Black Entertainers in Vaudeville

by Thomas C. Fleming

Jacksonville, Florida, was a big city when I was living there before World War I, and a lot of vaudeville came in there. Vaudeville was wonderful.

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. They would take turns showing the movie and presenting the entertainers until late at night. Most times the vaudeville show was a little longer than the motion picture.

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. The musicians lived in that town and were hired to accompany whatever entertainer was on the stage. When they knew an entertainer was coming, they would have the musical arrangements all ready, so they could practice together before the show.

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.

Bert Williams, Geroge Walker, early 1900s - photo courtesy of Thomas C. FlemingAround 1915 Bert Williams (photo at right with George Walker), the comedian, came to Jacksonville with a vaudeville show, and I went to see him. There were a lot of black entertainers, but he had the biggest name. He went up higher than any before him and was the first black to become a star in the Ziegfeld Follies, an annual revue on Broadway in New York. That's when he was really in the big time. Year after year, when Flo Ziegfeld produced each new show, Bert Williams was one of the headliners.

I'd heard his name a lot, even at that age. 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.

Bert Williams would come out there and talk all his ridiculous talk. Then he'd sing, 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. He used to record comic songs for Columbia Records. I bought some of his records years later, when I got a Victrola. He had one where he said, "You ask me what I need. Well, I needs everything from my hat down to my overcoat in." 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 and some other black comedians were offered contracts by the Orpheum Circuit. That was the biggest vaudeville chain; they went all over the United States. Then there were smaller chains, like the Theater Owners and Bookers Association, which they called TOBA. It was mostly in the Deep South, had only black entertainers, and played to black audiences.

The TOBA theaters were owned by enterprising whites who saw an opportunity to put a theater in black neighborhoods, where the biggest names in black America would appear. In New York City it was Lenox Avenue. In Philadelphia it was Pearl Street. There were also TOBA houses in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Saint Louis, Kansas City, and as far west as Oklahoma City. The world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem was also a member of the chain.

When Duke Ellington and others came along in the twenties and early thirties, they started appearing in those theaters also, aside from playing in nightclubs. One could see all of the big names Pigmeat Markham, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday in her early days, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers when they first started, and just about any other black entertainer who appeared before the public then.

After I moved to Oakland, California, in 1926, I used to watch vaudeville at the Orpheum Theater there. Some of my favorite headliners were Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and the Nicholas Brothers, who were absolutely the best dancers I ever saw. They could tap better than Fred Astaire; he was mostly a ballroom dancer. And both brothers were far batter dancers than Gene Kelly.

Vaudeville phased out when TV became popular. And I think TV has forced the entertainment world to change its attitude toward black performers, because TV has always hired more blacks than the big screen, and found out that it could make money off these people's talents. So Hollywood decided, "We'll make some of that money also."

by Thomas C. Fleming

At ninety, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African-American weekly, which he cofounded in 1944. A forty-eight-page book of his early storied and photos is available for $3 and a ninety-minute audiotape is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address to <>

Jazz Now Magazine -- September 1998 Issue

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