Thirty-five years ago this summer, dancer and choreographer George Faison was the king of Broadway. When he choreographed The Wiz back in 1975, Faison glided away with Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Choreography for the soulful adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Today he lives inside a decommissioned firehouse in the heart of Harlem. But you are sorely mistaken if you think he's fallen upon hard times.
George Faison is still living large and moving to his own beat. He has transformed the New York City Fire Department's old Hook and Ladder #40 into a dazzling showplace -- complete with two theaters, a dance studio, and elegant living quarters on the upper floors. He's also busy lighting a fire under a new generation of artists--teaching them how to put their best feet forward with classes and workshops. This dancing legend certainly knows how to put on one helluva show inside what is essentially his 80-seat living room.
As I followed this acclaimed danseur around his elaborate fire-castle, he explained to me how he left Howard University in mid-1960s and bee-lined to the Big Apple in search of a dance, a dollar, and a dream. He walked away with all three. "I was gonna dance!" Faison chuckled. "And I was introduced to a community of artists who were at the top of their game."
Faison's first Broadway show was the dynamic musical Purlie, which was choreographed by his mentor Louis Johnson in 1970. Cleavon Little won a Tony for his portrayal of traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson who sought to emancipate cotton pickers during the Jim Crow era. The show was a hit. Faison was emancipated as well, committed to moving forward with a career in dance--and he never took a step back.
Fast forward to the Faison Firehouse Theater in Harlem: Jubilant teenagers, with their slender dancers' bodies, look up to the Broadway legend. Faison and his business partner, Tad Schnugg, spent millions turning the abandoned firehouse into a showcase for the arts, and there are plans in the works to open it up to tourists. "When I first walked in it--it was home to pigeons and rats and crack addicts. It was madness; I had to fight my way into the joint! It had burned out windows, no stairs, no doors, no fire pole--the pole was gone, too," Faison deadpans.
We have a good laugh at that. George's big heart, wide smile, and quick wit are infectious. Hollywood stars who knew him way back when still find him irresistible. At any given Firehouse event, singers Roberta Flack, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson pop by to demonstrate their support. Actresses Ruby Dee, Phylicia Rashad, and comedian Paul Mooney all plant themselves in the front row of the Firehouse Theater. Actress Lynn Whitfield, who proudly boasted that George taught her to "dance right" for her ground-breaking role in The Josephine Baker Story, told me, "When we heard he was buying an abandoned firehouse, we were like: are you crazy? But little by little I've seen him shape it into something beautiful."
Ms. Whitfield hit the nail on the head. The classic red brick firehouse, with stone detailing, on 6 Hancock Place is indeed something beautiful to behold. So is George Faison.