About New York: Tony Winner Dee Dee Bridgewater

By Tom Buckley | The New York Times
April 21, 1975

“We Always Called Her Dee Dee”

“She had more insight than I did,” Matthew Garrett was saying yesterday, “I got to say it. She knew that if she was going to get anywhere in music she’d have to go to the big city. Me, I stayed in the boondocks….” Mr. Garrett a wiry man, his Afro graying, shrugged. He had been a trumpeter who played with Nat (King) Cole years ago, but there had been family responsibilities, so he stayed in Flint, Mich, and took a teaching job.

Now he was the principal of Emerson Junior High School there and he had come to New York, hoping to see his daughter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, selected for a Tony Award as best supporting actress in a musical for her performance as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, in “The Wiz,” As it turned out, she was. “Everybody in Flint’s going to be watching the television tonight,” he said. “Just before school let out on Friday I announced to all classes that my daughter was a candidate for a Tony and there was no doubt she was going to win.”

Dee Dee’s mother, Marion Hudspeth, flew in from Flint yesterday on the same plane as her former husband. They separated nine years ago and were subsequently divorced. Each has since remarried. They were staying under the same roof for the first time in nearly a decade on this trip in guest bedrooms in the apartment in Westbeth that their daughter shares with Gilbert Moses, the director.

Mr. Moses directed “The Wiz” from the time it went into rehearsal last August until he was replaced by Geoffrey Holder, a few weeks before its opening here on Jan. 5. “Just one of those things,” he said with a smile. ” I had a Tony nomination in 1973 for ‘Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death’ and I’m directing Ed Bullins’s ‘The Taking of Miss Janie” at Lincoln Center and I did ‘Willie Dynamite’ for Universal, so it isn’t that I’m worrying about my reputation.”

“Her name is Denise, but we always called her Dee Dee,” said her mother, a placid, smiling woman who is now married to an electrical contractor in Flint. Even when she was a little girl she used to sing around the house all day long,” she said. “She didn’t inherit that from me, though. I can’t even carry a tune. She would say, I’m going to be famous some day and you’re not going to have to work anymore. I’m going to take care of you’.”

Miss Bridgewater had been trying on the tuxedo-style pants suit she was going to wear at

the awards ceremony, and now she was hurriedly putting herself together to leave for a matinee performance of “The Wiz.” “I’m not nervous, I think,” she said. “And I promise I’ll be just as tickled if I lose as if I win. I never even knew about the Tonys until last year, and I never thought about even being nominated. I’m only on stage for five minutes at the very end of the show. When I was, I cried for three days and I was in a state of shock for a week.” She is a lovely, remarkably unaffected young woman. Her smile is wide and warm and her voice put a visitor in mind of clover honey fresh from the comb, country butter and fresh-baked bread.

Riding uptown in a taxi, Miss Bridgewater said she was 24, began singing in talent contests with her younger sister, was the vocalist for the Michigan State jazz group during the year she spent at the college, and then joined a quintet at the University of Illinois. Her husband, Cecil Bridgewater, from whom she is separated, was the trumpet player in the group. They came to New York in 1970 and he joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, which plays regularly at the Village Vanguard.

“I went to a rehearsal and I asked Mel if I could audition. He liked me, and I sang with the band for four and a half years. We went to Russia a couple of times for the State Department and last summer we toured Japan. “I auditioned for ‘The Wiz’ last May but nothing happened and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ But when I got back in August I was called again. A week before rehearsals started Gil told me I had the part. I said, ‘Eeks.’ It’s one thing to dream about being in a show, but it’s something else when you have to begin to worry about whether you can do it.”

In her dressing room, Miss Bridgewater kept talking while she painted her finger nails dark red. “There ‘s no time to go back to Westbeth after the curtain so I’m going to have my hair done and change here and then Gil and my parents and my vocal coach, Gladyce De Jesus, are going to come by in a limousine to pick me up and then we’ll go over to the Winter Garden,’ she said. “I’m so excited about going, I’ll get a chance to look at all the stars.”

Miss Brigewater wasn’t kept in suspense very long. Her category was the first to be announced, and she was the winner. It was a delightfully flustered young woman who accepted the award. “I didn’t prepare anything,” she said “I was so sure I wasn’t going to win.” However she did not forget to thank G. Moses, who cast her in “The Wiz” and her parents.