"Harlem at eight P.M.! That’s like Hollywood in 1840." That was Carl van Vechten's cocktail wit about the time- and site-specific Harlem Renaissance. The Huntington Library's impressive "Central Avenue and Beyond" show demonstrates that the "renaissance" was to some extent national. At one time, sections of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco were each billed as the "Harlem of the West." Though the Huntington focuses on lesser-known L.A. figures, an interesting subtext is that 1930s California was not nearly as culturally isolated as you might think. Two Harlem Renaissance luminaries, Langston Hughes and Richmond Barthé, spent part of their lives in the Los Angeles area. They even had improbable Hollywood connections.
Hughes came to L.A. for the best of Barton Fink/Californication reasons, to make a movie. Actually, he had gone east before west. In 1932 Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union with the purpose of making a film about the oppression of blacks in the U.S. Nothing ever came of the project (except to provide fodder for Hughes' 1953 grilling in the Joe McCarthy hearings). By the end of the decade, Hughes was in Hollywood, co-writing the 1939 RKO musical, Way Down South. The movie must be the polar opposite of what the Russian film would have been. It's a vehicle for a forgotten child star, Bobby Breen, who plays an irrepressible orphan/slave-owner. An evil Simon Legree type wants to steal the plantation from underneath him. The young massa and his slaves foil the baddie — all so that the slaves can remain slaves of the cute white kid. Hughes' co-writer, Clarence Muse, played a supporting role, and Matthew Beard, otherwise remembered as "Stymie" of the Little Rascals, was a slave boy. Oh, well. At least Hughes gets top billing in the recent DVD release. But the figure to watch is Muse. An actor in 1920s Harlem, he became the first black Hollywood movie star, living and acting through the 1970s. Renita Lorden, who is writing his biography, gives a lecture on Muse at the Huntington on November 12.
A different sort of Hollywood ending awaited the Harlem Renaissance's great sculptor, Richmond Barthé. Mississippi-born, Barthé had a one-artist show at the Whitney in 1934. He was 33, and in those pre-MFA days, that meant something, all the more so for a gay black man. The Whitney bought three works out of the show. By the 1940s, Barthé's success had started to unravel. Abstract expressionism made his work look increasingly passé. Barthé moved to Jamaica, it's said, on the advice of a doctor who believed city life was killing him.
There he was a kind of pan-Caribbean celebrity. He executed the 40-foot-high statue of Haitian revolutionary Jean Jacques Dessalines for Port-au-Prince and designed Haitian coins that are still in circulation. LACMA's "Inner Music" (1956, left), dates from the Jamaican period. Barthé then lived a cosmopolitan life in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy, until the money ran out. Finally, he sold everything and decamped to Pasadena, where one of his remaining admirers had agreed to rent him a cheap apartment.TV actor James Garner ("The Rockford Files") found out about Barthé's financial plight and began paying his rent and medical bills. Garner also financed new editions of Barthé's bronzes. There's now a Barthé Drive in Pasadena (just off the 210 and not far from Jackie Robinson Park).
The Huntington show features loans from the not-yet-open Mayme A. Clayton Library and Cultural Center. Clayton was a USC, then UCLA librarian who assembled one of the best private collections of African-American material ever on an average person's salary. There aren't too many Clayton pieces in the Huntington show, and some are reproductions of posters. (The show's main take-away is how much Central Avenue material the Huntington has. Who knew?) As to the Clayton, it's got a website and the "soft opening" is set for early 2010. It's destined to be the third jewel in Culver City's cultural triple crown (the others being the Wende Museum and the Museum of Jurassic Technology).