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Robert Allen Cole Jr.
*Robert Allen Cole Jr. was born on this date in 1868. He was a Black composer, actor, playwright, and stage producer and director.
He was born in Athens, Georgia, where his father (Robert Allen Cole, Sr. and mother Isabella Thomas Weldon settled after the Emancipation Proclamation. There it became a prosperous city dominated by Black communities and professionals. His father took advantage of the opportunities provided in Athens, Georgia, and became well known through his political activism during the Reconstruction era of the South assisting in the Georgia State Legislature. Young Cole was the first-born of six in his family. His family was musical; both his parents were square dancers and all the children of the household were educated in certain musical instruments. he played various instruments, such as the banjo, piano, and cello, and created his own family band with the support of his sisters.
At fifteen years of age, Bob had a violent confrontation with the son of the mayor of Athens and had to flee the town to live with distant relatives, of his mother’s side, in Florida. A short time later, he was reunited with his family after they moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he finished school but did not proceed towards higher education. Instead of enrolling in a college, Cole found a job at the Atlanta University.
He then moved to Florida, got involved in a small string quartet. Later, he worked at a resort in Asbury Park, New Jersey, as a “singing bellboy”, in Chicago as a comedian, singer, and played the guitar in various clubs. His interest towards vaudeville plays and the later black musical genre (including “coon songs”) originated from his work with Lew Henry, who was also an amateur showman. These two young actors attempted to create a vaudeville act together; however, the act was not a success and soon ended. After his failed attempt in the field of vaudeville acting, Cole traveled to New York and formed an alliance with Pete Staples, who was well known in his performance as a mandolin artist. Around the early 1890s, with the support of the Chicago firm of Will Rossitier, Bob Cole presented his two legally published songs: “Parthenia Took a Likin’ to a Coon” and “In Shin Bone Alley.” The titles give the general idea and tone of the songs, Cole incorporated his comedic nature and produced a minstrel-like tone to his songs.
His progress soon allowed further opportunities to flow in; for instance, he was soon hired as a comedian by the white entrepreneur, Sam T. Jack, who created the Creole Show. Cole’s role in the Creole Show soon gained popularity and he went from an ordinary comedian act to the headliner of the show. His success in the Creole Show, indicated by his popularity amongst his audience that resulted in a promotion, led him to create his own stage character, which he would carry on for another seven years: Willy Wayside, the red-whiskered hobo. By 1896, as his fame progressed, Cole produced four “Genuine Negro songs by a Genuine Negro Minstrel” that were published by Brooks and Denton of New York and London. These four songs were: “Fly, fly, fly,” “Move up, Johnson,” “Colored aristocracy,” and “Dem golden clouds.”
Cole’s popularity and stardom began to accelerate through his involvement in top productions, such as “Black America.” Soon, he was promoted and became a writer and stage manager for the Creole Show. By the early 1890s, he was partnered professionally with his future wife, Stella Wiley, a dancer from the Creole Show. His partnership led him to performances from New England to New York. Around 1894, he formed the All-Star Stock Company – a project that allowed him to train a professional group of actors, comedians and singers. The first production by this group was called Georgia 49, which included John Isham. There was no description or synopsis of the actual show for future reference. In 1896, he became an important player in the first shows by Black Patti’s Troubadours; an black vaudeville group founded by Sissieretta Jones.
Coles significant contributions to the Troubadours did not result in higher pay, and he left the company, taking away his own written scripts and songs. Cole soon established his own black production company; reluctantly, he and the group created A Trip to Coontown. One of the first black musical comedies. The show premiered in South Amboy, New Jersey, on September 27, 1897. The show went through a trial controversy, where it was banned from showing in the United States; however, the play later gained popularity in Canadian theaters, and subsequently was revived and shown in New York. Cole’s company faced several trials, including quarrels over finances and transportation; also, the competition of the Black Patti organization was a constant battle. By 1900, A Trip to Coontown finally stopped its production, and the partnership between Cole and Billy Johnson ended.
In 1899, Cole met two brothers from Jacksonville, Florida who paved the path of the rest of his career in show business. This partnership with James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson lasted until his retirement in 1911. Cole’s “association with the Johnson brothers indicated that he was turning away from coon-song composition” It is possible that his transition was influenced by his partners, who both held college degrees, and his own political notions at the time. As a result, the cooperation of the two (Cole and Johnson) led to the creation of high-class vaudeville acts that incorporated elegance and sophistication, all of which were executed in evening dresses. Their vaudeville act featured classical piano pieces and their musicals featured sophisticated lyrics. Success enabled Cole and Rosamond to tour America and Europe with their act. The trio's most popular songs were "Louisiana Lize" and "Under the Bamboo Tree" (1901?). Their more successful musicals were The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1906) and The Red Moon (1908, written without Weldon).
One can perceive that Cole was engaged in the political and societal issues of the time, indicated by his image-altering transition into creating shows for the elite. His interest towards Black politics was revealed from his scrapbook, which consisted mainly of clippings from the Waller John L. Waller Affair and the imprisonment of John L. Waller as a consequence of political confrontations between Madagascar and France. The French court-martial accused Waller of leaking information to the enemy (Madagascar) during the war, and sentenced Waller to twenty years imprisonment. Cole identified with Waller; they were both activists who protested against Black inequities and believed in aiding their own kin. Although Cole appeared to be a carefree showman, he organized his shows very meticulously and placed much thought in every detail and aspect of his productions. For example, he considered the exact timing of his songs, including the right execution of each part of the performance. Several of the songs composed by the adjoining Cole-Johnson team were incorporated into larger shows appealing to white audiences.
The success of their songs originated from the talents of both. Not only did Cole and Johnson change the audience’s taste in black music, they also attempted to educate the public through their songs and tried to prevent the regression towards the degrading “coon songs.” By 1902, with Cole gaining financial success, he wrote the article The Negro and the Stage for "The Colored American Magazine". In it, he revealed his concerns toward the crippling imaged placed on African American performers. He ended the article by envisioning a bright future for black performers, where stereotyping and racism would be nullified, and African Americans would revolutionize the entertainment world.
Robert Cole committed suicide by drowning himself in a creek in the Catskills on August 2, 1911 after a nervous breakdown and period of clinical depression that worsened in 1910. He contributed to the movement in eliminating the degrading, social characterizations of the black performer, thus, forcing the path of black entertainment towards a more respectable and dignified future.