Georgette Harvey: Porgy’s First Maria

A fascinating figure was born on this day. Georgette Harvey (1882-1952) was principally a stage performer, although I first became aware of her from the 1934 voodoo movie Chloe, Love is Calling You. She was a striking figure, tall, broad-shouldered, stout-limbed. While she was often cast in “Mammy” characters, as was the custom of the day, she made Hattie McDaniel look like a pipsqueak. She also possessed an intelligence and worldliness that was difficult to disguise, not necessarily an optimal quality when casting a menial, which was what most African Americans were cast as in those years, at least in Hollywood films.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Harvey transitioned from church singing to vaudeville, working her way to New York in the early years of the 20th century. She formed a musical sextet of singing, dancing girls called the Creole Belles and made two tours of western Europe, as well as American vaudeville, and a solo tour of Russia.

Harvey broke into Broadway with the George White show Runin’ Wild in 1924. Broadway was to be her principal artistic home over the next quarter century. She appeared in 25 Broadway productions, most notably creating the role of Maria in the original productions of both Porgy (1927) and the musical adaptation Porgy and Bess (1935). Her last Broadway show was the original production of Maxwell Anderson’s and Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars (1949).

Her movie credits were much more modest. She has an uncredited walk-on as a maid in Social Register (1934), and a much bigger, more rewarding role in the aforementioned Chloe, Love is Calling You. She auditioned for Mammy in Gone with the Wind, but obviously the role went to Hattie McDaniel. But that year she did appear in the B movie Back Door to Heaven and the promotional film The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. Both of these latter films were shot in New York. Then it was back to the stage for the next decade. She was 69 when she passed away in 1952.

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