Sharon Louise Preston-Folta recalls, in the documentary “Little Satchmo,” seeing her father, Louis Armstrong, being interviewed by Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” in the mid-’60s, when she was 10 years old.
“A feeling of sheer horror washed over me like a tsunami,” she says in the hour-long documentary, which will be shown at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick on Sept. 18. Her father was sharing anecdotes about his family. But the wife he was talking about was not her mother, and the home he was talking about was not where Sharon lived.
And that’s when she figured out what was going on.
Armstrong — the jazz ambassador to the world, who was riding a wave of popularity at the time due largely to his monster hit, “Hello, Dolly!” — was married to his fourth wife, Lucille Wilson. But he was also having a long-term affair with Sharon’s mother, Lucille “Sweets” Preston. He would spend time with Sharon and her mother, and even took them with him on the road at times. But he would always go back to his wife and, despite promising his mistress that he would get a divorce, he never did.
None of this, of course, was known by Armstrong’s fans: Appearances had to be maintained for such a mainstream icon. The existence of Louis Armstrong’s only daughter would not become public knowledge until Preston-Folta wrote a memoir, “Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of My Father, Louis Daniel Armstrong,” in 2012.
The documentary features her reading parts of the book and talking about her experiences. (Jazz singer John Boutté provides additional narration.) She shows the letters that her father sent her from the road, and reads from them. She pulls out the cassette tapes he sent her, with spoken messages, and plays them, Armstrong’s gravelly but jovial voice coming through loud and clear.
Preston-Folta, who was born in 1955, is Armstrong’s only known biological child, though he and his first wife, Daisy Parker, adopted a son. Lucille “Sweets” Preston was a dancer who had been part of the Slim & Sweets duo with her husband, Luther “Slim” Preston; they sometimes opened shows for Armstrong and got to know him well. Her affair with Armstrong began after Slim died in 1950, Preston-Folta says, and continued for most of the last two decades of his life.
“For more than 50 years, I swallowed that bitter secret whole,” Preston-Folta says about her life before she wrote her book. “Some days it went down easy. Other days, I had to choke it down, every faded memory, every hushed conversation, every missed moment, settling like rocks in the pit of my stomach.”
Still, her memories of her father (who died in 1971, at the age of 69) are mostly good ones: He was warm and loving, when he was around. And he always supported her and her mother, financially. But most of the time, he just wasn’t there.
She puts a positive spin on the story, saying that going public has helped her “resolve the legacy of my father.” She talks about self-discovery, and “the truth bathing me in light.”
Still, this film is ultimately, for the most part, a sad story of a girl whose idealized father was, mostly, absent.
And, one suspects, something that anyone with a serious interest in Louis Armstrong’s life will want to see.
“Little Satchmo” will be shown at the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival, at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. It also will be available online all day on Sept. 18. Visit njfilmfest.com.
For more on the movie, visit littlesatchmodoc.com.
Here is the film’s trailer:
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