The lively and impressive Fonseca Theater Company will present as its finale for their stellar season the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” opening March 13th at the Linebacker Lounge on W Michigan Street. This revival of the great Billie Holiday, who Frank Sinatra said was “the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing. . .”
Late one Saturday afternoon night in July of 1959 I got a call from Billie Holiday’s good friend Maely Dufty, husband of New York Post writer William Dufty, who ghost-wrote Billie’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues.” Maely explained that that Billie was in Metropolitan Hospital in New York, sick from heroin withdrawal. To add to her misery, the New York City police had come in to her hospital room and arrested her for drug possession, handcuffing her as she lay dying and maintaining a policeman in her hospital room. Maely was calling friends to ask if they would take around a petition for people to sign requesting the police to let her die in peace, without keeping watch in her hospital room.
Without hesitation, I took the subway up to the Dufty’s 93rd Street apartment and took copies of the petition, sure that it would be a popular cause, hardly controversial. I had forgot, however, that this was the 1950s, and we were still in the era of McCarthyism, when people who had signed what they thought were innocuous petitions for causes like aid to mission houses in the Bowery, o support for the teachers union, and later were hauled before the McCarty committee accused of being Communist sympathizers. McCarthy and his minions had Americans fearful of signing anything, for fear it might later be held against them.
I happened to know there was a meeting that night of The Young Peoples Socialist League, headed by my writer friend Michael Harrington (he later gained game by writing the book “The Other America” that inspired the LBJ poverty program.) Mike introduced me and recommended people sign this simple request for humane treatment of a dying woman – yet many refused, backing away in fear that somehow, someway, this might years later be interpreted as some kind of “subversive” act! The popular statement of refusal to sign any document was “I’m not a signer.” Less than half the people in this most liberal-minded gathering imaginable were afraid to sign. The response was even more fearful and less supportive in other gatherings I went to in hopes of support – parties, bars, even meetings at churches. McCarthy had taught Americans to fear – not their enemies, but their own government.
I took my petitions with the signatures I’d managed to accumulate, and turned the in to the Duftys. Other friends had also brought in what signatures they were able to find. The Duftys and their lawyers, supported by newspaper articles about this travesty, were able to get a court order for the New York City police to finally leave Holiday’s hospital room a few hours before her death. She died on July 17. Her songs and her recordings are still classics played today – most notably “God Bless The Child,” and “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song that portrays the lynchings of black people in the South.
In 1961 Holiday was voted to the Down Beat Hall of Fame and Columbia reissued almost a hundred of her early records. In 1971 Diana Ross portrayed her in the movie “Lady Sings the Blues” and was nominated for an Oscar.
If you would like to catch Fonseca Theatre’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm and Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm at the Linebacker Lounge. There will be a special matinee at 2pm on Sunday April 7th in honor of Billie Holiday’s birthday.
Visit fonsecatheatre.org for tickets and more information.