Dancer: Big Bands, Costumes, Acts Made Michigan's Idlewild Black Resort 'First Class'

Feb 18, 2019

Carlean Gill, 80, at left, was a showgirl in the '60s and '70s at Idlewild, a black resort in upper Michigan.
Credit Courtesy promotional photo

Carlean Gill, 80, fondly remembers being a Las Vegas-style "showgirl" at the famed black Idlewild resort in northern Michigan that thrived from the 1920s to the 1960s during the days of segregation. The Detroit-area native and others will speak at a panel discussion/film viewing about Idlewild at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts at Western Michigan University.

She performed in the '60s and '70s with the Idlewild Review at the Paradise Club. "The show consisted of 32 people," Gill tells WMUK's Earlene McMichael on today's WestSouthwest public-affairs show in a telephone interview from her home in Fresco, Texas, near Dallas.

"There was a band, a 12-piece band," she continues, adding that a big-name singer would headline and there'd be four showgirls known as the Fiesta Dolls. She was one of them for six years. "A showgirl was one that wore the beautiful costumes that was really tall, and all we had to do was walk and be beautiful. And then, there were six girls that was the dancers and two boys that was the dancers." She says everything was "first class," white-linen tablecloths, doormen and valet parking.

Idlewild is located in the Huron-Manistee National Forest about an hour outside the beachfront town of Ludington, and about three hours from both Detroit and Chicago. Its beginnings as a vacation destination for blacks began in 1912 when white developers started selling them plots of land. Things started to pick up by the '20s.

Soon nightclubs came.

Their heyday was from the '40s to the '60s. By the 1970s, the popularity of Idlewild, called Black Eden, began to fade as the end of legal segregation allowed African-Americans to seek entertainment at previously whites-only venues.

The history of Idlewild is chronicled in the "Whatever Happened to Idlewild?" documentary. It is produced by Coy Davis based on the research by Ben Wilson, WMU professor emeritus of Africana studies. Davis and Wilson will join Gill on the panel discussion.

The film will be shown at 6 p.m. on Feb. 20 at the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts, with the discussion following at 7 p.m. and facilitated by Michelle S. Johnson, a professor of African-American and African studies at Western.

The event is sponsored by WMU's African-American and African Studies and the Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies in cooperation with the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE) and the Black Arts & Cultural Center.

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