In December 1941 Norma Miller set sail for Rio de Janeiro with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a professional dance troupe from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, who helped make the Lindy Hop a global phenomenon. The group included Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson, Al Minns and Willamae Ricker and Miller’s dance partner Billy Ricker. They had just filmed Hellzapoppin’, the Lindy Hop was the dance of the hour, and their manager Herbert White (“Whitey”) was at the peak of success, sending dancers to Hollywood and to all corners of the globe. Miller was one of the youngest members of the group (she turned 22 during the voyage) and she continued to be an unstoppable force right up to the age of ninety-nine (1919-2019). On this journey Miller would discover the Brazilian Samba and its Carnival, as well as meeting film director Orson Welles. The plan was to spend six weeks performing at the famous Cassino da Urca, one of the most luxurious venues in the world, located on the beachfront in Rio de Janeiro, where stars such as Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker performed.
Norma describes the Cassino da Urca in her memoir:
“It was just as we anticipated, like a fabulous movie setting. There was nothing in America to compare to this casino. It was on the beach, facing the harbor, and when you stood on the patio looking across the harbor, you had a breathtaking view of the statue of Christ. Rio immediately filled a special place in my heart”. (Swingin’ at the Savoy, p 173).
The casino was magnificent: it had three orchestras, a large ensemble of chorus girls, a mobile stage, several gambling rooms and restaurants, as well as a boat service to cross the bay. The orchestras were those of Ray Ventura and the Carlos Machado Band and the star artist was Grande Otelo. This is where Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers danced every night, and they were a great success.
But on December 7, two days after their arrival, the Pearl Harbor bombing took place and the US was forced to formally enter World War II, which had already been devastating Europe for several years. Going back to the United States by boat became too risky, due to the danger of bombing, so Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers stayed in Brazil: finally they remained here for close to ten months until they managed to get plane tickets home. It must be said, this forced stay was far from an ordeal. Brazil had a lot to offer and they enjoyed it to the fullest. Miller fell in love with the Samba rhythm and took every opportunity to dance it out and about the city’s ballrooms.
The Harlem Lindy Hoppers immediately understood the connection with Brazilian musical culture, with shared African roots, as Miller explains:
“Brazilians have a Swing all their own, but it has the same African roots as American Jazz. Brazilian blacks gave it a Samba beat, and American blacks swung it. The ties were there, and we felt them immediately. Everything about Brazil was swinging.” (Swingin’ at the Savoy, p 173).
Miller was not the only one captivated by the Samba and the rhythm of Brazil’s nightlife. In early February 1942, film director Orson Welles arrived to film It’s All True. Welles had been appointed as a goodwill ambassador to Latin America as part of the war effort. Commissioned by RKO, he put his other projects on hold (among them the “The Story of Jazz”, a film he was working on with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and which was never completed) and filmed in Brazil without a salary but with a budget of one million of dollars. It’s All True combined fiction with documentary and consisted of three parts: “My Friend Bonito”, “Jangadeiros” and “The Story of Samba”, also known as “Carnaval”, which he filmed in Rio. Welles’ goal was to capture the real Brazil and thus strengthen the ties between the two Americas.
He arrived just in time to film the Rio Carnival, “the end of civilization as we know it” in his words. At first he was not very convinced by the subject, but when he discovered the Samba and understood that it was also an expression of the African diaspora, that it was created by the underprivileged Black population, just like jazz, he became enthusiastic. It was the first time the Rio Carnival was filmed in technicolor, an all-absorbing experience of non-stop dancing and partying that went on for days (like trying to film a hurricane, according to the filmmaker).
Welles was also a regular at Cassino da Urca, where he filmed several scenes during the carnivals. Here is where he met Miller, an encounter she describes:
“During our stay in Rio, Orson Welles began filming Carnival there. The casino was used for a film set during the day, and Orson Welles sat in the centre of the room directing the film. He had a voice just like Roy’s. In fact, the first time I heard him speak my heart leaped, and I was sure that Roy was in the room. After we had been introduced, I would sit by his side, just to hear him speak. He would talk to me because I was one of the few people around the set who spoke English. I could listen to that voice and watch the production all day long” (Swingin’ at the Savoy, p 176).
Singer, actor, dancer and comedian Grande Otelo, star of the Cassino da Urca, featured prominently in several scenes in the film. He recounts his experience working with Welles in the documentary The RKO Story: It’s All True (BBC, 1987). Around that time, Grande Otelo also became very friendly with the Lindy Hoppers, whom he invited to enjoy the carnival. The musical hit of the 1942 carnivals, which would also be the film’s soundtrack, was “Praça Onze” by Herivelto Martins and lyrics by Grande Otelo. Praça Onze was the meeting point for the Samba schools in the black neighbourhood, before the square was razed as part of the city’s modernization.
Unfortunately, It’s All True was never finished. There were changes in the RKO management and there was concern about the approach Welles was taking. The portrait he was making of Brazil –filming disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the black population and the chaotic rejoicing of the carnival where black and white people mixed—caused as much upset in the US, where strong racial segregation persisted, as among Brazil’s conservative society. Finally, RKO withdrew its financial support. According to Welles, in an interview recorded for British television programme Arena (BBC, 1982), this was a dreadful blow, and he didn’t film in Hollywood again for many years. Most of the film’s footage was destroyed and it was not until the 1980s that it was possible to recover some images. The documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (1993), details the failure of this project using recovered footage (a minimum part of the original).
Thanks to this footage we can get an idea of the exuberance and colour of Rio’s carnival celebrations, which the Lindy hoppers joined with enthusiasm. According to Miller “The entire city was dancing in the streets, and we joined right in, having a ball” (p177). Having scrutinised the images on Youtube, I think I have discovered a fleeting glimpse of Norma Miller in the carnival, moving through the crowd between second 0.36 and 0.38 of this party scene from the documentary “The RKO Story”. The possibility is difficult to verify.
The meeting of Swing and Samba, of North American and Brazilian musical culture, represented a special moment in the history of Lindy Hop, and the love was mutual from the opening night at Cassino da Urca:
“We loved Brazil, and Brazil loved us. When we hit the stage with the band, I knew something special was happening. It was wonderful, it was that Samba beat….The house roared, and the band was swinging like crazy. When we finished, the house went wild, everything else stopped. We bowed and bowed, and finally, they let us go. We were a smash in Rio. We knew we had found a second home” (p 175).
The rhythm of Samba is something that Miller would take with her from Brazil and would incorporate in her later work as a dancer and choreographer. Welles dreamt of creating a “Pan-American Carnival” that would unite both Americas and all races through his film. Although It’s All True was never released, the spirit of Samba and Swing came together at that Carnival in Rio and Miller was there to tell it.
* * *
Karen Campos McCormack is the Spanish translator of La reina del swing: las memorias de Norma Miller(Ediciones Carena, 2018) //Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Temple University Press, 1993).
Este artículo está disponible en español.
Copyright Karen Campos McCormack 2023. Please reference when sharing.
Find out more:
Manning, Frankie & Cynthia R. Millman: Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop (Temple University Press, 2007).
Miller, Norma & Jensen, Evette: Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Temple University Press, 1996) // Spanish edition: La reina del swing: las memorias de Norma Miller (Carena, 2018).
Arena, BBC, interview with Orson Welles (1982) (https://youtu.be/ekAZg7Nbe4o)
The RKO Story, BBC, episode 4 of 6, “It’s All True: Welles in Brazil” (BBC, 1987) (https://youtu.be/ekFPK2FFm4U)
It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles (Paramount, 1993). (Clip https://youtu.be/IevOgR1ftSc).
Atlantic Lindy Hopper, “Cassino da Urca – Swinging Rio”, September 2016 (Cassino da Urca – Swingin’ Rio – Atlantic Lindy Hopper (wordpress.com)
Grande Otelo, 90 Anos (website) http://www.ctac.gov.br/otelo/index.asp
Kelly, Ray: ‘It’s All True’ 75 years after Orson Welles’ ill-fated shoot, (WellesNet, 20 February 2017). (http://www.wellesnet.com/its-all-true-75-years-after-orson-welles-ill-fated-shoot/) and “A Soundtrack for the Story of Samba” (WellesNet, June 2010) (http://www.wellesnet.com/a-soundtrack-for-the-story-of-samba-from-the-carnival-episode-of-orson-welless-its-all-true/)
Royal Rio, “Cassino da Urca, the Golden Years of Rio de Janeiro” (April 2013) (http://royalrio.net/cassino-da-urca-the-golden-years-of-rio-de-janeiro/ )