By CONNIE WHITE
Although Thelma Bea-chum’s dancing days are in the past, her memories of performing professionally in Harlem and on Broadway are still very much a part of the present.
What lapses in memory she does have are understandable, since she is now 81 years old and her career started when she was only 16.
She tripped the light fantastic during the flapper era and Prohibition, when gangsters were prominent, booze was illegal and bootlegging was common. Her career continued through the Great Depression and concluded just after the start of World War II.
Those were exciting times for the Titusville resident who knew Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker. She danced until dawn and visited a speakeasy. The young woman saw gangsters shoot up the nightclub and kidnap her employer.
Born and raised in Brooklyn by her Jamaican mother and Bahamian father, her formal training began at the age of 8 when she first went to dancing school.
Beachum married her first husband, Paul Meeres, when she was 15 and he was 18. Both of them loved to dance and began rehearsing together. After the birth of their son, Paul Jr., they started working clubs.
“It wasn’t hard to get work. We had it very easy. We both were pretty,” she stated matter of factly. “Women loved him,” she said of her first husband.
Not long after that, their daughter, Gloria, was born. Fortunately for Beachum, her mother was able to care for the children, leaving her free to pursue her career. * Their act consisted mostly of ballroom dancing, but they also did ballet and West Indian numbers. Her husband was from Nassau, Beachum explained.
The duo, booked as Meeres and Meeres, appeared at Connie’s Inn, which was one of the two popular black clubs in Harlem, according to Beachum. The other was the famed Cotton Club, she said.
“During that time, Duke Ellington was at the Cotton Club and wrote his songs there. Sometimes he’d be up all night composing. The people who worked there would know when he’d been there, because the next morning the ashtray was full of cigarette butts,” she recalled. “I met Duke Ellington. He was a very, very nice person.” She paused thoughtfully. “He was married to his music.”
Beachum also knew singer Josephine Baker very well. “I saw her show in Paris, and she autographed a record of hers for me,” she said.
Meeres and Meeres appeared on Broadway in the production of “Hot Chocolates” with Cab Calloway. “He was very sweet. That was the time when he did ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ ” Beachum explained.
She and her husband opened the show with a waltz routine, she remembered. “It was a very nice opening. I wore a black and white chiffon dress with feathers all around the bottom. Costumes were long and very wide then.”
That was the fashion when gangsters were very prominent, Beachum recalled. “They owned the Cotton Club but not Connie’s,” she said with a touch of pride. Instead, Connie’s was run by two brothers, Connie and George Immerman.
“Connie’s was downstairs. It had been redecorated and there were small windows all around the room, with lights behind them and tables under them. In the middle was the dance floor. I remember like it was yesterday,” she said with a smile.
“Connie’s stayed open until 3:30 in the morning,” Beachum said. “One night, gangsters came down and broke it all up. They shot the glass out of all the windows and kidnapped Connie. His brother had to pay a lot of money to get him back. We had to run in the back of the club and hide in the dressing rooms.” The incident occurred because Connie served alcohol but refused to buy it from the gangsters, she explained. “He would rather pay a higher price than buy from them.”
Another memorable experience for her was the time she visited a speakeasy. “I went to a gangster’s hideout with a singer from Connie’s. She asked me if I’d like to see them, and I said yes. The place was on the East Side and was surrounded by tall gates. She had to call up to get in,” Beachum recalled.
She said there was a long table with all kinds of drinks and food on it, and “Beside each place setting was a small basket with a diamond ring in it. Each girl that was there got one. The diamond was as big as my thumb,” she reminisced. “It was a beautiful ring. I wonder what happened to that ring.”
Beachum went on to say that the gangsters wanted to have a romantic relationship with the women. “Not with me, though, because I was a stranger. Later, though, they began calling me to go out with them, but I wouldn’t,” she declared. “I didn’t like that kind of life! Besides, I was with my husband.”
Meeres went on to appear in the Folies Bergere in Paris as a solo act, and their son, Paul Meeres Jr., followed in his parents’ footsteps, enjoying a successful career in dancing prior his death in 1986. She has a photograph of her son and Clint Eastwood, taken when they appeared in a movie together. In addition, a large painting of him in dance costume is prominently displayed in her home.
After she separated from Meeres, Beachum’s dancing partner was a man named Harold Norton.
Beachum continued performing until she married her second husband, James Beachum, who was president of the–Negro Actors Guild. “He also was a dancer, but different from what I did. He was a tap dancer. I met him in show business. We had a lot in common,” she said. “But he was ready to quit, wanted no part of show business anymore.”
At first she missed performing professionally, Beachum admitted, but she soon adjusted to her retirement life. “I got satisfied not dancing,” she said. Besides, the couple still went dancing socially for their own pleasure.
In 1985 Beachum was suffering with bronchitis. Her husband came to Titusville and bought their home, then returned north for her. “He was a sweetie,” she said with a smile. “I was wed to him for 42 years.” Sadly, her husband died only a month after they moved here.
Now, Beachum leads a quiet life, attending services at the First Presbyterian Church on Sundays and watching lots of television.
In between she remembers the days gone by — some good, some not so good. So, although her feet are still, her memories continue to dance through her head. And, if some of them tend to be elusive, well, when they finally surface, they are simply that much sweeter.