Hudson filmmaker hopes to make documentary about Ella Fitzgerald’s reform school sojourn

Ella Fitzgerald in 1940 (photo by Carl Van Vechten | Library of Congress)

The institution now known as the Hudson Correctional Facility in the City of Hudson was, from 1904 to 1975, the state’s only reformatory for delinquent girls. Within a two-week period in 1932, 14 girls ran away from the facility, whose staff had a reputation for employing physical abuse and solitary confinement as disciplinary measures. So the New York Training School for Girls brought in a consultant whose studies of the social interactions among some 500 girls there would become a foundational document of modern psychology: Who Shall Survive? by Jacob Moreno, creator of psychodrama and early advocate of group therapy.

We don’t know if she was one of Moreno’s study subjects, but an inmate of the New York Training School during the time of his residency there went on to even greater fame in an entirely different field. Ella Fitzgerald was 15 years old and living in Yonkers when her mother died of injuries sustained in a car accident. She was left in the care of her stepfather, who may have been abusive, and dropped out of school; shortly thereafter, an aunt brought young Ella to Harlem. There the girl found sketchy work as a numbers runner and as a lookout for a bordello.

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Picked up by the police, Ella was first placed in an orphanage in Riverdale and then relocated upstate to the New York Training School for Girls. She arrived there in April 1933 – described in the logbook as “ungovernable” – and soon became one of the notorious institution’s runaways, escaping sometime around the end of 1933 or beginning of 1934. A former superintendent, Thomas Tunney, told New York Times journalist Nina Bernstein in 1996 that the teenaged Fitzgerald “hated the place,” where the vocal prodigy was not even allowed to participate in the whites-only school choir. “She had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured.”

Back in Harlem and homeless, Ella Fitzgerald signed up to compete in the one of the first Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater, intending at first to dance; but she switched to singing, fearing that she had no chance against a dance duo called the Edwards Sisters. Ella took First Prize. That was in November 1934. Two months later, Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week at the Harlem Opera House, where she caught the attention of drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. He signed her up to sing with his orchestra, and soon thereafter they had a mega-hit with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The rest is history.

Hudson-based filmmaker David McDonald learned about Fitzgerald’s sojourn at the reformatory via Hudson’s Prison Public Memory Project. A few years later, he decided to write a screenplay about it, filling in major gaps in the narrative using his own imagination. “I realized that the Ella Fitzgerald story was incredibly pertinent in present-day America,” and might add to the “nationwide conversation about the awful history of African-American incarceration in this country,” McDonald says. “What Ella did by escaping the prison and singing at the Amateur Night at the Apollo was such a defiant, proud gesture that its message would fit particularly well in demoralized America, and perhaps even serve as a rallying cry.”

Not finding any Hollywood backers for the project, McDonald has established a GoFundMe page and is putting together a management team to facilitate the project – perhaps as a theatrical production at the Hudson Opera House, before turning it into a film. To see the trailer for Ella the Ungovernable, visit https://bit.ly/2BMvHXj. The GoFundMe page can be found at https://bit.ly/2T2yvt9.

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