian, plans to buy his train ticket back soon.
"I'm not here because I thought it would be advantageous to my career," the former parttime model and child acrobat said. "I came here because I wanted to be with my family and I'm making it advantageous to my career. If you intend to become an international personality, you have to go to New York or Hollywood; there's no getting around it."
Carpenter's father Joseph died this past spring. As a result Carpenter, one of Joseph and Virginia's seven children, decided to return to the family home at 46th Place NE before planning another assault on Gotham City. Although he's used the time to reestablish professional ties and work an engagement at the Chapter II Supper Club in Southeast, the return has also sharpened some painful memories of the early job search.
Having finished two years at what is now the University of the District of Columbia, Carpenter was taking daytime modeling and clerical jobs and working with assorted singing groups at night. "One afternoon in '74, I just came home from work and decided I was sick of work," he recalls. "I decided I was a performer and I was going to New York.
"I got it together but I was totally misguided. I thought I was so good all I had to do was go to an audition and someone would pick me," he said."I just didn't know Tinseltown. I thought I was prepared and I wasn't New York kicked me in the butt and I came running back to D.C."
When he returned, the 30ish Carpenter decided to take a more serious approach to the path to stardom."I made some affirmations," he says, passing a hand over carefully brushed hair. "I took everything that came along. If it was singing, modeling, dancing, emceeing, I did it. Any local theater around here, I worked in it -- The Back Alley, the Environmental, the Independent Art ensemble, Georgetown summer theater," he recited. Having paid his second set of dues, Carpenter went back to New York in the spring of 1979; his father's death brought him back to D.C. a year later.
"I'm not crazy about New York," he now says. "Manhattan, for one, is devoid of all signs of natural life. But I know New York is inevitable because all the avenues to the roads I want to travel begin there. I don't want to be just to local performer. I have something to say to the world and I can't just say it here."