Geoffrey Holder and Family: West Indian Wunderkinds

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

I had initially intended this post for August 1, the birthday of Geoffrey Holder (1930-2014). 6′ 7″ Holder is well known for playing the voodoo priest in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973) and for being the spokesman in 7-Up commercials in the ’70s and ’80s. But the Trinidadian artist was not just an actor, he was distinguished across a wide swath of art forms. Nor was he the only member of his family to so distinguish himself. The whole family is too interesting and accomplished to leave out, so we expand the post to include them as well.

It all begins with Geoffrey’s older brother Arthur Aldwyn “Boscoe” Holder (1921-2007) in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Both brothers were well educated at Tranquility Intermediate School and Queen’s Royal College. Boscoe was playing piano for local society when still a teenager, and also took up painting at this time. In adulthood, he was to become Trinidad’s leading painter (Google him, the internet is full of his art). He also founded the Holder Dance Company, which presented traditional Afro-Caribbean dance. In 1947 he spent a short spell in New York exhibiting his painting in Greenwich Village galleries and teaching at the Katherine Dunham school. In 1948, he married his lead dancer Sheila Davis Clarke, who was daughter of this lady:

Kathleen Davis, a.k.a. “Auntie Kay“, actress and host of long running Radio Trinidad children’s program The Auntie Kay Show, which ran from 1942 to 1985.

In 1949, Holder’s son Christian Holder was born — more on him anon. The following year, the three Holders moved to London and founded Boscoe Holder and His Caribbean Dancers, which performed on BBC television, in night clubs, music halls, and West End theatre. The company performed at Albert Hall, and at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. They are said to have introduced steel drums to England for the very first time. The company also toured the continent, and performed in France and Monte Carlo with Josephine Baker.

In 1970, Boscoe and Sheila returned to Trinidad, where Boscoe concentrated primarily on his painting over the next quarter century.

Meanwhile, their son Christian had made a name for himself in the world of dance. Christian studied with Martha Graham, attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts and became one of the leading dancers with the Joffrey Ballet. He also choreographed with major dance organizations like the ABT.

Now we come to the remarkable Geoffrey Holder, who had vastly more going for him than is commonly known. He debuted with his brother Boscoe’s dance company at age 7. In 1952 Agnes de Mille saw him dance and recommended him for a post at the Katherine Dunham school, where he taught for two years. He danced with the Met Opera Ballet, and then he went into the Broadway show House of Flowers (1954-55), which is where he met fellow dancer dancer Carmen de Lavallade (b. 1931). The pair married in 1955. We now digress a little to talk about her.

de Lavallade was a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey, and you can see her in many movies. She had bit parts (usually as a dancer) in such movies as Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Egyptian (1954), Carmen Jones (1954) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) with Harry Belafonte. We digress further. For de Lavallade is the cousin of this woman:

Janet Collins (1917-2013), one of the first classically trained African American dancers, the first African American ballerina with the Met Opera, and a frequent collaborator with Katherine Dunham. Collins was a principal dancer in the Broadway show Out of this World (1950-51), choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

But somehow we keep getting away from Geoffrey Holder, the one who is best known to the masses!

After Holder’s marriage in 1955, here are some things that happened: He was a principal dancer with Met Opera Ballet 1955-56. In 1956 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship — for PAINTING! In 1957, he played Lucky in an all-black Broadway production of Waiting for Godot starring Mantan Moreland, Rex Ingram and Earle Hyman. 1959, he’s in the movie Porgy and Bess. 1964 he danced in Josephine Baker’s Broadway revue. 1967 he is in the films Androcles and the Lion and Doctor Doolittle. 1972,  heis in the Woody Allen comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. In 1973, he has a prominent role in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. In 1975 he directs and does costume design for the original production of The Wiz on Broadway! In 1976, he’s in the film Swashbuckler with Robert Shaw. 1978: he directs, choreographs, designs costumes and the programs for the Broadway show Timbuktu! 1982, appears in the musical film Annie. Other movies: Boomerang (1992) with Eddie Murphy et al, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) (he was the narrator).

Naturally, there’s much more than this, but I feel like we’ve done more than enough to establish that Geoffrey Holder was much more than a soda pop spokesman. He and his family constituted a Caribbean Renaissance!