• Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: Black Vaudeville

Vaudeville spanned from the early 1880s to the early 1930s, and at its height, employed more than 50,000 people in 5,000 venues all over the country. Musicians, dancers, magicians, jugglers, ventriloquists, puppeteers, animal acts all occupied the same bill and kept audiences entertained.

The Theater Owner’s Booking Association (TOBA) booked these shows. Black performers called it “Tough on Black Actors” as they were disrespected and treated unfairly, but the gigs still paid better than servant or farm jobs. TOBA was white-run, paid Black performers worse than white ones, forced them to work midnight shows, and canceled shows with no notice and no pay.

The Chitlin’ Circuits were created to book Black performers, mostly in Black-owned theaters and for Black audiences. Some Black performers continued to work the white circuits which were better paid and better organized, but these were mostly bigger names like Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. (Chitlin’ refers to ‘chitterlings,’ the entrails of the pig that were the staple diet of Blacks on the plantations, while the ham and bacon were saved for the white masters.)

Thomas C. Fleming, born in 1907, a co-founder and writer for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco’s Black weekly, wrote about the Black vaudeville shows he saw in Florida before WWI.

“They would always have both a motion picture and stage acts. It usually started in the early afternoon. A screen would come down over the stage for the movie and would be raised when it was over … For the stage acts, there generally would be a comedian, a dancer and a vocalist, all of them well known. Most of the larger theaters had a house band – a pit orchestra. They lived in that town, and they were hired to accompany whatever entertainer was on the stage.

“There weren’t many whites living in the part of Jacksonville where I grew up, and few whites showed up in those theaters where I went. I heard that if Blacks went to theaters outside of the Black areas, they could sit only in the balcony. We referred to that as the crow’s roost. This was also true in other parts of the United States, including the Midwest and California.”

Many of the Black comics would perform in blackface, a practice that started with minstrel shows and carried on in vaudeville, a form of parody to combat the prevailing stereotype of happy slaves on plantations, and to distinguish themselves from the white performers in blackface.

Sherman Dudley, a vaudeville performer who started in minstrel shows, made a name for himself as the ‘Lone Star comedian’ and toured with the Smart Set Company for years, taking the lead in many of their shows. He also had an act with a mule who was trained to nod on cue, as though he understood what his master was saying. Dudley decided there was more money in running the circuits than acting in them and started buying theaters that booked Black acts, giving them months-long contracts. Dudley also organized the Colored Actors’ Union and served as its general manager and treasurer for a while.

The Whitman sisters were the highest-paid performers on the vaudeville circuit. Daughters of a preacher, Mabel, Essie, Alberta and Alice were taken by their father on his evangelical tours to sing and dance in the 1890s. After his death in 1901, they performed on the circuit with their traveling roadshow artists comprised of singers, comedians and dancers, along with a band.

An article in the Birmingham News of Georgia called them “bright, pretty mulatto girls. The sisters play banjoes and sing coon songs with a smack of the original flavor. Their costuming is elegant; their manner is graceful, and their appearance is striking in a degree as they are unusually handsome.”

Mabel ran the company and booked the sisters’ acts, probably the first woman to do so. The Whitman Sisters continued working till the early 1940s, and mentored or worked with Willie Robinson (Bill Bojangles), the renowned tap dancer and performer; William Basie (Count Basie), jazz pianist and bandleader; Butterbeans and Susie, a risqué husband and wife comedy act by Jodie Edwards and Susie Hawthorne; Billy Kersands, a Black comedian and blackface minstrel; Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues; and singer Ethel Waters to name a few.

Bert Williams was another star on the circuit, the first Black man to headline the Ziegfeld Follies revue show. Fleming described seeing him onstage this way: “The talk in Black communities all over the United States was that he had a diamond installed in his upper teeth. It flashed every time he opened his mouth, singing or talking. He dressed in a battered silk hat, with a tailcoat and trousers too short, and ridiculous oversized shoes that slapped the floor very hard when he walked. That was his regular costume. Then he blacked his face too. A lot of Black comics then put blackface on, like the whites used to when they were in the minstrel shows.

“He would come out there and talk all his ridiculous talk. Then Williams sang too, in his style. It was supposed to be singing, but it was more like a dialogue, done in a singsong way and very earthy. He sang about bad luck and being without very much money … I saw him just that once, but I remember him so well because I was watching that diamond all the time I was there.”

Williams is credited with being the first Black man to have a leading role in a film, Darktown Jubilee in 1914.

Williams was also a performer in the Black Patti Troubadours established by soprano Sissieretta Jones, the ‘Black Patti’ in comparison to the Italian opera singer Adelina Patti. She had international success as an opera singer before she returned to the US and founded her company which had musical and acrobatic acts, along with comedians, dancers, and 40 singers.

A review of the show by the Indianapolis Freeman said: “The rendition which she and the entire company give of this reportorial opera selection is said to be incomparably grand. Not only is the solo singing of the highest order, but the choruses are rendered with a spirit and musical finish which never fail to excite genuine enthusiasm.” Jones retired in 1915 after headlining for more than two decades.

With the advent of silent films, vaudeville’s attractions waned. By the time of the Great Depression, it had faded completely, some of its stars such as Al Jolson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson segueing to Hollywood, a lot of vaudeville theaters converted to movie houses.