CLEO HAYES
Age: 89

Cleo Hayes is a stunning woman (89 when the film was shot) . When you pass her, wearing her blue jeans, shades and a Yankees cap, you'd never suspect her age.  This great grandmother continues to work as a bartender (she prefers to be called, a "mixologist") at the Flash Inn in Harlem. There she has regulars she's served since 1956, with whom she can indulge in discussions about current events and sports.

Born on the Delta in Greenville, Mississippi, Cleo escaped to Chicago and got her first job dancing at the Grand Terrace with Earl Hines. After a stint performing at the World's Fair, she took a bus to New York and started at the newly opened Apollo Theater, as one of the Apollo "Rockettes." When the Cotton Club moved to its elegant new home downtown in Times Square, Cleo joined that company.  She then traveled with Bertye Lou dancing throughout South America, and later with the first black USO unit during WWII.  Cleo recounts that USO tour:  how they had to receive their meals out the back doors of the mess halls in the south, and her own personal insurrection: taking "For Colored Only" signs off the trains they rode.  After the war, with theaters wanting to cut expenses and chorus line work drying up, Cleo danced while the work lasted — at Broadway's Café Zanzibar, the 845 Club, on tour with Cab Calloway, and in the film "Stormy Weather." 

Cleo admits to having been a "lazy" chorus dancer, yet we observe, that after this great grandmother takes a tumble down a flight of subway stairs and breaks her arm and knee, she perseveres through months of rehab til she rejoins the Silver Belles troupe and continues her dancing career.

August 18, 1914 - May 23, 2012

 

Café Zanzibar, 1940s: Cleo is 3rd from left, with Fay Ray dancing on the far right.
Cleo as photographed for Self Magazine at age 87.
Cleo in the 1940s.
Cleo in a Cotton Club publicity photo, 1936.