Walker, George William

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Walker, George William

1873
January 6, 1911


Entertainer George William Walker was born in Lawrence, Kansas. While still a teenager he joined a traveling "medicine-man" show in which he rattled bones, shook a tambourine, and mugged for the audience. The show took Walker to San Francisco, where he settled in the early 1890s to look for theater work. There, in 1893, Walker met Bert Williams, a comedian with whom he began a sixteen-year stage career.

The Williams and Walker comedy team found little success in San Francisco, but in 1895 the pair gained popular acclaim when they appeared in Chicago with John Isham's Octoroons, a black vaudeville company. During that production the two developed their act into the classic minstrel interaction between the slapstick buffoonplayed by Williamsand the cocky, flamboyant huck-sterplayed by Walker.

In 1896 Williams and Walker came into their own at Koster and Bial's Music Hall, then New York's most important vaudeville theater. Billed as "The Two Real Coons," the duo introduced their famous "cakewalk" routine during their highly successful forty-week run at Koster and Bial's. Having established themselves as a major Broadway attraction, the comedy team went on to perform in a number of major musicals, including Clorindy, The Origin of the Cakewalk in 1898.

Williams and Walker became major entertainment figures over the first decade of the twentieth century with a series of Broadway shows in which they were the featured attraction. Their successful, all-black shows included The Policy Players (1900), Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908). In Dahomey was the first all-black production in a major Broadway theater. In these productions the pair's roles evolved from two-dimensional parodies of African Americans into more human, complex, and often tragic characterizations. During the production of Bandanna Land Walker began to show symptoms of the final stage of syphilis and was forced to leave the cast in February 1909. Over the next two years Walker gradually and painfully deteriorated from the disease. He died in Islip, New York, in 1911. Bert Williams went on to a highly successful solo career on Broadway.

See also Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Williams, Bert

Bibliography

Riis, Thomas Laurence. Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 18901915. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Riis, Thomas Laurence. More Than Just Minstrel Shows: The Rise of Black Musical Theatre at the Turn of the Century. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1992.

Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Smith, Eric Ledell. Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1992.

Woll, Allen. Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dream-girls. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

thaddeus russell (1996)

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