|Mary Louise, Grenoldo Frazier, Chip Fields, Terrence Emanuel) Photo: PhotoFest|
Laverne "Chip" Fields, who is sometimes credited as Chip Hurd or Chip Fields-Hurd, (born August 5, 1951) is an American singer, actress, television director, consultant, and dialogue coach, who has appeared in popular films, television shows, and Broadway theatre.
She is best known for portraying Penny Gordon's abusive birth mother in a four-part episode of the 1970s sitcom Good Times.
|Chip Fields daughter, Kim Fields|
Chip was raised in a small town in Virginia, by her Aunt and Uncle. By the age of seven, she was transplanted to New York City, where she lived with her mother in Harlem for nineteen years, and went to public elementary and Junior High schools. She auditioned for and won a place in New York's infamous Performing Arts High School. Near the end of her senior year, Chip gave birth to a baby girl. That little girl later went on to become Kim Fields, co-star of the popular NBC hit series Facts of Life and years later co-star of the urban hit comedy, Living Single.
She also was Minnie Fay in the Pearl Bailey-Billy Daniels tour and revival of Hello, Dolly!. The show played Broadway from Nov. 6, 1975 - Dec. 28, 1975 and then they went on to Washington DC and one other city before the tour ended.
This company was what Bailey called the “flower-garden cast.” Unlike her original all African-American company, this company was inter- racial. Every nationality played all the parts.
Chip got the audition thanks to hearing about it from a friend. At the time, Chip was part of a repertory company in Harlem called Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble. Whenever auditions were being held in which African-American actors were needed, casting directors would call around to the Negro Ensemble Company or any of the other black ensembles. Chip fit the type for the Dolly Company and went out for the audition. Chip was not a dancer.
She could move well. She had taken some movement classes at Performing Arts but she was not Debbie Allen.
Chip’s story with “Mama Pearl” is a little different. When she got there, they ushered everyone downstairs into a waiting area. As people would come back downstairs from completing their first part of the audition, they would come down exclaiming, “Oh My God! Pearl Bailey, herself, is conducting auditions. She is sitting in the house!” That put the fear of God into everyone still downstairs. Chip had come from a workshop in which she was taught to take anything like that and make decisions and not to become afraid. Chip decided that the song she was going to sing that she was not going to sing. She decided to sing something more “old school Broadway.” When she finally got called up on stage, she was asked to state her name.
“Hi! I’m Chip Fields” Pearl Bailey’s unmistakable voice yelled back, “OK, Little Chip, whatcha gonna do?”
|Billy Daniels and Pearl Bailey|
Chip said, “I was gonna do one song, but since you’re here, I think I’d like to do something else.” She said, ”Sure”, so Chip started singing, “Things look swell, things look great…” Chip admits that she is not a singer’s singer. She is someone who can sing and move well and she’s very comedic.
Chip didn’t even finish the song before Bailey started walking up the aisle of the theater. Bailey said, “Little Chip! Do you dance?” Chip responded that she moved well. She wasn’t about to lie. Then, she did a scene from the show and went off stage.
|Terrence Emanuel and Mary Louise|
Robert Cherin, who produced this production, was standing in the wings and asked Chip to wait downstairs.
She went downstairs and waited and every single person, about thirty of them, all went up and did their auditions. No one was coming back downstairs.
Chip waited, not seeing anyone return, about an hour and a half and she is still sitting down there. She is thinking, “What is going on?” She starts walking up the steps and she sees Mr. Cherin and she says, “Excuse me? I’m still downstairs. Was I supposed to wait?”
He said, “Miss Bailey would like you to go across the street and there’s a Chinese Restaurant. They have some soup for her. Do you mind picking it up?” Chip is thinking, “Who does this woman think she is. I am not here to wait on her.” Chip had a weird reaction to this but thought, “Shut up, Chip. Just do what the man says.” She went across the street, saw the owner of the restaurant, and said, ”Do you have some soup for Miss Bailey?” He said, “Yes, yes, yes.” She gets the soup and goes back to the theater. She tells Kenneth Porter, the stage manager that she’s back with Miss Bailey’s soup. He tells her to wait downstairs. She goes downstairs and waits another half hour. Those were the days that you made a phone call at a pay phone. Chip found a pay phone and put her dime in and called her acting teacher/manager and says, “I don’t know what’s going on here.
You never taught me this. He tells her, “Just stay there and whatever they ask you to do, you do as long as they don’t ask you to do something crazy.” She agreed to stay and stayed downstairs an additional thirty minutes! Thirty minutes later, Robert Cherin came downstairs and said, OK, Chip, you can go.” Chip told him the soup got cold. He said that’s ok, took the soup, and said, “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
She says ok and starts up the stairs. As she’s walking out the theater, here comes Miss Bailey also walking out. She said, “Which way you goin’, Little Chip?” Chip told her that she was heading to the subway, that she lived up in Harlem. Miss Bailey, said, “Come here, Little Chip. You said you move well?” Chip answered in the affirmative and Miss Bailey said, “Well, you’ve got to move really well.” Then, Miss Bailey gave her a call back for the next day!
Chip goes back to the Ensemble and tells her teacher/manager that she was requested back the next day. She goes back the next day and had that Chorus Line moment. She had never been to an audition like that where everyone had to stand in a line on stage. They were grouped into groups. Jack Craig, who was recreating Gower’s original choreography, came out to teach them their dances. Lucia Victor, who Chip had never heard of, came out and asked her to do a combination. They started out doing Waltz Clogs. There was Debbie Allen and a few people like her stretching. It was like a scene out of Fame. Chip kept backing as far upstage as possible. She kept thinking that she was outclassed there. She couldn’t do this. There was no way they were going to pick her. That little voice inside her told her to just do what she could do.
She did her version of a waltz clog and everything else she could pick up. When they went around and leaped, she could do that. She says it didn’t look pretty, but she could do it. They started eliminating and the entire process was frightening to Chip. “Number three, you can go. Now, you, etc.” It got down to Debbie Allen, Chip, and a few other people. Chip knew Debbie from other shows. Before Chip knew it, everyone was gone except her. Miss Bailey comes down the aisle again and says, “How you doin’ today, Little Chip?” “I’m fine Miss Bailey.”
Miss Bailey tells her she did good. As Chip was walking off the stage, Kenneth Porter said, “OK, rehearsals start…” and he was basically telling her she had the job. She didn’t know how that worked!
It was all knew to Chip. Fortunately, someone called the Ensemble to let them know she had been cast! That’s how she became Minnie Fay. She had done one other show. It was a show that opened one night and closed the next. It was called Tough to Get Help. The reviews stressed that it WAS tough to get help.
Prior to doing Dolly, Chip didn’t have any thoughts on the show. She wasn’t part of the “Broadway world.” In the Ensemble, they were doing the works of Langston Hughes, for example. They were doing shows that the black community was embracing. They were doing shows about heroin addicts. At home, Chip would look at things on television that pertained to Broadway musicals. Living in Harlem at that time, there were programs in place that took kids to see Broadway musicals. She had seen shows like Oklahoma! and The King and I and had fallen in love with that kind of theater.
As far as Dolly is concerned, she really wasn’t that familiar with it.
Chip has just opened something at her church called The Actor’s Sanctuary. They are doing nothing but classic Broadway shows. Part of why Chip is doing this is because these kids don’t even know that what is part of their culture is derivative of the shows that she did back in the day. All of the solid actors that they are looking at now on television; they don’t realize that some of these actors have a Broadway background. These Broadway actors left Broadway to do television and film and that is why they have a solid technique. Chip’s reaction to young people now is that Wicked is NOT the only thing that was on Broadway but she does appreciate that they would take a younger interest in a story line that will bring them in to see shows and from there, hopefully spark their interest in seeing more and hopefully want to see more on Broadway.
Without question, Chip feels that Dolly was one of the top five shows that she was part of. It taught her to work in a color blind ensemble. After coming out of Harlem, it was a great experience. She was able to work with all kinds of people and see the many gifts they had to offer. That was exciting to her. Pearl Bailey’s original Dolly cast was all black.
With Pearl Bailey’s “flower garden”, I would be interested in knowing who made that decision. Pearl was co-producer of this company. Her husband, Louie Bellson, was not African-American.
Unless someone is a renegade, and runs with the wind and decides to do their own thing, Chip can’t imagine Dolly without Gower’s original choreography. It so fits the era it was in. Unless you try to do The Matchmaker and do a modern version like reimagining it like Wicked, she doesn’t feel there is any need to change it. It was such wonderful choreography.
When those waiters leap over the orchestra pit, and land on their knees, with their Hello, Dolly!, that knocks you out. It’s like Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name. Everybody knows Dolly and she is looking out for everybody. There is something that everybody can identify with, that moment, after a death or a loss, where people want to get back out there and rejoin the human race AND to be welcomed back! That’s what makes that so spectacular. For Chip, peaking through the curtains, every time those waiters jumped over the pit, her heart would leap, also. Seeing Miss Bailey on stage dancing with those waiters each night, there was always something exciting and elegant about that.
Chip took a role that was known to be a dancer’s role. That is where the intimidation stemmed from. Minnie Fay was a dancer’s role. She loves that Miss Bailey saw the comedy in her and decided that Minnie Fay’s innocence and comedy would work without her being a dancer and allowing everything to come from Minnie’s wide-eyed discovery. Miss Bailey took Chip under her wing on the road. She would say little things to Chip in the wings. They never had any quite time together like going to lunch, but every time they opened in a new city, there would be a little gift box left on Chip’s dressing room table.
One time it was a sweater, one time a ring, with a note from Miss Bailey telling her how proud she was of her.
Miss Bailey told Chip that by the time that got to Boston that she would be very happy with what the reviewers would have to say about her performance. Up until that time, all the reviewers talked about was the choreography and Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels. Those were pretty much the way all the reviews unfolded. As they got to California, Chip started getting reviews saying that she was a tough and tender Minnie Fay. They were quick little asides. Miss Bailey kept telling her to wait for Boston. Miss Bailey knew of what she was predicting. When they got to Boston, Miss Bailey put the review on Chip’s dressing room table. Chip didn’t even know to look for reviews at that point. The morning after they opened, that was when Chip got her strongest review. There was a whole paragraph about Chip. Opening night in New York, Miss Bailey had that put on a sandwich board and was outside the Shubert Theater where they were playing as a kind of gesture of her pride towards Chip.
She had Chip’s paragraph highlighted. When Chip arrived at the Shubert for opening night, everyone kept asking her if she saw the sandwich board out front. Having gone through the stage door, she had not seen it. She was brought downstairs to see it. In an interesting side note, Chip brought her mom to that Broadway opening night.
Chip’s mother had been a chorus line dancer in the clubs dancing for Pearl Bailey many years ago. Chip never told Miss Bailey.
She figured she wouldn’t even remember her mother. She went up to thank Miss Bailey for putting the sandwich board in front of the theater. She told Miss Bailey that it made her cry, and by the way, her mother was seeing the show that night.
She then told Miss Bailey that her mother used to dance in her chorus line.
Miss Bailey asked who Chip’s mother was and when Chip answered with Patsy Styles, Bailey responded with, “Oh my God! You’re Patsy’s daughter.” When Chip brought her mother up to Miss Bailey’s dressing room after the show, they had a nice little ‘memory lane’ moment.
Three weeks later, into that nine week production, Chip’s mother died. She was a smoker. They found that she was riddled with cancer. The day she buried her mother, she did that in the morning, and did the matinee that afternoon. She came from the same school of ‘the show must go on’. At the end of her ‘third act’, in which Billy Daniels and the entire company sat on stage during the curtain calls, she told the audience what had happened.
The audience gave her a standing ovation and Miss Bailey brought her flowers and sent her home in her limo that afternoon.
When you’re living it, you don’t recognize all that it was. When Chip thinks about it, she goes, “Oh my gosh.” After Dolly, Miss Bailey wanted to manage Chip. She gratefully declined. She already had a manager and she felt that you don’t disrespect someone because you’re moving up. She loved Miss Bailey and she would always remain Chip’s mentor. Her manager had gotten her this far and she was not about to turn her back on him. Bailey and Chip remained in touch and Chip did “popcorn productions” around town. She had no idea that Miss Bailey kept up with her. She was doing a show in LA. When she got to the theater on her opening night, there was a huge basket of flowers and the card said, “I’ve still got my eye on you. Love, Mama Pearl.” Chip just lost it.
It was a lot to take in.
Many people were afraid of Miss Bailey because she had such a strong energy. She didn’t offer pep talks to the company, those came from Robert Cherin. She did share some quiet times with Chip in her dressing room.
There is one interesting story that Francie Mendenhall also shared with me. One night shortly after getting to Broadway, Mary Louise who was playing Irene Molly fainted on stage during the hat shop scene. There was a long tour before getting to Broadway.
Chip as Minnie Fay has gone off stage behind the curtain; Mrs. Molloy is on stage singing Ribbons Down My Back. Chip is waiting for the song to end so she can make her next entrance. Chip hears, “I’ll be wearing ribbons down my back this summer blue and green and streaming in the…” Chip looks through the curtain and doesn’t see Mrs. Molloy!
All she sees is her feet. She had fainted! Chip looks through the back curtain and is loudly whispering, “Kenneth! Kenneth!! Mary Louise has fainted!” He was working on something else and was not aware that she had fainted. His face turned blood red. Chip snuck off and asked what should be done. He was almost hyperventilating, “OK, OK, OK…” They went and told Miss Bailey that this had happened. They were getting ready to close the curtain. Pearl Bailey walked out on stage in a mink coat and no shoes and said, “Hold it, darlin’. You never bring the curtain down in the theater. OK, let me have some dancers.” A couple of dancers came out. She said to the audience, “You know, this has been a very long tour my dears. Because we’ve been out on the rod so much, I’m sure Mary Louise is just exhausted trying to give every performance her best. I’m not going to disappoint you. She has an understudy. “ She walks over to the wings and tells them to get the understudy ready. She looks down at the conductor and asks him and the orchestra to put Ribbons in her key! Those guys are scrambling in the orchestra pit. She asks them to hand her the lyrics and she sings the song. The audience is cracking up and applauding. She then says, “Little Chip?” She doesn’t even call her Minnie Fay. Chip is trying to stay in character as she runs out on stage and says, “Yes ma’am?” Miss Bailey then asks what happens next. Chip tells her and Miss Bailey calls for Mary Louise’s understudy, Pat Gideon, who is a white woman. Pat came on and they continued with the rest of the show.
Chip loved Billy Daniels. He played Horace Vandergelder with a gruffness that wasn’t Walter Matthau. It was gruff with such heart in it. He was warm and such a gentleman. He was Vandergelder to Chip. Something in him identified the fact that he needed a woman like Dolly.
Getting back to the beginnings of the show, after opening night in Philadelphia, Chip called her manager and asked him to get her out of the show. She was miserable. She didn’t feel like she was doing a good job. She didn’t know what she was doing. It was one of those things where you learn and learn and learn and then it’s time to do it, and you don’t know where each piece of what you learned has gone to. Chip had never had this kind of experience before. Miss Bailey performed to sell out crowds. It was very intimidating. Chip felt very insecure.
Miss Bailey called her over to her and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll get it.”
Chip always stood in the wings to watch the show.
She didn’t hang out in her dressing room. She only had one change in the show. Chip watched every move that Miss Bailey did. In the Harmonia Gardens, when they closed the curtains, all the cast would exit through the back door. Chip would stay on the stage and peek through the curtains and watch her. Many times, Miss Bailey would reprise the title song because the audience would not let her go on with the show. Miss Bailey became aware that Chip was there. One night, she opened the curtain and handed Chip a piece of chicken.
It became their little bit. Chip would laugh and she would laugh and go on with the scene.
No one but Miss Bailey, Chip, and the stage manager even knew she was there.
This bit went on for months.
One day, Chip was in the wings and came on stage to do her little dance around Dolly and Dolly wasn’t there. Miss Bailey was in the wings giving Chip her own little moment on stage. That’s when it all made sense to her. Miss Bailey let Chip understand that when you are in the moment, you enjoy that moment, and so Chip made up her mind to know that Minnie Fay is all about the wonderment of the world, like Barnaby. “Out there, full of shine and full of sparkle…”
Every moment for Minnie Fay is a discovery. She needed to stop being concerned about whether or not she was doing everything right.
Go with the flow. When it all turned around, that was when she started getting applause and laughs in the middle of her dance routines. From that point on, she got it and Miss Bailey acknowledged that.
From that point on, it was a great tour.
Chip’s favorite memories are standing in the wings watching Miss Bailey, how she handled an audience, and her timing, and the knowing smiles, and when Miss Bailey would sneak that chicken in to her…and that sandwich board!
Dolly brought Chip out of the close minded kid growing up in Harlem.
It showed her the world. One night during the run in Washington DC, President Gerald Ford, who was a friend of Miss Bailey’s, came to see the show.
Chip, obviously, had never had secret service around her prior to that moment. They lifted up all the set pieces in the wings.
They were surrounded by about forty secret service men. After clearance, President Ford came back to meet the cast and crew. Everyone was invited to lunch at the White House the next day. Chip was in the Oval Office because Miss Bailey invited her to meet the President. That was all set up by Miss Bailey. Those are the kind of things that she would do.
The one thing that Chip adopted from being a part of Dolly that she has carried forward for the rest of her career is how to handle an audience.
From that point on, handling an office became something that audiences have come to know Chip by, handling large audiences. Chip’s next Broadway show after Dolly, was a gospel musical called, Don’t Get God Started. Chip took her lead from Miss Bailey. There would be bus loads coming in late. Chip would tell the orchestra to hold it because Miss Bailey would have done that. She would stop everything until people would get to their seats before proceeding. She would then tell the latecomers what they had missed. She then had become the “little Pearl.”
She understood why audiences loved Pearl. They loved her breaking that fourth wall in musical comedy sometimes. She was being human. Chip knew that those latecomers would be distracting to the rest of the audience as they were making their way to their seats, so why not incorporate it? It became a regular shtick in the show. Either Chip would do it, or she would give the others the freedom to do that as well.
Chip has never seen anyone else play Dolly other than Barbra Streisand in the film. To Chip, it missed something in translation. Michael Crawford’s voice at that time was very high. He had that bright eyed wonderment.
Chip feels that she likes a lot of what Barbra did because she’s an interesting lady, but again, something got lost in translation. Seeing an older woman sing Before the Parade Passes By and understanding the metaphor of that did not work with a young Streisand singing those same lyrics. Chip loves Streisand and enjoying HER but it wasn’t A Star is Born which is more Streisand.
The biggest thing that bothers Chip since she started in this business is all of the money that is taken away from the schools for arts in education.
School kids used to get to go see theater and “imagine a world outside of Yonkers.” We’ve lost that childlike innocence that came from going to a Broadway show and seeing things like The Wiz and people singing songs. Having those opportunities gave Chip a dream bigger than Harlem. A lot of the hope of the world is kind of lost because they are not growing up with those wonderful moments where they remember something really spectacular in their hearts from something they saw in the theater. That really bothers Chip.
Pearl Bailey instilled in the company that they had an obligation to give each audience the experience as if it was always opening night.
Every audience deserved to have the freshness and everything everyone was taught to put on that stage. No matter how tired you are, give that audience what they came for every single performance. Closing night, Chip cried knowing that she was saying so long to Pearl Bailey and this amazing cast.
Trust the team that taught you. Trust the choreographer. Trust the book. Trust the lyrics and then let the character live.
After Dolly, Chip moved to LA and pretty much lost contact with many from that cast.
For a little girl growing up in Harlem, Dolly meant Out there, there’s a world outside of Harlem. Way out there beyond this poverty stricken ghetto, Minnie Fay, Out there. There’s a world outside of wherever you are. Go out there and explore it before the parade passes by.
Thank you Chip Fields Hurd for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!
Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly! If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!
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