Ethelda Joyce Finch was only thirteen-years-old that tragic Sunday morning the floor shook without warning beneath her feet. It was September 15, 1963. “I thought Russia had bombed the United States,” she recalled years later. “It never crossed my mind that somebody bombed a church because they didn’t want black kids going to school with white kids for whatever reason they had.”
Four little girls in Joyce’s Sunday School died that day: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
Joyce left class early. The event left emotional scars.
Fifty years passed before my cousin opened up to me about what she witnessed that horrific Youth Day Sunday where all the young girls dressed in white at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. I never probed her before then. Never dug deep. Only after I saw a production of the play Fraternity—a fictional account of the tragedy—I begged to know more.
“As Financial Secretary of the Sunday School classes, I was counting and recording the money in a separate room,” Joyce shared about the moments before the bombing.
“We were sitting in the middle of the basement when the building shook. I jumped up. Everything went black for a few minutes. I didn’t know what happened. I heard somebody say, ‘Go out through the men’s bathroom.’ So, I ran. Mom, who had been upstairs in the choir loft for her class found me. There were policemen everywhere. They came from behind the trees in the park, instantaneously – at least it seemed that way to me as a thirteen-year-old kid. We had parked a good distance from the church and were trying to get to the car when a fat, red-faced policeman tried to stop mom.”
Joyce went on to explain the difficulty in leaving the grounds and her emotional race to get home, unaware that her classmates had been killed; others blinded; many injured.
My cousin shared part of her story on Oprah and other news outlets during the anniversary of the event. The rest of her untold story—the personal moments, the grieving, the aftermath—will be featured in my forthcoming, book “AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?”
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In 1989, I cast Arthur Ashe as host of The Other Side of Victory – a syndicated sports TV series that focused on the lives of black athletes and the issues that affected them. In spite of being executive producer, I knew nothing about tennis. Still, I felt blessed to know the man who earned world status as the first African-American to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
The number one tennis player in the world was warm, funny, serious, smart, and a fanatic about his sport. In fact, the only thing he loved more than tennis was his adopted three-year-old daughter, Camera. “We named her that because her mother is a photographer,” he loved to share during our many rides to and from the LAX airport when he traveled to film his intros and outros for the show. We would talk, laugh, and be silly the entire trip. It all felt so natural, except—
The one strange thing about this seemingly perfect, humble man, was that every time he flew to Los Angeles, Arthur desperately tried to escape. He obsessed about “getting the next flight out smoking,“ even if it meant having a middle seat on a red-eye in economy class with layovers —which of course, he never had to do because some sympathetic flight attendant would give him the automatic upgrade.
“Can’t you take one of the canyons?” he’d insist when I’d get us stuck in California traffic. The former USC student knew all the shortcuts to the airport better than me—a Cleveland transplant. “What’s your hurry?” I’d ask. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” I was wrong. Arthur had little time. He had AIDS. His hardest match.
I had no idea what Arthur had been hiding until the day he decided to share his gut-wrenching secret with me—long before he shared it with the world.
In 1989, little was known about the disease—only that there was no cure. I promised Arthur that I’d tell no one except my immediate boss who we agreed had a right to know.
It wasn’t until April 1992 that Arthur announced to the world that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. Sadly, the timing of his public announcement was forced once he learned that a newspaper was preparing an article about it. He hated the intrusion into his privacy. He thanked my boss and me for respecting it for nearly three years.
On February 6 (my mother’s birthday) 1993, Arthur Ashe died.
I miss his smile and will always applaud his talent and courage. To this day, one of my most cherished possessions is a tennis ball Arthur signed for me. I treasure it as much as my relationship with him, and the confidence he had in me to share something so private that ultimately took his life.
*Look for more of my association with Arthur Ashe and lessons learned from other notables that I’m compiling for my book, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? For updates, subscribe to my RSS feed or visit www.shirleyneal.com.
I’d only been a producer/writer at a Los Angeles TV station for a short time when I received a personal phone call from crooner Frank Sinatra. I was floored at the news that he was holding on the line for me—until I learned the nature of his call.
My first assignment to write and produce a radio commercial was to promote a contest for Jack in the Box—a popular west coast hamburger chain. The winner would receive prizes that included an all-expense-paid trip to New York. I listened with great interest the first time I heard it on the radio—apparently, so did Mr. Sinatra.
“Yes, this is Shirley,” I said, having answered the phone on the first ring.
“Hello Dear, this is Frank Sinatra.”
What? Who? It can’t be. Nah! Since it sounded like him, I played it straight.
“Mr. Sinatra. This is an honor.”
“I understand that you had something to do with the commercial I heard on the radio today for Jack in the Box,” he stated with more of an accusatory tone than a congratulatory one.
He’d called from the hospital while recovering from surgery. It was around 1987, before DVDs, iPods, and streaming services. So, I guess he had no better way to pass the time than listen to the radio.
“I see that you used my New York, New York for your soundtrack.”
“You know that’s copywritten, right?”
“Yes, I know that, sir.” I went on to explain that the network I worked that employed me had an ASCAP BMI license agreement. We were protected.
“Yes, but it’s not the song I’m concerned about, Dear,” he went on. “It’s me.”
Wait.Nobody can copyright his or her appearance, I reasoned. But after further explanation, Mr. Sinatra proved me wrong. That day was the first time I’d ever heard the term “intellectual property,” plus a few other legalese terms.
Our conversation armed me for projects I wrote and produced years later, including a public service announcement that featured Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which everyone assumed was in the public domain. Due to my experience with Sinatra, I knew how to research copyright infringement rules just in case. Sure enough, not only did Dr. King’s estate protect his speech, but also his image, voice, words, name—everything about him. In fact, when so many people criticized actor David Oyelowo (who portrayed Dr. King in the film Selma) for not properly capturing Dr. King’s cadence, they didn’t realize that his hands were tied. The actual voice of the civil rights leader is also supposedly copyright protected.
As for my Jack in the Box radio spot, Mr. Sinatra ordered that if the stations “cease and desist airing the spot immediately” and produce a new one, all would be forgiven. So, of course, I did it My His Way.
I considered the slap on the wrist a generous gesture from him, and an important lesson for me that I pass on to other writers, producers, and journalists: Check and double-check ownership rules and regulations. Even if you think you know that something is in the public domain check it anyway. If it seems too perfect—it probably is. There may be a lurking loophole.
*Look for more of my encounter with Frank Sinatra and other stories and lessons learned from notables that I’m compiling for my book, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?” For updates, subscribe to my RSS feed or visit www.shirleyneal.com
The thing that makes my interview with Zsa Zsa Gabor so unforgettable has nothing to do with her exotic personal profile. It has everything to do with her association with one of the world’s grande dames—African American singer, dancer, activist, Josephine Baker.
My drive to Ms Gabor’s home, up the winding road past the huge Bel Air iron gates had the look, smell, and feel of privilege. Along the way, my film crew and I passed the house used to shoot the exteriors for The Beverly Hillbillies. Not only did I love that show back in the day, it was the spark that made me want to move to California.
At the entrance to Zsa Zsa’s grand estate were beautiful floor to ceiling French double doors propped open for our arrival. Inside, everything was ornate, massive, beautiful. The marble floors were spotless; the fine art, impressive—like being in a museum. In fact, I expected classical music to fill the space. Instead, Hall and Oates’ You’re a Rich Girl blaring on her sound system shook the walls. I guess there was some symmetry to that.
Ms. Gabor had agreed to be interviewed for the TV special I was writing and producing about Josephine Baker. Her staff greeted us; gave instructions as to where we were to set up our gear; then left. I was sure they explained to her exactly why I wanted to do the interview. Wrong!
“So, what is it dear that you want to talk to me about?” Ms. Gabor asked after we’d moved past the small talk. Rather than provide a long backstory, I dove right in. “Josephine Baker and her “rainbow tribe” of adopted children were about to be evicted from her French castle,” I stated. “You helped her when no one else in America would—you saved her life and dignity. Tell me about that and why you did what you did.”
She froze. Looked away, stunned. Her peaches and cream skin turned ashen. We sat silent for what felt like minutes, but likely only seconds. Then, “Dahling, how did you find that out?” she probed. “No one was to know.” Few did. It was 1983, Pre-Internet, Lexis Nexis and every other news database. I did my research the old-fashioned way. Since I couldn’t go directly to the source (Josephine died eight years earlier), I went to the next best thing—Josephine’s manager, and confidant, Stephen Papich. Once I tracked him down in Los Angeles, we became fast friends. “Come to my home,” he insisted. “I’ll share stories, show you Josephine’s scrapbooks, heirlooms, clothes, and all sorts of personal things she left for me. I’ll play her music, and prepare you her favorite dishes.”
I had an incredible time. I even got to sit at Josephine Baker’s player piano. Stephen and I developed such a strong bond thatthat one day he gifted me a stack of Josephine’s original recordings including her never-before-released final performance at the Bobino Music Hall, which he recorded himself.
It was Stephen who suggested that I interview Zsa Zsa for my documentary. “Josephine would like that,” he insisted.
Zsa Zsa had only met Josephine one time before her life-saving donation. She was moved by Josephine’s story of adopting children of all races. It broke her heart to hear from Stephen that Josephine and the children were facing eviction, so she contributed twenty thousand dollars to save her home and dignity.
She went on to give me a great interview about her admiration for Josephine. She thanked me for providing her an outlet to speak about something she never spoke about publicly in full detail.
LESSON LEARNED: If you can’t get the story from the original source, dig deep until you find the next best source. In this case, it was Zsa Zsa, who brought a rich perspective to an already dramatic story.
*Look for more of my interview with Zsa Zsa, plus other stories with notables that I’m compiling for my book, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? For updates, subscribe to my RSS feed or visit: www.shirleyneal.com.
“There were these men who came to our house and sat us all down and started shooting,” Corneille revealed to me when asked to recall the details of that tragic April 1994 night in Rwanda. He was only 17.
“By some weird survival reflex,” he continued, “I jumped behind the couch. I was the only one who survived out of nine people. Among them were both my parents and my three siblings: my two brothers and my little sister. From that moment on, something in me died. Something definitely went into deep sleep.”
The powerful interview was my second with the Rwandan genocide survivor and international R&B artist—much more revealing than the first. Frankly, I was surprised that he agreed to give me the exclusive, given our first encounter.
Five years earlier I made the huge mistake of not doing my research as thoroughly as I should’ve before our interview at the RedKiva, a trendy Chicago nightclub. Instead, I spent way too much time trying to impress him about my many trips to his African homeland. “The people there are so great! The country is so beautiful! It’s my favorite! I’ve been there a half dozen times!” I bragged. It wasn’t until I heard him perform the haunting lyrics to his, I’LL NEVER CALL YOU HOME AGAIN that I got my first clue:
Last time I saw you
You were filling your rivers up with
Blood of your own
Last time I saw you
You were wearing fire and
Burning our souls to the bone
That’s how I remember you
That’s how I remember you
So please forgive me
If I never call you home again
Corneille despised his native Rwanda, best known for its genocide that killed nearly 800 thousand Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s in just 100 days— his family among them. What was I thinking? Clearly, I wasn’t.
I saved face my second go-round by mostly listening—rarely interrupting his stream of consciousness. I gave him a platform for the first time publicly, to share his experience in full detail from the moment he sprung into survival mode after getting up from behind the couch.
And though Corneille’s unfathomable journey was heartwrenching, what made our second interview most memorable was him bearing witness to how he evolved from never wanting to call Rwanda home again, to reaching a place of forgiveness.
“I recovered from it,” he shared. “ I’m still recovering from it. I’m not healed. Probably never will. But I’m recovering. And I found a balance between that part of my life and what I want to make out of my life. I do believe what happened was my path,” he said. “It hurt like hell but it was just my path. And maybe when I’m eighty years old, and I’m telling my grandkids about this interview it won’t be as strange to them. They’ll be like, ‘it was part of your path.’ Sometimes life will throw stuff at us that makes no sense. That’s what happened to me and it’s starting to make sense now.”
LESSON LEARNED: The second interview was better because I did my homework before the interview and learned that Corneille had evolved, and was likely ready to speak in detail about the circumstances that led to reconciling with his native Rwanda. I also chose to listen. Silence can be golden. It was in that instance I allowed him to just talk.
*Much more of my interview with Corneille is featured in the documentary, INTORE (Chosen), that I wrote and co-produced with Rwandan director, Eric Kabera. New material from my interviews with Corneille will also be featured along with other essays I’m compiling for my book, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? For updates, subscribe to my RSS feed or visit: www.shirleyneal.com.
I’d settled on ordering a shrimp entree with a calamari starter moments before Dr. Maya Angelou’s limo pulled up to the Melrose Avenue restaurant. I sat at the “star” table alongside Norman Lear (the iconic creator of All in The Family, The Jefferson’s, Maude, and a slew of other TV sitcoms in the 80’s), who’d invited me to be a part of his production team on a TV talk show he developed for Maya to host.
On his way to meet her car, Norman doubled back. Announced that she had a dreadful allergy to shellfish. Couldn’t be anywhere near it.
“Uhm, make that a Chicken Caesar!” I said to the waiter in my super sotto voice.
Breaking bread with two literary geniuses was a divine gift. The afternoon was relaxed, informative, historic, and at times a bit loud. Everyone seated around us, including a former colleague who stopped giving me the time of day years earlier, were envious. Yes!
The fellowship spilled into the night when Maya invited us to dinner at her brother’s home. Norman couldn’t make it, but I had a blast. She shared stories about her brief stint as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey troupe, her brothel days, her passion for words, her love for her brother, and her apprehensions about committing to a live, five-day-a-week talk show—a foreshadow of Norman’s and my worst fears.
A month or so after the lunch—February 14th, 1993 to be exact—I reunited with Maya in a New York Midtown rehearsal hall. She was preparing her spoken word performance with Ashford & Simpson for later that night at a sold-out Paramount Theater concert.
I filmed most of the rehearsal. Once they wrapped, I pulled Maya aside for our video interview. “Keep it short! We’re already late,” her assigned handler snapped.
What??? I’d flown in specifically for the interview and waited patiently the whole day. I was going to take my time and get what I came for! As the interview went on, I could peripherally see the handler pacing the floor, staring at her watch, sighing. It threw me off my game. I uncharacteristically stammered through my questions until I got the “wrap it up” sign from her. I dropped my last questions and thanked Maya for what she’d given me. “I’ll see you later tonight,” I said, defeated.
“But we didn’t finish, did we?” Her tone disturbed.
“I’m good. You were great.”
“Don’t you have another question?”
“Yes, but she told me I ran out of time.”
“What was the question?”
To the best of my recollection, it was something like, “What are your thoughts about doing this talk show at this time in your life and career?”
“Don’t you think Norman will want to know my answer?”
“Yeah, but they’re kicking me out of here. I’m sure he already knows.”
“No, child,” she said. “Stop. You’re not sure. You can’t ever be sure of anything. Remember that. You don’t know how this interview will get used, in perpetuity. Cover your bases. Stick to what you planned. If it’s important to YOU, then it matters. YOU matter. What you do matters. They’ll wait. Never forget that.” I never have. It was a career-changing lesson taught in the simplest words. Maya was good that way.
We went for more than twenty additional minutes. One question sparked another and another. Maya offered several times later that it was one of the best interviews she’d given—one that I almost didn’t finish.
Later that night, I wished Maya a great show backstage then took my seat front and center.
As I looked around me in the packed theatre, something seemed odd. I couldn’t place my finger on it at first. After a while, I noticed that everyone was paired up—like on the ark. Duh! The concert that featured Maya, Ashford & Simpson, Isaac Hayes, and Freddie Jackson was a Valentine’s Day FOR LOVER’S ONLY show. How’d I miss that? I felt like a fool sitting there all alone as balloons and every other kind of love image dropped in front of me.
But leave it to Maya—when it was her time on stage, she saw me sitting alone, uneasy, looking like an Old Maid amidst all the couples. So, she broke away from the others, stood center stage, and performed directly to me. What a class act!
RIP, Maya Angelou.
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t be easily intimidated or you’ll miss the gold as I almost did.
*Look for more of my interview with Maya, plus other stories and lessons learned from notables that I’m compiling for my book, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? For updates, subscribe to my RSS feed or visit: www.shirleyneal.com.