Geri celebrates 99

Ron Scott | 6/18/2020, midnight
Recently, a good friend Laverne Perry-Kennedy called and said, “Hey, we have to do a three-way, today is Geri’s birthday,” ...
Geri Fowler Sanyette McGee photo

Recently, a good friend Laverne Perry-Kennedy called and said, “Hey, we have to do a three-way, today is Geri’s birthday,” (May 23). We started the three-way conversation by singing a crazy version of happy birthday with Stevie Wonder’s version on high volume playing in the background at Perry-Kennedy’s apartment.

Geri Fowler, celebrating her 99th birthday, thought our bad voices were hilarious. She thanked us and went on to say how friends from California, Texas, and her five grandchildren (and one great grandchild) had all called with birthday wishes. Her daughter, Kathie, had drove in from Florida to be with her mom on this special occasion, in the midst of this pandemic. Her oldest daughter Leslie Burns died on March 15, 2017. She lived in Manhattan and was the CEO of Noah Unlimited, a management and special events company. She was Perry-Kennedy’s best friend.

“Feeling 99 feels the same because I still don’t believe it,” Fowler laughed. She said if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we could have gone to a restaurant to celebrate with wine and food. “So next year hopefully all this will be over and we can go out and celebrate my 100th.” Last year the three of us had brunch maybe two weeks before her 98th birthday.

Talking to Fowler is like walking into a living encyclopedia of Harlem from the 1930s to present. She was born in Chicago and moved to New York City at the age of eight with her mother, Nellie J. Fowler. Shortly after arriving in New York and moving to Harlem, Fowler and her mother lived at the prestigious 409 Edgecombe Avenue, in apartment 13A. “I lived there from age 11 to 20. Some of the most important people in the United States lived in that building,” said Fowler. “Walter White, head of the NAACP, lived next door, his daughter Jane [Jane White went on to become a noted actress on Broadway and films] and I played together as kids. Thurgood Marshall was always at their apartment. Roy Wilkens lived downstairs on the 11th floor.” She said the bandleader Jimmy Lunceford was the only musician who lived in the building and that was only because he had a degree from Fisk University. In her later years while residing at 409, she met and became friends with the bandleader, composer and arranger Sy Oliver, who regularly visited Lunceford.

Fowler’s mother was hired by Frank Schiffman, who owned movie theaters like the Roosevelt, Lafayette (where the comedienne Moms Mabley often performed), Harlem Opera House and the Apollo Theater. She sold tickets at all the theaters including the Apollo where she stayed the longest. It was there she became friends with singers Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. “You know they were both young then and had won the amateur night contest,” stated Fowler. “They sometimes spent part of their breaks talking with my mother.” Her job exposed her to a lot of live theater. “At that time, the Lafayette and Apollo were the only two theaters for Black people to see live music.”

After graduating from Edward G. Stitt Junior High School on 163rd Street, she attended my alma mater Evander Childs High School (in 1937) in the East Bronx. “I was very upset I had to leave because some girl knew I lived in Harlem and she reported me to the administration. At that time you could only attend schools in your borough,” said Fowler. “I graduated from George Washington High School but Mercer Ellington stayed at Evander although he also lived in Harlem.”

After high school, her social life really began. She and her friends, whom she described as a very fashionable group from Queens, the Bronx and Harlem, started hanging out at the Savoy Ballroom. “I loved that place, it was so large and we just danced until we got tired,” laughed Fowler. “The house band was Chick Webb and singer Ella Fitzgerald, and Thursdays was maids’ night so they got in for FREE, which meant lots of men would definitely be there.” She was escorted to the Savoy one night by Gordon Parks (who became a celebrated photographer, writer and film director of “Shaft,” “Shaft’s Big Score”). She says her life at times was quite glamorous hanging out at the Renny Bar, Jock’s next door to the Red Rooster (Adam Powell’s main spot on 7th Avenue), Baby Grand (on 125th Street) where comedian Nipsey Russell performed often, and downtown at Café Society where she met a young Harry Belafonte, and jazz singer, pianist Hazel Scott before she married Adam Clayton Powell Jr. She mentioned two of the top columnists for this newspaper were Bill Chase and theatrical editor Dan Burley, who became the managing editor in 1937.

“Harlem was just a great place—music, laughter and nice people until the drugs came,” explained Fowler. “The drugs are gone and gentrification is now trying to move out people like me because we aren’t paying high rents which isn’t fair.”

She married Powell Lindsay, who was 16 years her senior. He was a bartender on 126th Street but he also attended Yale Drama School. He started a Negro drama group that included Ruby Dee. “At that time Ruby was married to Frank Dee, he was a doorman at a popular night club, and he was always very nice,” said Fowler. “I heard he was also a singer but I never saw him perform.” The small acting group entertained Black troops for USO camp shows that were produced by Dick Campbell, who later became a close friend of Vivian Robinson and assisted her on special projects for her theater organization AUDELCO.

Despite the great times, segregation was still a glaring fact in Harlem. “Blacks couldn’t eat in Frank’s Restaurant on 125th Street [off St. Nicholas Avenue] or Woolworth’s until Adam Clayton Powell organized a boycott, and even after that we still had a difficult time trying to get hired there,” explained Fowler.

Over the years Fowler has held a string of varied job positions. She noted she came from a family of hardworking women. Fowler was an assistant teacher and attended CUNY majoring in Early Childhood Development. After purchasing her first car she took an auto mechanics course, “Just in case something happened I would know what to do,” she laughs. After leaving CUNY in 1946, she became a switchboard operator for the Anti-Nazi League (165 West 46th Street). Assisted by a temp agency (abundantly located throughout NYC) she obtained a position at a brokerage firm (245 Park Avenue) where she became assistant to the firm’s president. “I really liked working there; I was responsible for reading the ticker tape to our private clients when the market opened and closed,” said Fowler. “I also had the authority to bid on stocks.” For her next position she was a secretary for Harlem’s Webb & Brooker real estate company, followed by a position on Harlem’s east side at 1199 Plaza in the sales department, responsible for interviewing and processing applications for prospective residents. From 1979-1991, she was employed by HPD (Housing Preservation and Development), where she managed all the buildings in Central Harlem and was even given a course in plumbing just in case of an emergency in one of the buildings.

Working at Paramount Studios (located over at the Stage Delicatessen in Manhattan) in the animation department was her favorite. She was a cartoon painter, Popeye and Casper the Friendly Ghost. “My father [Steve Fowler] was an amateur artist and mailman in Chicago,” stated Fowler. “I inherited my interest of art from him. I was able to get a union card which was rare for a Black person. It offered me the opportunity to also work in television in animation for 15 years. I was able to freelance at other studios and at advertising agencies like BBDO doing Campbell Soup and other TV commercials.”

These days Fowler can usually be found at home unless she goes out with friends for lunch or dinner. She googles everything on her phone and watches videos on YouTube. “I am constantly redecorating my apartment and rearranging my closets, that keeps me busy,” noted Fowler. She has been living in her current walk-up apartment in Harlem for 60 years. “I think walking up and down those stairs all these years keeps me alive—that is great exercise.”