The National Theatre has seen many versatile performers cross its stage, yet few had the range, vocal or otherwise, of Pearl Bailey. Bailey was a singer and actress who excelled in all forms: theatre, concerts, television, film, you name it. In 1967, she was trusted with taking the lead in a groundbreaking production of the musical Hello, Dolly! that arrived in the midst of one of the most transformative decades in American history. When it came time to play The National, she seized a unique opportunity in the way only a true star could.
Pearl Bailey was born in Newport News, Virginia on March 9th, 1918 and spent a significant portion of her youth in the Washington area. Her father, Rev. Joseph James Bailey, was a pastor, and she credited the time spent in his church with helping her develop her musical abilities. Bailey gained notice at the age of 15 when she won an award at an amateur night in Philadelphia. She soon dropped out of high school to pursue a career full time and spent the rest of her youth and early adulthood treading the boards in cafes, nightclubs, and theatres throughout the northeastern United States. Along the way, she sang with big bands led by the likes of Cootie Williams and Count Basie, before arriving for an eight month stint at the Blue Angel in New York City, where she met friend and collaborator Cab Calloway, her future co-star in Hello, Dolly! She made her Broadway debut soon after, taking on a supporting role in the musical St. Louis Woman (1946). After building an impressive resume in big band and jazz music, Bailey started recording as a solo artist in the 1940s and went on to sign major contracts with Coral Records in 1952 and Roulette Records in 1959. Though she identified primarily as a singer, Bailey was much admired for her humor and excelled as an actress. This allowed her to build a career on stage and screen, leading to such film projects as Variety Girl (1947), Carmen Jones (1954), and the film adaptation of the opera Porgy and Bess (1959). Bailey was very much a known quantity, and the ideal person to lead an ambitious maneuver: installing an entirely new, all-Black cast into the Broadway production of the musical Hello, Dolly!
Now, changing cast members is the standard for Broadway shows that enjoy an extended run. It is rare, however, to rotate in an entirely new cast, and particularly one that completely changes the racial makeup of the show. Thankfully, this unusual change proved hugely successful from the moment the new cast began their pre-Broadway run at The National Theatre. In fact, it became such a sensation that it attracted the biggest name in the city. On November 4th, 1967, midway through the matinee, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird made an auspicious (and tardy) entrance. Because the house was already packed, two chairs were arranged in the aisle for the first couple. Despite the unusual accommodations, Lady Johnson led the rapturous ovation that greeted the end of the performance. Together, the Johnsons journeyed backstage to give their regards. Bailey quickly took the First Lady by the hand and led her and her husband out onstage, where they soaked up the applause and joined the audience in singing “Hello, Lyndon!” a reworking of the show’s title song. Johnson praised the performance and joined the cast for three curtain calls. Later that night, Bailey was photographed by Life magazine, launching her version of Dolly into the stratosphere. This unique moment at The National Theatre was the beginning of a new chapter for Bailey and a signal of the sort of renown she would soon attain. After excelling at The National, the new cast of Hello, Dolly! went on to revive the show’s fortunes on Broadway and earn an all new spate of acclaim, including a special Tony Award. The new cast even recorded its own cast album – unheard of at the time and still highly uncommon for a replacement cast.
Bailey’s big night at The National was significant in more ways than one. For starters, calling President Johnson to the stage brings into focus his role in helping advance equity in the United States by signing the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. In Bailey’s speech at the end of The National run (a copy of which is held in The National Theatre Archives), Bailey spoke extensively about love and hope, noting that “Whatever has been given must be shared by all: not relished, but shared.” Perhaps it was an indication of her faith in the better, more equitable future suggested by the Civil Rights Act. The show itself was also significant in that it helped popularize the trend of reimagining traditionally White shows with Black casts – that is to say, reimagining it to the extent of changing the racial makeup of the cast, rather than the material itself. While the trend provided many opportunities for Black performers, there was still a desire for genuinely new material generated by Black creators. Nevertheless, the American stage was gradually opening up to more diverse work, including new material, and the success of Hello, Dolly! played a part in that. In short, Pearl Bailey was playing the leading role in a production full of promise, a fact she seemed to be more than aware of.
Apart from signaling the launch of a major project, Bailey’s special moment in Washington gave a preview of the kind of acclaim she would go on to enjoy. After celebrating with LBJ, Bailey was later named a special ambassador to the United Nations by President Gerald Ford in 1975. This effectively installed her as a national treasure, a status further enhanced by the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. But national honors were not the only ones Bailey received. After dropping out of school at a young age, Bailey took up her education again at the age of 67 when she enrolled in Georgetown University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in theology, a qualification she duly earned. By the time she passed away in 1990 at the age of 72, Bailey had accumulated a remarkable record of success in theatre, music, film, television, and national politics. She had even hosted her own television show in the early 70s and published an impressive collection of books, including the memoirs The Raw Pearl (1968), Talking to Myself (1971), Hurry Up, America, and Spit (1976), and Between You and Me (1989), as well as the cookbook Pearl’s Kitchen (1973). Though her time at The National was short, her record, and her sense of the occasion, still stand the test of time.
Pearl Bailey was a singer at heart and enjoyed a prolific recording career, particularly during the 1950s and 60s. Though not a major commercial success, her recording of “Tired” (from the film Variety Girl) released in 1947 elevated her within the jazz community and established her as a performer of note. In 1952, she signed with Coral Records and enjoyed her first top ten hit, “Takes Two to Tango.” That was the same year she married drummer Louie Bellson, who left his position with the legendary Duke Ellington to become her musical director. In 1959, she signed with Roueltte and released the LP For Adults Only, a sensual album laden with double-entendres that was subsequently banned from the radio. Though she never sold records at the rate of an Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald, she was always able to draw a crowd, as evidenced by her continued success on Broadway, in concerts, and on such influential television programs as The Ed Sullivan Show. You can hear about the role The Ed Sullivan Show played in Bailey’s success, and the growing success of Black artists in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, by listening to this clip from the BBC Radio 2 program I Have a Dream. You can also hear actor Morgan Freeman talk about how Bailey influenced him in further clips here. For a comprehensive look at Bailey’s discography, including solo albums and collaborations, visit her page on AllMusic.
Bush, John. “Artists Biography: Pearl Bailey.” AllMusic.com. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/pearl-bailey-mn0000038100/biography, accessed 18 March, 2021.
Franklin, Marc J. “Celebrate Pearl Bailey’s Birthday by Revisiting Her Tony Awarded Performance in Hello, Dolly!” Playbill Online. Playbill Inc., 29 March, 2020, https://www.playbill.com/article/celebrate-pearl-baileys-birthday-by-revisiting-her-tony-awarded-performance-in-hello-dolly.
Hoffman, Warren. The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical. Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
“Pearl Bailey.” Brittanica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 11 February, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pearl-Bailey.
Wilson, John S. “Pearl Bailey, Musical Star and Humorist, Is Dead at 72.” The New York Times Online. The New York Times, 19 August, 1990, https://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/19/obituaries/pearl-bailey-musical-star-and-humorist-is-dead-at-72.html.