Thursday September 10, 2015

In Memoriam: Professor Dennis Greene

Highly revered and beloved University of Dayton School of Law professor Dennis Greene, who was also a former Columbia Pictures Vice-President of Production and founding member of Gold-Record selling group Sha Na Na, died on Sept. 5, 2015, from esophageal cancer.

Reflecting on Greene’s life one might wonder how did he go from stage to studio to the Socratic Method—and the answer is that his three career trajectories as a performer, executive and professor had one thing in common – they were all launched by his academic prowess.

His first trajectory as a performer occurred after he graduated from the prestigious Hotchkiss School, and enrolled at an Ivy League—in his case, Columbia University. It was through this academic conduit that during his freshman year—even as he carried a full class load—Greene, a tenor, and a few classmates founded Sha Na Na (based on lyrics from the 1957 doo-wop hit Get a Job). Taking his family nickname “Denny” as a stage moniker, Greene stood out as a vocal lead and as the group’s only African-American. Sha Na Na also stood out by defying the clichéd Ivy League buttoned-up image with their ‘50s rock & roll repertoire, attire and attitude, preceding popular retro bands like the Stray Cats by a decade.

By being at the right academic institution at the right time, Greene and Sha Na Na quickly became a smash, attracting thousands to their campus shows and performing at local New York clubs while still students. It was also amazing that Greene’s and Sha Na Na’s first major performance was on Aug. 18, 1969, at the historic Woodstock concert on the invitation of concert promoter Michael Lang, where they literally were the act right before Jimi Hendrix. It was a segment of their multi-encore performance that was captured in the classic Oscar-winning documentary. Another amazing accomplishment was not only were they now a national sensation, but within weeks of Sha Na Na’s Woodstock performance Rolling Stone published one of their first major print interviews. However, what was extraordinary is that Rolling Stone noted Greene’s signature, multi-tiered endeavors, even as the group was on the rise and he was just a sophomore, “…at the end of his first year at Columbia [Greene] had his own weekly radio show, was co-director of a film-making program, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and in pursuit of the American dream.” 

And the future Who’s Who Among African Americans entrant continued to achieve milestones in realizing his multi-faceted American dream. As a performer with Sha Na Na, it included appearing on The Tonight Show along with many more TV programs—and the group being invited by John Lennon and Yoko Ono to open the first of their two famed One-To-One Benefit Concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1972. That year, Greene also graduated from Columbia—actually flying from one of Sha Na Na’s London shows to walk with his class. 

In fact, Sha Na Na only did weekend shows to enable those still in school to continue their classes. During this time and after graduation, Greene toured as one of the lead singers with the group across the U.S., North America and around the world. In addition to the Garden, they performed at other fabled music venues, such as Fillmore East, Winterland and the mythic Festival Express. They shared the stage with music legends such as Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Santana and The Grateful Dead. Once Sha Na Na became a headliner, one of their soon-to-be-famous opening acts was Bruce Springsteen. Without missing a beat while performing, Greene kept up his signature multi-tiered endeavors by writing and directing theater and music. In addition, nearly ten years after appearing in Woodstock, Greene and Sha Na Na were in yet another landmark film—the 1978 ground-breaking Grease, still one of the top grossing musical films of all time. Starring as “Johnny Casino and the Gamblers” in the film, they had six songs on the chart-busting, multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated soundtrack, with Greene singing lead on “Tears on My Pillow” heard during the school dance scene, with his singing the last few bars on-camera. Greene also starred in the group’s popular TV series, Sha Na Na. Airing worldwide, the show was produced by legendary Grammy Awards producer, Pierre Cossette. Guests included Rock & Roll Hall of Famers: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Bo Diddley, The Ramones – among many others. Since Sha Na Na’s founding, Greene performed over fifteen years with the group – and recorded several albums, including Sha Na Na’s Gold Record-certified album, “The Golden Age of Rock 'N' Roll.”   

Following Sha Na Na, Greene’s next milestone was once again attained through his academic prowess by returning to his Ivy League roots. He earned his masters at Harvard University and a juris doctorate from Yale Law School, then attained a position at Columbia Pictures through its chair and fellow Yale alumnus, Fay Vincent. As vice president of production in the Features group, Greene spent the next five years at Columbia Pictures as an executive and then producer, where he worked with top creative talent, including those having several project or individual Oscar nominations or wins to date among them, such as Spike Lee, Linda Obst and John Singleton.

After his tenure at Columbia Pictures, Greene’s academic prowess once again opened the door to actual tenure—as a professor of law (in fact, several original Sha Na Na members also entered academia). Subsequent to teaching at City College of New York, University of Oregon, Florida A&M and other schools, Greene became a professor at University of Dayton School of Law (full-time in 2004), teaching entertainment law and constitutional law. He also merged his diverse entertainment and legal background by teaching film courses such as Politics, Race and Gender in the Hollywood Film; Black Images in American Film and Law, Mass Media and Race. He had several published legal articles, as well as wrote a legal tome, The Law and Business of the Entertainment Industry (Cognella Press). Greene served on the AALS Law and Film Committee; the Society of American Law Teachers board of directors, and the Services and Programs Committee for the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC).   

From his time at Columbia Pictures through the University of Dayton, Greene’s signature multi-tiered endeavors made him a sought-after speaker and participant at international, national and local levels such as: an Agency for International Development consultant on projects in Africa and Mexico; a National Endowment of the Humanities panelist; a Los Angeles County Museum guest curator for a film series entitled, Cinema of Rebellion: Hollywood’s Depiction of Black Protest; and a guest lecturer on cinema at many institutions, such as Harvard Law School, Princeton University and the Smithsonian. He also served on the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts board of directors and the board for Center Theatre Group with its 3 famed stages, The Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre. A Dramatist Guild member, Greene continued to write, direct and produce theater, including the critically-acclaimed off-Broadway run of his Harlem Exchange, that also had a college tour. Recently, he also published a novel, The Lenox Rendezvous in June 2015.

Born Frederick Dennis Greene, he was raised in Harlem and the Bronx by his parents, the late Frederick and Hortense Greene, respectively a U.S. post office administrator and teacher.   

Memorial services are open to the public, and will be held on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at 10 a.m. in the Immaculate Conception Monastery Church, 86-45 Edgerton Blvd., Jamaica Estates, NY 11432, phone 718-739-0880. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations are made in Dennis’ memory to the Dennis Greene Memorial Fund.


For more information, contact Denise Baker, assistant director of communications at the University of Dayton School of Law, at lawcomm@udayton.edu.

Information compiled, written and provided by Joanne Morris.

Related Links

Photo Gallery

Previous Post

Next Post

Suggested Links