THIRTEEN’s American Masters: Althea Uncovers the Story of Legendary African American Tennis Pioneer Althea Gibson

American Masters: Althea premieres nationwide Friday, September 4, 9-10:30 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Encore presentation of American Masters: Billie Jean King follows, 10:30 p.m. -12 midnight.

People often cite Arthur Ashe as the first African American to win Wimbledon (1975).  He was indeed the first African American male to win the men’s singles title, but it was, in fact, Althea Gibson, who was the first African American to cross the color line  playing and winning at Wimbledon (1957 and 1958) and at the U.S. Nationals (1957 and 1958 – precursor of the U.S. Open).11400992_930685700321663_6031720544218097232_n

PBS’s American Masters presents Althea, premiering nationwide Friday, September 4, 2015 at 9 pm during the U.S. Open.  The 90-minute documentary reveals the highs and lows of this remarkable athlete whose life and achievements transcend sports and have entered the annals of African American history. From her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter in the cotton fields of South Carolina, to her emergence as the unlikely queen of the highly segregated tennis world in the 1950s, her story is a complex tale of race, class and gender.

In recounting Gibson’s story, the filmmakers were meticulous in finding period imagery, including over 450 vintage photographs.  Producer and director Rex Miller weaves this archival visual material and interviews with those who knew Gibson, such as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Wimbledon champions Dick Savitt and Billie Jean King (who also serves as one of the film’s executive producers), Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, widow of Arthur Ashe, and more.

"American Masters," THIRTEEN's award-winning biography series, explores the lives and creative journeys of America's most enduring artistic and cultural giants. With insight and originality, the series illuminates the extraordinary mosaic of our nation's landscape, heritage and traditions. Watch full episodes and more at http://pbs.org/americanmasters. (PRNewsFoto/WNET) (PRNewsFoto/WNET)

“American Masters,” THIRTEEN’s award-winning biography series, explores the lives and creative journeys of America’s most enduring artistic and cultural giants. With insight and originality, the series illuminates the extraordinary mosaic of our nation’s landscape, heritage and traditions. Watch full episodes and more at http://pbs.org/americanmasters. (PRNewsFoto/WNET) (PRNewsFoto/WNET)

Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927. At the age of three, her father moved the family north migrating to Harlem in 1930. Gibson was a tomboy who grew up loving sports, but disliked school so much that she started skipping classes at the age of 12 and, by 18, had dropped out of high school.  She played basketball, but “…paddle tennis started it all,” says Gibson, in a clip from a 1984 interview.

She learned to play that sport on the streets, but it was bandleader Buddy Walker, who was also the neighborhood play street director, who introduced her to tennis and The Cosmopolitan Club, a private black tennis club. At the club, she met Fred Johnson, the one-armed coach, who taught her how to play. Under the auspices of the American Tennis Association (ATA), an organization of African American players, she began to develop as a tennis player.  It was during this time that she met boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who would become a friend and mentor.

Though a talented tennis player, Gibson was a street kid who lacked the genteel manner associated with the sport. It was under the tutelage of Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, NC and Dr. Robert W. Johnson of Lynchburg, VA, two African American physicians who loved tennis and helped young African Americans who wanted to play, that she flourished. She honed her skill, while receiving lessons in etiquette and the social graces, traveled and played in the segregated south, and even earned her high school degree.  Her success in tennis earned her an athletic scholarship (basketball and tennis) to Florida A&M, where she received a BA in 1955 at the age of 27. Yet, with all she achieved, she never felt comfortable with the black middle class.

She honed her skill, while receiving lessons in etiquette and the social graces, traveled and played in the segregated south, and even earned her high school degree. Her success in tennis earned her an athletic scholarship (basketball and tennis) to Florida A&M, where she received a BA in 1955 at the age of 27. Yet, with all she achieved, she never felt comfortable with the black middle class.

Gibson’s first appearance at the U.S. Nationals in 1950 is an extraordinary and dramatic story. Her triumphant return seven years later to win the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and then again in 1958 has been attributed to her coach at the time, Sydney Llewellyn (her second husband). In 1957 and 1958, Gibson was at the top of her game, winning major tournaments including at prestigious Wimbledon. Though now a world champion, Gibson was unable to make a living playing amateur tennis. In 1959, she turned professional, touring with the Harlem Globetrotters and played paid exhibition matches. Branching out to other areas, she recorded a jazz album for Dot Records, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and even landed a role in a John Wayne/John Ford movie, The Horse Soldiers (1959), In the 1960s, she took up golf and in 1964 she became the first African American woman to become a member of the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association).

In 1965, she married the love of her life, William Darben. Angela Buxton, Althea’s doubles partner and friend, and Sandra Terry, Darben’s niece, speak lovingly about their relationship, though Gibson and Darben’s marriage ended in 1975. Gibson would remarry in 1983 to former coach Llewellyn. Art Carrington, ex-professional player, tennis historian and Athea’s friend, recalls she married Llewellyn because she was invited to bring a spouse on a trip for former champions. Buxton shares that they were just very good friends and that Gibson felt Llewellyn had done a lot for her. Five years later, this marriage also ended in divorce. Gibson and Darben remained close, reuniting towards the end of her life.

By 1968, Gibson had stopped competing and for a while worked as a tennis teaching pro. In the years that followed, Gibson found it difficult to make ends meet. Was her failure to achieve financial success partially her own doing? As portrayed in the film, Gibson is crushed when she is turned away — unrecognized and unwelcome — at the on-site restaurant on U.S. Open Championship Day.

Depressed and impoverished, in 1996, Gibson called Buxton to say goodbye. In a generous outpouring of financial support, orchestrated by Buxton, the tennis community showed Gibson she was not forgotten. Gibson died September 28, 2003. She was 76.

Though Gibson’s accomplishments put her in the forefront of the struggle to eliminate segregation in tennis and to gain equal rights for players, she was a reluctant figure of the civil rights movement. “As far as Althea was concerned, it was not about representing the race,” says Arvelia Myers, Althea’s friend and tennis professional.  Says Billie Jean King, “Arthur and I used our tennis as a platform, that’s not what she wanted. She just wanted to play.”

Gibson’s athletic prowess was unmatched on the tennis court, making her a formidable competitor,” says Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters and tennis enthusiast. “Her story remains an important part not only of sports history and African American history, but of American cultural history.  American Masters is proud to share the story of this trailblazing athlete and extraordinary woman.” Continue reading

PBS’S AMERICAN MASTERS 2015 SEASON AIRS AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY

Ric Burns’ New Documentary American Ballet Theatre: A History Premieres Nationwide on THIRTEEN’s American Masters Series Friday, May 15 on PBS in Honor of the Company’s 75th Anniversary

THIRTEEN’s American Masters series teams up with Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns to co-produce a new documentary about the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in honor of its 75th anniversary.

American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History premieres nationwide Friday, May 15, 2015 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) and delving into the rich history of one of the world’s preeminent ballet companies, Burns combines intimate rehearsal footage, virtuoso performances and interviews with American Ballet Theatre’s key figures: artists pivotal to the company’s formation, including Alicia Alonso and the late Donald Saddler and Frederic Franklin; contemporary luminaries, including dancers Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and artistic director Kevin McKenzie; past and present stars Misty Copeland, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes and Hee Seo; dance historian and author Jennifer Homans; and prominent dance critics Anna Kisselgoff and the late Clive Barnes.

Alicia Alonso in “Swan Lake.” Credit: Photo by Maurice Seymour

Alicia Alonso in “Swan Lake.” Credit: Photo by Maurice Seymour

The story of American Ballet Theatre, and the breathtaking rise of dance in the U.S. over the last three-quarters of a century, is one of the most inspiring stories in the cultural world,” says Burns. “Ballet is the most poignantly ephemeral and expressive of all the arts, both earthbound and transcendent. And ABT, indisputably one of the greatest dance companies in the world, has torn down an incredible number of barriers, welcoming choreographers of every kind and dancers from around the world.

American Ballet Theatre’s Corps de Ballet in “La Bayadere.” Credit: Photo by Buddy Squires

American Ballet Theatre’s Corps de Ballet in “La Bayadere.” Credit: Photo by Buddy Squires

Gillian Murphy warming up for the Black Swan variation in “Swan Lake.” Credit: Photo by George Seminara

Gillian Murphy warming up for the Black Swan variation in “Swan Lake.” Credit: Photo by George Seminara

Gillian Murphy receives last minute coaching from Kevin McKenzie and Clinton Luckett. Credit: Photo by George Seminara

Gillian Murphy receives last minute coaching from Kevin McKenzie and Clinton Luckett. Credit: Photo by George Seminara

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is recognized as one of the great dance companies in the world. Few ballet companies equal ABT for its combination of size, scope, and outreach. Recognized as a living national treasure since its founding in 1940, ABT is the only major cultural institution that annually tours the United States, performing for more than 450,000 people. The company has also made more than 30 international tours to 43 countries as perhaps the most representative American ballet company and has been sponsored by the State Department of the United States on many of these engagements.

When American Ballet Theatre was launched in autumn 1939, the aim was to develop a repertoire of the best ballets from the past and to encourage the creation of new works by gifted young choreographers, wherever they might be found. Under the direction of Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith from 1940-1980, the company more than fulfilled that aim. ABT’s repertoire, perhaps unmatched in the history of ballet, includes all of the great full-length ballets of the 19th century, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, the finest works from the early part of the 20th century, such as Apollo, Les Sylphides, Jardin aux Lilas and Rodeo, and acclaimed contemporary masterpieces such as Airs, Push Comes to Shove and Duets. In acquiring such an extraordinary repertoire, ABT has commissioned works by all of the great choreographic geniuses of the 20thcentury: George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp, among others.

In 1980, Mikhail Baryshnikov became artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, succeeding Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith. Under his leadership, numerous classical ballets were staged, restaged and refurbished, and the company experienced a strengthening and refining of the classical tradition. In 1990, Jane Hermann and Oliver Smith succeeded Baryshnikov and immediately established an agenda that was dedicated to maintaining the great traditions of the past while aggressively pursuing a vital and innovative future.

In October 1992, former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Kevin McKenzie was appointed artistic director. McKenzie, steadfast in his vision of ABT as “American,” is committed to maintaining the company’s vast repertoire, and to bringing the art of dance theater to the great stages of the world.

Over its 75-year history, the company has appeared in a total of 136 cities in 45 countries and has appeared in all 50 states of the United States. In keeping with ABT’s long-standing commitment to bring the finest in dance to the widest international audience, the company has recently enjoyed triumphant successes with engagements in Abu Dhabi, Brisbane, Hong Kong, Havana, Tokyo and Beijing. On April 27, 2006, by an act of Congress, American Ballet Theatre became America’s National Ballet Company®.

Isabella Boylston, Joseph Gorak and Thomas Forster executing a variation during class. Credit: Photo by George Seminara

Isabella Boylston, Joseph Gorak and Thomas Forster executing a variation during class. Credit: Photo by George Seminara

As we approach our 75th year, it is a tremendous honor to have Ric Burns and American Masters illuminate ABT’s history in such a rich and meaningful way,” said Rachel Moore, CEO of American Ballet Theatre. “I am certain the expertise and care Ric and his team have devoted to this film will offer a fresh perspective on our art form and serve as a fitting testament to this cultural institution.

In 2007, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the third African-American female soloist and first in two decades at American Ballet Theatre. She is interviewed and performs in Ric Burns’ new documentary “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre.” Credit: Jade Young

In 2007, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the third African-American female soloist and first in two decades at American Ballet Theatre. She is interviewed and performs in Ric Burns’ new documentary “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre.” Credit: Jade Young

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THIRTEEN’s American Masters Series Presents the National Broadcast Premiere of Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen’s profile of the violin virtuoso features Heifetz’ previously unseen home movies, Itzhak Perlman, Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel and Ayke Agus,  April 16 and 17 on PBS (check local listings)

 

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Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen (American Masters — Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes, The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge) uncovers the story of legendary musician Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), the first truly modern violin virtuoso, for THIRTEEN‘s American Masters series. The one-hour documentary American Masters — Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler premieres nationwide Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. and Friday, April 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Major market premieres include Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. on WTTW11 in Chicago and WHYY-TV in Philadelphia and 10:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN in New York, and Friday, April 17 at 8 p.m. on KERA in Dallas, 8:30 p.m. on WETA TV 26 in Washington, D.C., and 9 p.m. on PBS SoCal in Los Angeles, on KQED in San Francisco, on WGBH 2 in Boston and on Houston Public Media.

Jascha Heifetz, the child prodigy, circa 1907 at age 6. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz, the child prodigy, circa 1907 at age 6. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz, circa 1969-1970. Credit: RCA

Jascha Heifetz, circa 1969-1970. Credit: RCA

The day after the 19-year-old Heifetz’s London debut, George Bernard Shaw wrote him a now legendary letter. “If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection,” Shaw warned, “you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly.”

Heifetz is widely considered to be one of the most profoundly influential performing artists of all time. Born in Vilnius, Lithuania — then occupied by Russia — on February 2, 1901, he became a U.S. citizen in 1925. Fiercely patriotic to his adopted country, he gave hundreds of concerts for Allied service men and women during World War II, including tours of Central and South America, North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, often playing from the back of a flatbed truck in dangerous conditions.

In 1928, he published the first of dozens of acclaimed violin transcriptions. Many, including his arrangements of selections from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” are now part of the standard repertoire. Using the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, he even wrote a pop song that became a hit in 1946.

In his later years, Heifetz became a dedicated teacher and a champion of causes he believed in. He led efforts to establish “911” as an emergency phone number, and crusaded for clean air. He and his students at the University of Southern California protested smog by wearing gas masks, and in 1967 he converted his Renault passenger car into an electric vehicle. As a result of his vast recorded legacy, Heifetz’s violin playing is no less influential today than it was in his lifetime. To legions of violinists he remains, quite simply, “The King.”

Jascha Heifetz (right) rehearses with Arturo Toscanini (left), circa 1950. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz (right) rehearses with Arturo Toscanini (left), circa 1950. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz at home in his native Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit: Library of Congress

Jascha Heifetz at home in his native Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit: Library of Congress

Setting the standard in violin playing for nearly a century, Heifetz’ name became shorthand for excellence for everyone from Jack Benny to The Muppets to Woody Allen. Through vintage performances and master classes, God’s Fiddler portrays an artist for whom only perfection would do. New interviews include other great violinists influenced by Heifetz, including Itzhak Perlman, Ivry Gitlis and Ida Haendel, former student, accompanist and longtime companion Ayke Agus, former student and master assistant in charge of his world-renowned violin class at the University of Southern California Sherry Kloss, and biographers John Anthony Maltese and Arthur Vered. They reveal how Heifetz was a mysterious, idiosyncratic, solitary figure who embodied the paradox of artistic genius: a dedication to his craft at all costs, including two failed marriages, estrangement from his children and very few friends. Characterized as serious and intense while performing and teaching, his students describe him as generous and playful when socializing. Continue reading