The Night Lena Horne Rescued the Joffrey Ballet: A Birthday Tribute

June 28, 2011
Huffington Post
Susan Dormady Eisenberg


Lena Horne would've turned 94 on June 30, and it's been more than a year since the world lost this ground-breaking singer whose sultry voice and stylish phrasing made her a legend. But when I think of Ms. Horne, I remember her as the unflappable diva who rescued a crucial fundraiser for the Joffrey Ballet. She may have saved the company itself that night, for all I know.

In the late seventies, I was Joffrey's New York marketing director, and I was chosen to be the staff liaison for the company's 1980 gala. That spring, I walked daily between the Joffrey's office suite at City Center and the Metropolitan Opera where our fundraiser was scheduled for April 13. I placed ads in the Times promoting the headliners: Luciano Pavarotti, then in his vocal prime, and Lena Horne who was developing the one-woman show she'd perform on Broadway -- to dazzling acclaim -- the next year. The Joffrey was back on its feet after some financial problems and was slated to make its only New York appearance of the 1979-80 season. Dancer-film star Gene Kelly had agreed to be our master of ceremonies.

Opportunities to hear Pavarotti then were scarce. He was 44 and arguably the most famous tenor on the planet, and his engagements sold out instantly. That's why his fans supported the Joffrey gala: they hoped to hear a few dazzling arias and some duets with soprano Judith Blegen. I assume it was the Joffrey's tireless chairman, Anthony A. Bliss, also general director of the Met, who prevailed upon Pavarotti and Ms. Blegen to lend their talents to our program, and his instincts were superb. Those opera stars paired with Lena Horne proved to be box-office magic. By the night of the show only a few seats remained in the upper tiers.

At dusk on April 13, 1980, the Met's starburst chandeliers threw light on the grand staircase as the well-dressed gala audience entered the lobby. I was standing there as our company manager dashed by. Noticing his pained expression I asked if anything was wrong, and he said, "You don't want to know." But then he ruefully said that Pavarotti had just called to cancel. "He's not coming?" I asked, utterly stunned. The company manager explained that when "the Pav" was flying back from Europe that day (or the day before), a passenger died. The plane had been diverted, and by Sunday night the tenor was so upset about having witnessed a death, or perhaps so exhausted from the protracted flight, he didn't feel like singing.

Suddenly numb, I recalled that Pavarotti had a reputation for canceling. Hadn't the idea surfaced in staff meetings that the company should ask another name singer to stand by? Just in case? But in the hurly-burly of gala preparations, this idea had fallen through the cracks.

I later learned that when the company manager ran backstage, he found our senior managers working on a remedy. The Joffrey Ballet was going to dance part one of the program, as planned, so our officials were begging Lena Horne to fill in part two, meaning she'd have to sing twice as many songs as she'd rehearsed. I heard that Ms. Horne summoned her music director, and they quickly decided she would do most of her nightclub act -- a last-minute reprieve.

The program began on time, and the Joffrey dancers performed with their youthful panache. Ms. Horne's second act was smashing. To this day I recall her dusky, sensual timbre, her charisma, and her rapport with the audience. It didn't surprise me when, a year later, she won a special Tony Award for Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music.

There was a pause after Ms. Horne's triumphant finale. Then Anthony Bliss walked onstage holding a breast shield, a humorous attempt to break the ice. Standing before the Met's curtain, Mr. Bliss gravely announced that Pavarotti was indisposed. There were whispers and moans but no boos, and after Mr. Bliss retreated the crowd filed into the lobby. Holders of the higher-priced tickets attended a reception at which Lena Horne's brilliance -- not Pavarotti's absence -- was the main topic.

For weeks afterward, it was my job to answer the irate, accusatory letters from patrons who thought the Joffrey had deceived them, advertising Pavarotti's appearance without expecting him to perform. Though I was an opera fan, I couldn't watch or listen to the tenor for years, resenting his behavior and its effect on the Joffrey's reputation. And by the way, I recently discussed this long-ago debacle with Donya Hubby, who at the time of the gala was the Joffrey's publicity director; she has lately served as the U.S. company manager for the Royal Danish Ballet. Ms. Hubby confirmed that the details I've described here also reflect her memories of the evening.

I left New York at the end of 1980 and slowly morphed into a freelance writer. Many of my articles feature opera, so I belatedly and inevitably fell under Pavarotti's spell. I viscerally understood why his fans had been so disappointed when he didn't show up: his tone was ineffably gorgeous even if his actions could be maddening. (Google "Pavarotti cancels" and you'll see what I mean.)

The great Lena Horne, of course, has held a special place in my heart for the past 31 years. What a gracious and generous artist; what a trouper in the finest sense of the word!

I'm just sorry I didn't meet Ms. Horne on that balmy April night. I would have expressed my admiration and my heartfelt thanks.