Does the name Geoffrey Holder mean anything to you? It probably doesn’t. He died this week, at the age of 84, and his passing received less media attention than the death of Paul Revere, of the cheesy Rolling Stones-lite 60’s rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders, and wasn’t within light years of the orgies of sorrow lavished on the passing of Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. hundreds of thousands of Americans, especially African-Americans, wear jerseys honoring NFL wife beaters and child-batterers, who would have crossed the street to shake Geoffrey Holder’s hand or get his autograph.
Boy, are American values screwed up.
Let me tell you about Geoffrey Holder, one of my heroes.
He was born in Trinidad-Tobago, where he showed an early talent for dance (unimpeded in adulthood by his 6’6″ frame), and directed a folk dance troupe from his native country, bringing his skills to the attentions of legendary choreographer Agnes DeMille. He danced on Broadway stages and at the Metropolitan Opera, and won Tony Awards in 1975 for direction of a musical and the costume design for “The Wiz.” He also directed and choreographed “Timbuktu!,” a re-imagining of “Kismet.” He acted on Broadway in an-all black production of “waiting for Godot.” His original dances were in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theater of Harlem. He was an accomplished painter, photographer and sculptor whose many works have been shown in galleries and museums across the country. He published books too, including one about Caribbean folklore, “Black Gods, Green Islands,” written with Tom Harshman. He played significant roles in quite a few movies, including a James Bond villain in “Live and Let Die.”
If you know Holder at all, you probably know him from a series of commercials for 7-Up that he starred in during the 1970s and 1980s. Dressed in a white suit, he would typically pour a glass of the lemon-lime soft drink, “the Uncola,” intone, “Try making THAT out of a cola nut!” and burst into his wonderful deep, musical, Caribbean laugh. Yes, with all the substantive things he accomplished, it was his commercials people noticed. He didn’t care, opining that commercials were art too. “It’s seduction!” he said.
And laughed, just like in the ads.
It is almost impossible for an artist to do more things better or more successfully than Geoffrey Holder. Why was he so quickly forgotten? Was it that he did not become an angry civil rights scold, like Harry Belafonte? Is it that the arts are considered so trivial in the United States that a brilliant, unique artist like Holder is considered less valuable and noteworthy than an NFL running back? Is the appreciation of the arts so narrow that a genius like Holder is accorded less respect than recent Kennedy Center honorees like Al Green, Lily Tomlin, David Letterman, Bill T. Jones, and Merle Haggard? Would it have helped if he weren’t so relentlessly positive? If he spent more time at self-promotion, at the cost of his art? If he had been gay, accused of killing a cop, or outspoken about global warming or other issues he really knew very little about?
I don’t know. I do know that a culture that doesn’t recognize that a lifetime artist of originality and excellence like Geoffrey Holder has enriched it more than Joan Rivers is seriously confused.