Perhaps the best-known African-American in vaudeville (then and now), Bill Robinson left us a confusing hodgepodge of legacies. His life was a mass of contradictions perhaps best exemplified by his stage handle: “The Dark Cloud of Joy.” On the one hand, he is called by African-American scholar Donald Bogle “the quintessential Tom” for his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites in motion pictures. On the other hand, Robinson was in real life the sort of man who, when refused service at an all-white luncheonette, would lay his pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand service. An illiterate, he was to become the unofficial Mayor of Harlem and one of the richest and best-known African Americans in the country. Even the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song “Mr. Bojangles” which everyone assumes is about him, isn’t. (The song is about a hobo; Robinson was a class act in top hat and tails).
He was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia in 1880. A perhaps apocryphal story has him beating up his brother William, two years his junior, until the latter allowed him to appropriate his name. (The real Bill was forever after known as “Percy” – it must have been a sound drubbing.) The boys were orphaned around 1885 under mysterious circumstances, and raised by their grandmother and various foster parents. Robinson was a latchkey kid, largely shifting for himself, earning his own way by shining shoes, occasional theft and dancing for tips on streetcorners. He got his famous nickname after stealing a beaver hat from a local merchant Lion J. Boujasson, whose name no one could pronounce.
In 1892, he hopped a freight train for Washington, D.C. with a white friend named Lemuel Toney (who later went on to become Eddie Leonard, a major blackface star in minstrelsy and vaudeville). His first professional gig was the part of a “pickaninny” role in the show “The South Before the War” which toured the northeast. By 1900, he had made his way to New York. The following year, he won a prestigious dance contest at a Brooklyn theatre against a man named Henry Swinton, then considered the best dancer in the business. In the audience were the likes of Eubie Blake and Walker & Williams. He began to work with various partners and rapidly became one of only six African-American acts booked regularly on the Keith circuit. In 1902 he teamed up with a successful comedian named George W. Cooper, laying aside his dancing to become the comic foil for a period of 12 years.
When the team broke up in 1914, Robinson approached a big-time manager named Marty Forkins with a unique proposal. At the time in vaudeville the “two black rule” was in full force; African Americans were seen on stage only in pairs. Robinson proposed to become the first black solo act. In addition to being socially groundbreaking, the move had the virtue of being a very good gimmick, a must in vaudeville, and so the two forged ahead.
Robinson rapidly rose to become one of America’s best loved entertainers. His act was an amalgam of little steps and moves he had copped from others, then stitched together into a sequence that was greater than the sum of its parts. He worked his alchemy by rehearsing and performing the act so much that he could do it in his sleep, and then “selling it” through the sheer force of his infectious personality. His smile was called “a beacon”. He would intersperse his routines with little jokes and remarks, such as the famous “Everything’s copasetic!” (a word, incidentally, which Robinson invented). In 1918, Robinson introduced what was to become his signature bit, “the stair dance”, stolen of course, but thereafter irrevocably his. By 1923, he had reached the number two spot on the bill at the Palace (or next to “next to closing”) – the highest spot to which he could aspire given the prejudices of the times.
As vaudeville began to wind down, Robinson was one of the lucky and talented few who not only kept working, but who actually became more famous. He starred in a number of revues, such as “Blackbirds of 1928” and “The Hot Mikado”, performed in top nightclubs in Harlem and elsewhere, and co-starred in numerous movies with the likes of Will Rogers, Lena Horne and – most famously – Shirley Temple. A variation of his stair dance can be seen in the Temple-Robinson vehicle The Little Colonel (1934).
Robinson used his power and influence to break new ground for African Americans on several fronts: he was the first African-American solo act in vaudeville; he refused to wear blackface; he fought for (and achieved) the racial integration of countless social and cultural events in the north and the south; he was the first African American in a Hollywood movie whose character was responsible for safeguarding a white’s life.
Like all the top vaudevillians, he was an obsessed workaholic, either practicing or performing constantly, sometimes doing five shows a day by choice. He said that he danced best when totally exhausted; it took the edginess off his performance. He wore out 20-30 pairs of tap shoes a year—roughly one every two weeks. It is said that he literally danced himself to death. After a series of heart attacks, the doctor advised him to quit in 1948. Robinson maintained that though he had trouble walking, talking sleeping and breathing, when he danced he felt wonderful. He died a few months later.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.