The Amazing Billy McClain

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Today (according to IMDB is the birthday of African American show business Renaissance man William “Billy” McClain (1870-1950): musician, acrobat, minstrel performer, producer, actor, director, playwright, songwriter, boxing promoter, newspaper columnist, movie actor. And I probably left something out! The Indianapolis native started out as a teenager playing cornet in brass bands, performing on trapeze in circuses and breaking into minstrel shows. By the early 1890s he was already demonstrating his initiative as an entrepreneur, devising a musical show for himself and his wife Cordelia to star in called South Before the War featuring a brass band and a troop of mounted soldiers that played Niblo’s Garden and toured the U.S. throughout the decade. He also starred in a show called Sewannee River at around the same time.

In 1895 he created an amusement park/world’s fair type attraction called Black America in Ambrose Park Brooklyn, that featured a cast of 500 African Americans demonstrating slave life on the plantation (for more on that mind-boggling phenomenon, go here). Next he and Cordelia returned to touring the U.S. and Australia with various minstrel shows in a comedy and music act. (It was while he was in Australia that McClain was a boxing promoter for awhile). In 1901 he collaborated with Gus Hill on the creation of the Smart Set revue, with Ernest Hogan as its initial star. Then he and Cordelia spent several years in London and Paris performing in and staging shows in music halls and cafes. It was while he was living abroad that McClain supplied a column to black American newspapers about his experiences. By the 1930s he was back in the U.S., and with vaudeville and minstrelsy dead and all of live theatre ailing, he was in Hollywood, playing small roles (usually slave and servant parts) through 1946.

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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