Thursday, January 15, 2015

Black Paris Profiles™ II: Benny Luke (1939-2013)

When I first met Benny Luke at Haynes Restaurant in the early 1990s, I didn’t know he was a celebrity. He waited tables with a smile and was always friendly, if a little reserved. I didn’t go to Haynes frequently, so our paths did not cross much.

I don’t remember how I discovered that this man was THE Benny Luke of La Cage aux Folles fame. I only saw the first movie of the trilogy and did so many years before I arrived in Paris, so I did not make the connection. When I finally learned who he was, I became curious about his life in Paris. But many more years would pass before I developed a professional interest in black Paris and came to understand just what a treasure Benny was – both personally and historically.

Photo of Benny as Jacob in La Cage aux Folles
© Discover Paris!

Benny succumbed to prostate cancer on January 13, 2013 after a long fight against the disease. His long-time partner, Frederic Michel, and many friends cared for him during his last months. He was honored by the U. S. Embassy in France with a reception held at the George Marshall Center, Hôtel de Tallyrand, on February 13, 2014.

Thanks to an interview conducted by Shelley Bradford-Bell and video recorded by Joanne and David Burke, Benny's story has been recorded for posterity. A large slice of 20th-century black Paris – the part that you don’t read about in books and articles – was recorded with it.

The video was shown at the Hôtel de Talleyrand reception. Having viewed it privately, I am pleased to pay tribute to him by sharing a few key elements of his life in Paris.

Benny first came to Paris to audition for a post at the Lido – the famous cabaret on the Champs Elysées – in the early 1960s. The club was in search of black dancers and Victor Lipshaw, an up-and-coming Los Angeles choreographer, asked him if he’d like to try out. Benny was successful in landing a one-year contract and danced in two shows a night during that time. His last performance ended at 2 a.m. and he would go to Michou, another cabaret, where female impersonators provided the entertainment. He would retire at 6 a.m., sleep all day, and repeat the process.

At the end of his contract, he went back to the U. S., determined to return to Paris as quickly as possible. After several months of working in northern California and saving every penny he could manage, he bought a one-way ticket to Paris and never looked back. Though he would return to visit his mother in the States, he would never live there again.

Benny Luke interview
© Discover Paris!

Benny took dance classes in Paris and was invited to perform in the first dance festival held at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. He then went to work at the Folies Bergère, which he found to be quite different from the experience he had at the Lido. For one thing, he was paid much less per night (42 French francs versus 60 francs a night at the Lido). For another, he said that the shows were “like a factory,” with roughly 50 costume changes a night.

One other black dancer performed with Benny at the Folies Bergère - Bernard Hassell, the man who became James Baldwin’s dear friend and secretary.

Benny danced at the Folies Bergère for several years. Conditions there were so draconian that the dancers eventually occupied the theater to demand better pay and working conditions. He and Hassell recognized that they were “apart” from the other dancers, given that they were not French and had a different work status.  Unsuccessful in getting a raise, Benny quit the job.

This was during the mid- to late 60s, and Benny lived on rue Monsieur le Prince in the 6th arrondissement (the same street that Richard Wright and his family lived on for eleven years) at the time. Baldwin and Hassell would visit him there. Baldwin invited Benny to go to the south of France and Benny became part of the Baldwin entourage. Benny met artist Beauford Delaney on this trip and remained Beauford’s friend when the group returned to Paris.

Old Friends collage at Embassy reception
© Discover Paris!

Benny performed the role of Jacob, the domestic servant of protagonists Renato and Albin, in the play La Cage aux Folles at the Théâtre du Palais Royal for five years beginning in 1973. Film rights to the play were negotiated in 1974-75 and he was once again cast in the role of Jacob. The movie was shot in Rome and released in 1978.

As the La Cage aux Folles film trilogy unfolded, Benny landed smaller and smaller parts in the successive films. He continued to portray Jacob on stage, playing the role at the Théâtre Royal du Parc in Brussels and touring with the play in France before finally abandoning the part.

Benny met Josephine Baker while he worked at the Folies Bergère in the mid 1960s. He thought she was old but found her to be sweet and nice. When Josephine mounted her comeback show, Joséphine, in Monte Carlo, Benny was asked to join the dance line-up. He accepted and performed with Josephine during the show’s run. Josephine selected him and one other dancer to walk her down the steep flight of stairs that was part of one of the acts of the show – he was always proud to say that she told him she chose him because she knew he wouldn’t let her fall.

When Joséphine came to the Bobino Theater in Paris, Benny was not able to perform with the troupe because of his commitment to La Cage aux Folles. He did see the show, however.

Shortly after Josephine’s performance run opened, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Benny saw the incredible outpouring of humanity for her funeral at La Madeleine church, saying that people filled the rue Royale in front of the church all the way to Place de la Concorde.

Benny worked at all three African-American restaurants in Paris that were in operation during the 1990s and 2000s – Haynes, Bojangles, and Percy’s Place. Maria Haynes invited him to work at Haynes Restaurant and he was a fixture there for several years.

It was at Haynes that Benny met Sharon Leslie Morgan, owner of Bojangles. He and Sharon conceived of the idea for a Gospel brunch called “Soul on Sunday” that they sponsored at Haynes for many months. It became so popular that they decided to find a new venue.  They ended up opening their own restaurant, Bojangles, in February 2001. A combination of circumstances forced the restaurant to close after only two years of existence.

Bojangles and Benny’s Bar/Bojangles collage at Embassy reception
© Discover Paris!

After Bojangles’ demise, Benny worked as a server at Percy’s Place in the 16th arrondissement. Percy’s Place closed in 2005.

Benny’s final place of employment in Paris once again planted him firmly into the world of dance. He worked at Rick Odums’ Centre International de Danse, a classical and jazz dance studio on the rue de Clichy in the 9th arrondissement.

Watch the video created at the Hôtel de Talleyrand reception held in Benny's honor HERE.

Benny Luke military honors collage at Embassy reception
© Discover Paris!


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Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I am writing a novel and some of it takes place in Paris between the wars. While not this exact time frame this post has the same flavor of the expatriates of that era.

About Beauford Delaney said...

Posted at the request of David Burke:


Thank your for your outstanding profile of our dear Benny, full of his rich life and career and of your rich, warm loving friendship with him. He was the most loving person there ever was and the most fun. Joanne now has a whole lot of photos of him and, as I think she has told you, will be preparing a film based on the video interview that she and Shelley and I did back in 2006, when Benny was healthy and bursting with joie de vie. She'll start working on that film when she returns from China this spring.