“Alive and Kicking,” former film executive turned filmmaker, Susan Glatzer’s passion project is a feature length documentary about the “Lindy Hop,” the original style of swing dancing that started at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s. The film spotlights a group of modern day swing dancers who follow their hearts and pursue their passion on the dance floor. In addition, the film spotlights veterans from the past including the great Frankie Manning and Norma Miller. Campus Circle got a chance to sit down with Norma at the Candela Club on Los Angeles to speak with her about the film, the Lindy Hop and her amazing life.
Campus Circle You've had an extraordinary life. You are 97 and coming up on your 100th birthday. Any plans for the big one?
Norma Miller: I’m scheduled to have a party in Sweden and one in Florida.
Campus Circle: You grew up dancing during a time of discrimination and segregation.
Norma Miller: I've been segregated, discriminated, Integrated and now liberated. I'm a new woman today.
Campus Circle: Was the Lindy Hop a form of escapism from discrimination for you?
Norma Miller: No, It (discrimination) never bothered me. I went to Europe when I was 15 years old. I didn't even know what discrimination was until five years later when I was in Florida.
Campus Circle: I read that you were caught down in Rio during Pearl Harbor and you were supposed to be there for 10 days and you ended up there for 10 months. What was that like?
Norma Miller: I was learning the Samba and working for the biggest man in all of South America until we got into the war. Next time you are in a country and a war breaks out, get the hell out of there and go home. It's a bitch.
Campus Circle: I read that you came back from touring to New York and all of a sudden it wasn't about dancing anymore. It was about sitting and listening to music.
Norma Miller: That was the Bebop era. That was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Have you ever sat and listened to Thelonious Monk? Are you sober when you are listening to him or are you stoned?
Campus Circle: Well, I would say, you should be stoned.
Norma Miller: Hence, the stone in the Stoned Age. And, they had signs up, “No dancing.” Now, where does that leave us? So that's what happened to us.
Campus Circle: Is that why Frankie Manning stopped dancing and became a postal worker?
Norma Miller: Yes, he stopped dancing because he couldn't get a job.
Campus Circle: What did you do?
Norma Miller: I went into Jazz.
Campus Circle: So you evolved with it?
Norma Miller: Yes, I went from the Lindy Hop to the Norma Miller Jazz Dancers. When you read my book, "Swingin at the Savoy" that's the memoirs of a Jazz dancer.
Campus Circle: As you got older and moved away from dance, you became a comedian and a writer.
Norma Miller: Yes, because Redd (Foxx, the famous comedian/actor) said I was getting to old to dance and I better learn to talk, so I became his sidekick. He wanted a woman comedian because Moms Mabley (famous American stand-up comedian from the Chitlin’ circuit of African-American vaudeville) had passed. So, he took me out with him. And, I'd be his sidekick and he'd be on stage and he would say, I am going out for a cigarette, so listen to my friend. Hey, Norma get up here and hence, I'm into comedy. Now, to be in comedy, you got to have material. All comedians today have writers but in those days you had to write your own material. I became a writer.
Campus Circle: Was that your third act?
Norma Miller: Have you ever been on stage and talked and didn't get a laugh?
Campus Circle: No, but I could imagine how painful that might be.
Norma Miller: Following Red Foxx taught me how to do it. I was raised with Redd and Bill Cosby. I used to introduce Richard Pryor every night. The greatest era in the world for Black Comedy was during this time period.
Campus Circle: You have worked with and come across so many people over the course of your life. Are there two or three people that have stood out?
Norma Miller: Oh yeah. Louis Armstrong, there was nobody like him and Joe Lewis and Jackie Robinson. Can you imagine what they went through? We were all in Miami at the same time at the same hotel, the Mary Elizabeth Hotel on Second Avenue. There was Jackie Robinson, Joe Lewis, all of us in this hotel because we couldn't go anywhere else. Can you imagine sitting up there with Joe Louis and he's the retired heavyweight champion of the world? He was my buddy. I used to say to him, where the fuck do you come from? They thought he was dumb because he wouldn't talk. They wanted a champion. You got to give up everything to become a champion.
Norma Miller: I came up with the funniest men in the world including Bill Cosby. Cosby started this whole comedy thing around the world. He started that at Redd's club. Sweetie, comedy comes out of a lot of heartache. You know what Richard Pryor went through? They were monsters (of comedy) and I use to introduce these guys every night. And, that's how I learned the meaning of comedy.
Campus Circle: You've been through a lot.
Norma Miller Well, tragedy brings laughter. That's what makes it so funny. Redd would say things that were unbelievable. But he paid the price. All of them did, the life they lived. They paid the price. You can't snort cocaine and be up all night. That's death. You couldn’t tell them anything. And, that's the truth.
Campus Circle: They lived life large.
Norma Miller: Exactly. See, when Frankie (Manning) and I came up, we never smoked nor drank. The only reason I went out was because of people like Redd Fox. I used to sit in the back (of the club) and they'd call me when I was needed. But, I couldn't be part of them. I didn't join in their festivities. They had broads and all kinds of things.
Campus Circle: So, is that part of your longevity? (LOL)
Norma Miller: Of course, if you do that, you can't do what I did. A dancer can't do anything.
Campus Circle: You achieved so much before you were 20, were you very grounded at that age?
Norma Miller: I've been evicted so many times, I’ve had drapes to match the sidewalk. Who knows what made the difference? But, it's the life of an entertainer. When you got money, cocaine is the drug of the period. You got your own nightclub and you're living the life up. That's life is like looking at it. See, I was always the outsider looking in because I couldn't participate in none of those things. I used to tell Sammy Davis Jr., we can feel you inhaling the cigarettes all the way to the back (of the club).
Sammy never went on stage without a cigarette. But, he wanted to be Sinatra. Honey, he would have given his life to be Sinatra, the greatest entertainer in the world. And what happened, he got cancer of the throat. You know cigarettes did it. He'd say, well, I don't talk that much. He’d come on stage and have a pile of cigarettes on that saucer, in one act.
Campus Circle: Maybe he had anxiety and needed cigarettes to calm his nerves.
Norma Miller: It's the persona. And, he lived the life. When Sammy came to Las Vegas with all of his black friends, he'd give us one night and hang out together. He catered food and everything but he was living another life. So, we'd be up there and I'd have to leave. I'd say to him, I can't stay up all night like you can. He couldn’t go to bed. He couldn’t go to sleep. He didn't want to be alone. Never. That's the life they lived.
Campus Circle: And what about you?
Norma Miller: I went home. I used to be Redd's designated driver. I used to drive him home when he got drunk.
Campus Circle: You said, Sammy didn't want to be alone. I wondered why you never got married?
Norma Miller: Well, I got dumped.
Campus Circle: But, it doesn't seem like you needed that. Were you a feminist?
Norma Miller: No, I wasn't a feminist. Listen, relationships are not good for a woman like me because some men couldn't be true to god. You're not mad at nobody but your mad at life period. I could say I'm pissed off but what good would it do.
Campus Circle: You have lived in so many decades, If I throw out a decade you tell me what your most memorable part of that decade would be either in dance or personally like let's say the 60s, what was the most memorable part of the 60s?
Norma Miller: Well, that was when dance was over. I had to get my Social Security because there was no more dancing, no jobs. And, you got to figure out how you are going to make a living.
Campus Circle: Well, were you scared?
Norma Miller: Of course not. Scared? Of what? I'm black. I lived through everything. Scared of being black? Johnson (President) signed the Civil Right Bill in the 60s. Free at last, Free at last. That's when I wrote, "Please don't judge me by the color of my skin." I wrote it for Martin Luther King. I always wrote a song, I wrote “Swinging Frankie's Way” when he died.
Campus Circle: How about the 40s?
Norma Miller: Oh that was when the Bebop age was coming in. And that was when Frankie had to give up the whole act. We entered the War in '41 and '42 and all of our guys were gone. I formed the Norma Miller dancers.
Campus Circle: What about the 1970s?
Norma Miller: My my first comedy book came out. I wrote, "The Encyclopedia of Black Humor." And, with the 80s came the revival of Lindy. And, Frankie came back as a teacher. I said, You are doing what? You are teaching Lindy? Who teaches Lindy? Everybody wanted to learn how to do it. And, that's how you got a whole new generation to learn how to do it.
Campus Circle: What was your time at the Savoy Ballroom (Famous Swing dancing club in Harlem) like? What was the most memorable part of it.
Norma Miller: It was wonderful. We saw the biggest acts like Louie Armstrong and Benny Goodman.
Campus Circle: What was so special in terms of the Lindy Hop in America?
Norma Miller: The Savoy was the only place where white people and black people came together. You couldn't go to the Roseland Ballroom. It was a racial country. Remember, black people were not seen before that time. It wasn’t until you made the movies that they even saw the Lindy.
Campus Circle: And so, white people were coming there from all over the place?
Norma Miller: Oh yeah, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were there every night. That's how come Benny Goodman brought his band to play against Chick Webb.
Campus Circle: So you think it helped America?
Norma Miller: America is a racial country. Of course it helped. So, why are you talking about it?
Campus Circle: Because, you've been through so much I never sat down with someone like you before and I wanted to hear what it was like back then for you?
Norma Miller: Like it is now. The only difference is you and I couldn't be sitting here. And, now we can swing dance together. There was a time where that was frowned up. That's the difference.
Campus Circle: Well I'm glad we have that.