WALTER C. KELLY, “The Virginia Judge”
Grace Kelly’s uncle Walter was one of the few unalloyed racists in big time vaudeville. While many, such as Al Jolson or Sophie Tucker may have put on blackface, the racism of their acts were a complex mixture of love, scorn, homage, condescension, admiration and disrespect. No such hash complicated Kelly’s feelings. His act consisted of his interpretation of life in a courtroom he had witnessed as an aspiring ward politician in Newport News, Virginia. The characters were chiefly the no-nonsense Southern judge who presided there…and the parade of tremulous, “no-account” blacks who faced his summary justice. Much humor was accomplished by the unsentimental swiftness and the wit with which he brought sentence – a form of humor not foreign to fans of Judges Wapner, Judy and the many others that have graced television screens since the 1980s.
JUDGE: First case on the docket—Sadie Anderson.
PRISONER: Yes, sir, that’s me.
JUDGE: Thirty days in Jail. That’s me.
** * * *
JUDGE: Jim, this is the third time you have been here for cutting people. Tell me, how old are you?
JIM: I’se jest twenty-fo’, Jedge.
JUDGE: Well, Jim, you will be just twenty-five when you get out.”
JUDGE: Rufus Johnson, you are charged with larceny of two chickens from the premises of Howard Brooks on Brierfield Road. What have you to say about it?
RUFUS: Well, Jedge, I never was near Mr. Brook’s house and the Lord may strike me down dead if I stole those chickens.
JUDGE: Well, Rufus, you stand aside for ten minutes, and if the Lord don’t strike you, I will give you thirty days.
It’s all very amusing until you remember that the Lord struck plenty of black people dead for stealing chickens and equally minor – often nonexistent – crimes. Lynching was a palpable reality at the time of these comedy routines, and at the time the Virginia Judge was making audiences fall down in the aisles, black people in the South weren’t laughing. If your only exposure to the racial politics of American justice is a movie like Sounder, you still already know that a black man on trial for petty larceny in the South was no joke.
Nevertheless, people loved Kelly. He started out in an amateur capacity, making his fellow Democrats laugh at a smoker at Big Tim Sullivan’s club in 1900. Vaudeville engagements resulted and within a few weeks, he climbed up the ladder from Tony Pastor’s to Keith’s Union Square, and then a tour of the Keith and Proctors wheels. By 1904, he was a headliner at Percy Williams’ Alhambra. He continued to do the Virginia Judge bit until the demise of vaudeville. For the last stretch, he worked as much as he wanted to and earned one of vaudeville’s highest salaries. But the fact that he refused to perform on a bill with the legendary Bert Williams in 1909 will tell you the color of his money.
When vaudeville expired, Kelly was big enough a star to jump to Broadway shows and Hollywood films, including a 1935 adaptation of his Virginia Judge material. In 1938, the Lord struck Walter C. Kelly dead in the form of an errant – or perhaps deadly accurate – motorist. Le’s jes’ say he got runned over by a karma.
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.