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Allen, Debbie 1950–

Debbie Allen 1950

Dancer, choreographer, director, actress

Creativity Fostered By Mother

Forced To Overcome Segregation In Dance

Launched Her Career on Broadway

Fame and Charity Garnered Awards

Moved Into Directing and Producing

Journeyed to Produce Amistad

Continued Acting While Pushing Boundaries

Returned to Dancing and Fame

Selected works

Sources

The critics agreeDebbie Allen is impossible to typecast. Im an artist, she told the New York Times. Thats probably the shortest definition for this dynamic and multifaceted performer, who is known as an actress, dancer, singer, choreographer, director, and producer. She has been blessed not only with boundless talent, but with a dedication and zeal that she brings to every project. She believes firmly in the value of hard work, and scoffs at the idea of fate. Good things happen, she knows, if you are ready when opportunity knocks.

Creativity Fostered By Mother

Allen was born on January 16, 1950, the third child of Vivian Ayers, a poet, and Arthur Allen, a dentist. Her parents met while both were studying at Howard University. Arthur Allen began his dental practice in New York City, and eventually moved to Houston, where Debbie was born. There were many lean years, Allen reminisced in the Washington Post, because Daddys practice was just starting. He would fix peoples teeth free if they had no money. Her mother concentrated on her writing projects, but earned little. There were times when we didnt have things, Allen continued. But we didnt worry about that. Because Momma made us know that we had each other and that the stars and universe belonged to us. Allen is grateful to her mother, she told the Chicago Tribune, for raising me with the concept of being a human being in the universe. The universe, thats something much bigger than any street, any city, any state. It means you are not limited. You are boundless.

Allens parents divorced in 1957, split apart, she believed, by conflict over her mothers literary career. There was too much pressure on their relationship, she told the Washington Post. Her mothers poetry was eventually nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; she also wrote plays and published a magazine.

Allen was three when she began dancing, and knew by the time she was four that she wanted to perform. I was always imitating the ladies in the circus, she told the Chicago Tribune. I used to climb trees in the back of my house to get on the roof. Id put on my bathing suit and put a towel around my neck and I would dance around. When she was five, she began taking private

At a Glance

Born on January 16, 1950, in Houston, TX; daughter of Vivian Ayers Allen (a poet) and Arthur Allen (a dentist); married Winfred Wilford, 1975 (divorced 1983); married Norman Nixon, 1984; children: Vivian Nichole, Norman, Jr, Education: Howard University, BA, 1971.

Career: Theatrical performer, 1972-; actress, 1977-; director, 1982-; producer, 1982-; choreographer, 1982-; composer, 1997-; playwright, 1998-; author, 1999-; Debbie Allen Dance Academy, founder/dance director, 2001 -.

Selected awards: Drama Desk Award and Tony award nomination for best supporting actress in musical for West Side Story, 1980; two Emmy awards for choreography, and a Golden Globe Award for best actress for Fame, 1982-83; Tony Award for best actress in musical for Sweet Charity, 1986; two Emmy nominations for The Debbie Allen Show, 1988; Career Achievement Award, Acapulco Black Film Festival, 1998; Lifetime Achievement Award, American Women in Radio and Television, 2001; Strong, Smart and Bold Award, Girls Inc, of Greater Houston, 2002.

Addresses: Office William Morris Agency, 151 S El Camino Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90212-2775.

dance lessons; at eight, inspired by an Alvin Ailey dance troupe performance, she was determined to pursue a theatrical career.

The Allen children were groomed for an artistic life from early on (older sister Phylicia Rashad starred as Claire Huxtable on televisions the Cosby Show, and brother Tex Allen is a jazz musician). Their mother gave them writing assignments to encourage their creativity, and made each of them wash and iron their own clothes to foster independence. Each was assured, Debbie told the Washington Post, I am the most special one. Their daily recited motto was: Be true. Be beautiful. Be free.

In 1960 Vivian Ayers took her daughters to live with her in Mexico. She didnt know anybody in Mexico, Debbie recalled in the Washington Post. She didnt speak Spanish. She was looking for another level of experience. She said, It is time to go. I respect that so much.

Forced To Overcome Segregation In Dance

After about two years in Mexico, Allen and her family returned to Texas. When Allen was 12 she tried out for the Houston Ballet School, but it refused to accept black students. A year later a Russian dancer who saw her perform secretly enrolled her in the school, revealing the plot three months later. By the time she showed me to them, Allen told the Washington Post, I was dancing so great they couldnt deny it.

Segregation circumscribed her life in other ways during those years, limitations she has not forgotten. I grew up with water fountains at Woolworths that said black and white, she said in the Chicago Tribune. I grew up not being able to go to the movie theater downtown; I grew up not being able to go to the amusement park, except one day a year; I grew up in a school system that was totally segregated. But her mother prevented the Allen children from being stifled by the bigotry that surrounded them. Momma was raising us in the midst of segregation and racism to be independent and free, Allen declared in the Washington Post. We saw ourselves as citizens of the world. Not a block. This is probably why we succeed and keep doing different things.

In high school Allen took ten dance classes a week and still managed to stay on the honor rollprobably one of the reasons she was nicknamed Miss Versatile by her fellow students. At 16 she auditioned as a classical ballet student for the North Carolina School of the Arts. Her hopes soared when she was chosen to demonstrate technique for other prospective students; however, the judges rejected her application, saying that her body was unsuited for balleta criticism often used to impede black dancers. She was advised to pursue modern dance instead.

Allen was devastated. When I called my dad, she said in the Washington Post, he thought I was joking. On her return, her mother greeted her with the words, I cant believe you failed. When she said that, Allen recalled, it was like a knife was turning and twisting in my heart. Cruel as the remark may seem, today Allen finds it inspiring. Even though we knew ultimately that it was a racial thing, she continued, she didnt let me blame anyone but myself. That experience taught me to overcome what may seem to be limitations.

Launched Her Career on Broadway

After graduation Allen joined her sister, Phylicia, at Howard University. The stinging memory of the incident in North Carolina, however, had taken all desire to dance from her. I was just too devastated, she told the Washington Post Then one night I was at a party. A man came over and said, Your sister tells me you can really dance. Yeah. I said. Well, why dont you come dance with me? he asked. I can dance too. The man, who would become her mentor, was Mike Malone, well known in Washington, D.C. When he saw her perform, he was stunned: My God, he exclaimed, you can dance.

Returning to dance was practically a rebirth for Allen. She graduated cum laude from Howard in 1971 with a degree in drama. Her ambitions renewed, she set off for Broadway and then vigorously pursued the career she had dreamed of since childhood. She was so determined to succeed in show business, she refused the day jobs that usually pay aspiring actresses rent. Recalling those early months, she told the Washington Post, I pounded pavements, went to every audition. That was my spirit. Work at whatever you do, whether you get paid or not. I got that from my mother. Her tenacity paid off in 1972 with a chorus line stint in Purlie, followed a year later by the role of Beneatha in the musical Raisin. She stayed with the show for two years before she branched out into television, working in commercials and series.

In 1975 Allen married Winfred Win Wilford, an actor and fellow cast member. A Southerner like herself, he hailed from Baton Rouge, her fathers hometown. When he asked me to marry him, she remembered in the Washington Post, I asked him, Why? He said, So I can take care of you. That sounded nice. And we got married. But like her parents marriage, this relationship was also highly pressured.

In 1977 she landed the starring role in an NBC series called 3 Girls 3; the show earned good reviews but was unable to garner the ratings that would have kept it afloat. The network pulled the plug. Television chews you up, she remarked in the Chicago Tribune, recalling her last day on the 3 Girls 3 set. I was dancing at the timewearing a fantastic Bob Mackie outfitand I had great directors and writers and choreographers around me. When we finishedI mean, I did this dance like Id never done itI stood there and watched them start to tear the set down! And I sat down and cried because I was not ready to let go of what I had just given.

The setback was temporary, however. During the same year, Allen portrayed Adelaide on Broadway in the musical Guys and Dolls, appeared in such television series as Good Times and The Love Boat, and landed a role in the TV movie Midnight Special. In 1979 she returned to Broadway in Aint Misbehavin, and appeared in as well as choreographed the film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.

Fame and Charity Garnered Awards

Her reputation as an actress burgeoning, Debbie appeared in the 1980 Broadway revival of West Side Story, where her portrayal of Anita earned her a Tony Award nomination. In the same year, she won the part of dance teacher Lydia Grant in the movie Fame, a role with which she would become closely identified. The movie was one of the biggest hits of the early 1980s and it brought Allen a level of stardom she had not been able to find on the stage.

Hoping to capture the popularity of the film, Fame became a TV series in 1982, with Allen reprising her role and acting as the shows choreographer. The series ran for one season on network television, and an additional four in syndication, netting Allen three Emmy awards for choreography. During her stint with the show, she began to direct whole episodes as well as dance numbers.

Success, unfortunately, exacted a personal toll. Her marriage to Wilford collapsed under the strain of their careers; they separated in 1982 and divorced a year later. Divorce was the most difficult decision of my life, she said in the Washington Post, because he was such a nice man. An old friendship, however, soon turned into romance. Allen had met Norman Nixon, then an all-star guard on the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, while shooting The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. When she first went to see him play, she told the Washington Post, I didnt know anything about basketball, but I could tell that he was a beautiful player. They were married in 1984, and have two children.

In 1986 Debbie Allen became a star in her own right when she headlined Bob Fosses revival of the musical Sweet Charity. Fosse gave her the freedom to interpret the role for herselfa daunting task, since it had been created on stage by the legendary Gwen Verdon and played in the film version by Shirley MacLaine. Allens performance was honored with a Tony Award.

Moved Into Directing and Producing

In 1988 Allens stature as a director was confirmed when she was chosen to direct (and eventually produce) the troubled Cosby show spinoff, A Different World, which was floundering after its first season. What I saw was some very engaging and compelling characters and here and there a good story, she told the New York Times. But mostly it was so silly. Allen beefed up the scripts with meatier plots and more realistic characters, addressing serious social and political topics while maintaining the shows comedic edge. She not only saved the series, she boosted it to the top of the ratings. She would continue to produce and direct the show until it went off the air in 1993.

Her talents were further highlighted in 1989 when she directed and choreographed her first movie, the Disney TV musical Polly. The film, an adaptation of the novel Pollyanna, was reset in a black Alabama community of the 1950s. The story gently reflects the rising tide of the civil rights movement, a dose of reality on which Allen insisted. She (and her husband) even composed one of the shows songs, a gospel number called Stand Up, which is sung by a cast of 200. Im good with big groups of people, she told the Chicago Tribune.

In the 1990s and on into the 2000s, Allen continued to direct as well as produce for both the big and the small screen. Her television directing credits included Stompiri at the Savoy, a TV movie about four black women whose lives centered around Harlems Savoy Ballroom in the years before World War II, comedies such as The Sinbad Show, The Jamie Foxx Show, Between Brothers, and Lines, and shows centered around womens issues such as the television movie The Old Settler, and the ongoing series Cool Women, for the WE network.

Journeyed to Produce Amistad

Perhaps one of the most important projects that Allen worked on was the Steven Spielberg movie Amistad, a tale of slaves who took over a slaveship and attempted to return to Africa only to be caught and tried for mutiny. The story of the Amistad and its crew came to the attention of Allen in 1979 when she was visiting her father at Howard University and came across a book called Amistad I: Writings in Black History and Culture. As soon as she had read the book, Allen knew that it was an event that the world needed to hearand a feature film if ever there was one, as she told Essence

However, the road to getting Amistad made was not an easy one for Allen to travel. She bought the film rights to a novelized story of the events, Black Mutiny and began working up a treatment of it for the screen. Between 1984 and 1989, Allen shopped the story around to every movie studio and agent that she could find, but no one expressed any interest in the product. As she told Essence, I was stunned and amazed to meet such an across-the-board negative reaction. By 1989 Allen became discouraged and decided to stop pushing the story of the Amistad to studios, focusing instead on her other directorial and acting projects.

In late 1990, word about Steven Spielbergs film Schindlers List began floating around Hollywood, a movie that many people thought would never get made. From a commercial standpoint, it was perceived as a depressing film that would repel audiences. Spielberg, however, went ahead with the movie and not only was it a commercial success, but it garnered critical acclaim as well. This spurred Allen to take her script directly to Dreamworks, Spielbergs film company, and she found that they were not only open to the idea of making Amistad, they were actually very excited about it. But Allen wanted more than just Dreamworks on the project, she wanted Spielberg to direct. At first Spielberg was hesitant after the mixed public reaction to his movie The Color Purple, but after much prodding by Allen, Spielberg agreed. It was a very emotional moment for Allen, as she told Essence, I knew we were going to make the movie, that I would produce it, and I knew that he had to direct it. I had moments that I would never forget.

Continued Acting While Pushing Boundaries

Even though Allen worked a good deal as a director and a producer in the 1990s and 2000s, she also continued to act on both the big and small screen. She appeared in a couple of television movies, before moving back to feature films with Blank Check, the dark comedy Mona Must Die, and Out of Sync. She returned to television in the late 1990s with the TV series In the House with LL Cool J and in the television movie Michael Jordan: An American Hero as Jordans mother, Debris. She also starred in the PBS television movie The Old Settler, with her sister, Phylicia Rashad. Allen told Jet that the experience was special because she and her sister had acted together, but not like this. These women are dealing with some serious issues, the war, the depression, racial issues.

In 1998 Allen began to reap the rewards of a long fruitful career. She was honored by the Kennedy Center when she was asked to help revamp the childrens drama program, starting with the play Brothers of the Knight with James Ingram. Later that year she was honored with a Career Achievement Award from the Acapulco Black Film Festival. In 2001 she was honored by the American Women in Radio and Television with a Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2002 she received the Strong, Smart and Bold Award from Girls Inc. of Greater Houston.

Always looking to push the boundaries of her abilities, Allen began to branch out into different venues. In October of 1999 she co-authored Brothers of the Knight, an adaptation of her stage play for the Kennedy Center. She followed this in September of 2000 with Dancing in the Wings, a fictional story about a dancer who is coming to terms with her body. In 2002 she debuted Debbie Allens 5-Step Skin Care Collection, a line of skin care products specifically created for women of color. Allen told the PR News-wire that she created the products because Ive never been able to find a single line of products that can address all of my skin care needs.

Returned to Dancing and Fame

Even though she had many things going for her, Allen still found time to devote to her first loves, dance and theater. In 2001 she opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City, California, and she used the academy to develop the show Pearl, for the Geffen Playhouse in association with the Kennedy Center in 2002. Pearl is an updated story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that revolves around singing and dance.

Allen not only wrote the script and music for the musical, but she also choreographed, directed, and starred in it alongside her daughter, Vivian Nixon.

Most recently, Allen has returned to television with the reality television show Fame. The show has Allen going around the nation looking for the next great entertainer. The contestants must be able to sing, dance, and act to compete, and the competition between the twenty-four finalists is intense. Allen said that she was drawn to the Fame reality show because it pushed for people to be the best, not for one single moment or performance, but over a variety of performances over time. She told Jet People can be really talented, but they might not make it beyond one step of that glorious moment of stardom, so to speak, if they dont have the work ethic that it takes to continue to study, to continue to develop and to stay sharp with what you do. She is hoping the show will revitalize Americas love of dance and will inspire young dancers to try their hardest to achieve their goals.

Despite her many accomplishments, Debbie Allen is not one to rest on her laurels. Like you, I am still a work in progress, she told graduates of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West, a speech that was quoted in the Washington Post. She urged them to learn from their mistakes, calling failure the really bad F-word. Its something you cant be afraid of, because youll stop growing. And the next step beyond failure could be your biggest success in life.

Selected works

Books

Brothers of the Knight, Dial Books for Young Readers, 1999.

Dancing In the Wings, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2000.

Film

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, 1979.

Fame, 1980.

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, 1986.

Blank Check, 1994.

Mona Must Die, 1994.

Out-of-Sync, 1995.

Everythings Jake, 2000.

All About You, 2001.

The Painting, 2002.

As director

Out-of-Sync, 1995.

As producer

Amistad, 1997.

The Painting, 2002.

Television

3 Girls 3, NBC 1977.

Ebony, Ivory and Jade, 1979.

Fame, (TV series) NBC, 1982-87.

The Debbie Allen Show, ABC, 1988.

Stompin at the Savoy, 1992.

In the House, NBC, 1995-96.

Michael Jordan: An American Hero, 1999.

The Old Settler, PBS, 2001.

Fame, (reality show) NBC, 2003.

As director

Fame, NBC, 1982-87.

Family Ties, NBC, 1982.

Different World, 1988-1993.

Polly, ABC, 1989.

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NBC, 1990.

Stompin at the Savoy, 1992.

The Sinbad Show, FOX, 1993.

The Jamie Foxx Show, WB, 1996.

Between Brothers, FOX, 1997.

Lines, Showtime, 1998.

Cool Women, WE, 2000.

The Old Settler, PBS, 2001.

As producer

Fame, NBC, 1982-87.

Different World, 1987-1993.

Sunday in Paris, 1991.

The Old Settler, PBS, 2001.

Fame, NBC, 2003.

Theater

Purlie, 1972.

Raisin, 1973.

Guys and Dolls, 1977.

Aint Misbehaving 1979.

West Side Story, 1980.

Sweet Charity, 1986.

Brothers of the Knight, 1998.

Pearl, 2003.

Sources

Books

Estell, Kenneth, editor, The African American Almanac, 6th ed., Gale, 1994, pp. 956-57.

Walz, Barbra, and Jill Barber, Starring Mothers, Dolphin/Doubleday, 1987.

Periodicals

Black Issues Book Review, March 2001, p. 82.

Business Wire, April 29, 2002.

Calendar, March 27, 1988, p. 51.

Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1989; November 15, 1990; December 23, 1990, sec 11, p. 3.

Essence, December 17, 1997, pp. 82-86.

Jet, August 10, 1998, p. 63; February 26, 2001, p. 61; December 16, 2002, p. 52; July 7, 2003, pp. 60-63.

Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1989, sec. VI, p 1.

New York Times, October 4, 1990, p. C26; March 29, 1992, sec. 2, p. 35.

Parade, November 17, 1991, p. 4.

PR Newswire, April 11, 2001; June 6, 2002.

U.S. News & World Report, July 20, 1998, p. 10.

Variety, June 2, 2003, p. A14.

Washington Post, February 4, 1996, p. G8.

On-line

Debbie Allen, Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com (September 30, 2003).

Amy Loerch Strumolo and Ralph G. Zerbonia

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Allen, Debbie 1950–

Debbie Allen 1950

At a Glance

Secretly Enrolled in Ballet School

Launched Career on Broadway

Directed Television Series, Films

Sources

Dancer, choreographer, director, actress

The critics agreeDebbie Allen is impossible to typecast. Im an artist, she told the New York Times. Thats probably the shortest definition for this dynamic and multifaceted performer, who is known as an actress, dancer, singer, choreographer, director, and producer. She has been blessed not only with boundless talent, but with a dedication and zeal that she brings to every project. She believes firmly in the value of hard work, and scoffs at the idea of fate. Good things happen, she knows, if you are ready when opportunity knocks.

Allen was born on January 16, 1950, the third child of Vivian Ayers, a poet, and Arthur Allen, a dentist. Their parents met while both were studying at Howard University. Arthur Allen began his dental practice in New York City, and eventually moved to Houston, where Debbie was born. There were many lean years, Allen reminisced in the Washington Post,because Daddys practice was just starting. He would fix peoples teeth free if they had no money. Her mother concentrated on her writing projects, but earned little. There were times when we didnt have things, she continued. But we didnt worry about that. Because Momma made us know that we had each other and that the stars and universe belonged to us. Allen is grateful to her mother, she told the Chicago Tribune, forraising me with the concept of being a human being in the universe. The universe, thats something much bigger than any street, any city, any state It means you are not limited. You are boundless.

Allens parents divorced in 1957, split apart, she believes, by conflict over her mothers literary career. There was too much pressure on their relationship, she told the Washington Post. Her mothers poetry was eventually nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; she also wrote plays and published a magazine.

Allen was three when she began dancing, and knew by the time she was four that she wanted to perform. I was always imitating the ladies in the circus, she told the Chicago Tribune. I used to climb trees in the back of my house to get on the roof. Id put on my bathing suit and put a towel around my neck and I would dance around. When she was five, she began taking private dance lessons; at eight, inspired by an Alvin Ailey dance troupe performance, she was determined to pursue a theatrical career.

At a Glance

B orn January 16, 1950, in Houston, TX; daughter of Vivian Ayers Allen (a poet) and Arthur Allen (a dentist). Married Winfred Wilford, 1975 (divorced, 1983); married Norman Nixon, 1984; children: Vivian Ntchole, Norman, Jr. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1971.

Appeared on Broadway in Purlie,1972; Raisin,1973; Guys and Dolls, 1977; Aint Misbehavin; 1979; West Side Story, 1980;Sweet Charity, 1986. Allen also choreographed Carrie in 1988. Appeared in films: Fame, 1980; Under Fire, 1981; Ragtime, 1981; The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, which she choreographed, 1979; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, 1986; Mona Must Die,1994; Blank Check,1994; Forget Paris, which she choreographed, 1995. Appeared in television movies: Greatest Thing That Almost Happened, 1977;Midnight Special,1977; Ebony, Ivory, and Jade,1980; Women of San Quentin, 1983; and Stompin at the Savoy, which she directed, 1992; and miniseries: Roots: The Next Generation,1979, and Celebrity,1984. Wrote, choreographed, directed, and produced The Debbie Allen Show, 1988. Appeared in series: 3 Girls 3,1977; Fame, which she also choreographed and directed, 1982-87; A Different World, which she directed, 1988-92; and In the House,1995.

Selected awards: Drama Desk Award and Tony award nomination for best supporting actress in musical (West Side Story), 1980; two Emmy awards for choreography, and a Golden Globe Award for best actress (Fame), 1982-83; Tony Award for best actress in musical (Sweet Charity), 1986; two Emmy nominations for The Debbie Allen Show, 1988.

Addresses: Office Wolf-Kasteler, 1033 Gayley Ave., Suite 208, Los Angeles, CA 90024-3417.

The Allen children were groomed for an artistic life from early on (older sister Phylicia Rashad starred as Claire Huxtable on televisions the Cosby Show, and brother Tex Allen is a jazz musician). Their mother gave them writing assignments to encourage their creativity, and made each of them wash and iron their own clothes to foster independence. Each was assured, Debbie told the Washington Post, I am the most special one. Their daily recited motto was: Be true. Be beautiful. Be free.

In 1960 Vivian Ayers took Debbie and Phylicia to live with her in Mexico. She didnt know anybody in Mexico, Debbie recalled in the Washington Post. She didnt speak Spanish. She was looking for another level of experience. She said, It is time to go. I respect that so much.

Secretly Enrolled in Ballet School

After about two years in Mexico, they returned to Texas. When Debbie was 12 she tried out for the Houston Ballet School, but it refused to accept black students. A year later a Russian dancer who saw her perform secretly enrolled her in the school, revealing the plot three months later. By the time she showed me to them, Debbie laughed in the Washington Post, I was dancing so great they couldnt deny it.

Segregation circumscribed her life in other ways during those years, limitations she has not forgotten. I grew up with water fountains at Woolworths that said black and white, she said in the Chicago Tribune. I grew up not being able to go to the movie theater downtown; I grew up not being able to go to the amusement park, except one day a year; I grew up in a school system that was totally segregated. But her mother prevented the Allen children from being stifled by the bigotry that surrounded them. Debbie declared in the Washington Post that seeing themselves as citizens of the world probably accounted for their success in such diverse pursuits.

In high school Debbie took ten dance classes a week and still managed to stay on the honor rollprobably one of the reasons she was nicknamed Miss Versatile by her fellow students. At 16 she auditioned as a classical ballet student for the North Carolina School of the Arts. Her hopes soared when she was chosen to demonstrate technique for other prospective students; however, the judges rejected her application, saying that her body was unsuited for balleta criticism often used to impede black dancers. She was advised to pursue modern dance instead.

Debbie was devastated. When I called my dad, she said in the Washington Post,he thought I was joking. On her return, her mother greeted her with the words, I cant believe you failed. When she said that, Allen recalled, it was like a knife was turning and twisting in my heart. Cruel as the remark may seem, today Allen finds it inspiring. Even though we knew ultimately that it was a racial thing, she continued, she didnt let me blame anyone but myself. That experience taught me to overcome what may seem to be limitations.

After graduation Debbie joined her sister Phylicia at Howard University. The stinging memory of the incident in North Carolina, however, had taken all desire to dance from her. I was just too devastated, she told the Washington Post. Then one night I was at a party. A man came over and said, Your sister tells me you can really dance. Yeah. I said. Well, why dont you come dance with me? he asked. I can dance too. The man, who would become her mentor, was Mike Malone, well known in Washington, D.C. When he saw her perform, he was stunned: My God, he exclaimed,you can dance.

Returning to dance was practically a rebirth for Allen. She graduated cum laude from Howard in 1971 with a degree in drama. Her ambitions renewed, she set off for Broadway and the career she had dreamed of since childhood.

Launched Career on Broadway

Allens pursuit of a theatrical career was relentless. So determined was she to succeed in show business, she refused the day jobs that usually pay aspiring actresses rent. Recalling those early months, she told the Washington Post,I pounded pavements, went to every audition. That was my spirit. Work at whatever you do, whether you get paid or not. I got that from my mother. Her tenacity paid off in 1972 with a chorus line stint in Purlie, followed a year later by the role of Beneatha in the musical Raisin. She stayed with the show for two years before she branched out into television, working in commercials and series.

In 1975 Allen married Winfred Win Wilford, an actor and fellow cast member. A Southerner like herself, he hailed from Baton Rouge, her fathers hometown. When he asked me to marry him, she remembered in the Washington Post, I asked him, Why? He said, So I can take care of you. That sounded nice. And we got married. But like her parents marriage, this relationship was also highly pressured.

In 1977 Allen landed the starring role in an NBC series called 3 Girls 3; the show earned good reviews but was unable to garner the ratings that would have kept it afloat. The network pulled the plug. Television chews you up, she remarked in the Chicago Tribune, recalling her last day on the 3 Girls 3 set.I was dancing at the timewearing a fantastic Bob Mackie outfitand I had great directors and writers and choreographers around me. When we finishedI mean, I did this dance like Id never done itI stood there and watched them start to tear the set down! And I sat down and cried because I was not ready to let go of what I had just given.

The setback was temporary, however. During the same year, Allen portrayed Adelaide on Broadway in the musical Guys and Dolls, appeared in such television series as Good Times and The Love Boat, and landed a role in the TV movie Midnight Special. In 1979 she returned to Broadway in Aint Misbehavin, and both appeared in and choreographed the film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.

Her reputation as an actress burgeoning, Allen appeared in the 1980 Broadway revival of West Side Story, where her portrayal of Anita earned her a Tony Award nomination. In the same year, she won the part of dance teacher Lydia Grant in the movie Fame, a role with which she would become closely identified.

The film became a TV series in 1982, with Allen reprising her role and acting as the shows choreographer. The series ran for one season on network television, and an additional four in syndication, netting Allen three Emmy awards for choreography. During her stint with the show, she began to direct whole episodes as well as dance numbers.

Success, unfortunately, exacted a personal toll. Allens marriage to Wilford collapsed under the strain of their careers; they separated in 1982 and divorced a year later. An old friendship, however, soon turned into romance. Allen had met Norman Nixon, then an all-star guard on the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, while shooting The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. They were married in 1984, and have two children.

Marriage and motherhood have enhanced her career, Allen says, and making her even more creative, although she drew a fierce line between them in the book Starring Mothers: As a professional woman, I have to be aggressive about my work since my fielddirecting and producingis dominated by men. Im a woman and a mother, though, and my family comes first. If I were injured and my career ended, [her daughter] Vivian would still be there and Id have to raise her. If all the autograph hunters went away, she would still love me. Its not a security blanket; its a fact of life.

In 1986 Debbie Allen became a star in her own right when she headlined Bob Fosses revival of the musical Sweet Charity. Fosse gave her the freedom to interpret the role for herselfa daunting task, since it had been created on stage by the legendary Gwen Verdon and played in the film version by Shirley Maclaine. Allens performance was honored with a Tony Award.

Directed Television Series, Films

In 1988 Allens stature as a director was confirmed when she was chosen to direct (and eventually produce) the troubled Cosby-show spinoff, A Different World, which was floundering after its first season. What I saw was some very engaging and compelling characters and here and there a good story, she told the New York Times. But mostly it was so silly. Allen beefed up the scripts with meatier plots and more realistic characters, addressing serious social and political topics while maintaining the shows comedie edge. She not only saved the series, she boosted it to the top of the ratings.

Allens talents were further highlighted in 1989, when she directed and choreographed her first movie, the Disney TV musical Polly. The film, an adaptation of the novel Pollyanna, was reset in a black Alabama community of the 1950s. The story gently reflects the rising tide of the civil rights movement, a dose of reality on which Allen insisted. She (and her husband) even composed one of the shows songs, a gospel number called Stand Up, which is sung by a cast of 200. Im good with big groups of people, she told the Chicago Tribune.

In the 1990s Allen continued her association with A Different World and moonlighted on other projects, like the network special Motown 30: Whats Coin On. The show celebrated the Motown record labels thirtieth anniversary, and included a retrospective, choreographed by Allen, that traced black-inspired dance from Africa through the twentieth century. She also directed and starred in Stompin at the Savoy, a TV movie about four black women whose lives centered around Harlems Savoy Ballroom in the years before World War II.

Despite her many accomplishments, Debbie Allen is not one to rest on her laurels. Like you, I am still a work in progress, she told graduates of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West, a speech that was quoted in the Washington Post. She urged them to learn from their mistakes, calling failure the really bad F-word. Its something you cant be afraid of, because youll stop growing And the next step beyond failure could be your biggest success in life. She should know.

Sources

Books

Estell, Kenneth, editor, The African American Almanac, 6th ed., Gale, 1994, pp. 956-957.

Walz, Barbra, and Jill Barber, Starring Mothers, Dol-phin/Doubleday, 1987.

Periodicals

Calendar, March 27, 1988, p. 51.

Chicago Tribune, November 12,1989; November 15,1990; December 23, 1990, sec 11, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1989, sec. VI, p 1.

New York Times, October 4,1990, p. C26; March 29, 1992, sec. 2, p. 35.

Parade, November 17, 1991, p. 4.

Washington Post, February 4, 1996, p. G8.

Amy Loerch Strumolo

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Allen, Debbie

Debbie Allen

Singer, dancer, actress, director

Credits Family for Achievements

Overcame Rejection

Fame Brought Stardom

Selected discography

Sources

The word multi-talented could have been coined just to refer to Debbie Allen. As a song-and-dance entertainer, she thrilled Broadway audiences with her work in revivals of West Side Story and Sweet Charity. On television, she not only choreographed and helped direct the award-winning series Fame, she starred in it as well. Her long string of film credits for both the large and small screen includes Ragtime; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling; and Women of San Quentin. Beginning in the late 1980s she earned credentials as producer and director of the hit situation comedy A Different World.

Im very ficklewhatever Im doing at the moment is the thing I like best, Allen confessed in McCalls. She added: Im a passionate woman, and Im moved to work because it makes me feel so good. If I didnt love my work, I wouldnt have the energy to do all the things Ive done. But my work is a discipline, a way of life.

Those who know Allen describe her as a consummate professional who is serious, focused, and determined. Both behind the camera and in front of it, she resembles the character she played in the television series Fame a dance teacher who constantly prodded her students to work harder and longer, to strive for perfection. Performing, she asserted in Essence, is beat up and mixed up in a lot of sweat and blood and tears. Anyone who talks about the glamour of this profession should experience a show like Fame to know that the glamour is only icing on the cake.

Credits Family for Achievements

Allen attributes her success to her unorthodox childhood with her mother, Vivian Ayers. The youngest daughter in a family of four children, she showed an interest in the performing arts, especially dance, at a very early age. When I was five my mother saw that I could be a great dancer, Allen declared in Essence. So she helped make it happen for me. If she had let it slide, I might be in a real different place right now. Allen was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and though her parents divorced when she was four, she remained on cordial terms with both of them. In Ebony, the performer described her dentist father as a wonderful, fantastic man.

Allen also received encouragement from her older sister, Phylicia Rashad. Everything Ive done, Phylicias helped me do, Allen acknowledged in McCalls. We were very close growing up, and I guess weve gotten even closer as we get older. Although the sisters

For the Record

Born Deborah Allen, January 16, 1950, in Houston, TX; daughter of Andrew Allen (a dentist) and Vivian Ayers (an artist); married Win Wilford (a record executive; divorced); married Norman Nixon (a former professional basketball player and real estate broker), 1984; children: (second marriage) Vivian, Norm, Jr. Education: Howard University, B.A. (cum laude).

Actress, dancer, and singer appearing in plays, including Purlie, 1972, Raisin, 1973, Aint Misbehavin, 1978, West Side Story, 1980, Louis, 1981, and Sweet Charity, 1986; in motion pictures, including The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, 1979, Fame, 1980, Ragtime, 1981, and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1986; in television films, series, and specials, including Roots: The Next Generations, 1979, Fame, NBC, 1982-87, The Kids From Fame, 1983, Motown Returns to the Apollo, 1985, and Celebrating a Jazz Master: Thelonious Sphere Monk, 1987. Choreographer for Fame, 1982-87. Producer and director of television series, including A Different World, 1988, and episodes of Family Ties, Quantum Leap, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; director of Stompin at the Savoy, CBS, 1992.

Awards: Drama Desk Award for outstanding featured actress in a musical, 1980, for West Side Story; Tony Award nomination, 1986, for Sweet Charity; Emmy Award nomination for best actress in a dramatic series, for Fame; two Emmy Awards for choreography for Fame; received a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1991.

Addresses: c/o NBC Inc., 3000 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, CA 91523.

followed very different routes, both wound up in show business. Phylicia remains best known for her portrayal of Mrs. Claire Huxtable on the long-running television series The Cosby Show.

Both Debbie and Phylicia were encouraged to excel in the arts by their mother, who ran a museum, wrote poetry, and exposed all of her children to different cultures and points of view. Even when we were little kids Mother would call us together for conversations about all kinds of thingshistory, the arts, the value of meditating and fasting, Allen remembered in Ebony. She always wanted us to reach a higher consciousness. She wanted all of her children to be excellent in everything.

Overcame Rejection

The road to excellence was not always fair, however. At the age of eight, Allen was refused entry into the Houston Foundation for Ballet. She studied privately for six years before a Russian teacher at the foundation insisted she be admittedon scholarship. After high school, Allen auditioned for the dance program at the North Carolina School of Arts but was rejected and told she did not have the body of a dancer. Crushed, she returned to Houston and did not dance for an entire year.

Allen decided instead to enroll at Howard University and study classics. She slowly drifted back into dancing and singing, though, and her confidence in her performing abilities was gradually restored due to the praise she received from such important choreographers as Donald McKayle and Twyla Tharp. Allen pointed out in Ebony that her experience at Howard helped to convince her that she had been the victim of prejudice in both Houston and North Carolina. She concluded that, in retrospect, she was glad to have experienced all that racism, because it helps me deal with it today and I can pass along my experiences to younger people.

Allen graduated from Howard with top honors and moved to New York City. For some time, she and her sister Phylicia helped one another as they sought work on the stage. Debbie began to make some progress, earning small but noticeable roles in Purlie in 1972 and Raisin in 1973. By 1978 she had landed a bigger role in the popular musical Aint Misbehavin. The role that finally put her over the top was that of the fiery Anita in a 1980 revival of West Side Story. Her rendition of (I Like To Be in) America absolutely stole the show, according to a People magazine reviewer, and she was nominated for a Tony Award for the performance.

Fame Brought Stardom

A brief, two-line appearance in the movie Fame brought Allen to a career crossroads. The film portrayed the struggles of students at New York Citys School for the Performing Arts. When the film was adapted for a television series, Allen was tapped to star as a teacher and to choreograph many of the shows high-energy dance numbers. The television version of Fame found a following and ran for six years, from 1982 to 1987. Allen won two Emmy Awards for her choreography on the series, and she was nominated for an Emmy as best actress in a drama as well. As Lydia Grant on Fame, Allen gave the show its most memorable lines: You want fame, honey? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat.

In 1986 Allen returned to Broadway for a well-received revival of Sweet Charity. Allens name was billed above the title of the show in the advertising, and she brought great verve to the role of Charity Hope Valentine, a luckless dance-hall girl. Her musical numbers in that play included If My Friends Could See Me Now, Where Am I Going? and Im a Brass Band. Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll praised Allens performance, noting that she does everything that a star can do: a fine actress, a rousing singer, a knockout dancer, a true comedienne, she explodes with sheer joy.

Allens vocal talents have always been somewhat eclipsed by her acting and dancing, but she did release a pop album, Special Look, in 1979. Allen confessed in Essence that her experience with that recording convinced her that she had not cleared every hurdle in her path. Getting out there, getting [the record] played is tough, she said. I didnt realize what a difficult, even racist, struggle it would be to get visibility in the music business.

The lackluster performance of her album has been the only setback for the hardworking Allen. She gained further prestige as the producer-director of the television situation comedy A Different World, and she has also directed episodes of Family Ties, Quantum Leap, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Allen disclosed in Ebony that she is particularly comfortable with the subject matter on A Different World. Im a graduate of a Black college so I have lived what [fictional] Hillman is all about. College life is about young adults coming of age; about their intellectual, political and sexual maturity. Describing the school she helped create on A Different World, she added: This is a college where you go to the cafeteria and they have fried apples and grits for breakfast.

In 1991 Allen received the 1,940th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The award recognized her contributions to musical comedy, drama, and directing since her debut in her early twenties. Allen, who is the mother of two children by her second husband, Norm Nixon, promises that she has scores of other projects she wants to develop for stage and screen. In Jet magazine she ventured, I guess you could say Ive been planting a lot of seeds for a while, and after tending the garden, everything is really starting to grow.

Selected discography

(With others) Sweet Charity, EMI America, 1986.
Special Look, MCA, 1989.

Sources

Ebony, March 1983; March 1991.

Essence, March 1984; June 1990.

Glamour, March 1983.

Jet, May 15, 1986; July 31, 1989; October 28, 1991.

McCalls, July 1987.

Newsweek, May 12, 1986.

New York Times, January 7, 1982.

People, March 10, 1980; April 19, 1982.

USA Weekend, November 21-23, 1986.

Anne Janette Johnson

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