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Perris To Honor Local Actor Who Fought Demeaning Stereotypes

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Clarence Muse was the first African American to “star” in a film

By BVN Staff –

In conjunction with Black History Month, and the city’s 100th anniversary, Perris Community Partnership will pay tribute to one of its own, the legendary actor, screenwriter, director, composer and lawyer, Dr. Clarence Muse.

Muse who died in Perris in 1979 was inducted in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1973. He was the first African-American to “star” in a film. He acted for more than 60 years and appeared in more than 150 movies.

Perris Community Partnership CEO Dr. Norman Towels says when, in his later years, Muse requested that he be addressed as Dr. Muse, it was no mere hollow affectation. He earned a degree in international law from the oldest law school in Pennsylvania.

He was a pioneer of the Black theatre movement in the 1920s and founded Harlem's Lafayette Theater. He appeared as an opera singer, minstrel show performer, and vaudeville and Broadway actor; he also composed songs and wrote plays and sketches.

“Although he never won an Oscar, or received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Muse was a stand out from other actors of the times,” said Towels.

Towels says most Americans, thought of Muse as a symbol of the negative side of the African-American experience. But in his research, he discovered Muse to be very different from his film character.

“This is an amazingly complex man. Intelligent — and he was anything but what people take him to be. Dr. Muse was denied the recognition he deserved.”

Muse was an outspoken proponent for the positive treatment of Black performers. He fought demeaning stereotypes for most his career. His Hollywood film assignments generally confined him to stereotypes, though Muse was usually able to rise above the shuffling "yassuh, boss" characterizations required of him.

Muse was given dignified, erudite roles in films designed for all- Black audiences (e.g., 1939's Broken Strings), and on rare occasions was permitted to portray non-submissive characters in mainstream films (it came as quite a shock to Southern audiences of 1941 when Muse, playing Bela Lugosi’s independent-minded butler in Invisible Ghost, spoke harshly to a White female servant, addressing her as "you old fool!").

He co-wrote When It’s Sleepy Time Down South which became Louis Armstrong’s theme song. Muse also penned the songs and co-wrote the story for the 1938 Bobby Breen musical Way Down South.

In 1955, Muse was a regular on the weekly TV version of Casablanca, playing Sam the pianist (a role he'd very nearly gotten in the 1942 film version). Though he was an outspoken advocate for better and more equitable treatment for Black performers, Muse was a staunch supporter of the controversial TV series Amos 'N' Andy, pointing out that, despite the caricatured leading characters, the series allowed Black actors to play doctors, bankers, judges, professors, and other parts generally denied them in "white" shows.

He played Peter the Honey Man in Porgy and Bess, with Sidney Poitier. His last acting role was in The Black Stallion with Mickey Rooney and Terri Garr (1979).

The Perris Centennial celebration and Muse tribute is set for Saturday, February 26. The program will also feature the 10th annual Black History Month Parade & Expo to include vendors, music, historical exhibits, festival foods and a cultural art show in the Bob Glass Gymnasium. Gates open at 10:00 a.m., parade starts at 11:30 a.m. at Foss Field Park, 138 North Perris Blvd.

For more information or to obtain a parade application call Perris Community Services at (951) 943-6603.

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