Excerpts from “It Rained on My Parade,” Vera Stark’s autobiography:
Lottie could always make me laugh. She kept insisting that she had no interest in returning to acting, but when the role of Mammy Gummie opened up in the “The Belle of New Orleans” she did everything short of sacrificing a chicken to get the part. On the first day of filming she was the first to arrive and the last to leave. Her work ethic was incredible, and I learned a great deal from watching her perform.
Leroy was in a bitter mood; he’d been drinking more heavily than usual. He generally had a couple of cocktails before performances; it helped him shake off the residue of the day. But, I could immediately tell when he took to the stage that something was very wrong. He was playing his horn with less clarity and precision, there was a strange aggressiveness to his phrasing. In retrospect I wish I had been more alert, but I was nestled with Alice Jones and Horace Devereux at a corner table; we were celebrating Horace’s recent return from his triumphant tour of South America. I was distracted by Horace’s wicked sense of humor, and I’d come to rely on him to lift me out of a funk. Next to us was a boisterous group of white businessmen trying hard to impress a couple of girls they picked up at their hotel. Their table was littered with empty champagne bottles, and there was no sign that they were going to slow down. Leroy was doing his best to rise above their noise, but I could see irritation slowly seeping across his brow. Suddenly, he stopped playing and silenced the band, refusing to continue unless the boisterous table lowered their voices. But the businessmen were lost in their own revelry, and dismissed Leroy’s plea with laughter. Horace politely leaned into the businessman. “Bring it down, let ‘em play,” he whispered, but there was no silencing the group. They were beyond the drunken threshold, and beginning to grow belligerent.
Patrons were getting impatient, demanding that the music resume. Leroy was steadfast, as stubborn and principled as always. I could tell he wasn’t going to play. And then one of the businessmen threw a champagne bottle at Leroy and shouted,
“Just play your horn, like a good nigger!”
And in a flash Leroy leapt from the bandstand, and was upon the man, wielding his expensive horn like a weapon. I remember the shouts and screams, the rage in Leroy’s eyes as the fight escalated into a brawl. It all happened so quickly; that I didn’t realize the man was dead until I’d left the club. Pulled by Alice and Horace into the cool air, I knew life as we knew it was over.
Much later I’d learn that Leroy had had a heated argument with the club owner. He’d discovered that the club was paying him one fraction of what his white counterparts were making for the same gig. On the morning of the incident he’d confronted the owner, demanding parity or he’d walk. The manager responded by saying, “Then shuffle away, nigger.”
Leroy was not one to walk away from responsibility. He decided he’d play that evening then leave.