FORT WAYNE – Al Stiles, a performer and entertainer who inspired Fort Wayne youth to embrace their talents and follow their dreams, died last week. He was 91.
Albert Bernard Stiles was born Aug. 13, 1922, in Florence, S.C., and was raised in Tampa, Fla. He was married to Maxine Stiles and had two sons – Reginald and Ronald.
An accomplished tap dancer and entertainer, Stiles began his career as a member of a five-person jug band that performed on the streets of downtown Tampa in the mid-1930s.
Throughout his career, Stiles starred with the likes of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Lionel Hampton, Clayton Peg Leg Bates and Josephine Baker.
He performed in places such as the Cotton Club, the Blue Note and the 1939 World’s Fair. The Apollo Theater, where he performed five times, later honored Stiles by declaring him a living legend.
But his days on the stage came to a halt when he was called into service with the U.S. Army in 1942 and served at Baer Field in Fort Wayne.
In 1971, Stiles opened Al Stiles World’s Best Shoe Shine at South Anthony Boulevard and East Wayne Street in Fort Wayne.
I was the first black person I knew in Fort Wayne with their own place, Stiles said in a 2006 interview. I didn’t have a high school education, and here I was sitting in the mayor’s office and rubbing elbows with all of them and I shined their shoes and they invited me to meetings to talk about what was going on in the city.
In the 1980s, Stiles founded The Talent Factory, a training center for young entertainers, next door to his shoe shining business.
For a decade, The Talent Factory offered free and low-cost instruction in theater and performing arts to Fort Wayne children, but in 1992, it was forced to close its doors for lack of money.
In a 1999 interview, Stiles said he received many calls after the closure, many telling him how good the program was for the community.
It gave kids something positive to focus on. It helped a lot of kids move on to bigger and better things, Stiles said in the interview.
Stiles died Jan. 2 in Carmel. Services will be 11 a.m. Saturday at Pilgrim Baptist Church 1331 Gay St., with calling from 4 to 7 p.m. today at Ellis Funeral Home, 1021 E. Lewis St.