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.

Today Google celebrates Ella Fitzgerald's birthday. She would have been 96.

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.

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.

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.”

Those who take classes at the center are required to practice all of the disciplines, even if they are only interested in singing or acting. The idea is for the students to be well rounded as Fitzgerald was, Sumner says. 

“We don't want the children being trained on her stage and not know anything,” she says. “To me, it would be very embarrassing to be raised on Ella’s stage and then go to New York to go to an audition and not know how to do an audition.” 

A select group of local artist have formed Ella's Pearl, an ensemble that pays tribute to Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, Sumner says. The two were childhood friends from Newport News.

The 12-person ensemble will be led by Queen Esther Marrow, the internationally acclaimed soul and gospel singer, and will perform locally as well as nationally in honor of the Newport News natives.

The entire program takes influence from Fitzgerald’s work ethic and approach, Sumner says. She was never late for a performance, nor did she ever miss a show. In fact, she outlasted most of her band members when they went on tour, touring about 50 weeks a year. The students are expected to demonstrate their commitment to the craft.

The center's instructors are trained by top professionals and organizing master classes led by renowned artists, Sumner says.

“With the way that the kids are being raised, you get a snapshot of what it is to be properly raised in the arts,” she says.

Musicians and fans from all over visit the venue. Sumner recalls one couple from England who traveled to the US just to see the theater.

Fitzgerald’s legacy continues to inspire artists both locally and from all over the music industry. Many musicians gather in honor of the “First Lady of Song” at the annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, held in Newport News. The festival has featured performers who have worked with or taken influence from her, including Aretha Franklin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Jane Monheit. This year, R&B singer Freddie Jackson will perform at the festival. 

While Fitzgerald's legacy has special meaning to the Newport News community, Sumner says, the iconic artist left her mark all over the world.

"We admire Ms. Fitzgerald a great deal in Newport News, and the city of Newport News is committed to honoring her in the way that she should [be honored]," she says. "There are cities across the country that honor Ella in their own way, too."

For more tech news, follow Steph on Twitter: @stephmsolis

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