"There's always been an undercurrent of hypocrisy in Chicago, and the entertainment industry is just one facet of that hypocrisy," says Julian Swain. The veteran hoofer and choreographer continues, "Chicago is a very ghettoized place, but blacks here are the only ethnic group that has been ghettoized against its wishes. The clubs here were not segregated by law, as they were in other parts of the country, but they were segregated by a sort of unspoken agreement."
Like many other black dancers and entertainers of the 30s and 40s, Swain got his start playing a circuit of south-side clubs and theaters: the Rum Boogie, Dreamland, Club De Lisa, the Regal. When he was 18, Swain auditioned for choreographer and variety-show producer Sammy Dyer (founder of the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre, which still operates at 24th and Michigan), who hired him for a chorus line at the Club De Lisa.
"The owner was an Italian gentleman," Swain recalls, "and his only stipulation was that the shows at his club had to change every month. So we were doing 12 different shows a year, and depending on the show, I might be called upon to do chorus work or to emcee or to sing or to dance. And when you'd dance, it might be something balletic or more jazz-orientated, or sometimes you'd have these primitive dances that allowed you to move around in all sorts of different ways."
Unlike the all-white-audience, all-black-entertainers joints of the period, the Club De Lisa wasn't segregated. Not exactly. "Black people did go there," Swain says. "And white people did too. But for some strange reason white people came more toward the beginning of the week, and on Friday and Saturday the crowd was pretty much all black. The segregation was by choice--the white clientele would choose to come when they knew there wouldn't be many blacks there."
While at the De Lisa, Swain and two other dancers formed a trio called the Beige Beaux, dancing to popular jazz tunes by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie. Duke Ellington spotted them performing at the Regal and signed them to appear in his touring show. (Later he even wrote a concerto especially for them, "Monologue, Duet, and Threesome.")
The Beige Beaux toured with Ellington for over a year, playing theaters and opera houses across the country. "I remember when we played the Thunderbird in Las Vegas," says Swain. "We had this wonderful show with about 30 performers, but Duke was the only one allowed to stay in the hotel there. We had to stay on the other side of town. We could not go out into the audience between shows. We had to stay in another room or walk up and down the highway. We couldn't go out to any gambling rooms or eat in the dining rooms. We had to eat in the kitchen or the dressing room."
When the tour was over, in the early 50s, the Beige Beaux broke up. (The lone female member, Ann Henry, left to replace Eartha Kitt on Broadway in Now Faces.) Swain worked year round then as a dancer, choreographer, and occasional costume designer for traveling variety shows originating in Atlantic City or Idlewild, Michigan, a resort town serving what Swain calls the "black bourgeoisie."
The shows were loosely formatted entertainment revues featuring singers, dancers, comedians, and novelty acts. Larry Steele's Smart Affairs was, according to Swain, the first all-black show to tour Australia and New Zealand; the Idlewild Revue helped launch the careers of performers like George Kirby, Della Reese, and the Four Tops; and Royal American Shows, traveling entertainment carnivals, toured from Canada down into the deep south. Swain slotted entertainers into appropriate times, choreographed some of the dance numbers, appeared in many of them and sang like "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."
"There was a great difference in audiences, be they black or white, as we moved from spot to spot," says Swain, talking about working with Royal American Shows in the early 60s. "People in Memphis and Saint Louis were very rhythm orientated, but by the time you got up to Canada, the audiences weren't at all. You couldn't have audience participation in Canada because the people there didn't know how to clap on the beat and when you asked them to, it would mess up your whole act."
Swain likens the touring he did to slavery. "I remember we did 19 shows in one day," he says. "The atmosphere was very much one of slave labor, because people would be dancing until their feet had swelled up so big that they couldn't get their feet into their shoes anymore. And it was such a very isolated situation, in that you were always traveling by train, truck, and plane from spring until Halloween. You'd lay in your berth and look at this whole line of train cars that wound through the mountains, and you wouldnt know what city you were in anymore."
One of Swain's last shows with Royal American, in 1963, ended in near disaster: in Jackson, Mississippi, members of the Ku Klux Klan tossed tear gas onto the fairgrounds and into the tent where he was performing. "People would have gotten killed if it hadn't been in a tent. Since it was, people could escape by crawling under the sides."
In 1968, Swain settled in Chicago and formed the Julian Swain Dancers, a company dedicated to heightening blacks' consciousness of their African heritage. "I'd seen so much prejudice that I thought it was time for young people to have a sense of pride when they dealt with their blackness and understand what their legacy was. We were always very involved in ethnic, Afro-Caribbean kinds of dances." During the 70s the company performed not only in Chicago but in Africa. At its apex in 1978, it had offices in the Monadnock Building, where Swain also started a school. Many of his students moved on to such national companies as the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey.
Federal funding for the Julian Swain Dancers ran out in the early 80s, and Swain began producing musicals and variety shows in Chicago and performing occasionally with a loose group of colleagues, Julian Swain and Friends.
"I can still move around a little bit, though I like to call myself semiretired," Swain says. "It's a hard business, a hard, hard business. All those shows I used to dance with are gone. There are so few places for black dancers to go. And even though there are a few more opportunities now than there used to be, it's still tough. Only a few of us can find our way to slip through the cracks."
Swain will perform with Julian Swain and Friends on Tuesday, February 15, at 6 at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. Admission is $15. On Saturday, February 19, at 11 AM Swain will be interviewed by critic Effie Mihopoulos, also at the Newberry. Free. Reservations for the performance can be made by calling 943-9090, ext. 310.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.