The Early Years of Mr. Bojangles

Bojangles Robinson 1928

One of the most famous vaudeville performers to continue on to movies was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. There is a statue of him at a street corner in downtown Richmond, Virginia, his hometown. The story goes that in his later years, he was visiting Richmond when he saw two children risk life and limb dashing across a busy street. So he paid to have a traffic light put in. It may not be true, but it fits his character. He was generous with his money, so much so that he died a pauper.  

Robinson supposedly began his tap dance career as a youngster—some say at the age of six, others say eight—as a “pick,” (or pickaninny). Using young black children in vaudeville acts was popular and represented a unique employment opportunity for talented kids. They usually sang and danced, and occasionally played musical instruments for the dimes and quarters he would make in beer gardens and burlesque houses. Orphaned shortly after his birth in 1878, he was raised by a grandmother for a few years. Little is known about his early life, but considering the time, he likely received little, if any, formal education and certainly no dance lessons. He performed on the black circuit for years before moving to Keith and Orpheum circuits, but never wore blackface like some white and many black singers and dancers did.

He moved into film during the early talkies, gaining international fame for his scenes with little Shirley Temple. He was the one who taught her to tap dance. There are many examples of his dancing from the Thirties and beyond on YouTube, but none from the vaudeville era.