Feb 15, 2010

Monday Serenade: Nina Mae McKinney


Nina Mae McKinney sings Everything I've Got Belongs to You with mischievous glee in the 1932 short Pie, Pie Blackbird. The chefs accompanying her in that enormous pie are Eubie Blake and his orchestra. Though McKinney had musical chops, I think it would have been great to see her in a screwball comedy. She had the perfect madcap person for the genre.

When sixteen-year-old McKinney was plucked out of the chorus line of the popular stage show Blackbirds of 1928 to star in the all-black musical Hallelujah (1929), everyone from King Vidor to Irving Thalberg proclaimed her a great discovery. Believing her press, McKinney signed a five year contract. However, the times weren't right for an African American leading lady. She ended up working out her contract in musical shorts and supporting roles.

By the mid-thirties McKinney was performing as "The Black Garbo" in European cafes. Though she had another short run in Hollywood making race movies and playing b-movie maids in the forties, she never did recapture the glory of her first role. There's not much confirmed information about McKinney's later years. There are stories that she eventually became a maid, and that she had a continuing struggle with drugs and alcohol, but for the most part, the vivacious Nina Mae quietly and mysteriously slipped away.

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