Ella Fitzgerald: A legacy kept alive in theater
Google celebrates the birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the acclaimed African-American singer. The Ella Fitzgerald Theater in her hometown of Newport News, Va., has worked to embody her legacy in its training programs and performances.
When the Fitzgeralds lived in Newport News, Va., the building at 2410 Wickham Avenue was the all-white Walter Reed School. Temperance Fitzgerald would walk past it every day on her way to work as a maid.Skip to next paragraph
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It would never occur to her that the institution two blocks from their home would one day have her daughter’s name engraved at the entrance. But 96 years later, the Ella Fitzgerald Theater stands as a tribute to her child's achievements as a world-renowned artist.
While Google users all over the United States observe what would have been Ella Fitzgerald's 96th birthday, the Ella Fitzgerald Theater within the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in Newport News celebrates her legacy through its programs, the upcoming Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, and an upcoming tribute ensemble.
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Newport News, where Fitzgerald was born in 1917, radiates with her spirit. Michelle Gilliam, director of the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center and one of the founders of the annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, led the restoration of the historic building that used to be the Walter Reed School to establish the Ella Fitzgerald Theater. She opened the 276-seat venue in 2008.
The theater offers a space for local artists, especially young people, to refine their talents and perform. Ms. Gilliam and Kay Sumner, executive director of the arts center, imbue Fitzgerald’s spirit in their work. They train the children who participate in their programs to learn multiple art forms, as Fitzgerald had, and to not let their circumstances stop them from striving for success.
"One of Ms. Fitzgerald's main concerns was youth and just the condition in which youth grow up," says Ms. Sumner. "We're very mindful of that with the programming that we do here. We reach out to the community youth, and we make sure that we give them constructive choices for expression.”
Fitzgerald struggled throughout her childhood, having become an orphan by her early teens. Her parents separated a month after she was born. She lived with her mother, and moved with her to Yonkers, N.Y., when she was young. But when she was 15 her mother died in a car accident.
She moved in with her aunt after her mother’s death. As a form of escape, Fitzgerald started skipping school and heading to movie houses. It was her love of the arts that would lead her into the streets to pursue her dream and inspire her to perform at the Apollo Theater’s “Amateur Night.”