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Lauded Dancer, Protege Move to Next Phase of Life

July 2, 2008

CHICAGO _ Surrounded by yellowed playbills and photographs chronicling his career as a tap dance legend, Ernest “Brownie” Brown struggled to remember how he got to New York back in the 1930s.

“You know,” rasped the 92-year-old, relaxing in a white turtleneck that swallowed his diminishing frame and a pair of black Velcro-strap shoes, “that was a long time ago.”

Lying across the couch in Brown’s basement, feet stretched across the white fabric, his protege Reggio McLaughlin jumped in. “Didn’t you tell me that you got to New York by selling your clothes to pay for the bus tickets?” he asked.

For more than 15 years, McLaughlin found advice, instruction and prestige alongside Brown, the partner who made a serious tap career possible for the 43-year-old. But time has bowed the frame of their friendship, and these days it’s McLaughlin who helps bring things to Brownie: a glass of water, a bit of conversation, the occasional outing when Brown feels up to it.

“I kind of know he’s on his last legs right now, and I’m going to miss all of that _ him and what we did together,” McLaughlin said. “What eats me up inside is knowing how we were in the beginning and seeing how we are now.”

As their time together slips away, McLaughlin is seized by both the impending loss of his partner and mentor and the prospect of a solo career in an art form past its prime.

The two men met in the early 1990s, after Brown left New York to move in with his daughter in the basement of her South Side home. Brown performed on stages across the globe during his career, one that dates back to the 1920s in Chicago. Through the years he danced in the vaudeville junket and headlined on the smoky stages of the country’s finest jazz clubs and later on Broadway, a string of gigs performed with longtime partner Charles “Cookie” Cook, who died nearly 17 years ago.

McLaughlin was dancing for change at train stations, picking up what little information he could from the archives of public libraries and old tapes of tap performances. A friend told McLaughlin about the old man’s return, so he began showing up at Brown’s house nearly every day, asking the dancer to teach him.

Brown would in time form his second critical partnership, with McLaughlin, who soaked up the old dancer’s 80 years of tap knowledge earned on stage with the likes of Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. In McLaughlin, Brown found an eager student to coax him from retirement.

Now they share a familial relationship replete with the nit-picking banter of siblings and the effortless comfort of a decade and a half together. When searching for a memory, Brown’s face curls in a quizzical expression. He bites his lower lip and lifts his cheeks, pushing his wide plastic-frame glasses up to his forehead.

Brown’s memories come in bursts. He’ll start talking about when he was a dance act under Duke Ellington, and suddenly he’ll remember how Ellington would change the tempo of songs to confuse him. At times, the tempo went so fast that he’d be out of breath, the band members roaring with laughter as he struggled to keep pace. Other times, they’d play music so slow “it’d be damn near a waltz,” he laughed.

It’s been a long time since Brown inhabited the limelight of the tap world. Now the only tap he sees are the performances to which McLaughlin drags him.

Brown occasionally gets on stage himself. On those days, McLaughlin travels from his North Side apartment to help Brown dress, combing his cloud of white hair and laying out his clothes like a young child for school.

At a recent performance held in a suburban library, McLaughlin tapped atop a plank of wood before a crowd of mothers, grandparents and toddlers. At the end, he pulled Brown from the front row of the crowd and, with the help of the audience, wheedled him into performing a chair dance routine. The two received a standing ovation.

It’s a far cry from where Brown was at this stage in his respective career, starring at Harlem’s Cotton Club, London’s Palladium and the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

It’s a reality McLaughlin shoulders with affable poise.

“Man, you got to be happy where you are, with the time you live in,” said McLaughlin, whose shoulder-length dreadlocks swish during his vigorous routines. “You can’t be thinking about what was.”

Tap’s most illustrious days predated McLaughlin by more than a decade.

Its decline in popularity began in the 1950s when other forms of entertainment began eroding interest for tap performances.

“Up until the 1950s … it was tap you would see in all these musicals,” said Susan Goldbetter, a tap historian. “Once shows like ‘Oklahoma’ came along, that changed the whole focus of what the dance was. It became mostly modern and jazz.”

Movies and stage performances started to exclude tap, and television began changing habits as well. And though there have been occasional resurgences, experts said, tap’s popularity peaked long ago.

“People love it. It’s just, where do you put it in society?” said Rusty Frank, author of “Tap! The Greatest Tap Stars and Their Stories: 1900-1955.”"It lives in the dance schools.”

At the Old Town School of Folk Music, McLaughlin teaches six tap classes a week to a mix of young and old. He impresses on his students the legacy he’s been gifted, the moves of Brown’s technique.

“Learning these routines that Brownie did, that he taught to Reggio and that he’s now teaching us, it’s almost like I feel an obligation to pass this on,” said Brunella Carlberg, 55, a suburban music teacher who’s been taking McLaughlin’s classes for four years. “It’s like a puzzle, and each time we go we learn another little piece.”

At home, Brown still flashes the winsome smile that beams off the memorabilia adorning the wood-paneled walls of basement apartment.

“I miss my friends,” said Brown, looking at a decades-old photograph of himself and his old partner Cook. “But it feels good to be the last of the Mohicans.”

And then, seated in a worn armchair, Brown erupted in a spasm of dance, feet thumping the carpet, arms flailing like wings.

Over the hum of air piping through the South Side home, he rasped the tune of a decades-old ditty and then, just as suddenly, fell silent.

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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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