While Althea Gibson became famous for expertly lobbing a tennis ball over a net; it was the color barriers of the time that really got served by her success. Born in 1927, she was the first person of color to win the French Open, following that with wins at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years in a row.
“Althea,” a documentary celebrating the trailblazing athlete, will screen Saturday, November 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts in the Miller Beach section of Gary.
This event is sponsored by the Miller Beach Arts & Creative District. Larry Lapidus, volunteer lecturer and program director for Lyric Opera of Chicago, will introduce the film.
Lapidus said he thinks audiences will learn a lot about Gibson, who is, surprisingly, not very well known today. “Unfortunately, few people know Althea Gibson,” he explained. “One of the reasons being tennis was far from the popular sport it is now, thanks to Venus and Serena Williams. You couldn’t find any tennis matches on television years ago. It was still in its infancy. Folks will be surprised to find out how great a player she actually was. She won tournament after tournament and even took the equivalent of the U.S. Open.”
Ironically, a past coach of the Williams sisters, Robert Ryland, is on record as saying Gibson would’ve easily beat both of his former star clients, “She is one of the greatest players who ever lived.”
After winning 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II, and becoming only the second African American (after Jesse Owens) to be feted with a ticker tape parade in New York City, Gibson retired from amateur tennis in 1958.
She then pursued a career in the entertainment industry, recording an album of popular tunes, performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and appearing in John Ford’s western The Horse Soldiers. Her first memoir was published in 1960. Shortly after, she became the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association, where she played for 14 years.
“Althea did have a short-lived singing career,” Lapidus said. “In fact, she had a smooth, smoky, dark-toned voice. She made several records that had modest sales. She appeared in nightclubs on the east coast and had a small but dedicated following in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York.”
Substantial medical expenses depleted Gibson’s finances after major medical setbacks in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. Unable to afford medical expenses – or even rent – Gibson’s pleas to professional tennis organizations were ignored. A former doubles partner raised the money, via worldwide donations, to get the legend back on her feet.
“She was short-sighted when it came to her finances. She expected to make more money playing tennis, then was disappointed when more income from singing and recording didn’t materialize,” Lapidus said. “The tennis organizations paid little attention to her after she put down the racket. Her fans came to her rescue. A friend put an ad in the newspaper pleading her case. Within a week, more than one million dollars showed up in her mailbox.”
Gibson’s story will appeal to just about everyone – sports enthusiast or not, according to Lapidus. “Althea’s story is universal. You don’t have to be a sports fan to be inspired by a woman who was a sharecropper’s daughter, then evolved into a tennis player, and then to legendary status,” he said. “I think everyone will enjoy this success story. Most of us aspire to be successful. She chose tennis – but we all need to set our standards high and come as close as we can to reaching our goals. Althea Gibson, the trailblazer, set an amazing example of this.”
“Althea” will screen Saturday, November 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts, 540 S. Lake St., Gary, IN. A $10 donation includes admission to the screening, popcorn, soft drinks, and the introduction by Larry Lapidus. A Cash Bar will be available.
For more information, visit millerbeacharts.org or Miller Beach Arts & Creative District on Facebook.