Eddie Leonard came onto the minstrel scene before either Jolson or Cantor, but unlike those performers, blackface** was his whole schtick — hence his obscurity today. Born in Richmond, Virginia, he joined Lew Dockstader’s minstrels in the late 1890s, then moved to the Haverly Minstrel Troup. He was a star by 1902. He wrote the vaudeville song “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider (which later became a staple of Eddie Cantor’s act). The other song he was closely identified with was the popular “Roly Boly Eyes”, his signature tune. Leonard was a headliner for many years, and even got film roles in Melody Lane (1929) and If I Had My Way (1940).
Leonard’s habit overstaying his welcome onstage was proverbial. He took seemingly endless encores, and when he felt it was time to retire, he took seemingly endless farewell tours. When told he would have to confine his act to ten minutes one time his manager said “My god! It takes Eddie Leonard ten minutes just to bow!”. Jack Lait called him “the Chinese Philosopher — On Too Long, Bow Too Long.”
Entertainment historian Anthony Slide calls him “the last of a line that could be traced back to southern plantations”. When minstrelsy (and vaudeville) died, not long thereafter, so did he.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Eddie Leoanrd, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.