A beautiful legend was celebrated on Sunday, March 6, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. Her name: Ms. Carmen de Lavallade, the internationally renowned dance queen. And oh, what a super special afternoon for the multifarious award-winning great lady of culture and her wonderful guests who came to share her momentous milestone!
Orchestrated by several of de Lavallade’s dear friends, including John Martello, executive director of the Players Club, the early afternoon soiree was held at a magnificent private club at 16 Gramercy Park in New York City, where everything was absolutely perfect.
From 12:30 p.m. to just before 4, as a drenching rain crescendoed rhythmically against the landmark mansion, the fashion maven de Lavallade, a name synonymous with “Best Dressed List,” welcomed everyone inside. Attired in an alluring cherry-red two-piece ensemble, she floated gracefully through the spacious opulence and old-world grandeur, priceless paintings warmly greeting her delightful company of dancers, actors and other brilliant partygoers. In turn, they exchanged hugs and kisses with the treasured grand dame.
There were those who shared her dance world: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Judith Jamison and Robert Battle, Paradigm Dance Company’s Gus Solomon Jr., Hope Clarke and Dudley Williams, Philadanco’s Joan Myers Brown and Complexions’ Desmond Richardson, as well as Louis Johnson, the fabulous Maurice Hines and Chita Rivera.
From the theater: Federico Castelluccio, Tony Goldwyn and his wife, Jane Musky, Joey Grisanti, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lynn Norment, James Norton, Corice Arman, Mrs. Camille Cosby and Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob, filmmakers of the award-winning documentary “Carmen and Geoffrey.”
And of course de Lavallade’s family was also present: her beloved husband, Geoffrey Holder, the Tony Award-winning director, costume designer and painter, and their remarkable son Leo and his fiance, Alison Slon, as well as her nephew, Gregory Johnson.
Leaving the comfortable spacious parlors, the party meandered into the vestibule of the historic mansion, founded in 1888 by the renowned Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth as a place for those in the arts to gather socially with patrons who wanted to support the arts.
Soon everyone was seated in the dining room around the festively decorated tables set for eight with keepsake place cards designed by Leo Holder, depicting de Lavallade as a little girl with her hands on her hips, which opened to a stunning image of her dancing several decades later. Holder also designed a fabulous souvenir poster that all the guests signed.
During their meal, Martello welcomed everyone to the Players, giving them a brief history of the membership-based club, the first of its kind in U.S. history, which continues Booth’s wish to honor the players (actors) of the theatre and “to maintain the Hampden-Booth Theater Library relating especially to the history of the American stage and the preservation of pictures, bills of the play, photographs and curiosities connected with such history.”
Martello shared: “I’ve been captivated by the de Lavallade/Holder charm, presence and talent.” Then he asked, “What do you give a bad guy (Geoffrey Holder) and a woman like Carmen de Lavallade who has everything?” He responded, “The Executive Committee has requested this duo join us by being lifetime members in our club.” Amidst thunderous applause, Martello said, “Until this moment there was something incomplete about us. Now we are complete!” Everyone in the room applauded heartily in agreement.
The brilliant actor/director Grisanti, one of de Lavallade’s students at the Yale School of Drama, who served as the master of ceremonies for the occasion, royally entertained everyone with witty conversation, jokes and delightful anecdotes of that special period of de Lavallade’s life as a professor of movement at Yale. He shared that, in addition to teaching, this fruitful period also further propelled her career as an actor, citing her award-winning role as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Grisanti then read a lovely letter from Meryl Streep, another of her superb Yale students, who had sent her birthday greetings which ended with “Happy Birthday to one of the most beautiful spirits–physical and spiritual beauty–on the Eastern Seaboard.”
Jeremy Smith, yet another student from Yale, read a message from the former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Robert Stern, the recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Arts.
Hines exclaimed, “I’m in heaven. The greats are sitting here!” He recounted how de Lavallade had encouraged him as a dancer by telling him, “Let it happen. Find the joy.”
Geoffrey Holder proudly told everyone, “I met the best.” He recounted how he met de Lavallade at age 25, when they were both in the Broadway production of “House of Flowers.” He fell in love, proposed and married his soulmate, who he has been with for 55 years. He the asked everyone to join him in singing “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”
“I want to thank you all for coming,” de Lavallade told her guests. She asked everyone to light the cupcakes on the tables, then requested that everyone join her in singing “Happy Birthday,” first to her, then to themselves. Soon, the amazing Carmen de Lavallade had the entire Players dining room swaying and moving their hands and bodies. And just like that, as Hines had shared earlier, her magic had taken over the Players. Everyone let it happen. Their single quest: “To find the joy.”
Happy 80th, Madame Carmen de Lavallade. Like Geoffrey, “We’ll Be Loving You, Always!”
The “Moonlit Window” series takes an insightful look at the lives of spirited, life-changing people, who are living extraordinary lives in their quest for “what it means to be human.”