LeNoire, Rosetta 1911–2002
Rosetta LeNoire 1911–2002
Actress, singer, dancer, and producer, Rosetta LeNoire enjoyed a prolific career that spanned seventy years. However, it was not until the late 1980s that she found widespread fame with a recurring role on the hit television show Family Matters. According to the Los Angeles Times, the role of cranky but sweet Mother Winslow “earned her a core of fans who were so aggressive in their admiration that on two separate occasions she ended up in a neck brace and an arm sling after being hugged by them.” What many of Mother Winslow’s fans didn’t know was that LeNoire was used to sacrificing for her art. She had fought a debilitating childhood disease to first make her way on stage and later fought racial stigmatism throughout her career. With characteristic determination, she beat both odds to become a lauded performer and a major force in the integration of theater. In 1968 LeNoire founded the award-winning “color-blind” Amas Musical Theater. She is quoted on the theater’s website describing Amas’s unique power to transcend race: “I produce musicals. Music is one avenue where no one seems to have any discriminatory attitudes. Theatre techniques are a marvelous implement to bring people of all races, color and creeds together. You don’t worry about what color is; all you care about is the end product.”
LeNoire was born Rosetta Olive Burton on August 8, 1911, in the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Her father, Harold Charles Burton, hailed from the French West Indies and was one of the first African Americans in New York State to become a licensed plumber and electrical engineer. Her mother, Marie, died while LeNoire was still a child. It was a tragedy caused by racism. According to the Los Angeles Times, “[Marie] died of complications from giving birth to a younger brother when a Harlem hospital refused to treat her because she was black. The hospital later relented when an Irish policeman who went to the same Catholic church intervened, but doctors left her in the hallway, where she died of pneumonia.” It was not the first hardship to mar LeNoire’s young life. As a young child she contracted rickets, a vitamin C deficiency that affected her leg bones. To treat the crippling disease, doctors broke and reset the bones in both of her legs when she was just
At a Glance…
Born Rosetta Olive Burton on August 8, 1911, in New York, NY; died on March 17, 2002, in Teaneck, N); daughter of Harold Charles and Marie (Jacques) Burton; married William LeNoire, 1929, (divorced 1943); married Egbert F. Brown, 1948 (deceased); children: William, Education: Studied theater, Hunter College, New York. Religion: Catholic.
Career: AMAS Repertory Theater, New York, producer, writer, manager, founder, 1968-89. Stage: Macbeth, 1936; The Hot Mikado, 1939-40; Anna Lucasta, 1944; Carmen Jones, Westport County Playhouse, 1952; Mister Johnson, Martin Beck Theatre, 1956; Fido, Playhouse on the Malt, 1960; South Pacific, Center Theatre, 1961; Tambourines to Glory, Little Theatre, 1963; Blues for Mr. Charlie, American National Theatre and Academy Theatre, 1964; I Had a Ball, Martin Beck Theatre, 1964-65; The Sunshine Boys, Broad-hurst Theatre, 1972; A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivian Beaumont Theatre, St James Theatre, 1973; You Can’t Take It with You, Plymouth Theatre, 1983 Television; A World Apart, ABC/1969; The Guiding Light CBS, 1971-72; Another World, NBC, 1971-73; Ryan’s Hope, ABC, 1975; Gimme a Break, NBC, 1986-87; Amen, 1987-89; Family Matters, ABC, 1989-97, Film: Anna Lucasta, 1958; The Sunshine Boys, 1975; Mos cow on the Hudson, 1984; The Brother from Another Planet, 1984; Brewster’s Millions, 1985; Scandalize My Name: Stories from the Blacklist, 1998; Curtain Call, 2000.
Selected memberships: Screen Actors Guild (SAG); Actor’s Equity Association; adv bd mem, Off-Off Broadway Alliance; vice chair, Concerned Citizens for the Arts; bd of trustees, The Actors Fund of America; National Endowment for the Arts Grants Panel.
Selected awards; Board of Directors Award, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, 1977; Tribute to Greatness Award, 1980; Hoey Award, Catholic Interracial Council, 1985; Richard Coe Award, New Playwrights, 1986; Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture, 1986; National Medal for the Arts, 1999.
seven years old. Recuperation required her to wear leg braces until the age of 13.
Despite the suffering she endured as a child, she was inspired by her father, who was politically and socially active in the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance—a time of great artistic fervor in the African-American community of Harlem. Through her father’s connections LeNoire met the man who would become her lifelong mentor, legendary jazz composer Eubie Blake. She began music lessons with Blake at 13. According to amasmusical.org Blake also taught LeNoire to “look up and be proud of yourself” and “how to drink hot chocolate with marshmallows.” The Los Angeles Times also noted that Blake taught LeNoire to look at humanity like a garden made up of “beautiful flowers of so many colors.” The two remained close until Blake’s death at the age of 100.
Another of LeNoire’s mentors was famed tap-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who belonged to the same Elks Club as her father. Robinson became LeNoire’s godfather and she took to calling him “Uncle Bo.” He returned the endearment, calling her “Brown Sugar.” It was he who suggested that LeNoire begin dancing to strengthen her legs after her braces came off. By the age of 15, LeNoire had built up enough strength—and talent—to join the chorus line of Robinson’s dance troupe Time Steppers. The Los Angeles Times quoted LeNoire as saying of Robinson, “I worshipped him. He was the best dancer of all time. Period.”
On September 27, 1929, she married William LeNoire and the couple had a son before divorcing in 1943. In 1948 she married again, this time to Egbert F. Brown, owner of a fleet of New York taxis. Though they remained together for 26 years until Brown’s death, she retained LeNoire as her stage name. In 1936 she played the First Witch in the historic all-Black staging of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles. It was a profound experience for the young actress. Of Welles, LeNoire said, “Good lord! He was a delegate from heaven. He was the only one who had faith that blacks could bring the right dignity and sophistication to Shakespeare,” The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) noted. Three years later she made her debut on Broadway, joining Robinson onstage for an all-Black production of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Hot Mikado. “It was something,” The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) quoted her as saying. “There were 125 of us, all black Japanese.”
Over the next five decades, LeNoire would appear in dozens of productions, both on and off Broadway, with companies such as the American Negro Theater and the Corning Glass Theater, and with numerous touring companies. Notable Broadway appearances included A Streetcar Named Desire, The Sunshine Boys, You Can’t Take it With You, the revival of Cabin in the Sky, and a two year stint as Stella in Anna Lucasta. The latter, an all-Black production was made into an all-White film in 1949. Nine years later, the story underwent yet another color change and LeNoire reprised her role of Stella in a 1958 remake of the film starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Eartha Kitt. She also spent a lot of time on the road touring with numerous productions including Show Boat and South Pacific.
During this time the taint of racism was often present, limiting the roles she could pursue. The Los Angeles Times quoted LeNoire as saying that she played, “every maid’s role on Broadway.” In response to critics who blasted her for accepting such stigmatized roles, she found solace in always trying to “find the humanity underneath the stereotype.” Sometimes racism affected more than just her choice of role. In 1943 she was touring through the South with a United Service Organization (USO) production of You Can’t Take it With You when she saw an angry mob that had just lynched a black man. “Things like that never leave you,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
By the late 1960s LeNoire broke into television with appearances in a handful of soap operas including The Guiding Light from 1971 to 1972, and Another World from 1971 to 1973. She moved to prime time in the mid-1970s with a role on a forgettable short-lived CBS sitcom. Then in 1986 she landed a recurring role on Gimme a Break starring Nell Carter. The sitcom’s popularity helped LeNoire get noticed by executives at ABC who cast her as the live-in mother-in-law in their new comedy Family Matters. The show was a hit and aired from 1989 to 1997 with LeNoire’s Mother Winslow as an integral part of the story line. In 1997, ABC dropped the show and CBS picked it up for another year before discontinuing it. LeNoire also appeared in television specials, made-for-TV movies, and pilots. Meanwhile, after her debut on the big screen with Anna Lucasta in 1958, LeNoire continued to land roles in films including Neil Simon’s 1975 The Sunshine Boys, 1984’s The Brother from Another Planet, and 2000’s Oscar-nominated documentary Curtain Call. The latter film was made at the Actors’ Fund Nursing and Retirement Home in New Jersey where LeNoire spent her last years along with other retired performers.
Despite her success on stage and screen, LeNoire’s passion was the theater company she founded in 1968 during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. Named Amas, a Latin verb form of love, the theater was dedicated to promoting racial diversity onstage and fostering new, original work. According to the theater’s website, “Rosetta wanted to create a community where people could work together with emphasis on individual skills and without regard for race, creed, color, religion, or national origin.” LeNoire headed up the non-profit theater for over 33 years, often using her own money to keep it running. When she started pulling in big network paychecks from Family Matters Amas Musical Theater enjoyed the windfall. By 2002 the theater had produced over 60 original musicals including LeNoire’s 1975 Bubbling Brown Sugar which recounted the glory of the Harlem Renaissance. The musical went on to Broadway and London’s famed theater district, West End, before touring internationally. It was a smash success and received three Tony nominations including one for “Best Musical.” In 1976 LeNoire expanded on her vision of multiracial theater by creating the Eubie Blake Children’s Theatre, named for her beloved mentor. Based in Harlem, the Children’s Theatre taught not only performance skills, but also basic life skills. In addition to acting and singing, children learned about nutrition, hygiene, and self-esteem, while also being treated to a free, hot lunch. She was also a key figure in the Negro Actor’s Guild (NAG) and the Coordinating Council for Negro Performers (CCNP).
LeNoire’s incredible contributions to theater and her unwavering commitment to equality has landed her many awards including the Sojourner Truth Award from the Negro Professional Women, the Paul Robe-son Award from the Actors’ Equity Association, and the Kennedy Center Black Playwright’s Award. In 1999 she received the nation’s highest honor for the arts when President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of the Arts. The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) quoted Clinton as saying, “Rosetta did more than dream of a theater with no color bar—she built one.” LeNoire has also inspired an award. In 1988 the Actors’ Equity Union created the Rosetta LeNoire Award to recognize theaters and producers who hire and promote ethnic minorities.
On March 17, 2002, at the Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey, Rosetta LeNoire died. She was 90. She left behind her son, a sister, two brothers, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She also left behind a legacy of racial diversity in theater that continues to enrich the arts. The website of her beloved Amas Musical Theater noted, “It is because of Rosetta’s strength of spirit and mind that Amas, after three decades, continues to promote multiculturalism and racial tolerance in the New York City community.” However, her contribution to theater reverberates far outside the reaches of New York. Anytime a minority actor goes for a big role, breaks out of a racial stereotype, or simply pursues their own creativity, Rosetta LeNoire lives on.
American Theatre, November 2000, p. 10; May 2002, p. 13.
The Guardian (London, England), March 26, 2002, p. 20.
The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), March 29, 2002, p. 20.
Hollywood Reporter March 20, 2002, p. 29.
The Independent (London, England), March 25, 2002, p. 6.
Jet, April 15, 2002, p. 56.
The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), February 15, 2001, p. 29.
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