Blackface and Al Jolson

Music historians have likened Al Jolson’s effect on jazz, the blues, and ragtime to Elvis’s on rock ‘n’ roll, since both men introduced African-American music to white and mainstream audiences. But ask the man in the stret what he knows of Al Jolson and most will say (if they know the name at all): “the first talkie.” But before his 1927 talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” Jolson had a successful vaudeville career.

Like many vaudevillians, he often performed in blackface makeup but this Jewish singer identified strongly with blacks and fought discrimination—especially on the stage where he had influence—from his earliest years. For instance, he used to take black entertainers to restaurants that refused to serve “colored” and insisted they be seated at his table. His belief in equality helped pave the way for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Eubie Blake.

In vaudeville, Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) started as a singer specializing in Sephen Foster songs. As his popularity grew, he moved to the theater stage with musical comedies and George Gershwin numbers. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Blacks in Early Silent Films

     If you’ve noticed that African-Americans are rarely seen in silent movies, you’re right. In the earliest silent films, when the script called for a black character, a white person in blackface usually played the role. The first movie to use a black actor/actress was probably the 1903 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here’s a one-minute clip from that film. The quality is so poor, however, that you can’t really tell whether the actors are white or black.

     Here is another early film with some black performers, the very first Tarzan of the Apes made in 1918:  In this one-hour version, there is a black maid played in blackface by a black or white woman (again, film quality is too rough to tell which) and some native Africans played by genuine black people—fancy that! Fast forward to 6 minutes 30 seconds or 13 minutes 50 seconds to see them. Pretty bad acting all around, regardless of skin color. The cheesiest are the gorillas—the humans cavorting about in gorilla suits look like Halloween trick-or-treaters.  

Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 4:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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Come to a Vaudeville Show on Nov. 6, 1905 in Boston

I know I said vaudeville playbills were seldom seen, but I did come across a modest example at an antiques mall a couple weeks ago. Because it’s not illustrated and its size and typeface are so small, I’d say it was a program rather than a real playbill. But a little research turned up some interesting stories, so I’m glad I spent the $8. Go down the list with me and I’ll tell you what I discovered.

Start at the top. This program comes from Benjamin Franklin Keith’s Theatre on Washington Street in Boston, a top quality theater showing Big Time vaudeville acts.BF_Keith_Memorial_Theatre,_Boston_interior Here is a view of the interior. Keith’s Theatre was built in 1894, so it was pretty new in 1905 when these acts played there.  (Sadly, it was demolished in the 1950s, but it was the first of Keith’s empire of vaudeville theaters.) It was Keith’s idea to develop a chain of  theaters into a circuit through which vaudeville acts would circulate. Imagine what an improvement this was from the old system of each theater having to book each of 9 acts individually, each and every week. Keith brought order to vaudeville chaos. Now it was the goal of every act to be part of a circuit, preferably a Big Time circuit like Keith’s.

How can there be 17 individual acts? In traditional vaudeville, 8 or 9 acts made up an entire show. Well, it turns out some theaters ran continually and this is one of them. Look at the top: “Performance Continuous Until 10:00 P.M.” From 1:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night, these 17 acts ran in a continual loop, one after another, over and over.

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Look at Act A. What’s a Stereopticon? It’s like a slide projector. It was sometimes called a Magic Lantern.  In the days before motion pictures, it was a big thrill to see images of far away places, like France and Italy, as shown here. Next came the Holemen Brothers, comedy gymnasts from Europe, followed by Henry Waite, a trick violinist, and Naomi Ethardo, a European Equilibrist. What the heck is that? Think “equilibrium.” Naomi was a rope dancer, sometimes called a tight-rope walker or slack-rope walker, depending on the tension in the rope. Next came Lambert and Pierce, Two Men in Black. Maybe they performed in “blackface.” It was very popular and quite common in those days. But who on earth knows what Marvelous LePage, a “novelty jumper,” did for his (or her?) act? High jumping? Pole vaulting? More likely trick tumbling but your guess is as good as mine.

Now we get to a real headliner. This is Jack Norworth,Jack Norworth probably the most famous person on the list. He was a comedian, magician, song writer, and singer who combined all of these talents in his popular act. This is early in Jack’s long career, but he was one of vaudeville’s top acts, having started in show biz as a blackface monologist and singer billed as “the Jailhouse Coon.” Not very politically correct today, but hey, that’s the way it was a century ago. Jack wrote many songs, and you definitely know one of them—it’s sung every day during baseball season: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1908).” Some say he  had never attended a baseball game in his life! Click on this link for an old recording of the song and a look at early 20th-century baseball.  Also in 1908, Jack married another headliner (that’s the vaudeville term for “star”), a singer named Nora Bayes, shown here with Jack. They traveled together in her private railroad car, something unimaginably elegant at the time, like having your own executive jet today. They divorced a few years later.

Jump ahead to letter L. That’s Louise Dresser, another headliner who sang and told jokes. Louise_Dresser_-_Orpheum_ShowFor years she had an act called Louise Dresser and her Picks. “Picks” is short for “pickaninnies.” Again, not very PC but 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, as shown here. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was one of many black performers who got his start in entertainment as a vaudeville pickaninny in 1892.

Anyway, back to Louise Dresser. Louise also married Jack Norworth. They weren’t married when they performed here at Keith’s Theatre in 1905, but they undoubtedly knew each other and watched each other perform. Perhaps they were having a torrid affair. Perhaps they scarcely spoke. We can only speculate. Louise left vaudeville for Hollywood silent movies in the early 1920s.

After Jack Norworth’s act came Harry Booker and James F. Corbley who performed what sounds like an Irish skit. Then a violinist for lovers of classical music followed by another short skit by Frank Rae and Gussie Brosche. The next slot was the Agoust Family of jugglers, here in Boston for the first time in 4 years, the program says. Then Louise Dresser (without her “Picks” since they aren’t mentioned) and then the Eight Allisons, European acrobats. Do you see how the word “European” is used to make acts sound more prestigious? These were probably just recent immigrants, but it made them seem exotic.

Comedians Smith and Campbell were in position N, followed by Howard’s Ponies and Dogs. Believe it or not, Howard and his pets were pretty well known. His miniature ponies did tricks with the dogs . . . not sure what sort of dogs they were.

The Kinetograph came next. This was an early motion picture projector developed at the Edison labs that showed very short, rather jerky silent films. Last on the list came Harry Dudley and Alice Cheslyn who sang and told stories. Once those two had finished, it was back to the beginning for Stereopticon Views of France and Italy and so on down the list.

So now you’ve seen the entire show. Time to leave the theater, unless you want to stay in your seat and watch all the performances again!