Jeni LeGon, Hollywood’s onetime “Chocolate Princess” and the first African-American woman to sign a major studio contract (MGM - Hooray for Love), died Friday, December 7 in Vancouver, where she had made her home for the past four decades.
Born in Chicago in 1916, as a child she studied dance at 'Mary Bruce's School of Dancing' and by age sixteen was performing in vaudeville chorus lines with the Whitman Sisters, as well as doing the social dances of the day like the Lindy hop and 'flash acts'.
In 1933 she started doing vaudeville with her half sister Wila May Lane as "Legon and Lane."
Jeni LeGon made her professional debut as a ‘chorine’ with the Count Basie Orchestra at the Uptown Theater in Chicago. She started dancing solo when a costume for a special chorus job didn't fit her boyish figure and she took to pants, launching a stage and film career that would span the ‘30s, 40s and 50s and found her still performing, teaching and mentoring through another four decades and into the new millennium.
Her early solo appearances took her to Hollywood with a show headed by Shelton Brooks (author of "Some of These Days") and Alberta Prime, where she was discovered by Earl Dancer, former manager of Ethel Waters. His guidance led to her screen debut with Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson in “Hooray for Love” in 1935. with R.K.O., and her contract with MGM.
She was released from the MGM contract to go to London for "Follow the Sun”, a version of “At Home Abroad” playing on Broadway and starring Bea Lillie, Eleanor Powell and Ethel Waters. Jeni did both Ethel’s and Eleanor's roles and then returned to New York to play the Apollo with Fats Waller and tour the East with various bands of the day.
Back to Hollywood, she made a number of movies, including “Easter Parade”, “I Walked with a Zombie”, and Cab Calloway’s 1937 film “Hi-De-Ho” in which she played the role of “Minnie the Moocher”.
During this period Jeni wrote the song “The Sping” with Phil Moore, which Lena Horne did in her first movie "Panama Hattie", produced by Arthur Freed. Playing the Paramount in LA with Fats Waller, Jeni was chosen for a leading role in "Early to Bed", the Broadway musical written by Fats.
She also appeared in episodes of the radio series Amos 'n Andy and the George Raft TV series.
Touring landed Jeni in Vancouver in the 1960s, where she decided to stay. She continued teaching, touring and choreographing shows and making movies, before she went to London again in 1985, at the age of 69, to take part in the World Theater Festival, featuring the Pelican Players from Toronto.
Jeni was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1987) and the Tap Dance Hall of Fame in Los Angeles (1993).
The National Film Board of Canada documentary of her life, “Living in a Great Big Way”, was released at the Montreal World Film Festival in August, 1999, and was given special mention as “an inspiring portrait of an incredible, vibrant 20th century woman”, by the jury at that year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
Oklahoma City University conferred on Jeni LeGon the Degree of Doctor of Performing Arts in American in 2002, a degree she liked to refer to as her “Doctor of Tapology degree”. That same year she was inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of Fame as part of the New York City Tap Festival, Tap City 2002.
In 2003 Jeni was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution where, with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, a special presentation was held at the National Museum of American History, “Jeni LeGon: Tappin‚ at the Smithsonian”. Her red tap shoes from “Ali Baba Goes to Town”, her costume and steel drum from her Jazz Caribe show, and papers and newspaper clippings from her career are now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of American History.
In 2005, months short of her 89th birthday, Dr. LeGon appeared as featured guest at the West Coast Tap Dance Collective’s Third Annual Tap Day Celebration, Turn on the Tap, at the Cultch. She appeared that June at the Sunshine Coast Film Society’s special presentation of the film, “Living in a Great Big Way”, co-presented with the Gibson Jazz Festival.
Her last screen appearance was in 2001 in the film with Snoop Dogg in the horror film “Bones” playing the part of 'Window Granny'.
Jeni lived in Vancouver with her husband, Vancouver born jazz percussionist Frank Clavin and continued to travel to take part in dance community celebrations, receive awards and tributes, and share her love for her art with appreciative students, colleagues and audiences well into her 90s.