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Ben Vereen

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

By

Gregory Anthony Tibbs

Ben Vereen

African American Influence on Dance in the United States, 1500-2000s
AFR 3000 – 701

Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, Illinois

June 6, 2009

Ben Vereen

Ben Vereen is a versatile and three-dimensional entertainer who has enlightened audiences by giving his heart and soul in his work to the African American community for over 25 years. Ben Vereen is currently part of a lecture circuit, an ordained minister and has earned five honorary doctorate degrees. Ben Vereen opened doors and paved the way for African Americans through his career, family, awards and tragedies. I. Introduction 1) Background Information 2) Purpose

II. History 1) Career 2) Family

III. Pros and Cons 1) Awards 2) Trademark 3) Drug use 4) Tragedies

IV. Conclusion

Abstract

Ben Vereen is an African American who emerged from early childhood singing in churches and choirs to a well-renown entertainer. Dealing with the ups and downs of life and the feeling of not belonging, he attended New York’s High School of the Performing Arts at the age of 14. While still trying to find himself and enhance his natural talent abilities at the age of 18, he made his New York stage debut in “The Prodigal Son” and continued to expand his horizons by playing Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” His career continued to move forward as he was cast in “Sweet Charity” directed by Bob Fosse as one of the frug dancers. Bob Fosse was amazed at the talent and style of Ben Vereen that has made him a leading player in the 1973 stage play, “Pippin” which won him a Tony Award. (Ben Vereen: Biography from Answers, n.d., para 1). While applying for a passport at the age of 21, he learned he was adopted and Benjamin Augustus Middleton is his birth name. He was left in someone’s care when his mother, Essie Middleton, went on a trip when he was young and returned to discover her child was gone. (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, n.d. para 1). While it seemed everything was going good for Ben Vereen as he was on his way to stardom tragedy struck twice in his life. Naja, his 16 year old daughter, riding as a passenger, was killed in a car accident in 1987 when a truck overturned on the car on the New Jersey Turnpike. This tragic event sent him into a deep state of depression and opened the door to his bad habit with cocaine. (Ben Vereen: Biography from Answers, n.d., para 16 and 18). After suffering a stroke in 1992 from a minor car accident resulting from his head hitting the steering wheel, Ben Vereen was struck by a car on the Pacific Coast Highway driven by Grammy-winning composer-producer David Foster trying to return to his home. He was hospitalized with a broken leg, head and internal injuries. Despite his injuries, Ben was able to dance again, after extensive physical and occupational therapy. (TV Guide, Ben Vereen: Biography, n.d., bullet 4).
Although Ben Vereen contemplated suicide behind the death of his daughter, (Fandango, Ben Vereen Biography. n.d., para 1) his spirit and will became stronger and he returned to his career in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and continued to electrify audiences. (Yahoo TV-Ben Vereen, n.d., para. 3). He has been acknowledged and rewarded for his lifetime achievements with two Emmy awards, two Golden Globe awards, one Tony award, one ACE award, three NAACP Image awards, one Prism award, and one Anniversary award. Ben Vereen has five honorary doctorate degrees, and is an ordained minister along with being a faculty member and master instructor of a Broadway Theater Project. (IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, n.d., para. 4-6, 8) and (Ben Vereen Official Website, n.d., para 1). Ben Vereen has been an inspiration to African Americans throughout his career and continues to mentor and give back to the community. He is still running strong today with his trademark, Actor’s Ashram, in which he uses his skills to refine the talents of his students as a world class Master Teacher in the artistic disciplines of Acting, Dance, and Voice development. He has coached Paula Jai Parker, Usher Raymond, Terrence Howard, Andre Benjamin of Outkast, Malinda Williams, and Paula Patton just to name a few. (The Actor’s Ashram, “Developing Skills Through Inner Spirit Connection and Self-Awareness,” n.d., para 1.)
He has plans for an upcoming documentary on Broadway entitled, “The Next Generation.” (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2009, Upcoming). As a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. he developed a one man show back in 2004 and continues to tour. (Ben Vereen Official Website, n.d., para. 3, 5). Ben Vereen is a mentor to all and has shown time and time again how not to give up on your dreams because we are capable of doing anything. He continues to prove this each time he gives assistance to an African American. He was taught how to dance, act and sing which African Americans have been doing for over 50 years.

Ben Vereen

Ben Vereen is a versatile and three-dimensional entertainer who has enlightened audiences by giving his heart and soul in his work to the African American community for over 25 years. (IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, n.d., para 3). Ben is currently part of a lecture circuit, an ordained minister and has earned five honorary doctorate degrees. (Ben Vereen Official Website, n.d., para.1). Ben Vereen opened doors and paved the way for African Americans through his career, family, awards and tragedies. Ben Vereen remembers how his mother would reminiscence about the past, while singing the blues which sparked his interest in music. That is why he gives all credit to her. At the age of four, a solo at a Baptist church was his first performance leading him to join a quartet. He believed singing was his calling; however, after graduating from the New York’s High School of the Performing Arts where he studied under world-renown choreographers Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Martha Graham (Bio True Story – Ben Vereen Biography, n.d., para. 1) and with no job openings in dance or theatre he took another path in life and attended the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. At the age of eighteen, he took another path going back to his first love, the stage, playing in “Prodigal Son” making his debut in New York. He played Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a member of the cast of “Hair” and performed in “Pippin” later on. (Ben Vereen: Biography from Answers, n.d., para. 1) The first Broadway production to play in Las Vegas, and Chicago, was headlined with Ben Vereen and Chita Rivera. On Broadway, Ben Vereen has appeared in “A Christmas Carol”; “I’m Not Rappaport,” “Grind and Wicked” just to name a few. Ben Vereen recently co-starred opposite Vanessa Williams in the “And Then Came Love,” and the Fox Feature, “Mama I Want to Sing” with Patti Labelle and Ciara. Ben Vereen has choreographed and was the stage director of a children’s musical in New York City back in 2003, entitled, “The Odd Potato.” (Ben Vereen Forum, Ben Vereen Biography, n.d., Famous Works). He served as the acting coach for the award winning group Outkast, Big Boy and Andre 3000 during the filming of “Idlewild.” Ben Vereen received multiple standing ovations during the 80th birthday celebration of Eartha Kitt at Carnegie Hall. Performing for the troops in Iraq was truly a major highlight of his career. “Clive Barnes of the “New York Post” stated” “Ben Vereen – unquestionably one of the finest performances seen on Broadway.” (Ben Vereen Official Website, n.d., para. 2, 4, 5). While applying for a passport at the age of 21, he learned of his adoption and Benjamin Augustus Middleton is his birth name. He was left in someone’s care when his mother, Essie Middleton, went on a trip when he was young and returned to discover her child was gone and given up for adoption. Unfortunately, his mother has passed away after he found out about her identity; however, he was able to meet members of his biological family. (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, n.d., para. 1) and (Yahoo Movies – Ben Vereen Biography, n.d., Family).
Ben Vereen has been the recipient of several awards; two Emmy awards, two Golden Globe Awards, one Tony Award, one ACE Award, three NAACP Image Awards, one Prism Award, and one Anniversary Award. He was also the recipient of the Black Theatre Award, Drama Desk Award for “Best Actor in a Musical,” Israel's Cultural and Humanitarian Award, Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and a Victory Award along with a Achievement in Excellence Award from the High School of the Performing Arts which is his almamater. He became the first person to win all three awards, "Entertainer of the Year", "Rising Star", and "Song and Dance Star" from the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) simultaneously. (IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, n.d., para. 4-6, 8, 9). Ben Vereen has been an inspiration to African Americans throughout his career and continues to mentor and give back to the community. He is still running strong today with his trademark, “Actor’s Ashram,” in which he uses skills to refine the talents of his students as a world class Master Teacher in the artistic disciplines of Acting, Dance, and Voice development. He has coached Paula Jai Parker, Usher Raymond, Terrence Howard, Andre Benjamin of Outkast, Malinda Williams, and Paula Patton just to name a few. (The Actor’s Ashram, “Developing Skills Through Inner Spirit Connection and Self-Awareness,” n.d., para. 1). Ben Vereen had an exhausting schedule and in spite of all of this developed a live stage act which he performed all over the world in nightclubs. Such a hectic load gave him the reason to use illegal drugs, especially cocaine, which large sums of money were spent to buy. Regardless of his bad drug habit, he still maintained his luxurious home in Englewood, New Jersey, for his second wife and five children as he continued to work. Old habits die hard and we learn a lesson from it which is exactly what happened to Ben Vereen in 1987. While it seemed like everything was going good for Ben Vereen as he was on his way to stardom tragedy struck twice in his life. Naja, his 16 year old daughter, riding as a passenger, was killed in a car accident in 1987 when a truck overturned on the car on the New Jersey Turnpike which sent him into a deep state of depression and opened the door to his bad habit with cocaine. “He was quoted to say”, "It got dangerous for me in June of '87," he admitted in an Associated Press wire story. "After I lost my daughter ... I lost it completely and I got really bad. I couldn't recognize myself." Vereen characterized himself in the San Francisco Chronicle as one of "the living dead" during the months after the tragedy. Ben Vereen with the help of his family entered rehabilitation and kicked his drug habit. As a star and learning a tough lesson, he not only became the founder of Celebrities for a Drug-Free America earning more than $500,000 for drug education campaigns, but became an advocate against drugs along and apologized not only for his drugs use, but the drug use of his generation in a speech given to a New Jersey High School because it is not cool to use drugs. (Ben Vereen: Biography from Answers, n.d., para 15-18). Although Ben Vereen contemplated suicide behind the death of his daughter, (Fandango, Ben Vereen Biography, n.d., para. 1) his spirit and will became stronger and he returned to his career in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and continued to electrify audiences. (Yahoo TV-Ben Vereen, n.d., para. 3). Just when it looked like the coast was clear, Ben Vereen was involved in a life-threatening accident. During the late afternoon hours of June 9, 1992, he crashed into a tree on a highway near Los Angeles after falling asleep at the wheel of his car. He passed sobriety tests administered by the police and was not seriously hurt in the accident. “In a television interview with Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart, Vereen vehemently denied rumors that the accidents were part of a bizarre suicide attempt, insisting,” "I'm better than I've ever been. I'm thankful to be alive. I'm thankful especially for all the prayers.... They gave me courage." (Ben Vereen: Biography from Answers, n.d., para. 18). After suffering a stroke in 1992 from a minor car accident resulting from his head hitting the steering wheel, Ben Vereen was struck by a car on the Pacific Coast Highway driven by Grammy-winning composer-producer David Foster trying to return to his home. He was hospitalized with a broken leg, head and internal injuries. Despite the injuries he was able to dance again after extensive physical and occupational therapy. (TV Guide, Ben Vereen: Biography, n.d., bullet 4). Despite his professional accomplishments, when he performed in blackface at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, an act that outraged many African-Americans, Ben Vereen found himself in the midst of controversy in 1981. (Bio True Story – Ben Vereen Biography, n.d., para. 5). Ben Vereen has been an inspiration to African Americans throughout his career and continues to mentor and give back to the community. He is still running strong today with his trademark, “Actor’s Ashram,” in which he uses his skills to refine the talents of his students as a world class Master Teacher in the artistic disciplines of Acting, Dance, and Voice development. He has coached Paula Jai Parker, Usher Raymond, Terrence Howard, Andre Benjamin of Outkast, Malinda Williams, and Paula Patton just to name a few. (The Actor’s Ashram, “Developing Skills Through Inner Spirit Connection and Self-Awareness.” n.d., para. 1). He has plans for an upcoming documentary on Broadway entitled, “The Next Generation.” (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, n.d., Upcoming). As a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. he developed a one man show back in 2004 and continues to tour. (Ben Vereen Official Website, n.d., para. 3, 5). Ben Vereen has five honorary doctorate degrees, is an ordained minister along with being a faculty member and master instructor of a Broadway Theater Project. (IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, n.d., para. 4-6, 8) and (Ben Vereen Official Website, n.d., para. 1). Ben Vereen is a mentor to all and has shown time and time again how not to give up on your dreams because we are capable of doing anything. He continues to prove this each time he gives assistance to an African American. He was taught how to dance, act and sing which African Americans have been doing for over 50 years. Ben Vereen has become one of the Nations' most requested speakers among audiences of all ages which is the reason why the lecture circuit has become an integral part of his career. He has managed to convey to them a deep feeling of understanding by reaching out to his audiences and using his strong sense of social consciousness by captivating them. Ben Vereen stresses the importance of continuing education, arts in education, overcoming adversity, Black history, recovery through physical and occupational therapy, and motivational topics just to name a few. (IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, n.d., para 7.)

References

Ben Vereen: Biography from Answers. (n.d.). Retrieved May 28, 2008 from http://www.answers.com/topic/ben-vereen

Ben Vereen Official Website. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2009 from http://benvereen.com/main/biography/

Ben Vereen Official Website (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2009 from http://benvereen.com/main/professor-ben-vereen/

Ben Vereen Forum, Ben Vereen Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2009 from http://www.filmreference.com/film/67/Ben-Vereen.html

Bio True Story – Ben Vereen Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2009 from http://www.biography.com/articles/Ben-Vereen-9542361

Fandango, Ben Vereen Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2009 from http://www.fandango.com/benvereen/biographies/p73323

IMDB, The Internet Movie Database. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2009 from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0893965/bio

The Actor’s Ashram, “Developing Skills Through Inner Spirit Connection and Self-Awareness,” (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2009 from http://www.benvereen.tv/BVWebsite/Actor’s%20Ashram.html

TV Guide, Ben Vereen: Biography.(n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2009 from http://www.tvguide.com/celebrities/ben-vereen/bio/141526

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Vereen

Yahoo Movies – Ben Vereen Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2009 from http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800015616/bio

Yahoo TV-Ben Vereen. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2009 from http://tv.yahoo.com/ben-vereen/contributor/1048790/bio

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