Harold “Stumpy” Cromer
By Nancy Rosati
Harold “Stumpy” Cromer was born in New York City in the early 1920s. He’s been performing since he was a young child and when he rattles off names of co-stars he’s worked with, the list sounds like a “Who’s Who” in the history of American theater. He’s about to open in a limited engagement of Jazz N Opera’s production of Two For Love. It wasn’t easy catching him between rehearsals and auditions, but he managed to find some time to give me a small glimpse into a career that has spanned over 70 years.
Nancy Rosati: In the very beginning of your career, you worked with Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr and Betty Grable.
Harold Cromer: Yes. In DuBarry Was a Lady.
NR: Can you tell me about that?
HC: It was a wonderful experience for me. I had just come from Hell’s Kitchen, where I was born and raised. I started when I was about seven, tap dancing on the streets and roller skating and playing hockey and all that sort of stuff. Then I entered a contest at the Chelsea Theatre, which was at 28th Street and Eighth Avenue. If you won those contests you got bags of groceries and things like that.
NR: That’s what you won? Bags of groceries?
HC: That’s what they gave you.
NR: That’s wonderful, actually. It must have been a big help.
HC: You’ve got to understand that in 1929, 1930, food was at a premium. If you could get it, God bless you. That’s what I won for First Prize. I kept the family in food for a long time doing that.
NR: How old were you then?
HC: I guess I was about 9. Then we moved from 23rd Street to Harlem. I would come down to Broadway and tap dance or roller skate on the street and collect money. I would collect dimes and quarters to help out the family as best I could. I also attended school at the same time and did a nightclub act at the Kit Kat Club, which was at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue in those days.
NR: You were pretty busy.
HC: I used to sleep in the school sometimes. I’d go home, do my homework, go to sleep, get up and go to the Kit Kat Club.
NR: How many children were in your family?
HC: All together at that time there were about 10 of us.
NR: Are you the only one who performed?
HC: Yes. I’m a twin, incidently. I’m a Gemini and a twin.
NR: Then you met your partner, James “Stump” Cross?
HC: That was later on. I did DuBarry Was a Lady on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. Then I did that one on the road. Ethel Merman left the show and Gypsy Rose Lee came in. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of great stars that came by to see Bert Lahr, Ethel Merman and of course Betty Grable - Franchot Tone, Victor Mature, Fred Astaire ... they all came by and I had a chance to meet all of those wonderful entertainers.
NR: Which one stands out in your mind the most?
HC: I would say easily Franchot Tone. He was married to Joan Crawford at the time. He was very good in those days. I remember him and Fred Astaire of course. All the people from Hollywood that you see in the movies used to come down. Victor Mature would come back a lot of times and say hello to Betty Grable. I met all of them at that time.
NR: You also did early television with Milton Berle and Steve Allen.
HC: At least three times a season.
NR: What was that like?
HC: (laughs) That was a madhouse because everything was live then. It was like “You sing and dance. Then we’ll have some dialogue. When I say this, you say that.” You had to remember what it was and improv because there was such a limited amount of time between sketches. Even if you weren’t ready to end the sketch, the live Texaco commercial would come on and cut you off. That was wild. We had the pleasure to work with Zazu Pitts, who was a wonderful comedienne, and lots of other people on the Milton Berle Show.
NR: Performing in the theater is live also, so why was this more pressure?
HC: The difference is that you would not be interrupted if you were in the theater. You have a little more time. It works itself out. You have little ad libs that people do along with the play. In television, if you didn’t finish the sketch, the commercial had to go on because they were paying for the entire show. That was the Milton Berle Show. Then we did other shows - The Kate Smith Show, The Steve Allen Show. We were with Steve Allen when he first came to California and was on radio. “Stump and Stumpy” was the name then.
NR: Tell me about that act.
HC: “Stump and Stumpy” was a song/dance/comedy act. We did the usual comedy and we also did radio shows, early TV shows. We played cowboys. We did a lot of bits. We played at the Palace Theatre. We did Dragnet with Jack Webb. We worked the Apollo Theatre and then we did Gunsmoke. We did all kinds of TV shows. We were imitating and impersonating and writing our own scripts.
NR: What did you write your own scripts for?
HC: For the radio, for the TV, many different things. We worked with Frank Sinatra too at the Paramount Theatre. Then we had a lot of fun in Las Vegas. We were hanging out with all the big guys - Mel Brooks and all of them. Have you seen The Producers?
NR: Not yet. I have tickets though.
HC: Whatever you see there, we were doing that a long time ago in the Catskills. We were all involved. We were creating it and making it up as we went along. “You say, I say.” It was the same as with Milton Berle. We went out there and we’d do it. Mel Brooks was writing these things down. When you see a lot of his movies, it was from his past experiences and the people he was meeting. He was one of the lucky guys to write it down and make some kind of living when he was in Hollywood. He’s had tremendous success.
NR: Now you’re doing a show called Two For Love. Can you tell me about that?
HC: That’s sort of a Jazz ‘n Opera type show. The first bit is “The Happy Hypocrite” and it takes place in London in the late 1800s. It’s the story of a man named Lord George Hell who is really hell. He gives everybody hell. Then he meets this singer Jenny. It’s a wonderful idea with lots of complications. The music is really operatic. (laughs) I’m in there for comedy relief if that’s what you want to call it. I can’t sing all of these notes. I don’t know music. I have to hear whatever it is and we don’t have that much time for me to put all of my effort into this wonderful music. But the girls and the boys who can read music sing out and they do a wonderful job. I of course am in there trying my very best. I have a little bit of tap dancing. It’s more mugging and doing dialects, British and some Cockney. I’m the narrator, I’m the beggar - I do a little run-thru of short vignettes throughout that entire segment of the play.
There’s another segment in the second act called “Blues in the Subway.” It tells the story of people riding the subway, what was going on in those days. It’s the same as it is today. It hasn’t changed. Here comes this drunken colored guy, which is me. He’s carrying a box with a cat and he’s got a boom box. He’s playing music. He gets on the subway and he’s drunk. There’s a boy and girl there, and they’re talking about their trials and tribulations. You find out that everything’s the same now as it was then.
NR: You told me that you just had an audition, so I guess you’re not planning on retiring anytime soon.
HC: I can’t. I can’t retire yet, my dear girl. I haven’t done what I wanted to do. The closest I’ve come to it is now and I’m 80 years old. It’s kind of difficult but I’m doing the best I can with it. I’m not giving up. I’m not going to sit at home and say “I’ve had it” - because I haven’t. I’ve had some measure of success, my partner and me. Yes we did. But a lot of things were going on that we couldn’t continue to advance in the theater, because of the opportunities that were not allotted to us at that time. You’ve heard it from a number of colored actors who were performing in those days - the denials. They had talent to perform in a lot of places and do a lot of things but all they could find was singing and dancing and mugging, and performing subservient roles that were not really applicable to the entire colored race, only to a particular group of the colored race. Exploring and showing the other side of the colored people wasn’t done. Stump and I were part of that, as well as the Nicholas Brothers, and Buck and Bubbles - you name all the colored performers. Some of them, like Hattie McDaniel, got through but they had to do subservient roles in movies and Broadway plays, etc. I was very lucky to do DuBarry Was a Lady. I did not have a subservient role although I played the part of a blackamoor. I had great lines. I spoke French. I did scenes with Bert Lahr, Ethel Merman, Betty Grable. Betty and I did two numbers. We did the ten o’clock number before the great number called “Friendship” that Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr sang.
NR: What a wonderful experience that must have been.
HC: But there was no advancement. I did that and that was it. I went out on the road and continued to do DuBarry Was a Lady. After that, what’s next, little man, when your show closes in Columbus, Ohio? I came back to New York and nothing was going on. That’s when I started to get back into vaudeville.
NR: Do you feel as if it’s changed now? Are the opportunities opening up a bit more?
HC: Oh, it’s changed. Oh yes, it’s changed tremendously. These kids are very, very lucky. The colored kids are doing much better than we did financially. The roles have improved for them. Some of them are still stereotypical in another sort of way but they are out there and improvement is being made. They are making LARGE sums of money. That includes the rock and roll singers, the ones who work in movies, the Michael Jacksons and people like that. They make more money in 15 minutes than we made in our ENTIRE career. They do have it better, but the one thing they don’t have is the history of those that preceded them. They know little or nothing about our history. That is being suppressed for some unknown reason, so they do not have any empathy for the entertainers like me and those of us who are still around, and still trying to make it. This is why I mention to you that I can’t retire yet. I can’t. I am still out there trying to make it. I should have done a role like this, my partner and I, maybe 25 or 30 years ago. This a great role that I’m playing now. It’s not as easy as it should be. They’re being very nice and they’re being very patient with me, and they’re helping me out every way they possibly can.
NR: What advice do you have for someone who’s starting out now? After this long career that you’ve had, what would you say to them?
HC: To the kids that are just starting now I suggest that they study all phases of the theater. They should become a triple threat - learn how to sing, learn how to dance, learn how to act. Continue to go to school. Get the best education you possibly can. Have something that you can fall back on in the event that nothing happens good for you in the theater. You must continue both of them, but have something to fall back on as a contingency basis.
NR: Anything else you want to tell our readers?
HC: I hope people come see Two For Love. It will be in the West End Café at 114th Street and Broadway. It’s going to be played a little bit like a cabaret where the tables are around and everybody’s involved. It’s something like that. The actors will be moving in and out of the audience.
NR: I hope they come. Good luck to you and thank you so much.
HC: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Two For Love runs from May 25th thru June 3rd at the West End Café, 2911 Broadway. Composer: Alonzo Levister, Director/Producer: Eugene J. Hutchins, Musical Director: Bryan Wade. Tickets are $25 and $15 for students and seniors. Call (212) 206-1515 or online SmartTix.com.
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