February 11, 2005
African American photographer, composer, writer and Hollywood filmmaker Gordon Parks didn't buy his first camera and roll of film in Minnesota, but he had his first photographic show here. And the Twin Cities is where Parks got his first job playing piano and where his first musical compositions were performed. Parks is a Kansas native who spent several tumultuous teenage years in Minnesota. Now in his 90's Parks lives in New York City. His remarkable life story is told Sunday afternoon at the Ordway Theater as part of the VocalEssence Witness series.
St. Paul, Minn. — On a day off in December l937 while working as a railroad waiter, Gordon Parks went to a Chicago movie theater and was spellbound by dramatic wartime newsreel footage and the personal account of the man who shot the film. In a l998 Minnesota Public Radio interview Parks says he was infected with the thought of capturing the spectacular images and impressed with the dashing figure cut by the newsreel photographer. "He jumped out on stage in a beautiful white suit, and I thought that was very glamorous," Parks says.
Glamour was absent from Parks' early years.
His mother, whom he adored, died when he was 15 years old, sending the family's 15 children off in different directions to be raised by others.
Parks arrived in St. Paul to live with a sister and her husband. The brother-in-law kicked him out on a cold winter night after a violent confrontation.
Parks was homeless. He roamed the streets looking for work, riding streetcars all night to stay warm.
Desperate to survive he worked any job he could find to pay rent.
Parks landed a piano playing job at a north Minneapolis bawdy house until a patron was murdered, and the police closed the place. Parks' early years were an emotional roller coaster that included scrapes with the law and violent confrontations with low life, many sparked by racism.
Parks burned with anger at the discrimination. He also burned with a passion to create. "I spent my last $7.50 buying a camera in a pawnshop out in Seattle," he says.
The VocalEssence production includes Lou Bellamy re-enacting scenes from Gordon Parks' life. Bellamy is founder and artistic director of St. Paul's Penumbra Theater.
He says Parks' talents are like having many artists in one body. "One knows how to direct film, one knows how to direct for the stage, one knows how to compose, one knows how to take pictures. Here's a guy who continually put all those things together. And I think it's a very African view of the world, all these things exist in the same place, you don't compartmentalize them," Bellamy says.
Gordon Parks' Farm Security Administration photographs of poor people during the Great Depression helped land him a job with Life magazine, and that led to work as a New York fashion photographer.
Through it all he wrote. His books about his life led to filmmaking. Parks is the first African American to write, direct and compose music for a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree, a l969 Warner Brothers release about his growing up in Kansas.
Gordon Parks' grand niece, Robin Hickman, a Twin Cities video producer, says The Learning Tree, followed by Parks' other movies featuring black men as larger-than-life if not always law-abiding heroes helped break down gender and color barriers in Hollywood. "He actually helped to launch the careers of many people behind the camera, and that was a great lesson for me; each one reach one, each one teach one," she says.
Few can claim a life story with as many emotional highs and lows as Gordon Parks. Minneapolis playwright David Grant who wrote the script for the VocalEssence tribute says Parks is a model for risk taking. "Gordon stands there like this beacon always sending out a clarion call, 'If that dream has been stuck in your craw for a long time why don't you risk stepping out there, scratch that itch,'" he says.
Gordon Parks' itch to create is the subject of the VocalEssence Witness production Sunday afternoon at the Ordway theater in St. Paul.