Monday, August 31, 2009

Jimmy Valentine

   This is an article I wrote about one of the many legends of dance that I've met, interviewed or in this case became good friends with. Jimmy was long retired living with his wife Mariam in Las Vegas at the time I got to know him. It didn't take long for us to bond as he enjoyed the early years of his life and dancing so much, what started out as an interview turned into years and countless nights of talking, singing and telling jokes.

Jimmy Valentine was born Paul Perrone September 5th 1915 in Brooklyn New York. His family lived at Carroll st and Columbia which at that time was known as the Red Hook. This was a tough water front community primarily consisting of long shore men for which his father Ralph Perrone was and factory workers, for which his mother was. His parents both loved dancing, especially Ralph who would take Mary the oldest of the children to Coney Island to watch the dancing.

      Ralph migrated from Italy to America after he married Laura.  Laura stayed back in Italy and gave birth to Mary, waiting for Ralph's call which came a year later and they were reunited. It was sometime during these earliest years that Mary remembers her farther first introducing her to dancing. “It was in our blood”, Mary says “once I saw it I knew I would enjoy it.”  However, in 1918 when Jimmy was just turning 3 his farther fell ill to Spanish influenza and passed away. 



      In 1920, Jimmy and his friends where playing down at the end of the Atlantic Ave. trolley line. They loved climbing all over the parked trolleys they lay waiting to be put in service.  It was one of these days when a trolley was to be used and the Motorman did not see the kids that were behind and on the trolley in the back. Not only did the Motorman not see the kids but when he started the trolley it bucked into reverse, which not only sent Jimmy falling off the back of the trolley onto the ground but also ran over his legs. Both of Jimmy's legs would have been lost but the shoes he was wearing where so over sized apparently one of them folded over and saved it. Jimmy's other leg wasn't as lucky, it was so badly damaged it had to be amputated just below the knee.

      When Jimmy was released from the hospital it didn't’t take long for the family to realize they could not control him.  Crutches never did Jimmy any good; as soon as he would get a pair that fit he would outgrow them. And he was sent to a boys school called Rockaway home, where he spent 5 years. During Jimmy's stay at the Boys home the family moved to 19th St by 1 Ave in Manhattan.     

    When Jimmy turned 11 years old he came back to live with his family and immediately showed an interest in dance. His older sister Mary who was already quite a dancer first started showing him foxtrot in 1931 when Jimmy was 16 years old. She would take him down around the corner to a night club where they would dance to whatever music was playing. They enjoyed dancing so much that finally Mary told Jimmy he had to find himself another dance partner, one that could spend more time with him and practice to get a routine. As much as Mary enjoyed dancing she knew that she had to take care of the family which now consisted of Ralphy, Lucy and two half brothers Tony and Jack.



        Jimmy started dancing around Manhattan hitting all the spots until he discovered the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem which would become his home the next few years. Shortly after his arrival Jimmy was selected to work with the greatest Lindy Hop team in History, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.   Jimmy performed at the Apollo Theater with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers as well as traveled two tours of the south. It was on these tours that Jimmy had to “black up” to disguise his skin color, for everyone's safety, because performing as a mixed race couple on stage together was dangerous at that time. Another WLH team member Elnora Dyson recalls the manager of one theater objecting to the Black and White couple (Jimmy and Edith) being on stage together, but backing down after Whitey threatened to Pull them from the show. Finally it got to risky and Whitey had no choice but to send Jimmy Home to New York.



          In 1940 Jimmy with Vivian Larkin entered the Harvest Moon Ball preliminary contest at the Savoy Ballroom. Each year The Savoy Ballroom, Roseland Ballroom and Glenn Island Casino Ballrooms would hold the Harvest Moon Ball preliminary rounds and send the top 5 couples on to the finals which would be held at Madison Square Garden. Since the 1935 introduction of Lindy Hop into the Harvest Moon Ball, the Savoy Ballroom dancers had swept it every year. This made the Savoy Ballroom’s Preliminaries the most difficult to compete in and it gave a good look at who would be the favorites. Remarkably, the Team of Jimmy Valentine and Vivian Larkin took first place beating out fellow WLH teams Frank Manning and Ann Johnson as well as the team of George Gren and Norma Miller. for unknown reasons Jimmy and Vivian did not show up for the finals, but the chances are HMB ball didn't want a "mixed" couple to compete.

       Marion Valentine  remembers her first days going to the Savoy Ballroom  “ Ella was singing with the Chick Webb orchestra and the two girls that I went with would, get as close up as we could to the stage. I remember “Whitey” himself would get up and announce that his Lindy Hoppers would be doing an exhibition, this would be just around or before midnight and that was the first time I saw Jimmy Valentine, performing  with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, this was about the end of 1938 or early 1939.”

    However it wasn't until January 1942 that they finally met, Marion's sister had known Jimmy and had been speaking to him over the years and even tried to get them to meet while Marion was working in Washington D.C. for Uncle Sam during 1940 and 41. Apparently Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers where scheduled to tour and I was supposed to meet Jimmy at their D.C. performance but the show was canceled.

     In 1942 Marion moved Back in New York, and they finally met and started seeing each other more regularly with him always meeting her at the subway station. By 1943 Marion and Jimmy where Married.



    Jimmy followed work to Los Angeles in 1943 and spent no time getting in with the local dancers, but why wouldn't’t he? Here was a dancer straight from New York who was as handsome as a man can get,  a personality that’s warm and friendly and odds are he could dance better then anyone on the same dance floor……and yes, with one leg.

      Jimmy would use his crutch while dancing in the most imaginative ways for the crutch had long been an extension of his body. Most remembered by those that witnessed his abilities was his “spins” on the crutch itself. Jimmy was able to do multiple “free spins” which where an eye catching move he learned back at the Savoy Ballroom. Jimmy would also use His Crutch as a drum stick keeping time or accenting rhythms while dancing which would clearly have made him one of the first to combine Partnered swing/Lindy Hop with tapping rhythms.

        The crutch became more to him then that, it could be used as part of the art.  When out dancing Jimmy wouldn't back down from “Cutting contest” and on an up tempo numbers he would throw away his crutch, sliding it to the side of the floor and his performance experience would really shine, making everyone step back to watch.

               Jimmy danced with the best follows at that time in Los Angeles. Dancers like Irene Thomas said;  “You could close your eyes and you couldn't tell he had one leg,  he was a dream to dance with strong, firm ……and what a looker…”  Irene Thomas at that time was star tap dance act working for Bing Crosby and John Scott Trotter’s Orchestra that toured Military camps. Just out of Hollywood High school she was sensational act in the stage show “Meet the People” in 1939. Although she appeared in countless bit parts Lindy dancing, her love and passion was in live performing and Tap.  Irene says she danced with Jimmy a lot, “he just showed up from New York and blended in with the good dancers”. Irene also described his whip as being real good, “he used his one leg as an advantage in the whip and he could do spins and drops, you name it he could do it.”




      During the 1950’s Henry LeTang teamed up Jimmy Valentine with the most famous one legged tap dancer in the business, Peg Leg Bates who's experience takes him back to the Early Years of Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club. It was at that time Jimmy was fitted with his artificial leg so that he and Peg Leg Bates could look the same while performing. The Two had a successful act which immediately became a headliner in Clubs and Television including the Ed Sullivan show on national TV. Unfortunately for Jimmy, he could not bare the pain of the artificial leg and left to duo, returning to his Crutch.


      Jimmy's love for dancing never faded, even in his last few years when he was physically unable to dance, he enjoyed talking and sharing the stories of his life. He would love sitting and talking yet he was so modest. Upon bringing up major events he accomplished he would just laugh a little as though he’d been caught, and then share every detail he remembered.  Jimmy Valentine was a one of kind human being, a warm and friendly man that dedicated his life to bringing smiles to people both on stage and on the social dance floor, clearly making him a Legend in our history of Jazz Dance.

I remember being somewhere with Frankie Manning who was one of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and asking him if he remembered Jimmy Valentine. Frankie lite up with a huge smile exclaiming "Yea, I remember Jimmy!", I told him I had been talking to him a lot to which Frankie stated that he would love to speak to him again, and started telling me what a cool cat Jimmy was, and just a great all around good guy. Weeks later Frankie called me at home asking for Jimmy's phone number, and after talking for a few minutes I hung up the phone and thought I would call Jimmy, because he had been a little sick and had been doing some check ups in the hospital. Unfortunately, Miriam answered the phone...


Jimmy passed away February 1st 1999 in Las Vegas Nevada and leaves behind a wonderful family that is so lucky to have had known such a wonderful person, he will surely be missed.

by Peter Loggins

3 comments:

  1. These mini-bios are really great. Looking forward to reading your next post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. with those mecatronic new study, he would dance like every body. and that is not the better solution.
    one-legged can be perfect, and please i can not support persons says that they dance badly,
    one-legged dancing, i imagine it fantastic.

    i want to see videos of Valentin

    kisses from argentina
    charles

    ReplyDelete
  3. Are there any videos? I couldn't find any on youtube. Lots of Peg Leg Bates, but none of Jimmy. Do you have any?

    ReplyDelete