Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, June 28, 2001



An angel swoops in
to spread joy and laughter

By Burl Burlingame

Della Reese describes her life and career as "moving from one audience to another and keeping them all, honey," and that's pretty much how you feel in her overwhelming presence -- either as part of an audience, or as having an audience. Either way, it's pretty entertaining.

Reese is in town to do narration for an upcoming television biography of long-time friend Donald McKayle, the legendary choreographer who's the Jackie Robinson of Broadway dance.

"Heartbeats of a Dancemaker," produced by Hawaii Public Television with an eye toward national broadcast on PBS, is still looking for completion funds. Gregg Lizenbery (University of Hawai'i dance department) and wife Marilyn Cristofori (Hawaii Alliance for Arts Education) created "Dance Pioneers" to do this after being awed by McKayle some time ago. Joy Chong-Stannard of HPT is the producer, director and editor, Victoria Kneubuhl wrote the script.

Della Reese gets a hug from choreographer, Donald McKayle.

McKayle received Tony nominations for work such as "Golden Boy," "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Raisin"; an Emmy nomination for "Minstrel Men" and film credits like "The Jazz Singer," "The Great White Hope" and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks."

And that's quite enough boilerplate, except to note that Reese and McKayle share the same birthday, which is next Friday. She's closing in on 70. This week, in the lobby of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, they raised brightly colored tropical drinks to each other as tourists snapped their picture.

"What's yours taste like?" Reese asked McKayle.

"Mine's blue."

"Mine's yellow, honey. Matches my dress." And she made that rolling-thunder contralto laugh.

Deloreese Patricia Early -- Detroit-born, working parents, church-reared -- was gospel-bound, singing in church choirs at 6 and becoming part of Mahalia Jackson's touring troupe at age 13. Away from Detroit, she encountered racism for the first time.

Does anyone out there not know that Reese -- one of the stars of CBS' "Touched By An Angel" -- started out as a singer, a great stylist no less, up there with interpreters like Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald?

Della Reese and documentary subject Donald McKayle,
second from left, are surrounded by documentary makers,
from left, Victoria Kneubuhl, Gregg Lizenbery, Joy
Chong-Stannard and Kay Kasamoto.

"I was born singing, so they tell me. Mom would say, would you please shut up, and Dad would say, hey go out on the porch!" laughed Reese. "The only musical outlet available was at the church, and I was very happy singing gospel. I didn't know there was anything else."

She learned about other music on her 21st birthday, when a swain took her to the Greystone Club in Detroit. Oh, and on the bill that night were Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cootie Williams and their bands.

"I was absolutely floored. All those instruments, playing together. All we'd had in gospel was piano and a tambourine. All those great musicians, playing together. It was wonderful. I knew I wanted to do that, to sing with a great band."

She heard that a local bowling alley had added a lounge for performing and applied for a job there. Reese was told she'd do, and her first night, she was standing there waiting to perform when the manager told her to seat customers. What? she said. I'm supposed to sing. Sing? he responded. I hired you as a greeter. If you wanna sing, that's be $5 a night extra. But first, seat those people!

Reese eventually signed on with Erskine Hawkins' touring band. "Now, ol' Erskine was a frugal fellow, and I sang the same three songs over and over for nine months. Made me think about becoming a solo act."

And when did that happen?

"The night I quit Erskine's band!"

Reese and McKayle and her husband Franklin Lett, a producer, erupted into laughter. "Oh beautiful," said Lett. "He sure set you up for that."

Hee hee, said the unwitting straight-man interviewer. "How about TV? How did you get into that. Not just 'Angel.' You were the first woman to guest-host the 'Tonight Show,' the first black American woman to have a talk show, pre-dating Oprah."

"I was watching TV one night in Las Vegas, Nev., and there was a show starring someone who shall remain nameless, and she sang so flat, and she ruined the lyrics, that I thought, I can do that. So I went to Los Angels and did it."

Just like that?

"Honey, when you're working for a living, paying rent and supporting a family, you take work wherever it's happening. I never really trained to be an actor. Although I was always handy with interpreting a lyric -- some words just beat me to death, dear! -- if you accept and believe your character is real, you simply become. Not do; only be," explained Reese, sounding vaguely Yoda-ish. Her genuineness on screen has won her new fans everywhere.

She told another story of her emerging television-fueled celebrity. On an elevator, a mother told her daughter they were riding with "a great singer." Oh no, countered the girl, "That's Mr. T's mama!"

Reese also chided this interviewer for making a crack about Hollywood cost overruns. "I can tell you, there's no more hard-working and dedicated people in any profession. Everything matters so much; you simply can't take off because you feel like it, because so much relies on each person on the team. It creates incredible pressure."

She met McKayle when he was choreographing the special "Minstrel." "He taught me how to move, after a lifetime of fighting it. The musical business was fixated on black women singing the blues and shaking your behind. I refused, refused to shake my behind. I was a statue. And then fashion changed and dresses brought my knees together, and I didn't have a choice. Donnie taught me to move because you feel it from within."

"Oh, working with Della was no problem," said McKayle. "When you're directing someone with that much talent, it's like having golden hands."

"Ooh, honey," said Reese. "That's such a lovely line. I like that just fine."

She was also moved to stay within the church, became an ordained minister, and even created her own church in Los Angeles, flying in every weekend to minister. Reese even presided over co-star Roma Downey's marriage.

Some fans asked for snapshots and Reese mock-severely lectured them, "You can't shoot my picture until you give me a great big smile too!" She treated each fan, even if they were children, with the kind of dignity everyone would like but no one expects any more. She explained the fans are what matter. She's just the conduit to some sort of glory beyond. In a way, performing and ministering use the same muscles, the same devotion.

"I'm very happy. Everything that's happened made me this magnificent woman you see before you today!" And there was that contralto laugh again.

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