[PHOTO #1: Georgia Beasley Headshot]
Georgia Beasley (undated); courtesy of University of Cincinnati archives.
When Georgia Beasley returned to the University of Cincinnati (UC) in 2004 at the age of 101, she was doing so as the institution’s oldest living black alumna. The member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority was celebrated in an intimate ceremony at the African American Cultural and Research Center, being dubbed “Queen Mother” by the center’s director, Eric Abercrumbie. In various African countries, queen mothers are afforded the utmost respect and deference, and at that point in her life, Beasley had more than earned such accolades.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Beasley graduated from UC with a degree in home economics in 1925 before she went on to earn a master’s degree in art education from Columbia University. At a time when the social and political climate impeded any grandiose career aspirations a black woman may have had, Beasley was determined to reach her goals. “I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, and I just did it,” she told students, family and friends during that UC ceremony. “If you want to do something just do it!”
Beasley spent the bulk of her adult life educating children in the Cincinnati Public Schools as well as spending the summer months teaching down South. When she wasn’t teaching, she sang in the choir at Gaines United Methodist Church, forging relationships with local and national artists and musicians through her work in the arts community, including opera singers Marian Anderson and Kathleen Battle. Beasley studied voice for 15 years under Louis John Johen, who said “she had a love of music along with a lovely soprano voice.”
Jim Jones, a founding member of the Donald P. Sowell Committee at the Cincinnati Art Museum, met Beasley through the Cincinnati chapter of Links in the 1980s. “She was a dynamic person,” said Jim Jones, also a local archivist who served as the historian for the local chapter of the NAACP for more than 20 years. “She was one of the few women of color who were involved in all of this (change) during that time.”
A few years after her death, a relative, Allen J. Beasley of Chicago, Illinois, started the Georgia E. Beasley Scholarship at UC in her honor.
“I was blessed to have black women role models in my life that were educators – one was my mom and another was definitely Mrs. Beasley,” said Leisan Smith, Director of Community Engagement for Bexley (Ohio) City Schools, who was the first recipient of the Beasley scholarship in 2006. “Her story and history inspired me and my career trajectory. Knowing what she endured let me know that I could continue to work hard, even when I was in a tough work situation, and continue to succeed. It was always such an honor to be in her presence and hear her tell her story.”
In 2003, Beasley was awarded the Art Consortium of Cincinnati’s Dreamkeeper Award and Lifetime Achievement Award. She also spent many years as a member of the Symphony’s Women’s Committee and was elected to the group’s Hall of Fame.
~ Aiesha D. Little
(1928 – 2002)
[PHOTO #2: Rosemary Clooney-8142-JMWolf]
Rosemary Clooney ArtWorks mural “Swing Around Rosie” designed by Natalie Lanese. Photo by J. Miles Wolf, 2016.
Rosemary Clooney’s smooth, rich voice radiated through living rooms across America in the 1950s. Jazz was her first love, and she excelled at Big Band swing. Yet, it was novelty hits – non-sensical songs made popular during World War II – that launched her career.
Born in Maysville, Kentucky, it was perhaps Rosemary’s difficult childhood that gave her the drive to make it. Her mother traveled for work and eventually divorced an alcoholic husband. She remarried and left the family for California, taking son Nick along. Rosemary and her sister Betty lived with their father, who eventually also left them. She was mostly raised by her grandparents.
Singing was their salve. The sisters performed from the time they were young girls. At 16 and 13, Rosemary and Betty set out alone to pursue their dreams in nearby Cincinnati.
To make ends meet, they collected cans and bottles and sang at local venues. In 1945, they were hired to sing at radio station WLW for $20 a week each. Billed as the Clooney Sisters, they were on air seven nights a week and performed live with Barney Rapp’s band at Castle Farm and Netherland Plaza.
A year later, they joined national band leader Tony Pastor. After touring for three years, Betty returned home, and Rosemary headed to New York to launch a solo career with Columbia Records. She became part of the girl singer movement along with Doris Day, Peggy Lee, and Patti Page. Her first hit in 1950, “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” sold a respectable 400,000 copies.
Her big break came in 1951. Music arranger Mitch Miller saw in Rosemary an “exuberant personality that could handle the most outlandish songs and arrangements” and convinced her to record “Come On-a My House.” To her surprise, she sold one million copies and launched into stardom. Other novelty hits such as “Botch-A-Me” and “Mambo Italiano” separated her from the girl singer pack.
Rosemary appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show 16 times from 1949-66. In 1953, she graced the cover of TIME Magazine – the first singer to do so, female or male. She made her acting debut in 1954 starring in White Christmas with Bing Crosby. Two years later, she hosted The Rosemary Clooney Show.
Her career on the rise, at 25 she married actor Jose Ferrer. Together they had five children in five years. In the 1960s, they divorced, remarried, and divorced again. By then dealing with addiction to prescription medication, Rosemary suffered a nervous breakdown in 1968.
The road to recovery was long and difficult for her. Son Gabriel Ferrer explained in a Closer Weekly interview, “She pulled herself back together and became a different kind of mother…She was less concerned about chasing fame and more interested in her children.”
But getting back to work was problematic. Rock & Roll was the rage, marginalizing singers like Rosemary. In 1975, Bing Crosby invited her to tour with him. It was a true second act. She recorded new songs and performed the rest of her life, also continuing her acting career in movies and television. And she found love again with an early sweetheart, Dante DiPaolo.
“The last 20 years of her life were glorious,” said Ferrer. NPR noted, “Her comeback solidified her place in jazz history … as one of the greatest interpreters of American song.” Rosemary received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002.
Today, the legacy of Rosemary Clooney lives on through her music, Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” and two autobiographies.
⁓ Susan Fellows Crabtree
[PHOTO #3: Patricia Corbett singing]
Patricia Corbett singing with Jimmy James Orchestra (circa 1932), courtesy of Cincinnati Opera.
Patricia Barry Corbett was not a quiet philanthropist. She had no interest in anonymity. On Long Island, where she was raised in the early decades of the 20th Century, she pursued the spotlight as a singer on radio and in clubs. When she came to Cincinnati with her husband and fellow philanthropist J. Ralph in 1932, she quickly involved herself in the area’s musical life by studying voice at the College of Music.
The Corbetts came to Cincinnati when Ralph became a marketing consultant for WLW Radio. Later, he founded a company called NuTone, and Patricia – the one with musical savvy – helped develop the distinctive tones of the door chimes that were the centerpiece of the business.
They sold NuTone in 1955 and established the Corbett Foundation, which soon began a 60-year spending spree the likes of which Greater Cincinnati had never seen before.
Patricia – Pat to all who knew her – adored the Cincinnati Opera’s performances at the Zoo. She was charmed by the contrast between the company’s rustic pavilion and its world-class singers, but she was determined to provide a performing space befitting the caliber of those singers.
In the late 1960s the foundation earmarked several million dollars to upgrade the aged technical facilities of Music Hall, which became the Opera’s home in 1972. It was more than a physical move. It launched the company into the modern age.
Corbett loved everything about show business, especially mixing it up with performers. In time, she counted Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle among her greatest friends. She talked of famed pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy visiting Cincinnati in 1958 and practicing in the couple’s Indian Hill home. (They later moved to Grandin Road.)
She was not, however, a supporter of every arts-related project. When a new arts center – the Aronoff Center – was proposed close to the center of downtown, she led the opposition, sitting outside the Hyde Park Kroger gathering signatures on an anti-Aronoff petition. Her fear was that the city would abandon its commitments to Music Hall.
You could see Corbett’s interests – and the family name – in many of the foundation’s grants: the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts at University of Cincinnati housing the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), and a pair of theaters, Corbett Auditorium and the Patricia Corbett Theater. There was the Patricia A. Corbett Theater at Northern Kentucky University. And the Corbett Opera Center and Corbett Tower at Music Hall. When the new School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) opened in 2010, its largest performance space was the Corbett Theater. Perhaps the most popular of their endowed structures is the Riverbend performance complex at Coney Island, including the J. Ralph Corbett Pavilion.
At Mrs. Corbett’s insistence, many of the foundation’s grants were more personal. They might not make the headlines, but they became central to the musical life of the region.
It was Corbett underwriting that launched a new string program at Northern Kentucky University, as well as funding for several endowed chairs at CCM and the school’s J. Ralph Corbett audio production center. One of the foundation’s final grants, announced in 2014, six years after Corbett’s death, was $500,000 to support a string program at SCPA.
There have been Greater Cincinnati philanthropists who lavished more money on the arts than Patricia and J. Ralph Corbett. But few have matched their enthusiasm or personal passion for the arts they funded. Small wonder that Opera News once referred to Cincinnati as “the city that Corbett built.”
~ David Lyman