Harold 'Stumpy' Cromer Remembered in A Night of Memories via Film, Jazz, Rap, Song and Tap.

by Joe Powell

Joseph Powell

One notable passing in 2013 was that of legendary tap dancer Harold 'Stumpy' Cromer last June. He had a fifty year career as a tap dancer in the world of show business. He started out on Broadway working with entertainers like Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman. He would go to become part of the well known song and dance comedy team of Stump and Stumpy with James Cross. Many would claimed that the comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin based their act from the routines of Stump and Stumpy. They would perform in theaters and nightclubs with Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Count Basie to name a few. In the late fifties, Harold would become the Master of Ceremonies for the rock n' roll shows that were touring the country. In the late seventies, Harold returned to the Broadway stage in The American Dance Machine. He stayed active in the world of tap in New York City and around the country passing on his knowledge to new generations of tap dancers.

There were many memorial tributes given for Harold over the summer. But one special tribute was held recently at Saint Peter's Church in New York City on Monday September 30th. It was entitled, 'Welcome to A Celebration of the Life and Gifts of Harold 'Stumpy' Cromer.' It was presented by members of the tap and jazz communities of New York City.

It was a jam packed church filled with many who knew and loved Harold as a dear friend. What made it so special that the audience was filled with many young people who could point to him as a friend and a mentor.

The tribute opened with a black and white film clip from 1938 showing a young Harold Cromer tap dancing. Another clip showed Harold in his later years. This clip had the caption of 'Like To Help People' listed. The final clip shown was from 'No Room At All,' a in progress documentary by his great grand daughter Chelsea Phillips.

The welcome opening remarks came from the Reverend Dale R. Lind of Saint Peters Church. He thanked Harold for being a active member of Saint Peters and ended with the words, 'We celebrate his life with joy tonight.' Reverend Lind's words and the caption of helping people would be a constant reminder throughout the evening. Harold's life would be celebrated to the fullest and there would be many people thanking him for being a good friend to them.

The Mistress of Ceremonies was Michela Marino Lerman, a former student and friend of Harold. Ms. Lerman is also a rising star in the world of tap dance. One of the first speakers was Al Heyward, who was on the tribute committee for this memorial offered warm reflections. He ended his talk by stating, 'Harold was the complete package.'

One of the first tap dance routines performed was 'Dance, Dance, Dance' by a female trio of Sarah Reich, Hillary Marie Michael, and Shelby Kaufman. It was a recreation of Harold's 1938 dance routine that was shown earlier from a film clip. The trio had a great time singing and dancing to the original choreography of Harold. Afterwards, Shelby Kaufman of her friendship with Harold Cromer and how he was a huge influence on her life. She valued Harold's friendship as well his wisdom he shared.

The next tribute came from Logan Miller, a former dance student of Harold's. This performance would be the first of many times that the band would play in the evening. They consisted of Frank Owens on piano, Alex Claffy on bass, and Curtis Beck played drums. A second pianist Theo Hill would play later on in the evening during various parts of the program. Logan Miller tap danced as the band performed John Coltrane's 'Equinox.' The band played the tune in a very fast hard bop style which was reminiscent of the Blue Note Records sound of the nineteen sixties. Logan Miller tap danced on and off the stage right into the aisles. There were moments when Miller was tap dancing very hard matching the band as they played in a free form. Curtis Beck did a fantastic job of stretching out on the drums.

Ruth Tiranoff played harmonica and sang while Frank Owens played behind her. The trio of Toes Tiranoff, Hank Smith and Traci Mann performed 'Accentuate the Positive,' and 'Pennies from Harold. The latter was a reworking of 'Pennies from Heaven,' as a tribute to Harold. The lyrics were by Megan Haungs. The trio sang and did a soft shoe tap dance routine while the band played behind them. Afterwards, Hank Smith spoke of Harold and the world of the performing arts.

Hillary Marie Michael came back out to share memories of Harold and tap dance as the band played 'Jeanine.' Theo Hill handled the piano duties on this classic Cannonball Adderley tune.

Kumiko Yamakudo, a young female from Japan talked of Harold and performing open mic nights at Cobi's. She sang 'How Do You Keep the Music Playing.' It was a very moving rendition of the popular tune. This was due to Kumiko Yamakudo singing the song very slow by drawing out the lyrics. The band played very low key behind her. These factors allowed her and the band to create a slow bluesy feel to the tune.

Yamakudo made references to singing at Cobi's
in her introduction. Cobi's Place was a midtown music venue which showcased the talents of dancers, musicians, and singers. It was founded and ran by Mrs. Cobi Narita, a person who is devoted to presenting the music of jazz. She was also a close friend of Harold Cromer and helped organized this wonderful tribute. She has strong ties to Saint Peters and it's connection to the jazz community. Cobi Narita can also be credited for creating a wonderful memorial program that was given to each person who attended this tribute.

Annie Rudnik who is Harold's biographer came on and spoke a few moving words on him. Ira Lee Collins came on stage and sang a song in tribute to Harold.

Sarah Reich stepped in for dancer Maud Arnold who was delayed in getting to the church. Reich and Chloe Arnold performed a dance to Beyoncé's 'Deja Vu.' The female duo danced mixing traditional tap with elements of today's hip hop dance style. It was a real crowd pleaser.

Willie Mae Perry spoke and then sang one of Harold's favorite songs, 'I Got It Bad and That's Not Good.' Frank Owens handled the piano duties on this Duke Ellington classic tune.

Many of his friends and former students spoke throughout the evening. One theme that was mentioned constantly was how supportive he was. They all stated, 'Harold used to come to every event, no matter how big or small.' Harold's actions meant a lot to these dancers who ranged in age from late teens to twenties and beyond.

Andrew Nemr tap danced to the tune 'S' Wonderful' as the band with Frank Owens on piano played behind him.

Michelle Dorrance, a dancer came out with a small guitar or a ukela. She began playing and singing 'I'm in the Mood for Love.' She stumbled a little bit in her playing and the audience who knew her found it to be humorous. But Ms. Dorrance was a good sport about it and kept on going till she made it to the end of the song.

'Reggio 'The Hoofer" McLaughlin who flew in from Chicago' was a line that was mentioned throughout the evening leading up to this performance. It was a tidbit that was even printed in the memorial program. Whatever the case was regarding his travel schedule, Mr. McLaughlin didn't disappoint once he took the stage. He sang and tap dance to 'Mr. Bojangles.' McLaughlin started slowly and softly as the band played behind him. They started out slowly together and built it up to a crescendo and one could see McLaughlin matching his steps to the band's rhythms. McLaughlin was so strong that he ended up tap dancing into the aisles. One of the great things while watching McLaughlin sing and dance was that one could see the past, present and future in the art of tap. His singing and dancing were on the mark. The band did a solid job of working along with McLaughlin in his movements. The band played it a bluesy style(the tune is really a blues folk song at heart) which added a certain tinge of sadness to it.

Sarah Reich came back out and talked of a conversation she and Harold would have from time to time: 'Where did tap come from and where is it going.' She and jazz bassist Ben Williams performed 'Lil Darlin.' Ben Williams started slowly on the bass creating a steady solid rhythm. Reich then slowly tap dance building up to dance performance. One amazing aspect was that Sarah Reich tap danced in very high heel shoes.

One of the major highlights of the evening was when the veteran singer and dancer Mabel Lee came out to sing 'Blue Skies.' Frank Owens on piano led the way with the band. Ms. Lee apologized for forgetting some of the lyrics. But the audience forgave her and Ms. Lee made up for it by being upbeat and sassy. She kept going by singing and dancing off the stage into the audience. She then travel thru the various aisles joking and singing to the audience. The audience showed her support by clapping back in enjoyment. Mabel Lee was in total command and was given a standing ovation at the conclusion. While Lee struggled in the beginning, she showed a solid strong show business professionalism by not giving up or giving in to a mistake. Mabel Lee took the worst of a situation and turned it around to her advantage.

Jason Samuels Smith shared stories of Harold coming out to the Los Angeles Tap Dance Festival. The young dancer praised Harold for having a excellent memory and sharing stories of his life and the trade itself. Smith also shared humorous tales of how Harold wasn't worried about being picked up at both coast's airports. Apparently Harold had everything in order for the flight there and flight back to New York. Smith then became serious when he spoke on how it's important for today's young people to have good memories and shared stories. Smith stated, 'Too many of us are caught up in social media where everything comes in a instant. We are losing our elders from the past generations and they are not being replaced. We're not holding on to their stories.' I feel that it was great that a person of today 's generation like Jason Samuels Smith could see that. Too many of us no matter what our age is-are caught up in today's world where responses can come in a instant via computerized devices.

Jason Samuel Smith then tap danced to 'Autumn In New York.' The bassist Alex Claffy lead way with the band on the tune. Smith started out very aggressive in his steps, and then danced softly. Smith stayed in rhythm of the tune even as he tapped on and off the stage. Theo Hill was on the piano and had great command. His piano playing gave the tune a very solid bluesy feel.

The trio of Corey Hutchinson, Joseph Wiggins, and Michele Marino Lermann came out on stage. They tap dance and sang 'On Broadway' accapella.

All of Harold's students and friends which consisted of all ages got on stage and danced to his 'Opus One.' It's a dance movement which was choreograph by Harold. There was over twenty five dancers on the stage. They finished the piece by tap dancing to the recorded tune of Glen Miller's 'I In the Mood.'

There was still more to come in this tribute. Rapper Doug E. Fresh showed up late up to the tribute. ( His name was listed as a special guest and one of the early speakers scheduled in the program.) The rapper explained how he just came from a meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama. She was in town for a conference on childhood obesity. They were discussing ways on how to combat this illness. It's a epidemic that afflicts many and especially those in the age group of the young dancers who were there this evening.

Doug E. Fresh talked about how Harold played a major role in hip hop. Fresh stated, 'I was a youngster living in Harlem and just starting out back in the eighties. Harold Cromer looked me up and found me in my neighborhood. Harold had a harmonica and showed me how to play it.' Fresh would also mentioned how Harold would show him different things on the instrument. These were things that the rapper would later incorporated into his rap act. Harold even praised Fresh and told him he was going places. To the audience's surprise, Fresh reached into his jacket and pull out a harmonica. He began describing the five elements of hip hop. Fresh then went into his beat box sound effect mode in which he is famously known for. As he played with the microphone closed to his mouth and covered up by his hands-the group of dancers who stayed on stage after the last big number began to respond to his actions. Chloe Arnold and Jason Samuel Smith began leading the way in tap dancing to Doug E Fresh harmonica hip hop sounds. It was total improvisation between Fresh and the dancers.

This night in many ways was the passing of the guard from the old to the new. Harold Cromer and many others from his generation laid down rules and passed it on to a new generation. A beautiful fact is that this generation that was represented are still holding on to the lessons of the past and mixing it in with the music of hip hop-which is their generation's music.

All the dancers young and old, and the non dancers who were his friends got on the stage for Shim Sham. This was the finale piece where all the entertainers get on stage for the big send off.
They all tap dance as the band played a lively 'Lester Leaps In.'
All the dancers tap danced in unison and stopped to yell a chorus like shout out with their hands and arms raised in the air.
It was the perfect ending in tribute to a man who loved to dance and be around people.

Jackie Robinson once stated that a life is only important when it has impact on others. Those words can be certainly attributed to the late pioneer ballplayer who integrated the major leagues. But those words could also be used to describe Harold 'Stumpy' Cromer. The tribute given to him showed the impact he had on other's lives. There was a lot of love and thanks given back to him this special night.

****If you like to find out more about Harold Cromer, you can find clips of him performing in the various decades via You Tube.

The comedy team of 'Stump and Stumpy' can be found in Ted Fox's excellent book, 'Showtime at the Apollo.' The book traces the history of the historical Harlem theatre from the 1920's up to early 1990's. There are photos of the comedy team and candid interviews with Harold and others regarding the era they came up in. Harold comedy partner was James 'Stump' Cross. I happened to spot his daughter June Cross in the audience. If you want to go beyond show business, go out and read her book: 'Secret Daughter.' It's a wonderful heartfelt and sometimes sad account of a biracial woman trying to find her mother and her family roots. It covers the show business period. Also, Mrs Cross did a PBS Frontline special on her journey. It shows a frank interview with Jerry Lewis and how he was inspired by Stump and Stumpy. Look for Frontline special via Youtube or check to see if it's on DVD. The book and the program are worth checking out! (I couldn't find Mrs Cross in the large crowd after the tribute to offered praise of her book and PBS special)

For information on Cobi Narita and her showcases, visit www.cobinarita.com

The dancers mentioned here at this tribute are all up and coming major forces in the world of tap and dance. Keep your eye out for them!

Finally, also keep your eye out for the forthcoming documentary 'No Room At All' which is directed by Harold's great grand daughter Chelsea Phillips.

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Joseph Powell