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When Detroit-born, Cass Tech graduate Bernard Johnson died, age 60 in 1997, 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 started dancing at age 11. We became friends during our CT senior year, and were part of an integrated black/white circle of gay art and music students who often gathered after class to “dish” and let our hair down at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts Shop in downtown Detroit.
(As art students we were free to roam all seven floors, freehand drawing in pencil and charcoal, mastering the intricacies of one- and two-point perspective. During warm weather we sketched, painted watercolors, socialized in shady nearby Cass Park.)
Bernard Johnson majored in fashion design, and was much admired for renderings of furs, fabrics, dresses and accessories. In the late-1950s there were few black CT students majoring in fashion design.
He was also known as an interpreter of ballet and modern dance, invited by our senior art/design instructor Donald Thrall to perform for an all-school talent extravaganza.
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 1,500 students gathered in the balconied auditorium.
He paused. Struck an elegant pose. Smiled expectantly. Snapped into stunning. Full! No-let-up! Choreographic mastery!
Music was Les Baxter’s LP recording of “Le Sacre Du Sauvage.” Live bongo drummers drummed Bernard through each flashing movement. Performance was primitive. Limber. Elastic. Gleamingly muscular! When he took several well-deserved bows, sweating glitter from an energetic and orgiastic cadence, everyone stood, whistled, applauded.
Though we didn’t know it then, 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 confided to friends. “Be the best. Associate only with the best. These are the principles I was raised on.” He was fun 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 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 design class he loudly 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.”
We held our breath. One by one he read the guy’s beads. We savored every delicious put down.
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; close friendships with Josephine Baker, Judy Garland, pre-controversial Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin; international tours, command performances for King Hassan II of Morocco.
For us CT art students – straight, gay, questioning – Bernard Johnson, though short of stature, was someone we all looked up to.