For Our Children’s Sake: A Conversation with Marcia McBroom

Marcia McBroom (far right) graces the poster to Russ Meyer's cult classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

To movie fans, Marcia McBroom will always be remembered as the Carrie Nations “Soul Sister” drummer Petronella Danforth in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  With her dark hair, big eyes and wide smile, Marcia McBroom played one of the straightest girls in Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s psychedelic cult film, securing her a place in the hearts of film fans everywhere.  One of the seventies’ most beautiful African American models, Marcia McBroom appeared in movies, magazine ads, album covers and television commercials.  However, what many of her fans may not know is that there is a far more interesting and inspiring woman beyond Pet Danforth’s funky drumming skills.  For Marcia McBroom, her real life stories are far more interesting than anything that could be put on screen.

The daughter of early civil rights activists, Marcia McBroom’s father was a liaison for Eleanor Roosevelt and worked alongside Martin Luther King.  Her mother was a United Nations secretary and entertained Malcolm X in the afternoons.  Marcia was surrounded by many of the most prominent figures in African American history from her earliest childhood. With activism running through her blood, Marcia has spent her life trying to make people aware of social issues in Africa, and to do her part in making things better for people nearly a world away.  Through her work with groups such as UNICEF, La Leche League and her own organization, For Our Children’s Sake, Marcia has used her passion and unique experiences to make a difference in the lives of women and children in West Africa.

But Marcia’s strength would come into play in the 1980’s when she abandoned her modeling career when her mother, Marie Lee McBroom, was taken into custody by the Nigerian government during a military coup.   With the American State Department unwilling to get involved in investigating her mother’s disappearance, Marcia gave up everything to fight for her mother’s life.  Marcia McBroom’s harrowing tale of perseverance and strength is not only more powerful than any role she could have been given on the screen; it is an inspirational story about how three sisters wouldn’t give up on getting their mother back, and made enough noise until the government listened.

With her acting and modeling career behind her, today Marcia McBroom has taken on a career far more rewarding to her than that of a cult movie actress.  For over twenty years Marcia has been teaching US and global history at  the Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School in New York City.  With an interest in human rights and African politics, Marcia’s various projects have helped open the minds of an entire generation of students to social issues a world away.

Actress, model, activist and educator, Marcia McBroom’s story goes way beyond Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  It is an epic tale all its own.

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENT

FOR OUR CHILDREN’S SAKE:

A CONVERSATION WITH MARCIA MCBROOM

Sam:  Now I’ll admit to you Marcia, that my main interest in doing this interview was your role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but as I’ve been researching your life I’ve come to realize that you have gone way beyond Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  Now activism has run deep through your family. .  Does activism run through your blood?

Marcia McBroom (center) with her sister Dana and father Marcus McBroom Jr.

Marcia:  Yes.  Definitely.  My father, Dr. Marcus McBroom Jr., went to Columbia University in the 1940’s.  My Dad came from a farm family in Ohio and he was one of thirteen children.  But although he got the opportunity, his family didn’t trust him as a young man so they sent him off with twenty five dollars, but gave the money to an older man that was traveling with him to [take care of] it, and needless to say, the older man squandered it and my father came to New York penniless.  He had to use his wits and work as a waiter to get by and to get through school. He succeeded and was invited to go to the White House. He acted as a liaison for Eleanor Roosevelt who was trying to integrate the army at that time.  He always told us that he was a friend of hers, but I am really sorry that he didn’t sit and talk to us more about the work he did with her.  But I remember after he died that I had been looking at a newspaper article about him and it said that he had been wounded in Burma and that Eleanor Roosevelt had him lifted out because she was worried about him. Also, Stokely Carmichael was a cousin, and my Mom used to work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkens and she was secretary for WEB DuBois.  Our whole lives were always tied up with activism.

Sam:  I read that your father was often paired up against Malcolm X in formal debates.  Did he ever talk about these debates to you?

Marcia McBroom's parents were associates of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Marcia herself had a meaningful encounter with Dr. King as a child: "I just remember that I was little and Dr. King leaning over me."

Marcia:  Well this is what I am talking about.  We knew he did things like that, but he never talked about it.  But Malcolm X was a good friend of my Mom’s, and he’d come to our house in the Bronx and they’d have debates.  He’d send her postcards, and she gave my sisters and me each two of his postcards.  But she would say “He used to send me all these letters, but I threw them away because who would have thought he’d become so famous.”

Sam:  Were you aware and involved in civil rights and activism from an early age?

Marcia:  Yes.  For example, I remember meeting Dr. King when I was a little girl.  There was a big benefit given for him, which they often gave at big armories around New York City, and I was so impressed that Dr. King came over to me and asked how I was doing.  I was so deeply impressed because Dorothy Dandridge was there, and Harry Belefonte, Sidney Poitier, Alan King; and just the fact that he came over to me to ask how I was doing was so moving.

Sam:  Well it just gives you an indication of the sort of soul that this man had.  How old were you?

Marcia:    I don’t remember.  I just remember that I was little and Dr. King leaning over me.  Because of my parents and what they were doing, I was always surrounded by celebrities my entire life.  When I think back, there were so many opportunities when I could have taken pictures with this one or that one.  I just never even thought of it.  I still have some pictures of me with a few, but there are so many others.

Sam:  Who are some of the ones that you wish you had taken your picture with?

Amongst a plethora of celebrities and political figures that Marcia McBroom has encountered, one she actually got a photograph taken with was Muhammad Ali: "When I think back, there were so many opportunities when I could have taken pictures with this one or that one. I just never even thought of it. I still have some pictures of me with a few, but there are so many others."

Marcia:  A friend of mine was once singing at Disneyland with Duke Ellington, and she invited my Dad and me to come and hear her.  Well we met Duke Ellington afterwards and I sat on his lap and gave him a kiss and I said, “I guess you get a lot of women kissing you” and he said, “Well, you know, this thing has to have some privileges.”  But later I thought, “Wow, it would have been great to have a picture of me sitting on Duke Ellington’s lap.”  But now I just have the memories.  I have lots of stories like that.  For instance, I have a BA in Anthropology from Hunter College, and we did a semester of field work in Aruba.  Again, I’m talking decades ago.  Well we were getting on a plane to come back to the States and who is on the plane coming back from Venezuela but Muhammad Ali.  Well of course he sees me and he immediately wants me to sit next to him on this little plane.  Well we have this little flight from Aruba to Puerto Rico and there is no way I’m going to tell the champion of the world that I’m not going to sit next to him.  So I sit next to him and he entertained me all the way to Puerto Rico by reciting his poetry and it was really a ball.  Well, as we were landing he said to me, “If you don’t mind, I’ll tell them you’re my wife so you can get through customs without any hassle.” Well I say, “Oh, sure.”  So he tells them that I’m his wife and I just walk through customs with him while, meanwhile, my teacher and everyone else had to wait and go through all the proceeds.  Well, of course, he gave me his number to call him but I never did because I thought it was too deep for me.  But when I told my girlfriends what happened, they were trying to get me to give them the number, and even buy the number from me so they could call him.

Sam:  Did you keep the number?

Marcia:  I did, but I don’t know where it is.

Sam:  Do you know how much you could sell that for on e-bay?

Marcia:  Well you never know.  I may go through my papers and come across it one day.  But I ran into him another time.  It was a special breakfast for the Jackson Five.  A girlfriend of mine was taking pictures at the Plaza Hotel, and she invited me to come and it turned out that he was there.  I did get a picture of us that time.

Sam:  Did he remember you?

Marcia:  I don’t know, because with men like that, they’ll always tell you they remember you whether they do or not.  So I would take that with a grain of salt.

Sam:  Now at what point in your life did you start performing?

Not quiet the opera, but still a keynote of 20th century pop culture. Marcia McBroom appeared on the cover or two Van McCoy albums in the 1970's. The album "Disco Baby" would include the original recording of "The Hustle."

Marcia:  Well, my Mom was a concert pianist and she used to play piano for Harry Belefonte before he became rich and famous.  So I was always surrounded by entertainment.  When I was eleven I was taking dance lessons from a woman named Anne Garnett, and she was very much into getting African American children into the arts, so she would put on these little productions and what not, that we would perform.  Then, later on, my Mom met the famous African American chorographer Katherine Duham.  My Mom had an idea for a Broadway show, and she wanted Ms. Dunham to do the choreography.  That’s when I was fifteen.  I had been studying ballet with these African America twins called the Facey Twins.  But it was unfortunate because people were saying to me, “Why are you learning ballet?  There is no room for African Americans in ballet.  You should get into ethnic dance and jazz.”  So I was just about to learn how to dance en pointe when I was dissuaded from continuing what I was told, at that time, would be a dead end.  Well Ms. Dunham told us that she was asked to do choreography for Aida at the Metropolitan Opera House.  It would be her own technique which was very Afro-centric.  She said if we were willing to study with her she would prepare us to audition in the fall for Aidia.  It was extensive studying; eight hours a day for six days a week. So in the fall I got to audition and I got in.  I got to dance for five weeks at the Old Met, and that was an incredible experience.  You could imagine for a teenager in high school, to be running from school to put on my make up to be on stage with all the greats; Leotyne Price and Birgit Nilsson and Nino Rota and all of these people.  I never thought I could get so into opera until getting on the stage with all the pomp and circumstance.  My sister and I had such a crush on Franco Corelli because he was so gorgeous, and that voice.  So we learnt how to say in Italian that his “voice was like an angel from paradise,” just so we could have something to say to him.  It was so crazy.  But we were always surrounded by the arts.  Max Roach was a cousin, although I didn’t have much contact with him.  So was Connie Kay, who was the drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet.  He used to invite my mother and I to go and hear them when they played at the Carlisle Hotel.

Marcia McBroom's official head shot as Petronella Danforth for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was taken by Playboy photographer Pompeo Posar

Sam:  What an impressive beginning!  But how did you go from dancing in operas to modeling?

Marcia:  Well somebody said, “Have you ever thought about modeling?”  It had just then started to be ideal to have dark skinned models, so I went to an agency called Black Beauty Modeling Agency and they started getting work for me immediately.  So the opportunity to do some acting came up, so I started studying acting.  I studied with Wynn Handman from the American Place Theater.  Then the opportunity came up to do Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  It was so funny when my agent said, “Ah, there is this character, Petronella Danforth, and they are describing you to a tee.”  So when I walked [into the audition] I walked in as I thought Pet would look.  So when Russ Meyer saw me he said, “This is Pet.  Here she is.” What was so funny is that Russ would always tease me by saying that I had the smallest breasts of anyone he had ever worked with.  He said, “You know I didn’t hire you for your boobs.”

Sam:  What was Russ Meyer like?

Marcia McBroom on set with director Russ Meyer, and the girls of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls": "Russ would always tease me by saying that I had the smallest breasts of anyone he had ever worked with. He said, “You know I didn’t hire you for your boobs.”

Marcia:  Oh, he was always so sweet.  A gentleman and I always pictured him as a big teddy bear.  He always had this little sinister smile he would give us, and on set we would always be fighting with him about some of the lines that he would give us.  He was trying to explain to us that his and Roger Ebert’s intent was to put every corny line that anybody has ever heard in any movie into this film.  But it was funny because he was known for all his soft-porn stuff, and when the movie came out the audience really didn’t know how to respond to it.  I find that people enjoy the film much more now than they did then, because then people were in a total state of shock.  I’ll never forget that, when the cast went and saw the first screening of it, we were laughing our heads off but we could feel the tension in the audience because the people were wondering, “Are these people serious?  What is going on on the screen?  Oh my God!”

Sam:  One thing I find interesting in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that the characters that you and Harrison Page played were not like other African American characters in Hollywood films from that era. It is very refreshing for viewers to see black characters that aren’t just some sort of racial stereotype.

Marcia McBroom with "BVD" co-star Harrison Page: "It was very progressive...I felt that it was cutting edge, because they were presenting an upscale image of African Americans that people weren’t used to seeing."

Marcia:  That’s also what I thought was very interesting about that film.  It was very progressive.  [Harrison’s character Emerson] was studying to be a lawyer and [Pet] was the “goody two shoes” of the trio.  I felt that it was cutting edge, because they were presenting an upscale image [of African Americans] that people weren’t used to seeing.  I wrote to Roger once, and I asked him about that and he never responded to me.  But [at the time ] I didn’t know that his wife, Chaz, is an African American.  But [in the movie] I do have a fling with the fighter, and if you notice at the end, I only get injured.  Russ was very into how puritanical the American public was.  He said that a character who had really transgressed had to die when the film was over.  Well since [Pet] had a small transgression and repented, I only get injured and we have the triple wedding at the end.  It was all very carefully calculated.  Even the sex scenes, you may have noticed, were all in places that would be uncomfortable to have sex, like in the back of the car, or on the beach, on bed springs, or like with [Harrison and I], on hay, which is like needles.  All of this was tongue in cheek also, and Russ was dealing with the prudishness and the sexuality of America.   But you know what else is really scary about that movie?  The real lives [of the actors] became a mirror of what happened in the film.  Acting is a very interesting profession because a part of you becomes a part of the characters you are playing too.  That’s why there are certain things I would never do because it is just a little bit too scary.

Sam:  I’ve probably seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls nearly a hundred films.  It is one of my all time favorite films.

Dolly Read, Marcia McBroom and Cynthia Meyers make up "BVD's" fictional girl group The Carrie Nations: "you know what else is really scary about that movie? The real lives (of the actors) became a mirror of what happened in the film.""

Marcia:  Well I am surprised how many people I meet, even now, who are still avid fans of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  People from all over the world and a whole entirely new generation are totally into it.  A few years ago I got a phone call from a professor in Illinois who said, “Is this Marcia McBroom?”  I said, “Yes, the one and only.”  Well he said, “I am calling on behalf of Roger Ebert because he is running a film festival called The Overlooked Film Festival and he would like to invite you and a guest to come and get a “Thumbs Up Award” for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  So my husband and I flew out and saw all these incredible films and got to connect with Roger and his wife Bess and it was a really really beautiful week.  It was such an honour.

Sam:  Someone mentioned to me that it was you who brought Pam Grier onto the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls set where she made her film debut.

Marcia:  Oh yeah.  Pam and I were roommates.  She got in because I was on the set and they put her in the party scene.

Sam:  Another spectacular film that you were a part of was Jesus Christ Superstar.  Every time I watch that movie I think to myself that everybody looks like they are having so much fun.

Marcia McBroom with Ted Neeley and Yvonne Eliman in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Marcia:  Well we filmed in Israel for four and a half months.  We had a lot of fun, but the joke was that most of it was filmed in the Negev Desert, and one of the things I remember was everyone always yelling for water because we were all so thirsty.  Every Rosh Hashanah I think of Jesus Christ Superstar, because we were just winding down filming during that time of year and one of the Israeli crew members invited me to his family’s home for dinner. At that time fighting was just resuming and we could actually hear the gunfire in the distance.  By that time everybody was ready to go, and we had this English make-up artist, who said, “That’s the only cue I need.  I’m getting out of here.”  He got on the next plane and got the hell out of there.  Norman Jewison’s daughter, who was about twelve at the time, was so fascinated with me that she invited me to stay at their home after the filming because her Dad had to stay in Israel for some post production work.  Well I said to her, “You can’t just invite people to your home.  You have to ask your parents first.  So she asked them and they said I could spend some time at their house.  So I went with her and her mother, and I remember having a lovely time with them at their home in England.

Sam:  Next time I’m watching Jesus Christ Superstar, where can I see you?

Another of Marcia McBroom's LP covers was Freddie Hubbard's aptly titled album "The Black Angel."

Marcia:  Well, let me tell you a joke.  I had just done Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but this was the first film for a lot of the people in [Jesus Christ Superstar].  So a lot of the time people were fighting to get right up in front of the camera, but I said, “As long as I have a film credit, I don’t care.  I’m going to just enjoy myself.”  A good time when you see a good shot of me is in the cave where Mary, Jesus and I sing Everything is Alright.  Another shot of me is at the end when we are screaming “Crucify him! Crucify him!” I’m out in front in a brown outfit.  In the dancing scenes I’d have to show you.  It was a large cast, but in every scene I would always change my look so I was different characters.  In my scene with Herod I’m wearing a feather top and a skirt.  I tried to have different looks for each scene.

Sam:  Now in Africa you’ve achieved a certain amount of iconism as a spokesperson for breastfeeding.  How did that come about?

Marcia McBroom's UNICEF poster promoting breast feeding is still being used after thirty years: "The way I designed it is that it is a timeless look, and breastfeeding never changes."

Marcia:  Well in the late 70’s I had done this commercial for Lux Soap, and it was to be shown in Nigeria in West Africa.  It was a very unique thing they did.  Lux had created this character for me named Suzie Martins.  Suzie was supposedly a singer who was famous in London and different places, and I’m on a show.  Meanwhile, I don’t sing really.  So they show me ending a song on the TV show, and the white host of the show hands me a bouquet of long stemmed roses, then I go back to my dressing room and casually hand the roses to my white hand maiden and then I go to the back to get into my luxurious Lux soap bath and I am admiring my Lux soaped skin.  And then I have this black manager, and it’s left ambiguous in the commercial if he is a manager or a boyfriend, and he’s waiting to whisk me off in a white Lamborghini.   Well at that time Nestle was pushing instant formula, and I was against this because they were getting a lot of poor women in lesser developed countries to use this formula, and was actually giving them free formula in the hospitals.  They’d give them just enough until their own milk dried up, and then here they are condemned to get formula for their children, which would cost a lot of their family income, so the mothers were diluting the formula to try to stretch it.  Well the water wasn’t purified and they would kill their children with parasites.  So I was outraged and I said that I would design a poster using the character Suzie Martins, because I thought who better than this woman, living in a world of luxury, being seen breastfeeding?  So I was about to have my second child, who was born in 1982, and I called UNICEF, because they were encouraging mothers to breastfeed, and I said to them that I’d like to create a breastfeeding poster. So they said, “We’ll call our Legos office to see if they are interested.”  So they called Legos and people were going crazy saying, “Oh, Suzie Martins will do a breastfeeding poster!  Yes!”  So two friends of mine shot the poster right in my bedroom and it was a big hit.  It was such a big hit that UNICEF sent the poster all over the world.  It took on a life of its own.  I was invited to speak out in California for a La Leche League Conference.  It was a great opportunity and I got to meet all the women who started La Leche League, and women would come up and kiss me from Honduras and Zimbabwe and say, “You don’t know what that poster meant to us, because you showed breastfeeding as a glamorous thing.  Not as just some mundane woman out in the bush.  That this was a very wonderful and elegant thing.”  Then I got a letter from the New York State Department of Health asking if they could use the poster to put in all the clinics, and of course I said yes.  Do you know the poster is still there?  The way I designed it is that it is a timeless look, and breastfeeding never changes.  So here I am, a high school teacher, and sometimes my students will come to me and say, “Oh Ms. McBroom!  I can’t believe it!  I went to a clinic and I looked up and said, ‘Oh my God!  There’s my teacher!” “

Sam:  Well I’ve seen the poster and it is gorgeous.  It is really something to be proud of.

Marcia:  Yes, but what people don’t realize is that I wasn’t just the model.  I created the poster and then donated it to UNICEF.

Sam:  When was the first time you traveled to Africa?

Marcia McBroom in the role of glamorous singer Suzie Martins became a popular advertising spokeswoman for Lux Soap in West Africa.

Marcia:  Well my mother had a job as a secretary at the United Nations and she was, therefore, invited for several independence celebrations for different African countries.  But she would say, “I can’t go if I’m not with my children.  I have to bring my children.”  So my mother was bringing us to all these different countries in Africa when we were little girls.  If I’m not mistaken, my first trip to West Africa was in 1960.  I remember this one time when we went to the Cammeroons and stayed there for a month, and my sister Edith was only five at the time.  We were coming home via Paris and we’re at the airport and Edith starts crying.  Well my mother asked, “What’s wrong with you?” and Edith said, “You promised us that you would take us to Africa and we’ve been gone for a month and we haven’t been to Africa.”  Well that’s when I realized that with all the brainwashing that people had with their Tarzan movies that she already had a preconceived notion in her mind as a five year old of what Africa was supposed to look like, and that was scary to me.  That was when I became committed. That no matter how small the effort, I was going to do something positive for the continent of Africa when I grew up.  I’ve been involved ever since.

Sam:  You had a very active career as a model and actress through the 70’s, but by 1984 you had disappeared from the radar.  Why is that?

Marcia:  Well, unfortunately, this is such a horror story.  In 1984 UNICEF was planning on sending me on a five state tour of Nigeria because of the popularity of my Suzy Martins commercial.  I was all ready to go on the trip, but just when the trip was about to happen, Nigeria had a military coup.  My mother was in Nigeria at the time on business, and I called her and said, “Mother, get home right away.  There has been a military coup and you can always go back after my tour.”  But she refused because she was very hard headed.  She said, “Why would anybody worry about me?  I’m an American citizen.”  She wouldn’t leave, and that was the last we heard from her for thirteen months.  Soldiers came to her hotel and they were wondering, “Who is this American woman and why would she be here when we had this military coup?  Maybe she is a CIA operative or involved with a corrupt leader.”  So they grabbed her and held her. So I cancelled my trip because my mother disappeared.  That suddenly changed my life.

Sam:  So what did you do?

When her mother, Marie Lee McBroom, disappeared in Nigeria during a military coup in 1983, Marcia McBroom cast her successful modeling and acting career aside to focus on efforts to find her mother, and have her returned safely to America.

Marcia:  Well I called the State Department to tell them my Mom was missing and their attitude was amazing.  They said, “Well citizen.”  I love it that they call you citizen.  “We understand why you are upset because it’s your mother, but you must understand that over two thousand Americans disappear overseas every year, so for us it’s just one case in over two thousand.”  I was shocked because I didn’t know that two thousand people vanish every year.  I mean, you occasionally hear about one or two, but you don’t hear about two thousand people vanishing on their trips abroad.  But they continued, “We try to explain that it’s a very dangerous world out there but if something happens, all we are responsible for is to get you a morning newspaper. So, basically, you’re on your own, citizen.  That’s what you get for leaving our shores.”  So I spent the next thirteen months trying to get my mother out alive. Now because people in Nigeria knew me as Suzie Martins, I would get these cryptic calls at one in the morning claiming to be General so and so and they needed a ransom of one million dollars if I wanted to see my mother alive again.  I would say, I don’t have anywhere near that kind of money, and even if I could raise that money I’d never give it over to criminals like you. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and I sent out an appeal letter across the US and Canada to our churches asking people to question government officials about what happened to Marie Lee McBroom.  Our whole senate started getting swamped with letters from all the different states asking what happened to this woman.  Well that’s when the state department got off their butts and started taking the case seriously.  I must say that I give great credit to Senator Bill Bradley and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who really went above and beyond in terms of tracking down where she was.  Then Amnesty International got involved because one of the women being held with my mother was released.  All the women gave her one phone number to call when she got out so at least family members would know where they were.  It became very cloak and dagger.  I went on the Charlie Rose Show to talk about my mother’s case, and I’ll love Whoopi Goldberg forever, because she just read about it in the papers and attended one of the fundraisers for my mother.  She said, “This could be anybody’s mother.”  Once my mother was released from the prison, Whoopi invited her to see her one woman show on Broadway.  Ashford and Simpson made a donation so we could send a journalist over to Nigeria.  Mick Jagger and Boy George signed our petition asking the State Department where this woman was.  It was very beautiful to see the people who came forward.

Sam:  After thirteen months did the new Nigerian government ever give any reason for keeping your mother?

During Marcia McBroom and her sisters' campaign to save their mother from Nigeria, they received support from high profile individuals such as Ashford and Simpson, Mick Jagger, Senator Bill Bradley, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Boy George and, especially, Whoopi Goldberg: "I’ll love Whoopi Goldberg forever, because she just read about it in the papers and attended one of the fundraisers for my mother. She said, “This could be anybody’s mother.”"

Marcia:  It was totally bogus.  They were accusing her of trying to smuggle oil out of Nigeria although she didn’t have a refinery.  Their big thing was to brag about holding an American.  They weren’t saying that they were holding an African American grandmother.  They just bragged that they had an American and if they found her guilty then they were going to execute her before a firing squad.  That became so sensational that it just gave us more attention to get people to jump on board to help us.  An international lawyers group got involved because they were trying to charge her under laws that were put in place after she was arrested, which violates international law.  It was a very exciting time too.  My Sister Edith was in Atlanta and she met with Senator Ted Kennedy and gave him a package about my mother, and my sister Dana and I were interviewed for Time Magazine.  It was overwhelming.

Sam:  How was your mother when she returned to America?

Marcia:  Well, she was thin as a rail.  It was unfortunate because all these different companies wanted to buy her story, but she was so traumatized by the whole experience that she never really followed up.  Even Whoopi wanted to do a movie about it.  But there was also a lot of ambivalence because [my mother’s story] might say something bad about an African country.  But I had to turn away from my career to get her home alive.  That was thirteen months out of my life.  The business is very fickle and once you step out for over a year, I’d have to start up all over again.  All my wind was taken out of me, and I had my two young children, so I just let it go.

Sam:  So how did this lead to a career in teaching?

Marica McBroom with students from Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day School, where she currently teaches global history.

Marcia:  I belong to the Community Board No. 6 in New York City, and at that time Mayor Ed Koch had sent a letter to all the board members asking us to think of ways to have more multi-culturalisim in our cities.  Well I thought that I would like to start a human rights committee based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I would go through the declaration and have a forum based on that.  So I did one on education and there was a liaison from a local high school that came and he was very impressed by it, so he invited me to his high school and asked me if I would be interested in doing some workshops for them.  So I did these workshops and he asked, “Have you ever considered teaching?”  I said, “Not really, although I’ve always been an informal teacher through my church school.”  Well I went and got fingerprinted and realized because of the university credits that I had that I was qualified to teach history.  So I’ve been teaching at that school for twenty one years.  I love teaching.  I love the students.

Sam: Are your students aware of your history in activism and social justice when they enter your class?

As part of Marcia McBroom's charity organization "For Our Children's Sake," she and her students send packages to Africa through the One Thousand Boxes of Hope project. For more information on For Our Children's Sake and how you can help support Marcia's charity projects visit http://www.focsf.org/

Marcia:  They know about my activism now.  I’ve actually raised money in the past for students to go to Africa with me.  I also have a project that the school assists me with called “A Thousand Boxes of Hope,” where I send boxes of material aid to our For Our Children’s Sake chapter in Malawi, and I send shipments to Sierra Leone where I have a friend building a school in Freetown.  We collect the items that people request of us, be it school supplies, shoes, clothing, toys and we ship them out.

Sam:  How did you start up For Our Children’s Sake Foundation?

Marcia:  Well in 1989 I had an idea through my involvement with South Africans to have an apartheid awareness contest for high school students.  My girlfriend took me down to the board of education’s social studies department in New York City, but she said, “I’ll just warn you that they are very bureaucratic and I don’t know if they’ll accept your idea on a city wide contest to have young people learn more about apartheid and how it affects young people in South Africa.”  But we went down and we made the presentation and they said, “This is so exciting.  We’d love to be a part of it!”  My girlfriend and I were dancing down the hallways.  We could not believe that they said they’d help us create it and help us promote it.  This was so exciting.  So we were able to involve UNICEF and the United Nations Association and the Foreign Policy Association.  I sent a letter to literally every US mission asking if they could give us gifts to give to the participants, and we also asked if they would have speakers so that they could tell students what their country was doing to end apartheid.  The student had to submit a written piece, a graphic art piece or a performance art piece.  One young lady did a wonderful one act play about a woman who was homeless and people were waiting for the bus and so she was telling them about what was going on in South Africa but people couldn’t escape her or they’d miss the bus.  Then there was a Chinese student who did a graphic of a very powerful African man who was stuck in a little tiny box with a white guard standing outside of the box with the African on a chain.  Well we ended up going to Zimbabwe and met the first lady Mrs. Mugabe. She read about us in the newspaper and invited us to spend a week with her so the students could see what a first lady of Africa was doing.  So that was quite an honour. I told the kids, “Listen.  This is very unusual.  You don’t have First Ladies of any country spend a week with you so consider this a deep honour that we have.”

Sam:  Now do your students realize that you were also an actress?  Have you ever had a student come to school who has actually seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?

"I don’t talk about (my previous career) at school because I want to deglamourize all of that. We are in an age where everyone wants to be a rap star or a model and I have to tell them that it’s very hard work, and it’s not an easy career choice. They see it as an easy way out and a way to have fame, but it’s not."

Marcia:  Some of them have looked me up on the internet and they get all excited and say, “Oh my God!  Ms. McBroom was a star,” but I don’t talk about that at school because I want to deglamourize all of that.  We are in an age where everyone wants to be a rap star or a model and I have to tell them that it’s very hard work, and it’s not an easy career choice.  They see it as an easy way out and a way to have fame, but it’s not.  For example, when we did Beyond the Valley of the Dolls we had a beautiful layout in Playboy Magazine.  To me, one of my most beautiful headshots is the one from Playboy.  But on the release I wrote that they could only use this shot for this one time for this article for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  They sent one of their best photographers to take pictures of me.  I’ll never forget it because his name was Pompeo Posar and he was begging me to please do a centerfold for Playboy.  I kept saying to him that I just was not into that, no thank you and I’m flattered. He kept asking me over and over but I thought, “I don’t want men all over the world looking at my naked body.”  It would just change the perspective of who I am, and that’s not who I am.  Now, knowing my children, if they knew I had done that they would be so horrified.  So I think as a teacher now, could you imagine my students finding my picture as a Playboy centerfold?  In the long run it was the best decision.

Sam:  You have done so much in your life.  You have done far more than most of your fans initially realize.  Where do you get your good energy, and where do you feel that it goes?

Marcia:  Well I have always felt that each person has a reason for being here.  As I said when I was traveling to Africa as a child, I am going to do something to make a difference. I hope that I still have a lot more in me to give that will continue to make a difference.

I’ll be honest.  My original interest in Marcia McBroom was due to her role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  As one of my all time favorite films, I have interviewed many of the people who participated in the film, and Marcia’s key performance made her someone with whom I wanted to speak.  But as I researched her life, it was very clear to me that her role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was just an odd factoid, a strange footnote in the life of a very diverse and fascinating woman.  But even the research I did could not prepare me for the number of wonderful stories and experiences that Marcia had to share with me.  The story that I captured in our conversation doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the stories that Marcia McBroom has to tell.  She has a thousand experiences and each one of them more potent than the next.  If there is someone who really should write a book so that others can learn from her experiences and words, it is Marcia McBroom.  She has had extraordinary experiences that have not only shaped her, but she has created experiences that have shaped the lives of others.  Sure, to me she may always be Pet Danforth, but to her students, her associates and her family she is so much more than that.  She is truly an incredible woman, who has transcended beyond cult movie stardom, and has emerged a true inspiration and role model for people everywhere.

For more information on Marcia McBroom’s For Our Children’s Sake organization, visit http://www.focsf.org/ and http://www.marciamcbroom.com/index.html.

 

POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE:  I’d like to send all my love and eternal devotion to the wonderful Siouxzan Perry of Girlwerks Media for arranging my visit with Marcia McBroom.  Not only do we all have Sooz to thank for many of PCA’s interviews, but also for working so hard to keep Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on the cultural radar.  It is truely a gift that she has contributed to the pop culture journey.  Thank you Sooz so much for all you do.

  1. Ben’s avatar

    I know this is a few years late, but great interview! I’ve only known her as Petronella Danforth and found your site during a recent rewatching of BVD. What an amazingly prolific lady. Thanks for this!

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