Pitch a Boogie Woogie, 1947
Lord-Warner Pictures, Inc. , Greenville, NC
William Lord, director; John Warner, writer
Lord & Warner, producers
26 min. featurette, orig. on 35 mm nitrate film
“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” premiered in Greenville, N.C. on January 26, 1948 in what was surely a rare event: simultaneous premiers in the same town, one for a White audience, the other for a Black. Created with a cast of local African Africans, two traveling shows (Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels and Irvin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models), and a dance band from Greensboro (the Rhythm Vets), “Pitch” was, in fact, one of the last movies in the U.S. made exclusively for Black audiences, and its screening at the State Theater in Greenville that night was the only time it was seen publicly by Whites until it re-premiered on the East Carolina University campus in 1988. Across town, on the Block back in ’48, it simultaneously premiered at John Warner’s Plaza Theater.
Co-star Beatrice Atkinson recalled the Plaza premiere: “That theater was a wild and crazy place. They were having fits, clapping and screaming. Everybody loved it. For a long time, I’d hear people say, ‘Hey, there goes that girl that hit them men on the head with the rolling pin.” “Those men” were her fellow co-stars, Herman Forbes, who plays Bill as well as the intro song, “Swell Boogie,” and Tom Foreman, who plays Tom. Forbes became a career educator in Greensboro and High Point, a principal at several schools, and was North Carolin’s Teacher of the Year in 1975. Foreman was a community leader in Greenville until his death in 1978; Atkinson retired form the ECU library in 1985.
Despite its great local success, “Pitch” showed in only a few Black audience theaters in the Carolinas, and Lord-Warner folded in 1949, having made only one other film, “Greenville on Parade.” John Warner went to work for local tv station WNCT, and his brother, William Lord, returned to New York, where he’d once been arrested for having a Black songwriter visit his hotel room. (One rumor about his New York life: he performed in Green Pastures in blackface on Broadway.) The Warners were originally from Washington, NC, where they grew up living above a downtown hotel that was managed by their father. Walter Warner subsequently changed his name to William Lord in a Rosicrucian ceremony after moving to New York in the early 1920s.
In 1975, Greenville musician Bill Shepherd, who fronted the locally popular rock ‘ n reggae band the Amateurs, found the forgotten reels of “Pitch.” They had migrated across the street from the Plaza with John Warner, to the Roxy Theater, which for a brief period in the late 1940s competed with the Plaza and then supplanted it as the only theater on the Block. Shep and a crew of locals had found the reels in the since-abandoned Roxy after they arranged to rent it from a local businessman; one of the stipulations of their rental was that they had to clean the place. Shep rescued the reels, which also included a couple of rough cuts of locally shot ads of Black-owned businesses on the Block and Albemarle Avenue, and kept them in a box in his big rambling house on Albemarle Avenue, across the street, actually, from one of the businesses filmed by Warner for those ads back in the 1950s. Shep hosted weekly pot luck dinners at his home where usually either his band or another local favorite, the Lemon Sisters and Rutabaga Brothers, would also practice, and the reels had wound up in a closet in that house.
It was fortunate that the American Film Institute was also involved in a program to try to rescue Black audience film, and AFI restored “Pitch” from its original 35 mm nitrate in 1985.
On February 8, 1988, it re-premiered before 500 fans in what was also its first showing to an integrated public audience. Highlighting the evening was a reunion jam with the Rhythm Vets.
UNC-TV’s documentary Boogie in Black and White includes the complete “Pitch” as well as interviews with cast members and locals who recalled the Greenville scene centered around what was called “the Block,” on Albemarle Avenue. Watch the doc.
I donated a box of VHS & and Beta out-takes from the interviews from which that documentary was built to the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-CH where they have become part of the Susan Massengale papers. I’ve arranged for the remainder of those interviews and other original source materials from that production to be preserved in Special Collections at East Carolina University, where they are being accessioned.
September 17, 2023