Black Actors--Dorothy Dandridge & Canada Lee -- #blacklivesmatter


I decided to group a few of the Black people I am featuring together. Many of them are in the entertainment business and include actors, musicians, comedians and a director. I am breaking them into a few groups. Today I am focusing on two actors: Dorothy Dandridge and Canada Lee. Have you heard of them? We will start with Dorothy Dandridge.

Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother, Ruby Dandridge, left Dorothy and her older sister, Vivian's, father while she was pregnant so Dorothy never knew her father. At a young age Ruby pushed Dorothy and Vivian into performances. They danced and sang and were called the Wonder Children. They performed in the South at Black churches and other places. 

Around 1930 Ruby moved her family to Hollywood. Through Ruby's perseverance a few years later the girls formed a musical group which included both Dorothy and Vivian and a friend, Etta Jones. The group was called the Dandridge Sisters and performed in places including the Cotton Club in Harlem. They experienced segregation in their performances. Some of the places allowed them to perform but they could not eat in the club. The group ended when Dorothy wanted to try to a solo acting career.

Dorothy was one of the first Black student in the Actors Laboratory. It is said she was a classmate there with Marilyn Monroe. There are rumors that the two were friends but no proof of it. The two are often compared due to their sex appeal and early deaths.

In 1942, Dorothy married Harold Nicholas of the Dancing Nicholas Brothers whom she danced with in the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade. The marriage did not last long, but they had a daughter, Harolyn. In 1943 it was discovered that Harolyn had brain damage. Dorothy wanted expensive private care for her daughter in hopes of finding a cure. She divorced Harold.

In 1951, she began a career as a solo singer. She even did a stint with Desi Arnaz's band. She became an international star. In 1953 she got her first starring role in Bright Road. She starred opposite Harry Belafonte who we will be featuring soon!  In 1954 the two also starred in Carmen Jones. Due to her role in Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge became the first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Grace Kelly won the award that year though. In 1955 Dorothy had her photo on the cover of Life Magazine. She was the first woman featured on the cover of Life

Carmen jones
As her career took off she began to be more choosy about the parts she accepted. She did not like to take parts that she found demeaning to Black people. There were some exceptions in her career. She liked the script of Tarzan's Peril, so she took the role even though she did feel it was a bit demeaning. 

In 1959 she married Jack Denison. It was after she had gotten much talk about her affairs with white men. This marriage was unsuccessful. Denison was abusive and mishandled her money. They split in 1962. As her career was failing she started drinking and taking antidepressants. She was struggling financially and had to take jobs in second rate clubs. In 1963 she could no longer pay for Harolyn's private care and she was put in a state institute. Dorothy had a nervous breakdown. Then on September 8, 1965, Dorothy was found dead in her Hollywood apartment at the age of 42. She died due to an overdose of antidepressants. 


To teach your kids about Dorothy Dandridge you can check out these books. 

She was known as being sexy and I have not watched any of these movies yet (but want to check some out). These would also introduce your children and you to Dorothy Dandridge. These are a few of her big ones.
In 1997, a biography about Dorothy Dandridge written by Donald Bogle. In 2000, Halle Berry won Golden Globe and Emmy awards for playing Dorothy Dandridge in the HBO movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. It is rated R so not necessarily the right movie to share with kids.

Canada Lee

Canada Lee in Native Son

Lionel Cornelius Canegata was born on May 3, 1907 in New York City. He attended Public School 5 in Harlem. At the age of 7 he began studying violin with J. Rosamond Johnson. At the age of 14 he ran away to Saratoga Race Track in upstate New York and became a jockey. He was a jockey for two years and then became a horse exerciser. In 1923 he moved back to Harlem and became an amateur prize fighter. In three years he won 90 out of 100 fights and won the Metropolitan Inner-City and Junior National Championships. He went on to win the amateur lightweight title. In 1925 he married Juanita Eugenia Waller. Their son was born on November 22, 1926. His name was Carl Vincent Canegata. He later became an actor by the name Carl Lee. Lionel and Juanita separated when Carl was young and divorced in 1942. Also in 1926 Lionel changed his name to Canada Lee and became a professional fighter. Apparently a fight announcer mispronounced his name as Canada Lee and he liked it so he kept it.  He fought over 200 fights and lost only 25. In 1933 his fighting career ended due to a detached retina. 

In 1935 Canada played a part in an Alfred Hitchcock film called Lifeboat. This was the first major movie production that had a Black person in a role that was not stereotypical. It was originally written as a stereotypical role but Canada Lee changed it. In 1936 Canada appeared in an all Black production of Macbeth. He landed roles in other films and narrated a CBS radio program called "Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm". 
Canada Lee in Macbeth, April 1936

In 1941 he got a part in the film Native Son. He got great critical and popular acclaim. Throughout the 1940s he got parts in films. He declared he would only take roles that would educate about race and enhance the image of Blacks. He spoke his mind and this got him blacklisted in films and performances. In March 1951 he married Frances Pollack. Their marriage was short because Canada suffered a heart attack one year later and died. He died on May 5, 1952 in Manhattan. 

African American Registry, "A distinguished actor, Canada "About Canada Lee."
Larson, Julia. BlackPast. "Canada Lee (1907-1952)." (29 Jun 2008)

Sadly I could not find any children's books that feature Canada Lee. There is a 448-page biography on him by Mona Z. Smith. It is called Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee. I have not read it so I do not know if it is appropriate for children or not. I also have not seen any of his films either, but here are some of them to check out.

That is our look at these two amazing actors and Black people. I hope you will continue to join us for our Black Lives Matter Series!