Cast: Beatrice Atkinson

1927 - 1989

Beatrice Atkinson, 1987, from Boogie in Black and White

Beatrice Atkinson, Tom’s wife

Beatrice Atkinson graduated from Eppes High School in Greenville and attended NC A & T College–she was on summer break in 1947 when she was featured in “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” as the rolling-pin wielding wife of Tom. She worked with her brother in his dry cleaning business in New York for 18 years before returning to Greenville, where she worked for a year with the police department as a school crossing guard worked in Joyner Library’s mail room at ECU for 17 years. She retired in 1987.

Bea was the first “Pitch” star I met. I was in Don Lennon’s office; he was reading the cast names off of the reel of nitrate film as he held it up to light while I wrote them down. He came to “Beatrice Atkinson” and put the film down and said to me, “You know, there’s a Bea Atkinson who works in the mail room here. Let me call her.” She told the rest of the story for the UNC-TV documentary Boogie in Black and White:

While I was working at ECU, the phone rings one day and I answered, and Don Lennon wanted to know if I knew anything about “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” and it didn’t dawn on me the name of the picture–I had completely forgotten the name of the picture, so many years ago, and when he didn’t just say ‘Uh, well, okay, thank you,’ he said, ‘I thought he was talking about one of his films, and I told him, ‘Mr. Lennon, if there’s anything has come through here I have taken it on to you. I have never lost one of your films.’ But he said ‘Tom Foreman and Herman Forbes and Esther Mae Porter, and directed by John Warner, ‘I almost flipped, that was the shock of my life. I said ‘How do you know about that?’ And so he called my name, too, and I said ‘How did you know about that?’ I couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t know what else to say–I could not say a word for a few minutes. Oh my god! How did he know that? I was talking to myself, I said ‘How did you know about that?’ and he said, ‘We have the film right here.’ ‘How’d you get it? That was so long ago.’ I didn’t know it was forty years but I knew it was a long time ago. And he said, ‘It’s a long story, and I’ll tell you about it’ or something. And then after I hung up from him, I figured that was it, I’d see him sometime and he’ll explain it to me.

And then Alex Albright came down and was telling me about it, and it was really the shock of my life. I could not believe it. A little picture that was made so long ago and nobody had mentioned it in years and years and years and I just thought it was gone for good, I didn’t know it was still there. That was coincident that here I am working at the library, and the fellow who found the picture called the library, called Don Lennon, and then Don Lennon said [here she interrupts herself with a sudden realization and laughs.] Ohhh, you were the one calling out the names?–and then Don Lennon says, ‘Oh we have a Beatrice Atkinson working here, I wonder,’ and then he called me, and that was the beginning of something big. 

Bea knew everyone local who’d been in “Pitch” as well as Huey Lawrence, who’d also gone to A & T and, she believed, also played in the Rhythm Vets. She didn’t know what had happened to Joe Little but told me how to find Odessa Johnson, his sister, who’d put me in touch with him, in New Jersey. No one was as surprised or delighted with “Pitch” showing up again after all those years as she.  Tom Foreman, her cousin, had gotten her involved in the film. “They had some other girl,” she recalled, “but somehow she didn’t work out, so he asked me if I would do it. He said, It’s not a bad thing, just fun, and that I’d get paid to do it.”

How much? I wondered.

“Fifty dollars,” she said. “And that was a great amount of money back then, especially since I am no actress!”

She said that originally Tom was going to be in bed dreaming when she’d whack him with her rolling pin, ending his dream. “I was his wife,” she said, “and then they changed it to the night club scene instead.” She remembered the most of any cast I met about how the filming went, for about a week, always late at night after the last feature had shown, and often with locals in the audience watching and then becoming part of the film as needed. All the props were there, on stage, including her cardboard rolling pin.  

Several re-takes were necessary for her part. “Mr. Warner said I wasn’t hitting them hard enough,” she said. “He said ‘You’re doing his fine,’ gut it didn’t look realistic enough cause I wasn’t hitting hard enough. He said hit them harder, hit them harder! So we had to and make more takes, cause it’s just cardboard and it’s really not hurting them, and they said it’s really not hurting them either.

She recalled John Warner as a “nice” man who’d “always speak to you. Everybody loved him, they loved him. Everybody thought of him as Black, they really did. Everybody thought of him as just another Black guy, that’s all. He was down to earth with them, but after that incident, everything just . . . “

I wondered what her friends and family thought about her being in the film.

She laughed and said, “Oh, yeah. Mostly the kids.  [she changes voices]. ‘There goes that lady with the rolling pin!’ [and returns to her normal voice] They’d see me coming down the street and say, “Let’s cross over, there goes that lady with the rolling pin.’ It was like that for a while, and then it passed away, and then I forgot about it.”

I asked her about the original premiere, in 1947.

That was crazy. All of them people–the theater was full because it was all Black and it was all just local people, you know. That theater was packed. It was a wild and crazy place. They were having fits, clapping and screaming. Everybody loved it.

She said “Pitch” premiered for a week, and that she went to every showing, taking a different relative with her each night.

I wondered if she remembered the dress she wore.

I remember the dress ’cause the picture was in black and white, and the dress was a pink dress with rick-rack around the neck and around the sleeves, and around the–not the hemline–but close to the hemline. I remember that, with a black belt. 

I asked her how it felt to see herself again, after so many years.

I guess you’re always excited when you see yourself, and especially when there are so many years in between. I was just a kid then and I’m an old woman now. That’s a long time, you know. Forty years. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t know what it was going to look like. And then I said, ‘Looky there! I’m so cute!’ It was fun.

Did you ever want to join a show, maybe become an actress? 

My niece said after she saw the movie [in 1987], ‘Wy didn’t you ever do anything ore with that?’ Well, it never occurred to me, to try to go further with that stuff.

Just a lark?

Uh-huh. And then when I went over to dialysis, Dr. Merrill had me do a film, for the med school. And I said, ‘Why me?’ Cause he didn’t know anything about that other film at that time and I had completely forgotten it. But I enjoyed it. Maybe there is something there–maybe there was. But whatever it was, it’s over now. 

I asked if I could take her picture.

“Yeah,” she said and laughed. “But why didn’t you take a picture of me when I was younger?”

Her friend Johnny Eddie was there in her neat and sunny Griffin Street living room as was her sister, Ruth Gardner. Bea was on dialysis three days a week and they shared transportation responsibilities, but you’d never know anything was bothering her. She was, I wrote in 1985, “a lively lady with a beautiful smile and dancing eyes [behind black frames & thick lenses], very excited to talk about it.”

Describing this visit, I wrote: Her sister told a long story about going to a minstrel show when it was stormy one time and how frightened she became so she prayed that if she got home okay, she’d always check the sky before she went to a show, and if it was cloudy, she’s staying home. She told me to guess how may times she’d been inside a theater, so I said 10. “You right,” she said. “If you subtract 8. That’s right. Exactly 2.” 

Ruth Gardner also said No way was I going to take a picture of her, but then I saw her shadow in the bathroom as she fixed her hair, so I shot pictures of them all, hoping some will come out.

Beatrice Lewellyn Atkinson was born in Greenville on August 15, 1927, to Mrs. Gatsy and James Atkinson. A life-long member of Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church, she died on October 18, 1989, and was survived by three daughters: Sharon Atkinson Lewis, Angela D. Atkinson; and Alma Atkinson Gardner.

• • • 


Atkinson, Beatrice. Personal interviews. Greenville, NC. 11 July 1985, 10 July 1986

—. In Memory of Ms. Beatrice Lewellyn Atkinson. Funeral service memorial. Norcott Funeral Homes, Greenville, NC. 21 Oct. 1989.

–23 April 2024