Memories of Ellis Haizlip and Enlightenment

February 9, 2009

by SOUL! producer Christopher Lukas

There were many rumors and many half-truths about our friend Ellis Haizlip – some of them promulgated by himself.

He was (or was not) the son of the ambassador to the Court of St. James from one of the islands in the Caribbean.

He had once been married to a famous German sculptress. Or not.

He had a son (maybe two). Out of wedlock. Or maybe In.

He had brothers. He had only sisters.

He was rich. He was poor.

He had been an honored guest at the crowning of the Ashanti King in Nigeria.

To me, the mythic stories that surrounded him were not nearly as interesting and important as the truths:

He had a degree from Howard University.

In the 1950s he produced plays by his friend James Baldwin.

He was encyclopedic about the world of African-American arts and letters, and he knew hundreds of key players.

He produced dance pieces about Black culture, including the works of Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey.

He was deeply involved in the civil rights movement; in his own way, at his own pace, with his own credo. This included talking disaster, but moving quietly to support non-violent means of change; urging everyone to get involved, but carrying on his own private, peaceful revolution behind the scenes.

My wife and I met Ellis in June of 1964, a year after I had joined the newly-born WNDT as a producer. Some friends got us together. It was a fateful summer in many respects, being the occasion of the so-called Harlem riots.

At the time, my father was a civil rights lawyer who, after that long hot summer, helped form the Lawyers’ Constitutional Defense Committee to defend blacks in the South accused of crimes who couldn’t get local lawyers. Susan and I had both been aware of racism from an early age. Now, Ellis decided we needed a deeper understanding of the disease. Soon, we were going everywhere with Ellis. The three of us became fast friends.

Ellis took us to a brunch for Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Party where Dick Gregory performed. Later, he would introduce us to Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. Inside, Ellis was passionate about the need for change, but his exterior always remained cool. And dressed cool. Tall and slender, with a perpetual serious demeanor and a polite, “Yes, sir, how are you?” even to close friends.

Ellis Haizlip and assistant producer Alice Hille (image courtesy Christopher Lukas)

When we first met he wore dark suits with dark shirts, then changed to bush jackets, and even, for a while, dashikis. Ellis always carried a thick appointment book and wrote in it with a real pen, using real ink. Into that book went not only his calendar, but addresses and phone numbers and ideas for gifts and projects. He had a million of them.

While he was teaching us about civil rights, I introduced him to the communication possibilities of television, and he quickly realized that it could be a medium for his ideas and principles. A couple of years later, I asked him to put Donald McKayle’s “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” in a national performing arts series we did called Sunday Showcase. In 1967, after another disastrous summer of unrest in major American cities, I suggested he produce another show, this time about the cultural life of the Black community. We had all seen too much television about poverty and “riots.” I wanted our audiences to know that the Black communities were rich in other qualities.

Then, in March of 1968, the Kerner Commission reported on the gross failures of American (white) society with regard to the Negro. Particularly strong was the Commission’s idea that the absence of black Americans from visible media roles was damaging. Jolted into a larger consciousness, and because of my friendship with Ellis, I started writing a proposal for a “Black Tonight Show.” Then Dr. King was assassinated, and I was able to ask the Ford Foundation for money for the show. I asked Ellis to produce it.

Because of the program and the Kerner Commission, the station began to hire black personnel in the engineering and directing staff. Like most media, we had been negligent in regard to persons of color.

If I was the ‘godfather of SOUL!,’ the show itself was pure Ellis. He opened that thick black book and – like a magician – pulled out names that made television history. It was a local and a national hit with the Black community. Some of the performers and political figures who went on to make stunning successes of their lives got important, exposure on SOUL!. Among them: poets Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones); musicians such as Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle, Roberta Flack, Wilson Pickett, Marion Williams, Richie Havens, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Joe Tex, Cissy Houston, B.B. King; actors like Novella Nelson and Anna Horsford. And plenty of talk with provocative guests like Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali.

It wasn’t the entertainment that made SOUL!–it was its very existence. At a time when whites thought African-Americans were either poor, under-educated people or frenzied rioters, Ellis created his own Harlem Renaissance on the home screen, debunking those myths. SOUL! was not quite the first all-black show, but it was the first one I know that was produced for black people, produced by black people, and aimed not at “explaining the ghetto” or “pointing fingers at race riots,” but simply taking a lot of fun, music, and political stuff that black people were thinking about and putting it out there for other black people to see and talk about.

Ellis was friends with dozens of influential people, and he polled them after each of the show’s episodes, making sure that there was a rich mix of culture and politics, talk and entertainment that reached The Community. He called that poll, his ‘drum.’

I always felt that the first year of 39 shows was the best. We were broadcasting specifically for the local black community. There was no fear about ideas or language being too strong or controversial, and having local leaders speak live to local communities was exciting. Of all my work in the past 50 years, I am proudest of that series.

Of course, Ellis couldn’t be satisfied with one success story. He mixed despair about the future with a persistence that challenged even the deepest naysayer. Each setback was matched with a new idea; each broken promise brought forth a new on-air surprise. He changed the way I thought about television. When WNET searched for financing after the first year’s run, over 18,000 viewers petitioned the station to keep the show going.

After SOUL! had come and gone (a six-year run), there were other successes for him – as well as failures. For a while, he ran political campaigns. He put on benefits for worthwhile causes – drawing on his thick book for names. He advised politicians and mayors, and worked for the Schomburg Center for Black Culture. He raised money for the defense of prisoners falsely accused. But it all felt a little sad and downcast after the exciting 60’s and 70’s. Ellis spoke of the Nixon and Reagan years as if America were coming to an end, as if the death of the civil rights movement ended life itself. Ellis talked of leaving the country. But he never did. He would start a new project, keeping faith with us and with his community.

In the ’80s, when Ellis got lung cancer and then a brain tumor, all his friends and colleagues were devastated: our sensitive, cultured, and remarkable friend was dying. A year before his death there was a benefit for him, to help pay medical expenses. Ashford and Simpson showed up. So did Betty Shabazz and Roberta Flack, as did dozens of other notables and close friends. So did Ellis, dressed in a typical melange of clothing – dashiki and Alvin Ailey T-shirt; leather cap and polished shoes; weak, but able to provoke us into laughter in a short speech.

When Ellis died in 1991 at the age of 61, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was filled with his friends and admirers. Mayor Dinkins spoke. Alvin Ailey’s troupe performed. As the tears fell, the music swelled, and the memories swept us away, I kept thinking how Ellis would have used such an event to make entries in his black book, looking for the interesting performer, the agile speaker.

Some nights, when the world’s news is too awful to bear, Susan and I can hear Ellis’ voice cautioning patience and fortitude. We see him, in our mind’s eye, predicting the end of the world one moment and rummaging in his black book the next, planning a memorial for it.

About Christopher Lukas

1969: SOUL! director Ivan Cury, executive producer Kit Lukas, host Loretta Long, and host Harold Haizlip (Ellis’ brother)
(image courtesy Christopher Lukas)

Christopher (Kit) Lukas started his career in Hollywood in 1957, children’s television series. In 1963 he moved to New York and spent 9 years at WNET (then, WNDT), first as producer, then as director of cultural programming, finally as director of all programming. In this latter capacity he supervised programs that were nominated for 25 Emmys and won 12.

In addition to conceiving the original idea of a series for African-Americans, he oversaw Free Time – a wide-ranging, liberal oriented thrice-weekly 90 minute live series; The Actor’s Company, presenting rehearsals and performances of Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Winter’s Tale; and dozens of documentaries and specials.

As Producer at WNDT, Lukas produced and wrote over 150 hours of prime time programming, including: New Math for Parents (Emmy winner) A comedy-entertainment-quiz show with studio audience and home call-ins. How To Be Mayor of New York (90 minutes): Comedic educational program using archive stills, footage, music. Nominated for an Emmy; The Poetry Of Voznesensky (network) (90 minutes) This Russian poet’s first visit to the United States. Nominated for an Emmy award.

In 1971, Lukas left Channel 13 and has produced for public and cable television ever since. He is also the author of five books on a variety of subjects.

See archival episodes of SOUL! at any time and see the premiere of the documentary Independent Lens: Mr. SOUL!, about host Ellis Haizlip, on February 22, 2021 at 10 p.m.

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