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Sun, 04.09.1899

Leonard Harper, Stage Producer born

Leonard Harper

*Leonard Harper was born on this date in 1899; he was a Black producer, stager, and choreographer in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance.  

He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to William Harper, a performer, and his wife. Harper started dancing as a child to attract a crowd on a medicine show wagon, traveling throughout the South. In 1915, he first toured New York City and quickly moved to Chicago.  There he began choreographing and performing dance acts with Osceola Blanks of the Blanks Sisters, who became the first Black act for the Shubert Brothers. He married Blanks in 1923.  

Harper and Osceola Blanks performed in his first big revue, Plantation Days, when it opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1922–23. He began producing floor shows in Harlem and New York thereafter.  From 1923 to 1924, Harper offered the Duke Ellington Orchestra the house band position at the speakeasies, Connie's Inn in Harlem, and the Kentucky Club in Times Square. He was producing shows there, and the Duke Ellington orchestra played as the house band at the Kentucky Club for the next four years. At the suggestion of drummer Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington, his wife Edna, and their son Mercer Ellington lived in one of Harper's Harlem apartment bedrooms in the early 1920s.  

By 1925, Harper owned a Times Square dance studio where black dancers taught their dances to white performers.  As a nightclub and Broadway producer, Harper counted many stars, including Billie HolidayEthel Waters, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and more among his colleagues. He introduced Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway to New York show business and worked with Mae West, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, and Eubie Blake.  Harper was part of the transition team when the Deluxe Cabaret was turned into the Cotton Club, producing two of its first revues during its opening. His biggest milestone on the Great White Way was his staging of the Broadway hit Hot Chocolates, which established the classic Broadway show tunes "Black and Blue" and "Ain't Misbehavin."

Harper was one of the leading figures who transformed Harlem into a cultural center during the 1920s. His nightclub productions took place at Connie's Inn, the Lafayette Theatre, the (then) new Apollo Theatre, and other theatres in New York.  He also had a daughter, Jean Harper, out of wedlock with Fannie Pennington.  Harper's works spanned the worlds of vaudeville, cabaret, burlesque, and Broadway musical comedy.  As a dancer, choreographer, and studio owner, he coached many of the country's leading performers.  He produced floor shows and theatrical revues both uptown in Harlem and downtown on Broadway's Great White Way.  He co-directed and staged the ensemble segments of The Exile and the short film Darktown Revue with Oscar Micheaux. Harper staged for Broadway Hot Chocolates at the Hudson Theatre. He also produced Lindy Hop revues and an act called Harper's Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom.  

Leonard Harper died in Harlem, New York, on February 4, 1943.  A Harlem street was co-named after Harper on October 10, 2015, because of the efforts of his grandson, Grant Harper Reid.  Harper was named a 2015 NAACP History Maker.  

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