Stars of Vaudeville #20: Josephine Baker
A sinuous idol that enslaves and incites mankind…it was as though the jazz, catching on the wing of the vibrations of this mad body, were interpreting, word by word, its fantastic monologue…It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before the audience, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire.
—Andre Levinson, quoted in Theatre Arts, August, 1942
Born Frida McDonald in 1906, the future symbol of the Jazz Age left home at 15 to perform with a traveling vaudeville troupe. Her first break was a part Sissle and Blake’s 1923 musical Shuffle Along. She appeared in the team’s next project The Chocolate Dandies, but when that petered out, she began performing in Harlem nightclubs.
From there, she departed for Paris, where she was able to ascend the very highest pinnacle of stardom without experiencing the racism she had always known in the United States. Engagements at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and the Folies Bergere made her the toast of Par-ee. No montage sequence of the 1920s would be complete without a shot of her, without a long string pf pearls and a skirt made out of bananas doing the Charleston, the Black Bottom, or a similar dance of the time.
Her ability to be both funny and sexy endeared her to her audiences at the time:
America never properly embraced her in her lifetime. She returned to the U.S. for bookings on a couple of occasions, but for the most part, France remained her new home. She died of a stroke in 1975.
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.