Gordon R. Watkins, graduate of Hunter College, the Juilliard School of Music, and the Jarahal School of Music, concert baritone, playwright, director/producer of theatre, film, television and radio productions, opera librettist, computer, choral conductor, and community activist, is often described as a “New Renaissance Man.”
On the evening of Christmas Eve when Gordon Watkins’ first screams filled the little house on Orchard Street in Baltimore, his mother decided he was going to be a singer. She named him for Gordon Green, a singer whom she admired. Mr. Watkins proved his mother knew exactly what she was doing while still in elementary school. His very special affinity for music was discovered and he appeared at many local events. After winning a talent show at the Harlem Theatre hosted by the famous band leader, Noble Sissle of Shuffle Along fame, he became a regular perfomer on a local radio show hosted by Chuck Richardson. His public music teachers, Miss Miller and Mrs. McCabe, were instrumental in securing a Carnegie Scholarship at Peabody Conservatory for him. Mr. Watkins studied diligently for two years, but he could not accept the racist attitudes that instead of which prevented him from studying at the school’s beautiful downtown site with the other students, so he turned to journalism and sports.
After graduating from Douglass High, Mr. Watkins entered the Air Force and became a member of Colonel Benjamin Davis’ famous all Black Squadron. Although trained as a meteorologist, he spent most of his time touring throughout the nation and in the Far East, performing in major auditoriums, clubs and hospitals. He served in the Korean War as a weather observer and intelligence debriefer.
After his discharge, Mr. Watkins returned to Baltimore. He performed as a jazz and classical artist while working as a postal clerk until he entered the Juilliard School of Music. By the early 60’s he had received Bachelor and Master of Science degrees from Juilliard.
Off Broadway, Mr. Watkins appeared as an actor/singer in many productions including Archie Shepps’ Junebug Graduates Tonight with Moses Gunn, Rosalind Cash, Bea Waynn, Richard Glover and Glynn Turman. While appearing in this production, he discovered his affinity for directing.
His TV performances include appearances on This District, The Defenders, The Nurses, East Side West Side, Espionage, Hawk, The Reporter, For the People, Trials of O’Brien, America’s Most Wanted, and One Life to Live.
Mr. Watkins never lost his interest in journalism. His writings impressed Eleanor Roosevelt who was moved to read his poetry to her friends and colleagues. His collection of poems was included in the Yale Library archives. Roosevelt was instrumental in securing a position for Watkins as a reporter for the New York Post.
After leaving the Post to become the entertainment director for the 1960 Governors’ Conference in Glacier Park, Montana, Mr. Watkins began to write a column called Robespierre’s Corner. During the past 35 years, the column has appeared periodically in the Robespierre’s Corner, which has appeared in the New York Amsterdam News,, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Washington Times, The Annapolis Capitol, and many other newspapers across the nation. He has written articles which appeared in the New York Post, The New York Times, Multimedia Magazine, Negro Digest, and other publications.
In the 1970’s Mr. Watkins studied film directing at the New School for Social Research. He wrote, produced and directed the documentaries, “What Happened to Brownsville?” and “Reaching for a Hard Hat” for WNBC-TV’s renowned New York Illustrated Documentary Series. One of Mr. Watkins’ favorite works, “Busted Dreams”, which deals with obstacles Blacks face as they strive to realize their dreams, was funded by the New Jersey Public Television.
Mr. Watkins has taught at the University of Vermont, New York University, Hunter College, Rutgers University, Borough of Manhattan Community College, and the University of Delaware. He has written 16 plays (3 musicals), 7 documentaries, several motion pictures scripts, teleplays, hundreds of article, essays and poems. He produced and directed a number of his original theatrical productions, including “Sojourner Truth”, “Too Late”, “Tinkerman to the Promised Land”, “Cages”, “The Sacrifice”, “Time to Grow”, and a “Lion Roams the Streets” (dedicated to the Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement).
In 1982, Mr. Watkins gathered a group of his friends and formed the Renaissance Concert Series. Over the next several years, Series presentations included multiple concerts, one of which was an inaugural concert, in addition to numerous dance and music recitals.
Mr. Watkins is survived by his devoted daughter, Stefanie M. Nance, MD, his son-in-law, Stephen Lance, a Persian Gulf Vet, his grandsons Lawrence Nance, Gordon Nance, David Wilkins and Andrew Harris, his sisters Eloise Moses and Vera Frost, his stepdaughter Courtney Harris and wife, Bonnie Watkins.
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