There is hardly a branch of the arts in which dancer, choreographer, graphic artist, costume designer, actor, stage director, photographer, musician, and writer Geoffrey Holder (b. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 1 August 1930) has not made his mark. Known primarily as the Tony®-winning stage director and costume designer of Broadway’s The Wiz (1975), and for his performance as Baron Samedi in the James Bond thriller Live and Let Die (1973), he is remembered also as Punjab in Annie (1982), and as the Genie in Cole Porter and S.J. Perelman’s television musical Aladdin (1954). At a towering 6’6” and with his Trinidadian basso and hearty laugh (“Mahvelous! Ha ha ha ha!”), he was a durably popular presence on TV in the 1970s and -80s 7-Up “Uncola” advertising campaigns.
Holder was one of four children in an urban middle-class family. He attended The Tranquillity School and secondary school at Queens Royal College in Port-of-Spain, while receiving lessons in painting and dancing from his older brother Boscoe. Geoffrey joined the Holder Dance Company under his brother’s direction when he was but seven years old, and when Boscoe moved to Europe ten years later to embark on what was to be a very successful career in entertainment, Geoffrey Holder took over the company’s leadership.
Even before that, Geoffrey Holder’s talent as a painter had been established when he sold two of his paintings at the age of fifteen. The Holder Dance Company toured the West Indies and Puerto Rico, and in 1952, the eminent choreographer Agnes de Mille saw the group perform on the island of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. She invited Holder to come to New York City to audition for impresario Sol Hurok. Holder sold twenty paintings to pay the company’s passage to New York in 1954, but Hurok was not persuaded to sponsor them. Some returned to Trinidad, but Holder – having planned for two years to make his way in New York – stayed, and taught classes at the Katherine Dunham School of Dance to support himself. (Dunham herself, head of the only permanent, self-subsidized American black dance troupe at that time, was in Europe for most of this period.)
Almost immediately, Holder’s impressive stature and personal elegance (his father, he said, had advised him before leaving home, “Don’t go to New York looking for atmosphere; you must take it with you”) caught the attention of producer Arnold Saint Subber and he was hired to appear in Harold Arlen’s Broadway musical House of Flowers. Holder’s presence in the cast had a profound effect: not only did he play two characters (Baron of the Cemetery and Lord Jamison) but he choreographed the “Banda Dance” and suggested the use of the steel band, a first on Broadway.
Also in the cast was the irresistible Carmen De Lavallade, borrowed from Hollywood with her dance partner Alvin Ailey. Holder was immediately smitten, and she became his wife in 1955. De Lavallade had a close cousin, Janet Collins, the first prima ballerina of color to perform in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and – whether or not facilitated by the family connection – both Holder and his wife performed as principal dancers at the Metropolitan in the next two years.
In 1956 he formed his own troupe, Geoffrey Holder and Company, and for about a week at the beginning of 1957, he played Lucky in an All-Black Cast of Waiting for Godot, his non-dance theatrical debut. Meanwhile, he was continuing to paint, and that year won a Guggenheim Fellowship in painting.
The unmatchable songwriter Cole Porter did not always restrict his gifts to the live stage: two years after his hit film High Society (1956), he teamed up with bookwriter S.J. Perelman to create a musical for television on the age-old story of Aladdin. The title role in this DuPont Show of the Month on CBS (February 21, 1958) was taken by Sal Mineo; Anna Maria Alberghetti was the Princess; Cyril Ritchard was the Magician; and Geoffrey Holder the supple and sinuous Genie.
Holder’s touring performances with his own troupe continued through 1960, at which point he began his movie career by playing himself in the British All Night Long, a modern remake of Shakespeare’s Othello. Curiously, the main point of the film was to showcase contemporary jazz greats like Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus. Since that auspicious beginning, Holder has appeared in at least 30 movies for the big and small screen, the highlights among them being Doctor Doolittle (1967, as Willie Shakespeare), Everything You Always Wanted To Know about Sex (1972, as the Sorcerer), Live and Let Die (1973, as Baron Samedi – Holder also contributed the Caribbean choreography for this film), and Swashbuckler (1976, as Cudjo). After making an indelible impression as Punjab in the film Annie (1982), Holder began to re-emerge as a personality in television commercials for 7-Up and for the Isle of Capri Casino. In 1992 he was Nelson in Boomerang with Eddie Murphy.
On television Holder played the Lion in Androcles and the Lion (1967), Mayko and Zwengi in the Tarzan series (1967–8), Jupiter in The Gold Bug on ABC’s Weekend Specials (1980), and the Ghost of Christmas Future in John Grin’s Christmas (1986). His splendid bass voice has characterized Friday in The Noah (1975), the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1983), Johnson in Ghost of a Chance (1987), Ray the Sun in Bear in the Big Blue House (1997), and Master Pi in Cyberchase (2002–3), and he has been a narrator for Where Confucius Meets the New Wave (1987), Tropical Rainforest (1992), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). He is also the Narrator for two video games, Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller (1995) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).
None of these screen triumphs has stood in the way of Geoffrey Holder’s continuing presence and success on Broadway. In 1964 both he and wife Carmen de Lavallade performed in Josephine Baker’s brief revue appearance on Broadway (40 performances), and in 1975 Holder won lasting fame as the director and costume designer of The Wiz, the all-black musical version of The Wizard of Oz. The show ran for over four years, 1672 performances, and won Holder two Tony Awards®, for direction and costume design. (He was the first black man ever to be nominated in either category.) The Wiz was revived briefly in 1984.
In 1978 Holder directed another original musical, Timbuktu!, which, at 221 performances, did less well, but nonetheless gained a Tony® nomination (for costumes) and two Drama Desk nominations (costumes and choreography) for Holder – he was also the designer for its Playbill cover illustration. Timbuktu! was a revival, after a fashion, of Robert Wright and George Forrest’s Kismet, with its Alexander Borodin themes generously interlarded with elements of African folk music.
As a choreographer Geoffrey Holder has created dances and done staging for many companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and The Boys’ Choir of Harlem and Friends. The last decade has seen at least two film documentaries featuring him, Geoffrey Holder: The Unknown Side by Andrzej Krakowski in 2002, and Joséphine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World by Annette von Wangenheim in 2006. A massive coffee-table book with 250 illustrations, Geoffrey Holder: A Life in Theater, Dance and Art, by Jennifer Dunning, was published by Abrams in 2002.
Holder co-authored (with Tom Harshman) and illustrated a collection of Caribbean folklore, Black Gods, Green Islands, in 1959, and followed it several years later with a book of recipes titled Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Cookbook (1973). A 1972 recipient of the Trinidad & Tobago Humming Bird Gold Medal for Dance, he resides in New York with his wife – who also paints – and both continue to be active in the arts. They have one son, Leo Anthony Lamont, who is, as Geoffrey Holder boasts, “my most precious possession.”
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection