Robinson, Bill “Bojangles” 1878–1949
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson 1878–1949
One of the most famous black American entertainers in the first half of the twentieth century, Bill Robinson was a pioneering vaudeville performer and a star of stage and screen. Affectionately known as “Bojangles,” Robinson forged his fame with his feet, tap dancing his way to superstardom in an era that imposed daunting obstacles to any black person’s success. During the height of the Great Depression he earned in excess of two million dollars, working nonstop in travelling revues, Broadway shows, and motion pictures, and he was almost universally adored by fans of every race and creed.
Minister Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. eulogized Robinson at the dancer’s funeral as “a legend because he was raceless.” Powell added: “Bill wasn’t a credit to his race, meaning the Negro race, Bill was a credit to the human race. He was not a great Negro dancer, he was the world’s greatest dancer. Bill Robinson was Mr. Show Business himself. He stood out there at the end, as sort of a beacon light to all the little kids, the little hoofers, breaking their hearts out… living in their little rooms and starving themselves just for the chance to work now and then. He was Mr. Show Business. He was Broadway.”
Unfortunately, in more recent decades, Robinson’s “beacon light” has dimmed considerably. Some film and show business historians have labelled him an “Uncle Tom” who catered to white tastes and who ignored the racial injustices of his time in an effort to further his career. In the biography Mr. Bojangles.Jim Haskins and N. R. Mitgang challenge this view and characterize Robinson as a fierce and often temperamental defender of his race offstage who challenged and overrode stereotypes onstage as well.
According to his biographers, Robinson labored “under the pressure of knowing that if Bojangles ever tarnished his image as America’s favorite colored performer, the consequences could trickle down to every other black person from Harlem to Hollywood. He may have thought of quitting [films] and shedding his subservient Hollywood rags for his top hat and tails. But he couldn’t quit…. He couldn’t quit because he knew he was breaking down doors. His rule for learning how to dance on stairs was the same rule he employed for living: small steps.”
Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia in 1878, Bojangles was orphaned at a very early age. Records documenting what happened to his parents do not exist,
At a Glance…
Born Luther Robinson, May 25, 1878, in Richmond, VA; died of heart failure, November 1 5, 1949, in New York, NY; son of Maxwell (a machinist) and Maria (a singer and choir director) Robinson; married Lena Chase, November 14,1 907 (divorced); married Fannie Clay, 1922 (divorced, 1943); married Elaine Plaines (a dancer), January 27, 1944.
Professional entertainer, 1892-1949; appeared in revue The South before the War, c 1892; played cabarets and clubs in New York City, c. 1898-1902; joined with vaudevillian George W, Cooper in act, Cooper & Robinson, 1902-14; solo performer in vaudeville and revues, 1914-27, with European tour in 1926; performer in revues, Broadway ptays, benefit performances, and motion pictures, 1927-49. Contract player for RKO Pictures, 1930-34, and Twentieth Century-Fox, 1934-38 Military service: U.S. Army, c 1898-1900; entertained military troops, 1917-18.
Selected awards Named honorary “Mayor of Harlem,”1933; Mirror-Jed Friend Gold Medal, 1937; named honorary president, Negro Actors Gui Id, 1937; inspiration for “National Tap Dance Day,”declared by Congress as May 25 in 1989. A statue of Robinson stands at corner of Adams and Leigh Streets in Richmond, VA.
but it is assumed they both died at the same time in some sort of accident. Robinson and his younger brother became wards of their paternal grandmother, Bedilia Robinson, a former slave who did not particularly want the responsibility of raising two small children. Bedilia Robinson was a strict Baptist who absolutely forbade dancing, gambling, and swearing in her presence. Thus young Luther, who early on appropriated his brother’s name of Bill, began hanging out on street corners, picking up tap lessons from other local Richmond youths.
One of these youths, Lemmeul V. “Eggie” Eggleston, became a close friend and mentor to Robinson. Together Eggleston and Robinson worked as bootblacks to earn a few pennies, and if shoe shining did not pay them enough, they danced in public places and passed a hat. Bill’s specialty was the “buck-and-wing,” a type of tap that involved rapid foot patter and flailing arms, accompanied by scat-singing or just a rhythmic run of vocal sounds that would not be out of place in modern rap. It was during this period that Bill Robinson began to jokingly refer to himself as “Bojangles” and also to use a term he coined-“copasetic”--that eventually found its way into the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary.
At the age of 12, Robinson left Richmond in the company of Lemuel Gordon “Dots” Toney, an older youth who had ambitions either to play professional baseball or to become an entertainer. Toney had done some stage work in blackface-a common practice in those days when adult blacks were not welcome on stage-and he thought the juvenile Robinson might serve as a good sidekick. Black children who performed in those times were called “picks,” short for pickaninnies, and were popular in minstrel shows. Robinson and Toney hopped a freight train to Washington, DC, where Robinson found work at a race track. Toney went on to Baltimore, where he found stage work under the name Eddie Leonard. In 1896 Toney helped Robinson to secure his first professional show business gig, in a musical revue called The South Before the War.
Robinson appeared as a “pick” in The South Before the War, but even then he was just a bit too large to pass as a child. When that show folded he could find no other work, so he returned to Richmond and enlisted in the service. After mustering out of the army in 1900, he traveled to New York City, determined to make his way as a performer.
The task facing Robinson at the turn of the century was daunting. Although a whole new entertainment medium-soon to be known as vaudeville-was beginning, blacks were not welcome in its ranks. Instead, white performers blacked their faces and entertained as blacks, some of them becoming famous in the process. A few outstanding black performers were able to challenge vaudeville’s segregation, however, and one of them was comedian George W. Cooper. In 1902 Cooper found himself in need of a new partner, and he persuaded Bill Robinson to join the act. “Working as Cooper’s partner was a comedown for Bill in some ways,” his biographers note. “With Cooper he played second fiddle. Cooper was the straight man; Robinson had to play the fool to his foil. While Cooper dressed in a suit and tie, Robinson had to put on a comical getup--not a small consideration for Bill, a natty dresser. To make matters worse, he was not allowed to dance.”
Bojangles’s reservations notwithstanding, the new team of Cooper & Robinson proved a hit on the prestigious Keith Circuit in vaudeville. Between 1902 and 1914the pair toured America almost constantly, performing their short routine as part of a vaudeville troupe in virtually every major American city north of the Mason-Dixon line. Throughout all of those years, Cooper continued as the straight man and Robinson as the clown, but Robinson eventually gained enough status that he was allowed to incorporate his dancing into the act. “Bill Robinson was a staunch professional,” his biographers state. “He put the same effort into a performance for a scanty audience in Duluth as he did into a performance at the Palace in Chicago. But the counterpoint to his utter professionalism onstage was his complete lack of responsibility off it.”
A free spender who gambled compulsively, doled out money to charitable causes, and dressed lavishly, Robinson perhaps allowed his vices a free reign because of the conditions imposed on black vaudevillians. He carried a concealed gun and befriended the local sheriff at each stop-in case he found himself beset by racist citizens. The posh hotels that housed other Keith Circuit performers were closed to him because of his race, and even the trains that transported him from city to city could impose ridiculous restrictions on him based on his color. Robinson could hardly respond to all of these frustrations in his act-he would quickly have lost his job. Instead he vented them offstage by spending his salary lavishly and-occasionally-brawling with racist troublemakers.
In 1914 Cooper and Robinson came to a parting of the ways. Cooper found another partner, but Robinson decided to become a solo act. It was an unprecedented move-no other black performed solo on the vaudeville circuit at the time. Robinson found the help he needed from a theatrical manager named Marty For kins. Their partnership began with a handshake in 1914 and continued without pause until Robinson’s death in 1949, making both of them wealthy and influential men.
As a solo performer Robinson started slowly, in the Chicago area where Forkins was based. The dancer was able to make a decent living from entertaining and giving tap-dancing lessons, and in 1917 he increased his exposure by performing for American troops bound for active duty in World War I. Around the same time Robinson began including the dance that would make his fame-a rapid tap up and down a staircase. Robinson made his stair dance debut in 1918 at the Palace Theater in New York and received a show-stopping standing ovation. On the strength of that performance he was hired again by the Keith Circuit, becoming the first solo black performer in the highest vaudeville ranks. He continued primarily as a vaudevillian until 1927, undertaking a European tour in 1926.
Despite the fact that his act was always well received, Robinson had great difficulty working his way into the role of show headliner. He and Forkins finally decided they needed an extra gimmick to drum up publicity for Robinson on the road. Having joined the well-known Orpheum Circuit in the early 1920s, Robinson began staging exhibitions of backward running in the cities where he played, often competing-and winning-against athletes running normally. This activity brought him extra attention from sports writers and ultimately achieved the desired effect of enhancing his popularity as an entertainer.
Vaudeville began to decline in the late 1920s, a result of the competition with motion pictures. Although Robinson liked traveling the circuit, he was willing to entertain offers for Broadway shows. The possibility of a Broadway play with a black cast would have been unthinkable before the 1920s, but the success of a revue called Shuffle Along opened new doors for black talent on Broadway. The even bigger success oí Show Boat, which premiered in 1927, brought another surge of interest in casts including blacks. Robinson was offered a role in Show Boat but turned it down.
Robinson’s Broadway debut occurred the following year in a revue entitled Blackbirds of 1928 The show opened at the Liberty Theater in May of 1928, and it proved to be a star vehicle for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. His biographers state: “Robinson did not appear until the second act, but from the moment he came on the stage he seemed to electrify it. His routine was similar to his vaudeville act: He sang and danced to a number titled ’Doin’ the New Low Down’ (later to become his radio theme song). He tapped up and down a flight of five steps. He flashed his infectious smile…. The audience for Broadway shows, often called the ’carriage trade,’ was different from that for vaudeville, but it responded to Bill in the same way: They were enraptured.” Blackz birds of 1928 ran for 518 performances with Robinson as one of its stars.
Robinson entered the Great Depression as one of the best-known and most beloved black performers in America. Legends of his generosity to fellow residents of Harlem during the hard years of the 1930s abound. As for the dancer himself, those years brought his greatest and most lasting success, as a partner to a curly headed movie phenomenon who was hardly old enough to attend school.
If opportunities for blacks on stage were few, opportunities in film were almost nonexistent. Despite his vast popularity, Robinson only appeared in two full-length feature films between 1930 and 1935-Dixiana and Harlem Is Heaven.In 1934, however, producers at Twentieth Century-Fox decided they needed a new partner for their biggest star, Shirley Temple. Although only seven years old, Temple had been featured in dozens of short features and several full-length films. The choice to pair her with Robinson was inspired by a feeling that she appeared too precocious and invulnerable onscreen.
Whatever sparked the decision, it proved fortuitous for both Temple and Robinson. In their first film, The Little Colonel, they stair danced together and clearly exhibited an onscreen chemistry that was sometimes lacking between Temple and her other co-stars. Shirley Temple was the film industry’s biggest box-office draw every year between 1935 and 1938. Not coincidentally, all of the films she made with Robinson were completed during this time.
In this day and age, watching Bill Robinson’s performances in the Shirley Temple vehicles can be downright embarrassing. He always appears as a trusted family retainer, almost the quintessential Uncle Tom, ready to dance up the plantation staircase or shield his little mistress from harm. In the context of the time, however, Robinson’s appearances with Temple were a giant step for blacks in Hollywood. The quiet dignity that Robinson exuded in his various roles was in stark contrast to the deplorable Hollywood caricatures of Stepin Fetchit and other black comedians.
Robinson and Temple were also film history’s first interracial dancing couple-and few have followed in their footsteps even today. Temple has never been reticent about her feelings for her beloved “Uncle Billy, “who patiently taught her the difficult stair routines that had made him famous. “None of the dancers I worked with were patronizing to me, or treated me as a child,” she recalls in Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories.”But Bill Robinson was the one who treated me most as an equal. Bill Robinson and I became very close personal friends throughout our lives, and I have always had great love for him. He is still important in my heart.”
Robinson and Temple made four films together, and-other than a cameo role in the 1943 movie Stormy M/eaiher-those motion pictures comprise the bulk of Robinson’s film career. The energetic dancer was hardly idle, however. He became a headliner at the revived Manhattan Cotton Club, dancing there from 1935 through 1939. He was also accorded enthusiastic reviews for his performance in The Hot Mikado on Broadway. That show was so successful that it was featured at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. Robinson also had a starring role in the short-lived Broadway revue All in Fun in 1940.
At the dawn of World War II, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a man in his sixties who had achieved wealth and fame in a racist society. He might have settled into retirement, but instead he kept performing at the furious pace he had set himself many decades before. The war years found him on stage in live performances and on the radio with his own show. He was also one of the most active benefit entertainers, raising money for many causes, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the families of slain New York police officers or firefighters. In 1937 he was named honorary president of the fledgling Negro Actors Guild. His biographers write: “As the forties began, there were only a handful of black roles to be had either in Hollywood or on Broadway, and these were in otherwise white productions. The actors who got those parts counted themselves lucky. Bill Robinson was among them.”
Just a month before his seventieth birthday, Robinson appeared in a major benefit for the American Heart Association, held at the Copacabana in New York City. He performed a standard routine in the show, adding some extra, more vigorous steps at the end when comedian Milton Berle tried to keep up with him. Backstage he suffered a massive heart attack. He lived another year and a half after that but was forced into retirement-a step that brought mental depression.
Robinson died of his heart ailment on November 15, 1949 and was given the biggest funeral Harlem had ever seen. Honorary pallbearers included Ed Sullivan and Irving Berlin. Ironically, although it is estimated that Robinson earned in excess of four million dollars during his more than fifty-year show business career, his estate was probated at less than $25,000. His biographers claim that a lifetime gambling addiction consumed most of the dancer’s wealth, and a fondness for random acts of charity drained the rest.
Robinson’s legacy suffered greatly through the years of the civil rights movement. When his name was mentioned, it was not as a great dancer or vaudeville pioneer, but rather as another shameless toady to white audiences and white prejudices. In recent years, however, his reputation has enjoyed a revival. His life did not serve as the inspiration for the popular song “Mr. Bojangles,” but he has been named as the artistic inspiration for numerous other tap dancers, both white and black. In 1989, the U.S. Congress-led by Michigan representative John Conyers-designated May 25 “National Tap Dance Day.” May 25 was Bojangles’s birthday.
Robinson never used metal taps on his shoes. Instead he danced a lifetime in shoes with wooden soles, wearing out as many as 30 pairs per year. “They said Bill Robinson had the cleanest taps around, “writes Rusty E. Frank inTaps! ”They said that Bill Robinson could do the easiest routine in the world and get away with it because of his charm and charisma. They said that he could drive a dancer crazy with the complexity of a step that looked so easy. But when tap dancers talk about Bill Robinson, they talk about the greatest tap dancer of all time. There were others who could tap out a mean percussive piece. There were others who could flip and split. But, according to the best of them, nobody had Bill Robinson beat on sheer tap dancing ability.”
Dixieana, RKO, 1930.
Harlem Is Heaven, Herald Pictures Inc., 1933.
King for a Day (two reels), Vitaphone, 1934.
The Little Colonel, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1935.
Hooray for Love, RKO, 1935.
The Big Broadcast of 1936, Paramount, 1935.
In Old Kentucky, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1935.
The Littlest Rebel, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1936.
One Mile From Heaven, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1937.
Rebeccah of Sunny brook Farm, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1938.
Just Around the Corner, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1938.
Up the River, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1938.
By an Old Southern River, Panoram, 1941.
Let’s Shuffle, Panorama, 1941.
Stormy Weather, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1943.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, Viking, 1973, p. 46.
Frank, Rusty E., Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, Morrow, 1990, pp. 90-93,180.
Haskins, Jim, Black Theater in America, Crowell, 1982, p. 22.
Haskins, Jim, The Cotton Club, New American Library, 1984, pp. 48-49, 67.
Haskins, Jim, and N. R. Mitgang, Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson.Morrow, 1988.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, Macmillan, 1968, pp. 75, 180.
Jet, November 27, 1989.
Southern Living, May 1989.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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