Pioneering. Classic. Talented. The outstanding career of Leonard Harper embodies a dancer, choreographer and producer who’s influence remains firmly etched in the history of Black Broadway. Leonard Harper began his career as a young child tap dancing to bring attention to a medicine cart that employed him. He traveled extensively through the South eventually arriving in New York in 1912. Shortly after his arrival, he moved to Chicago and met his soon to be wife Osceola Blanks, who was already an established singer and dancer on the vaudeville circuit as a part of the The Blanks Sisters. The two began to choreograph and dance together and were known as Harper and Blanks, traveling as far as Britain to perform.
In the 1920’s Harper became indelibly intertwined with building Harlem as a cultural icon. Harper produced at historical bastions like Connie’s Inn, Lafayette Theatre and the opening of the new Apollo Theatre. By 1929, Harper was producing the broadway hit Hot Chocolates and directing the cabaret scenes in the first Black “talkie” film “The Exile”. As his career progressed, he moved on to producing shows at The Cotton Club and hired many other iconic performers such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Ultimately the public’s interest began to decline on these types of shows and Harper’s work as a producer became less frequent. He died at the age of 45 of a heart attack while rehearsing a chorus line at Murrian’s Harlem Club in 1943.
In recognition of his contributions as a artistic pioneer, Harper will be honored on October 10, 2015 with a street co-named after him. Leonard Harper Way will be located at the the South/East Corner of 132nd. St. & Adam Clayton Powell Blvd also known as(7th. Ave.)
Leonard Harper was one of the most influential African-American producers, directors and choreographers of his era. Throughout his short lifespan, he produced over 2,000 shows on stage and screen with some of the greatest icons of the Harlem Renaissance. His work left everlasting impressions and opened a door of opportunities for others to be involved in the motion picture industry. Because of his historic performances and productions that showcased Black culture, it is with great honor that the southwest corner of 132nd street and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. be known as Leonard Harper Way,” said Council Member Inez E. Dickens.
This honor is just another sign of the tides turning toward more recognition of the hard work, talent and effort provided by the Black community in establishing the history and dynamic legacy of entertainment not just in Broadway but beyond. We salute the contributions of those who went often unrecognized during their lifetimes and paved the way for more Black entertainers to receive the accolades they so richly deserve.
Watch Leonard Harper’s Connie’s Inn Chorus Line Staged & Directed in the film The “Exile”