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Sat, 05.07.1898

Williams and Walker debuts

Williams and Walker, Program Flyer

*Williams and Walker stage show is celebrated on this date in 1898. The twosome George Walker and Bert Williams were two of the most renowned figures of the minstrel era.

They debuted in New York at the Casino Theatre. Their act, "The Gold Bug" consisted of songs, a dance that focused on Walker trying to convince Williams to join him in get-rich-quick schemes. Later in life, Williams went on to a solo career and then worked for a company called the Ziegfeld Follies.  The duo called themselves the "Two Real Coons" as most of the talent in vaudeville were primarily white and were painted in blackface. At first, the lighter-skinned Bert Williams would trick the darker Walker in their skits, but after a while, the two noticed the crowd reacted better when the two reversed roles. Williams dawned the burnt cork black face while George Walker, the "dandy" performed without any makeup at all.

Blackface was said to work as a double mask for Williams as it emphasized that he was different from vaudevillians and white audiences. Williams played the role of the comic figure in blackface while George Walker played the straight man, an obvious counter to the dominant-negative stereotypes of the time. While performing their vaudeville act throughout the United States, the "Two Real Coons" headlined at the Koster and Bial’s vaudeville house where they popularized the cakewalk, a dance competition in which the winning couple was rewarded with a cake.

Offstage Life

Offstage life was different for the two men. Both men faced extreme racism. Racial prejudice was said to have shaped Bert William’s career as he based his humor on universal situations in which it was possible that one of the audience members would find themselves. Often, white vaudevillians would refuse to appear on the same playbill as Williams, and it is said that others complained that his material was better than theirs. As a comedian and songwriter, he was loved by all, however, he often faced racism even by the restaurants and hotels that he played for. Williams was forced to perform in blackface makeup, gloves, and other attire as he consistently played out stereotypical black characters.

George Walker fought against racism as he provided a place within the company for colored artists which enabled a Black presence on stages across the country. George Walker was an esteemed businessman who was in charge of managing the affairs of the Walker and Williams Company. A company that brought them and those that worked for them fame and wealth both nationally and internationally. In 1903, they performed "In Dahomey" an elaborate play at Buckingham Palace in London. This was "the first full-length musical written and played by Blacks to be performed at a major Broadway house". The play contained original music, props, and scenery. George Walker played a hustler disguised as a prince from Dahomey who was sent by a group of deceitful investors to convince Blacks to join a colony. 

Other Williams and Walker Company productions include The Sons of Ham (1900), The Policy Players (1899), and Bandana Land (1908).  Williams and Walker, together with eight other members of their vaudeville troupe were Initiated into Scottish Freemasonry on May 2, passed on May 16, and Raised on June 1, 1904.  On February 21, 1922, Williams collapsed on stage while performing and later returned to New York City. He died a month later on March 4, 1922.  After Williams’ death, the Chicago Defender stated that "No other performer in the history of the American stage enjoyed the popularity and esteem of all races and classes of theater-goers to the remarkable extent gained by Bert Williams." 

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Reference:

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