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When Detroit-born, Cass Tech graduate Bernard Johnson died of pneumonia in January 1997 at age 60, the New York Times carried a quarter-page obit celebrating his life as “a Renaissance man in dance.”
Little bigger than a metronome minute – at 5-foot 4 – he had been dancing since age 11. We became friends during our CT senior year and were part of an integrated circle of gay art and music students who gathered after class to “dish” and let our hair down at a Dunkin’ Donut Shop in downtown Detroit.
(As art students we were free to roam the CT and adjoining Commerce building on all floors – freehand drawing in pencil and charcoal, and mastering the intricacies of one-and two-point perspective. During warm weather we sketched, watercolor painted and socialized in once-shady Cass Park, with stopoffs for hot dogs at a Coney Island stand near the Masonic Temple.)
Bernard Johnson majored in fashion design and was much envied for renderings of furs, fabrics, dresses and accessories. At the time, there were few CT male students majoring in fashion design.
Bernard was also known as an interpreter of ballet and modern dance. He was invited by our senior art design instructor Donald Thrall to perform for an all-school senior talent extravaganza. (I myself appeared – to modest acclaim as a stuffy banker – in that year’s senior play.)
Bernard wore a discreetly brief costume, and his body was painted a shimmering gold. When he stepped stage center into the spotlight, there was an expectant hush among the 1000 students gathered in the balconied auditorium.
Bernard paused. Smiled commandingly. Snapped into stunning and full choreographic mastery. Radiance. Glitter. Performance plus.
His music was Lex Baxter’s LP recording of “Le Sacre du Savage.” Live bongo drummers drummed him through each flashing movement. His choreography was primitive, limber, elastic. Muscular! When he took well-deserved bows, sweating glitter from a mesmerizing and orgiastic cadence, everyone stood, whistled. Shouted. Applauded for minutes on end.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, this was a preview performance for a long and successful career in dance, choreography, film, set and costume design, stretching over 40 wonderfully creative years.
“I believe in the power of metaphysics,” he once told me. “Be the best. Associate only with the best. These are the principles I was raised on.”
Bernard was amusing company; just a bit “swish” and campy. He carried his books like a well-bred debutante. But he was not to be trifled with, as a jock classmate who called him “Miss Thing” during bell change soon found out.
Bernard – who had an impeccable sense of timing – knew just when, where and how to settle a score. In the midst of our watercolor class he confronted the offending dimwit: “If it’s not too much trouble to put that brain you’re sitting on in gear, I’d like words with you.”
One by one he read the (presumably) macho guy’s brass beads. We heard every delicious word. It took nerve, but Bernard was feisty and forthright. And verbally arch. “Child, you better not mess with me. Ever!”
His accolades are many: fantasy costume designs, many Broadway musical performances; teaching at the University of California at Irvine; induction into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame; friendships with Josephine Baker, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Alvin Ailey, Aretha Franklin; international tours; two command performances for King Hussan II of Morocco.
For us CT art students – straight, gay, questioning – Bernard Johnson, though short of stature, was someone we all looked up to. Be the best he said; he was that, and so much more.