On Being 100
LOUISE “SCOTTIE” SCOTT — DANCER AT THE APOLLO THEATRE
By Liane Enkelis
November 16, 1898 in Chicago, Illinois
“I’m not an old lady, I’m a little girl with wrinkles.”
With that slogan pasted on her door, Louise Scott describes herself perfectly. Her café-au-lait complexion is almost wrinkle free, and her wavy black hair is only streaked with grey across the front. She uses no aids for walking, seeing or hearing, and looks thirty years younger than her centenarian status. At four feet, eleven inches in height, and looking like she weighs all of ninety pounds dripping wet, she is small in size, but not in vigor. She has the energy of a ten year-old, too restless to sit still for long.
“I’ve lived to be over one hundred by doing nothing that the doctors tell me to,” she says as she takes another drag on her cigarette. She has been smoking since she was in her twenties and a dancer at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem. “Almost all the musicians smoked back then, and I just picked it up, too. You know, that was when we used to carry them long jeweled cigarette holders. I’d be puffing, but I wasn’t inhaling.” She gives a deep, throaty laugh, and admits that she’s been told smoking is bad for her, but she’s not about to quit now. She takes a few puffs, then carefully puts out the cigarette to save the remainder for a few minuets, when she will light it up again.
“My dream was to dance. I love to dance. I always wanted to entertain. It didn’t matter if it was the Apollo or wherever,” she sighs, recalling what she describes as the “happiest time of my life,” the eight years she danced in the chorus line at that legendary theater. “There aren’t very many rules to live by that will make you happier than following your dream. Don’t let nothing stand in the way of your dream. And to get your goal, you have to go straight for it.”
Scottie, as she is know to all, acknowledges that she was fortunate to have had the opportunity to realize her goal. “I had a good father, who encouraged culture. We were considered Negro middle- class. I was able to go to dance school and take music lessons and things like that.”
Scottie’s father, Frank Albert Young, was a sportswriter and sports editor for the Chicago Defender, which has been called the most influential African-American newspaper of the twentieth century. Founded in 1905, the paper crusaded for civil rights and urged blacks to migrate from the segregated South to the freer North. The paper had a national circulation, with more than two thirds of its readers outside of Chicago. It was distribute across the Mason-Dixon line by black Pullman porters and entertainers who smuggled it into the South because white distributors refused to circulate it. The Chicago Defender was the first black newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000.
Frank A. Young encouraged black athletes and fought for the equality we now accept as “business-as-usual” in sports. In August 19, 1922, commenting on Negro League Baseball, he wrote a column urging, “Give us some brown skin umpires. It isn’t necessary for us to sit by the thousands watching eighteen men perform in the national pastime, using every bit of strategy and brain work, to have it all spoiled...”
Because of Frank Young’s reputation, many black athletes sought his counsel. Scottie remembers that from her early childhood through her adult years many celebrity figures were guests in the Young home. When Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player in the National League, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Scottie says, “He used to come to our house and cry like a baby because when he was in the outfield people would throw garbage at him and call him ‘nigger.’ He was going to quit, but my father said, ‘Just hang on as long as you can, because you’re breaking the color line for all of us.’”
Frank Young was a single parent, Scottie’s mother having deserted her new born daughter and two year-old son. Scottie says that her paternal grandmother and aunt filled the void and she never longed for a mother figure. She adored her father, and because of his position loved everything to do with sports, and always tagged along with her brother in all his “boy” activities.
“I was always a tomboy, wanting to do everything my brother and his friends did. My father was very strict and conservative and thought I should be a little lady. But, I was always climbing trees or something like that.”
As strict as her father seemed, he felt he was no match for the onset of puberty and sent both children to boarding school for their high school years. Louise was sent to a Catholic school for African-American girls in Leavenworth, Kansas, while Frank Jr. went to military school. Scottie also completed two years of college at Wilberforce University in Zenith, Ohio, where she studied political science.
When she returned to Chicago, despite her education, good-paying jobs were hard for a young black woman to find. So, when the mother of a friend told Scottie about a job as an elevator operator in a beautiful hotel, Scottie grabbed it. “It was a hotel, but it wasn’t a decent one. I didn’t figure out what was going on until after I was there for a while,” Now she gives a deep throaty laugh, explaining that the establishment was a brothel run by famed gangster, Al Capone. “I put two and two together. There were all these beautiful girls, and men were coming in all day. In many cases, they were carrying machine guns – in violin cases. Those men didn’t come to see the girls; they were coming to meet with Al. He had his offices there. But they all were gentlemanly to me and I made good money.”
Scottie’s love of dancing soon got her notice. “I went to a dance and ran into a dance instructor from New York. He said that they were looking for chorus girls at the Apollo Theatre, and he asked me if I would like to try out.”
Now it was time for Scottie quit her elevator operator job of four years. “When I told them I was leaving, Al called me in his office and said, ‘Louise, I don’t blame you if you want to better your conditions; but don’t ever say anything about what you heard or saw, or anything that went on here, because there is nowhere in the United States you can go that I can’t find you.’ And, you better believe that I didn’t say a thing for a long time after he was dead.”
So, Scottie packed her bags and took the train to New York. “I was kind of nervous, I didn’t know whether I was going to make it or not. I had to do three auditions. And I was the shortest one, so they put me in front and I had to lead the line of dancers out on stage.”
The work was hard: four shows per night, six night per week, plus daily rehearsals. But to Scottie it was glamorous. “There were always guys wanting to go out with the dancers. We used to call them ‘Stage Door Johnnies.’ They would give us roses, and we would say, ‘Okay, we’ll meet you, and then we’d sneak out the side door and leave them standing there.” You can imagine Scottie, dressed in an elegant evening suit and very high heels, out on the town. In the 1920s, the Harlem night scene drew all the ‘in-crowd’ — both black and white. “I had my pick of who I wanted to go out with – usually they were musicians. Some trumpet players, some sax players. I went to see Lena Horne at the Cotton Club many times. Then, on Monday nights all the big cabarets were closed and those musicians used to come in and jam with the musicians at the Apollo. That’s how I met Count Basie and Cab Calloway. They were real gentlemen. But, Billie Holiday was the most obnoxious person you ever met. She was high on that dope all the time.”
Touring with the theater company to Washington, D.C., Scottie says she experienced real prejudice for the first time. “I sat down at the counter at a drugstore, and I notice everybody come in and this guy would wait on them, but not on me. So, I called him and I said. ‘Young man, I noticed everybody comes in here you wait on them, but I’ve been sitting here for quite a while.’ And he just flat out told me, ‘We don’t serve niggers in here.’ Well, I was floored. In show business I had been used to respect.”
After eight years in New York, Scottie missed her father. Despite her urging and assurances that the dance performances and costumes were respectable, Frank Young would not come to Harlem to see his daughter “showing off her behind.” So Scottie went home for a visit — and found something better than the Apollo.
At a dance in Chicago, she met her husband, James Scott, and never returned to New York. After they married, Scottie went back to school and became a court reporter. She laughingly says she chose this profession because, “I liked criminals! Anyhow, I always like mystery stories.” James worked as the maître d’ at the Palmer House, one of Chicago’s most exclusive hotels. The couple had one son, Elwin, and soon establish a comfortable home life. “We were the first Negro family to move to Hyde Park Boulevard. It was kind of tough for a while.” Scottie chuckles, “But after they found out we weren’t going to have barbeques on the front lawn, everything was okay.”
With the birth of their son, Scottie became a full-time mom. “Elwin was a hellion when he was small. When he got to be a teenager, he was running with a gang of the wrong kind, and I told him, ‘You have three choices. Either you stay here under my roof, and do what I want you to do, which is go to school and get your education; or else get out and get yourself a job; or go to the service.’ So, I think he thought I was going to feel sorry for him, ‘cuz he said, ‘I’ll go to the service.’ So I signed him in at seventeen and it was a good thing, too, because two weeks after he was gone, the group that he was running with went to jail. Anyway, he liked it so well he made a career out of it. He was almost ready to get out when he was killed in battle.”
Scottie also lost her beloved husband tragically. A drunk driver hit his car head-on, killing James instantly. After that, Scottie worked in the restaurant business and migrated West with her employer, working in his steakhouses in Kansas City and Phoenix. Later she worked in the cafeteria at the University of Arizona, but had to leave there, “because their insurance wouldn’t cover me after age eighty.” She then worked as a house cleaner for a wealthy couple, finally retiring at eighty-five.
“Then, I got into volunteer work.” Scottie proudly shows off her wall of plaques and certificates for service to community organizations and the county hospital, where she gave more than one thousand hours of service.
At the time she retired, she also moved into a rent-subsidized residence for seniors and people with disabilities in an elegant old hotel, complete with a promenade of archways framing a swimming pool and courtyard.
While some centenarians complain of loneliness, Scottie has met all of her more than three hundred neighbors in the building. “You just have to keep making new friends and reaching out to help people,” she says, stopping to great a blind man sitting by the door. She became a ‘second mother’ to two young women, who have kept close friendships for decades. Although she lives by herself in a studio apartment, she is not lonely. As several women wave to her from the pool, urging her to join them, she states, “Life has been good to me. I have no regrets. Some tragic things have happened, but I can’t do anything about them, so I don’t dwell on the past. I try to live each day to the max.”
From On Being 100: 31 Centenarians Share Their Extraordinary Lives and Wisdom by Liane Enkelis. Copyright © 2001 by Liane Enkelis. Excerpted by arrangement with Prima Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc. $29.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.