Today's Articles

People, Locations, Episodes

Fri, 12.31.1875

Black History in Vaudeville, a story

 *Black Vaudeville history is celebrated on this date in c 1875.  This was a Black performance community that came out of the movement and style of the American stage.  

The vaudeville years began as Reconstruction Era ended, the early 1880s until the early 1930s. These Black acts were unique because the performers brought in different experiences that the white performers could not convey. Although Black performers encountered Jim Crow, a Vaudeville gig was better than being a maid or farm worker. Vaudeville had what they called circuits to keep the show business at the time organized. It was difficult for a black performer to be accepted into the white circuit. Eventually, Black circuits were created to give Black performers more opportunities. Black Vaudeville made it possible for African Americans to enjoy entertainment through their own heritage.  

The Hyers Sisters, Anna, and Emma were the first Black women to perform on the Vaudeville stage in 1876. Their specialty was acting and singing. Later they ran a theater company for 30 years that contained a multitude of acts. In 1888, Pat Chappelle, a Black Vaudeville showman, theatre owner, and entrepreneur, started the Imperial Colored Minstrels and the 1902 Rabbit's Foot Company were both Black-owned and operated Vaudeville companies.  In 1890, Belle Davis performed with Sam t. Jacks company. The Rabbit's Foot Company was bought in 1912 by F. S. Wolcott, a white farmer who had owned a small carnival company, F. S. Wolcott Carnivals. Wolcott maintained the Rabbit's Foot company as a touring show, initially as both owner and manager, and attracted new talent including blues singer Ida Cox who joined the company in 1913. during this time Williams and Walker also began performing. "Ma" Rainey also brought the young Bessie Smith into the troupe until 1915.

The show's touring base moved to Wolcott's 1,000-acre Glen Sade Plantation outside Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1918, with offices in the center of town.  Each spring, musicians from around the country assembled in Port Gibson to create a musical, comedy, and variety show to perform under canvas. In his book The Story of the Blues, Paul Oliver wrote:  The 'Foots' traveled in two cars and had an 80' x 110' tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvass men, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show...The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume. 

The company, by this time known as "F. S. Wolcott's Original Rabbit's Foot Company" or "F. S. Wolcott’s Original Rabbit's Foot Minstrels", continued to perform its annual tours through the 1920s and 1930s, playing small towns during the week and bigger cities at weekends. The show provided a basis for the careers of many leading Black musicians and entertainers, including Butterbeans and Susie, Tim Moore, Big Joe Williams, Louis Jordan, George Guesnon, Leon "Pee Wee" Whittaker, Brownie McGhee, and Rufus Thomas. Wolcott remained its general manager and owner until he sold the company in 1950, records suggest that its last performance was in 1959. As vaudeville became more popular the competition for “the showiest” act increased. As minstrelsy became less popular other types of movement were created and carried on to the Vaudeville stage.  

Dance was an entertainment piece that was accepted in almost every act slot on the bill for a Vaudeville show. Tap, a term coined with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1902, was a style that was often seen. It started before the Civil War from mimicking and mocking their white master's stiff movements. During that same time hamboning was invented. Without drums, hamboning was a way of creating percussion sounding beats with their chests and thighs. In the 1870s and 1880s hamboning was mixed with clog-shoe dances and Irish jigs to create tap. Vaudeville had seen two types of tap: buck-and-wing and four-four-time soft shoe. Buck-and-wing consisted of gliding, sliding, and stomping movements at high speeds. Wing was a portion in which on a jump, feet would continue to dance in midair. Soft shoe was more relaxed and elegant.

Metal plates were added to the bottom of tap shoes to create a stronger percussion sound. However, after eight minutes of dancing the wooden Vaudeville stage would easily tatter. The theater owners replaced the section of the stage that was in front of the curtain with high-quality durable maple wood. Famous tappers of the time and who are still famous today include Buster Brown and the Speed Kings, Beige & Brown and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  

In general, the Chitlin' Circuits were the Black performers' booking associations. The association for white performers was titled Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) or “tough on black actors”. The template of T.O.B.A. was S.H. Dudley Enterprises owned by Sherman Dudley.  It did not treat white and black performers equally therefore the chitlin circuits were created.  The booking associations would act as a middleman between the performer's agent and theater owner. The talent included performers of multiple trades such as actors, singers, comedians, musicians, dancers, and acrobats. The circuit was named after food that whites considered to be disgusting.  The touring groups would perform in multiple venues such as school auditoriums because theaters were not always available. ”  They would travel to Black neighborhoods to bring them entertainment. This reached out to the community that T.O.B.A. was missing.   

Black musicians and composers of the vaudeville era influenced American musical comedy, jazz and Broadway musical theater. The popular music of the time was ragtime, consisting of the piano and banjo. Ragtime was developed from Black folk music.  The tempo of Ragtime matched the pace of the Vaudevillian revue type show. Thomas Greene Bethune or “Blind Tom” a piano playing genius would have been recognized as child prodigy like Mozart if he was not born black. Tom composed 100 pieces and could play over 7,000. He was exploited by a slave owner John Bethune. For example, John let Tom perform to make himself money. “Blind Tom” made $100,000 in 1866 and only received $3,000.  John William Boone was a fellow blind pianist, a professional at the age of fourteen, known as “Blind Boone”. John and Tom shared a piano ragtime style of “jig piano”. This consisted of the left hand playing the beat of the juba while the right hand played the fiddle and banjo melodies. This music portrayed slave dances, including beats created by the only instrument they were left with, their bodies.  

Black Theater Studies scholar Nadine George-Graves writes the Whitman Sisters were one of the the highest paying acts in the Vaudeville circuit. The sisters began performing around 1899. They were a singing and dancing act. The sisters started performing for their church. Later, the two older sisters were invited to perform in New York by George Walker but their father and manager said no so they stayed to finish their education. The sisters continued performing in the south. Eventually they were able to perform for King George V. The sisters started a company called The Whitman Sisters’ New Orleans Troubadours. They added other acts such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. People of all races enjoyed their show.

Even after Vaudeville was no longer in its prime, they continued to perform in theaters and churches around the nation and were admired by all types of audience members.  In 1915, Clarence Williams was a Vaudevillian musician who was able to record his act with Armand Piron on disc.  As the medium of film emerged in the 1920’s the room for stage productions changed.  Broadway beckoned theater which chose a more Art related audience content.  The Lafayette Theater and the Karamu House were two early Black stage businesses.      

To become an Actor or Actress

To Become a Dancer

New Poem Each Day

Poetry Corner

If the drum is a woman why are you pounding your drum into an insane babble why are you pistol whipping your drum at dawn why are you shooting... IF THE DRUM IS A WOMAN by Jayne Cortez.
Read More