Juanita Moore: An Icon

                                            JUANITA  MOORE 

by Dale Ricardo Shields


The creative arts puts a person on another level. That’s why we need to bring our youngsters into the theater.” —  Juanita Moore


Moore was born in Mississippi, the youngest in a family of seven girls and one boy. Her parents moved when she was a toddler to South Central Los Angeles, where they were able to make a good middle-class living from, among other things, running a laundry. At age 15, Moore came down with polio, and she said later that the doctors of the time were not much interested in treating a Black girl. Her mother and sisters massaged her legs with olive oil, and she slowly recovered.

She could sing, and she could dance, and at least one teacher planted the idea that Juanita could grow into an entertainer. She attended performances by the Lafayette Players, a pioneering Black theatre ensemble, thrilling to shows such as Madame X and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was foreshadowing; throughout her life, with one exception, Moore got stronger, bigger roles with African American theater groups than she ever did in Hollywood.

Moore’s parents were religious, and afraid of the lowdown influences of a life in the theater. She ditched a short stint at college and made her way to Harlem, where she wouldn’t have to worry that Mr. and Mrs. Moore were worrying. Soon Moore was in the chorus line at Small’s Paradise, a “black and tan” Harlem club, meaning that while the audience was mostly White, Blacks attended and mingled freely.” – Posted by The Siren


Portrait of Juanita Moore. Photo courtesy Arnett Moore (Courtesy of Arnett Moore)

Juanita Moore can be called no less than an icon for her contributions to the film industry and the impact her life has had on the history of Black American Theater. She was born on October 19th, 1914, although throughout her career she would hide her age, claiming to have been born in 1922 in an attempt to fit into younger roles. She was the youngest of eight children born to Harrison and Ella Moore. Mr. and Mrs. Moore raised Juanita and her siblings in South Central Los Angeles. Juanita completed her high school education and began attending Los Angeles City College. After completing her degree, Moore went to New York in order to pursue a career on stage.

Juanita Moore ifc1

Juanita began her performance career as a chorus girl in The Cotton Club, a popular nightspot that originated in Harlem, New York. The club catered to a White audience while boasting talented Black performers. Due to the club’s clientele, the performances perpetuated caricatures of Black Americans, as most venues of that time did. The club’s directors made it a point to depict their Black actors as “Darkies” on a plantation, or as the Black Beast, a caricature that portrays Blacks as savages. In particular, the chorus girls were held to a less caricatured standard. They were to be looked upon as images of beauty, not for humor. The “tall, tan, and terrific” chorus girl was expected to be young and beautiful; the word “beautiful” of course was held at the standard of traditional White beauty.

Juanita Moore, around 18 years old, was a Chorus Girl in New York circa 1933. (Courtesy of Arnett Moore)

Moore remained a professional dancer through the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to dancing at the Cotton Club, she traveled to Europe and had the opportunity to perform on the stages of famous European nightclubs such as London’s Palladium and Paris’s Moulin Rouge.

Juanita Moore (right), with a friend, sometime in the early ’30s. Photo courtesy Arnett Moore (Courtesy of Arnett Moore)