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The year I graduated as a commercial art major from Detroit’s prestigious Cass Technical High School I did not attend my senior prom.
As a gay male I had no interest in dating a female classmate, although I deemed myself “hip” sporting a ducktail haircut, “cool” pegged pants and “dude” box-toe loafers. I couldn’t however convince myself to learn the dance then in vogue in the late ’50s: the Hucklebuck.
When I entered CT in my freshman year I was just coming out. A year later I left Gilead Church, a Southern Baptist affiliation, because I knew I would not be “saved” with my homosexual proclivities.
Looking back on my CT years I realize I couldn’t have been in a better place for accepting myself as a young, talented gay man. And I soon discovered there were others like myself in the CT Commercial Arts program and CT Music programs as well. Our nascent gaydar started to kick in.
Many of my early gay CT contacts were Black and proud; talented, supportive of encouraging of gay self-acceptance.
(An additional plus for me had been that in my freshman year I could elect as phys ed choice: ROTC, gym or swimming. I chose the latter, and was pleased that we swam naked and unsupervised that semester. By the way: naked swimming was how it was done in middle schools for years, and no one thought anything about it.)
I eventually learned that my regal homeroom and English teacher Lawrence Timothy Ray had been a Broadway dancer in his youth with Clifton Webb. They were carbon copies of each other.
When Detroit-born, Cass Tech friend and 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-inches – 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. Three of us integrated friends frequently went roller skating at the Bob-Lo Island rink
(As CT 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 and socialized in shady nearby Cass Park.)
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 — who we assumed generously to be gay — to perform for an all-school talent extravaganza.
Johnson 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! Watch me go, girl!
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.
Johnson – 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,” he said.
We held our breath. One by one he read the embarrassed guy’s beads. We savored every delicious put-down. Johnson looked dramatically around the room, shook his sketchbook energetically, sat down with just a hint of dance movement, nodded with a don’t-mess-with-a-star look, and we gay friends applauded mentally and discretely audibly.
His accolades are many: fantasy costume designs; several Broadway musical performances; teaching at the University of California at Irvine; induction into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame.
Bernard had close friendships with Josephine Baker, Judy Garland, pre-controversial Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, the late Aretha Franklin; and 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.