Premice, Josephine 1926–2001
Josephine Premice 1926–2001
Broadway actress, singer, dancer
Josephine Premice was one of the premier stage actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. She appeared in numerous Broadway plays including Blue Holiday, Jamaica, A Hand is on the Gate, and Bubbling Brown Sugar, twice garnering Tony award nominations for her performances. She was also known for her calypso music which she often performed at night clubs between acting stints, and would go on to record for Virgin Records. Though she left the acting business for close to six years in the mid 1960s, she came back strong in the 1970s, performing not only on the stage but branching out into television as well with roles on popular programs such as The Jeffersons and A Different World. When Premice died in 2001, she was hailed by many in the acting industry as a role model of how to survive through adversity and how to change with the times to keep an acting career alive.
Josephine Mary Premice was born in Brooklyn, New York, ón July 21, 1926. Her parents were Haitian immigrants and part of the aristocracy of their birth country. Her father, Lucas Premice, who allegedly had claim to the title Count de Bodekin, had fled Haiti with his wife when he was part of an unsuccessful coup to try to oust the current dictator of the country. They eventually immigrated to New York where Mr. Premice became a furrier. They were extremely proud people and raised Premice to have a strong belief in her own self worth. At a time when African Americans were considered second-class citizens even in the northern states, Premice and her sister, Adele, were given the education and training of an “at-home finishing school” and treated like part of the elite.
As a child, Premice was happy and outgoing. From the very beginning she was a natural performer. She pressured her parents to let her take dancing lessons and eventually she studied with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham. At 14 she choreographed a Harlem Theatre production of “Jason and the Golden Fleece” for Owen Dodson, a family friend. At 16 she auditioned for and got a part in a performance of Katherine Dunham’s dance company, but her aristocratic father literally pulled her off the stage, declaring she was to dance solo, as a star, or not at all. By 1943 she had lived up to his expectations and was acclaimed as an outstanding performer when she danced in the First African Dance Festival at Carnegie Hall to sold-out audiences that included Eleanor Roosevelt. She launched her career from the Village Vanguard, a West Village nightclub where such greats as Harry Belafonte and Judy Holiday launched their careers and many famous stars habitually hung out. It was common to see Charlie Parker, Fred Astaire, or Tallulah Bankhead among the patrons. She also spent seven months performing at the Blue Angel, a swanky East Side nightclub.
Premice was a tall, skinny, sophisticated brown-skinned woman who was often reminded that she wasn’t “pretty.” She laughed at her detractors and carried herself with so much self-esteem and poise, that she made her own presence. In 1945 she repeated her success, dancing in the Second African Dance Festival at Carnegie Hall and then toured the country with blues singer Josh White.
At a Glance…
Born on July 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, NY; died on April 13, 2001, in Manhattan, NY; daughter of Lucas Premice; married Timothy Fales, November 14, 1958; children; Enrico, Susan.
Career: Singer, 1950s-1970s; theatrical and television actress, 1943–59, 1965–93.
Awards: Nominated for Tony awards for roles in Jamaica and A Hand is on the Gate.
Her initial Broadway performance was in the 1945 production of Blue Holiday at the Belasco Theatre with Ethel Waters and Josh White. She followed this in 1947 with a performance in Caribbean Carnival at the International Theatre. Richard Watts of the New York Post reviewed the show, noting that it had some good points: “Point one is Josephine Premice a fine, tall, delightful girl, who sings amusingly, engagingly and with distinction.” In 1954 she opened with the cast of House of Flowers in Philadelphia, but left the cast before it moved to Broadway. House of Flowers also starred Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. She returned to Broadway in 1956 in Mr. Johnson at the Martin Beck Theater. She played the wife of Earl Hyman who starred in the title role.
During 1957 and 1958 Premice performed in over 500 performances of the vastly popular musical Jamaica at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. The musical starred Lena Home and Ricardo Montalban. Premice played Home’s best friend. The part earned her a nomination for a Tony Award as Best Featured Performer.
It was during a performance of this play that her future husband, Timothy Fales, saw her and made the instant decision that she would be the mother of his children. Fales was very much a part of the White Anglo-Saxon aristocracy of Upper East Side New York. He was also very rebellious against the very staid, “proper” life that his parents attempted to mold him into. After several months of heavy courtship, the two moved in together and then married in a very quiet ceremony on November 14, 1958. Fales had won over Premice’s very strict father by their mutual love for and service on the sea, but Fales’ father refused to accept the inter-racial marriage until years later and didn’t speak to his son for several years. Premice worked hard to create an environment for her family that would ignore the hatred and prejudices associated with mixed marriages at the time. Because of her star status and his social standing, their marriage made the headlines and caused a lot of negative feelings from some of the more radical groups across the country.
With her marriage, Premice made the decision that her husband and subsequent family were her priority and it affected her career. Several months after they were married, Fales moved the family to Rome. They lived there for six years while Fales was an executive in a shipping company. Their son, Enrico, was born in 1959 and daughter, Susan, in 1962. Her career, however, never recovered from the break. Broadway producers have short memories, and the six-year break in her career came at a time when she was very successful.
In 1966, as part of a group of talented black artists, Premice received her second Tony nomination for her performance in A Hand is on the Gate. This was an evening of black poetry and song at the Longacre Theatre. It starred such notables as Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, and Moses Gunn among others. For the next ten years, Premice appeared in a limited fashion in several all-black shows like The Cherry Orchard at the Public Theater in 1973. For the most part, she was a renowned hostess and fundraiser of the social elite. In her personal life, her marriage had deteriorated and her roving husband spent a lot of time away. They maintained a relationship because it was expected of them and the publicity if they had split would have been an embarrassment to both of them. For years, Timothy stayed at home and worked on writing a book. Then he eventually joined the merchant marine and captained ships sailing around the world. He was gone for long periods of time.
In 1976 Premice returned to Broadway with the cast of Bubbling Brown Sugar, which had a full two-year run and almost 800 performances before it closed. A New York Times review of the show said that Premice “can almost make a feather boa come alive.” Then in 1978 Lena Home called and asked her to play the salty sidekick in a new performance of the musical Pal Joey. This seemed to be a chance of a lifetime, but required Premice to move to Los Angeles. For over 20 years she had put her family and children first and curtailed her career by eliminating the ability to travel around the country. Now she hired a governess for her kids since her husband was at sea and took off for California. The show had only limited success and caused a further rift in her marital life. Her performance, however, brought her to the notice of some television executives, and she had roles on The Jeffersons in 1979 as Louise Jeffer-sons’ sister and on A Different World in several roles from 1991 to 1993.
In 1984, as their daughter graduated from Harvard with honors, Premice’s marriage received it’s final death blow. Fales separated from his wife and moved to Paris where he lived with a 21-year-old girl from Senegal. The separation was a blow to Premice and more than anything else in her life affected her self-esteem and outlook on life. They never divorced, and remained cordial but estranged for the rest of her life. This final break started a downward spiral where Premice neglected her finances and her health, ultimately leading to her losing battle with emphysema. She died on April 13, 2001, at home in her Manhattan apartment. She was survived by her estranged husband, Captain Timothy Fales, her daughter, Susan Fales-Hill, her son, Enrico Fales, and her sister, Adele Premice. Her memorial service was attended by a long list of socialites and stars who paid homage to her talent and spirit. She had spent her years smiling at life and her friends remembered and loved her for it. In tribute to her mother’s illustrious career, Susan Fales-Hill released a moving biography, Always Wear Joy, in 2003.
Josephine in Paris, Verve, 1950s.
Calypso, GNP, 1950s.
Jamaica [Original Broadway Cast], RCA, 1957.
Bubbling Brown Sugar [Original Broadway Cast], Amherst, 1976.
Merv Griffin Show, NBC, 1966.
The Jeffersons, CBS, 1979.
The Cosby Show, NBC, 1986.
A Different World, NBC, 1991–93.
First and Second African Dance Festival, Carnegie Hall, 1943, 1945.
Blue Holiday, Belasco Theater, Broadway, 1945.
Caribbean Carnival, International Theater, 1947.
House of Flowers, Erlanger Theater, Philadelphia and Schubert Theater, Boston, 1954.
Mr. Johnson, Martin Beck Theater, Broadway, 1956.
Jamaica, Imperial Theater, Broadway, 1957–58.
A Hand Is on the Gate, Longacre Theater, Broadway, 1966.
The Cherry Orchard, Public Theater, 1973.
Bubbling Brown Sugar, Anta Theater, Broadway, 1976–77.
Glass Menagerie, Cleveland Playhouse, 1989.
Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Fales-Hill, Susan, Always Wear Joy, HarperCollins Books, 2003.
Notable Names in the American Theatre, James T. White & Co., 1976.
Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816–1960, Greenwood Press, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 8, 2003.
Jet, May 14, 2001.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 18, 2001.
New York Times, April 17, 2001.
Town & Country, 2003.
—Patricia A. Donaldson
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