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Tue, 04.14.1885

Flournoy Miller, Vaudeville Playwright born

Flournoy Miller

*Flournoy Miller was born on this date in 1885.  He was a Black entertainer, actor, lyricist, producer and playwright.  

Flournoy Eakin Miller was born in Columbia, Tennessee, the second son of the editor of a Black newspaper; his older brother Irvin C. Miller also became a noted vaudeville performer and theatre producer. He studied at Fisk University in Nashville, where he began performing as one half of a comedy duo Miller and Lyles with his childhood friend Aubrey Lyles. From 1905, Miller and Lyles were hired by impresario Robert T. Motts to be resident playwrights with the Pekin Theater Stock Company in Chicago.

They performed with the company in blackface, and in the show The Colored Aristocrats, introducing the characters Steve Jenkins (Miller) and Sam Peck (Lyles) with which they would be associated for many years.  With Marion A. Brooks, Miller founded the Bijou Stock Company in Montgomery, Alabama in 1908.  One of the first Black theatre companies in the South, it folded soon afterwards, and Miller returned to Chicago. In 1909, Miller and Lyles traveled to New York City, where they started to perform on one of the vaudeville circuits, uniquely relying on comic performances rather than incorporating song and dance.

They developed comedy devices later copied by others, such as a prizefighting routine which contrasted Miller's height and Lyles' short stature; completing each other's sentences; and "mutilatin'" the language in their phraseology.  Miller married Bessie Oliver in 1912.  They developed comedy devices later copied by others, such as a prizefighting routine which contrasted Miller's height and Lyles' short stature; completing each other's sentences; and "mutilatin'" the language in their phraseology.

In 1915, they appeared in Charlot's Revue in England and upon their return to the U.S. appeared with Abbie Mitchell in Darkydom, a musical with score by James Reese Europe that was the first major black musical comedy.  For several years they continued to work together on the Benjamin Keith vaudeville circuit, as well as writing and producing plays.  Miller's script for The Mayor of Dixie was the basis for Shuffle Along which premiered in 1921.  The pair wrote a three-act play, The Flat Below, and Miller also wrote another play, Going White

Miller and Lyles continued to work together for several years writing and performing in Broadway shows including Runnin' Wild – one of the first shows to popularize the Charleston, in 1923, with a score by James P. JohnsonRang Tang (1927), which they co-directed; and Keep Shuffling (1928) which featured music by Fats Waller. They split up the act in 1928, while Miller worked with Eubie Blake in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930 on Broadway.  During the 1930s, Miller became increasingly involved with the film industry, working in particular with the comedian Mantan Moreland with whom he also performed in vaudeville. He performed in, and wrote for, several all-black movies between the 1930s and 1950s, including the Westerns Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Harlem Rides the Range (1939), and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939).

He moved to Hollywood, but retained an interest in theatrical productions, including presenting the unsuccessful show Shuffle Along of 1952. He also worked with the producers of Amos 'n' Andy, becoming a script consultant and recommending Tim Moore to take the starring role in the TV version.  Flournoy Miller died in Hollywood on June 6, 1971, aged 86. The jazz harpist Olivette Miller was his daughter and playwright-librettist Sandra Seaton are also a relative. Miller was posthumously nominated for a Tony Award in 1979 for his contributions to musical theater in the production Eubie!.  The book Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake (Viking Press, 1973) tells the story of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles's involvement with Shuffle Along.  

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