Leon Garr (36090)

This is the time of year that challenges Charmaine Jefferson to be at her creative best. As executive director of the California African American Museum (CAAM), Jefferson knows that how much money the partially state-funded cultural facility raises Saturday during its annual gala will depend in great measure on how artfully she can coax donors to part with their hard-earned dollars and put them into the museum’s coffer.

It will also depend on the quality of programming at the gala. That is why this year, Jefferson has reached out to a Los Angeles legend to serve as one of the key honorees of the eighth annual gala—“An Artful Evening at CAAM.

That legend, dancer/actress and singer Carmen De Lavallade—a product of Jefferson High School, which itself has nurtured and produced more than its s share of notables—will be recognized with a lifetime achievement award in dance/choreography and acting along with her long-time partner and husband Geoffrey Holder.

“I’m very excited about coming back to L.A.,” said De Lavallade during an early-morning telephone interview. “I’m an L.A. native, born and raised,” added the dancer who, even in her 80s fit the conversation around her work schedule.

Despite her long absence and the racism she sometimes faced during her career in the City of Angels, De Lavallade’s pride in her hometown—particularly her roots at Jefferson High—is quite evident.

“I did a performance in the cafeteria at Jefferson,” remembers De Lavallade, trailing off for a moment caught up in the pleasant memory. “Ronald Gaffney and I were on stage, and I was in this short silk kimono doing this crazy ballet. All my friends still talk about it.”

And then there was her trek in the 1950s from Jefferson High “all the way to Melrose Avenue” as she described it, to take classes from dance impresario Lester Horton. At the time, his Melrose Avenue company was cutting-edge because it featured an interracial cast of performers at a time when this was a no-no.

It was during this period that De Lavallade said she learned how important it was to learn your craft and to be open to opportunities.

In her case, opportunities included starting out as a dancer. It also included studying painting, acting, music, set design and costuming, as well as ballet and other forms of modern and ethnic dance. She studied dancing with ballerina Carmelita Maracci and acting with Stella Adler.

In 1954, she left Los Angeles for New York to work with another former L.A. stand-out, Alvin Ailey; she made her Broadway debut partnered with Ailey in Truman Capote’s “House of Flowers.”

De Lavallade’s acting career also paired her with Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby, and she even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with Pearl Bailey.

She was also part of the Yale University School of Drama as a choreographer and performer-in-residence in 1970. Meryle Streep and Henry Winkler were among her students.

In addition to honoring De Lavallade at the gala, Jefferson said the museum will open an exhibit on Nov. 21 that will view through May 2014 and will recognize “a lifetime of extraordinary achievements” she and Holder have garnered.

“. . .each year when we do the gala we try to select to honor people who really have done great work and deserve an additional award,” explained Jefferson, adding that sometimes those people are well known and sometimes they are not.

Additionally, in line with the museum’s mission, gala honorees represent a broad cross-section of the community. For example, this year in addition to De Lavallade and Holder, the gala will recognize Phoebe Beasley with a lifetime achievement award in visual arts, and businessman and philanthropist Leon T. Garr with its Tom Bradley Unsung Hero Award.

Beyond the honorees, the CAAM gala will feature a silent auction at 6:30 p.m., a raffle of items ranging from trips and staycations to San Toro purses. Those who are not able to attend the gala but want to support the museum, can have information on the items available sent to them so they can place a bid. Just email terridixon@lagrant.com. Put gala raffle and/or silent auction in the subject line.

Live entertainment and post-dinner dancing will round out the evening.

Proceeds from the gala represent about 20 percent of the museum’s budget, and eventually Jefferson would like to grow that to 50 percent.

One of the pivotal efforts the gala proceeds underwrites is helping connect community youth to the arts through CAAM’s Young Voices and Young Docents programs.

The Young Voice program encompasses such upcoming activities as the February “Hamaya Bridge” that will explore Black and Japanese relations.

The Young Docents program provides training and employment opportunities to youth ages 16-18.

“Very few organizations run a (docent) program year round. In the summer, we hire 20 young people including 10 from the prior class,” explained Jefferson, who noted that the program cost the museum $65,000.

That is the key reason, why the museum’s executive director works to become particularly creative—to fund the future.