In the early 1920s, a sudden hunch that Virginia’s Hampton Institute aimed to make him a farmer sent Richard Huey fleeing west to law school. It was in Los Angeles, in 1925, that the undergrad stumbled into the Hollywood Bowl, cast as King Solomon in W.E.B. DuBois’ historical pageant, “Star of Ethiopia." Something no doubt comes over a man directed to sit on an ivory throne in a pearl-encrusted Persian robe. The experience steered Huey back east, but this time to New York.
Coming up during the Harlem Renaissance
Huey arrived in New York in the era of the storied Harlem Renaissance. Like many young theater hopefuls in the 1920s, he took his share of grunt work to make ends meet.
"I made contacts and moved up in the world to be a Red Cap in Grand Central Station," Huey would later recall in the New York Times. “Make no mistake, that was movin’ up.”
Indeed, Huey moved up rather quickly. In 1926 he landed a role in Paul Green's drama, "In Abraham's Bosom," which soon led to a role in the original cast of “Porgy,” the 1927 dramatic play by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward that inspired the Gershwins' 1935 folk opera, “Porgy and Bess.” A bright stage career followed. Huey found featured roles on Broadway in such other vehicles as "Three Men on a Horse" (1935) and, notably, as Alexander, the "I Got a Song" showstopper, in Harold Arlen and "Yip" Harburg's "Bloomer Girl" (1944), starring Celeste Holm.
On January 15, 1933, WABC introduced “John Henry,” a radio dramatization of Roark Bradford's 1931 book about the African-American steel-driving folk hero. The Times called the show, which starred Juano Hernandez in the eponymous role, “a new departure in radio showmanship.” The radio program reunited Huey with his former “Porgy” stage-mates Hernandez and Rose McClendon.
Arbiter of Harlem's theater scene
Huey sustained a regular work flow on stage, radio and screen. He made notable recordings as the lead of Richard Huey & His Sundown Singers of "Hurry Sundown" and "Rock My Soul (In the Bosom of Abraham)."
By July 1933, Huey had added the role of theatrical booking agent to his personal creative career, which positioned him to be a natural arbiter of Harlem’s vibrant theater scene. He established the Richard Huey Players. The New York Times mentioned the new endeavor as “made up of a group of Negroes who hope to establish a Negro theatre in Harlem.”
The Richard Huey Players created and staged numerous original works at various Harlem venues. But the actors' singular court became Huey's own eatery in the basement of 172 West 135th Street, right next door to the still new Harlem YMCA tower. With his mother's help, and some inherited culinary wisdom from his roots in Monroe, Louisiana--where his grandmother was described as "unassailably the best cook in town"--Huey opened up Aunt Dinah’s Kitchen.
Aunt Dinah’s Kitchen
Huey credited some inspiration for his restaurant's local color from his tours abroad. He'd observed that a Rumanian restaurant owner in Paris "kept it Rumanian, and a Russian kept his Russian." Following suit, he advertised Aunt Dinah's Kitchen "down home grub, avec une atmosphère Negré (with a black feeling).
Huey lined the walls with newspapers, a tribute to his recollection of Southern restaurants walls where the papers served "partly to help keep the wind out and partly for decoration." The distinctive fare included fried chicken ("browned in a hot skillet and then slowly cooked in a Dutch oven"), barbecue, Mexican chili, sweet potato pie and East Indian curry. Customers sat communally around a big square table, where Huey says "we'd settle world politics and race relations and the theatre and music."
From 1933 until his death in 1948, Huey’s “down home grub” drew such black and white luminaries (and no doubt a number of stage-struck ordinaries) as McClendon, Hernandez, Ethel Waters, Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten, Richard B. Harrison, Olive Borden, Georgette Harvey, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Frederick O’Neal, Count Basie and others to the place many knew affectionately as Dick Huey's “hangout for hams.”