Today is Bert Williams’ birthday.
George Walker and Bert Williams are important figures not only in show business history, but American cultural history, as well. Williams, the more gifted and longer-living of the two, was the Jackie Robinson of American show business, and in his theme-song “Nobody” (lyrics by Alex Rogers), left the world with a standard that’s still being covered today (e.g. by Johnny Cash on his American III: Solitary Man album).
When life seems full of clouds and rain
And I am full of nothin but pain,
Who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain? Nobody!
When winter comes with snow and sleet
And me with hunger and cold feet,
Who says, “Here’s 25 cents, go and get something to eat?” – Nobody
The supreme irony is that while Williams is the most famous black man to come out of vaudeville (apart from Bill Robinson), he was by ancestry mostly Caucasian. His paternal grandfather was the Dutch Consul in Antigua, West Indies. His paternal grandmother and his mother were both quadroons—one quarter black. This would make Williams something like 3/16 African, but in the racist world that he was to inherit, that was enough to make his life a supreme challenge.
He was born Egbert Austin Williams in the year 1874. In 1885, the family moved to California. As a teenager, Williams hoped to go to Stanford University. He became an entertainer to raise money to pay for his tuition. Because he had no experience, theatres wouldn’t book him. He started out in the rough-and-tumble world of Barbary Coast saloons instead, where his poise, dignity and class were only handicaps. An 1893 tour of lumber camps where he performed skits and songs fared hardly better. In these years, he gradually had the horrifying revelation that he was the victim of the racist expectations of the audience and that, in order to be a success, he would have to stoop to portraying the sort of low stereotype that white people expected. While Williams was light-complexioned, African features predominated – to the audience he was a “black man”, and in America, “black men” behaved a certain way. The problem was that Williams was well-educated, upper middle-class, and sophisticated. To make a success in show business, he actually had to struggle to learn what was to him an alien dialect and mannerisms.
In these early years, Williams displayed few of the gifts for which he was later distinguished, was no great shakes as a singer, dancer, musician (he played banjo) or comedian, yet his high intelligence managed to carry him through. With his evolving new “darky” persona (which undoubtedly galled him), he started getting his first decent bookings, first a few months at the San Francisco Museum, then with Martin and Seig’s Mastodon Minstrels.
It is at this early and embryonic juncture that Williams met George Walker, who was a year younger than Bert, but already a veteran of minstrel and medicine shows. The two hit it off and worked up an act. George sang a song “See Yer Colored Man”, while Bert played banjo. Bert was the straight man in their first crude comedy routines. For nearly two years (1893-95) the two performed their songs and skits at Jack Halahan’s Cramorne Theatre (later known as the Midway Plaisance.)
When the pair heard about a successful show in Chicago called The Octoroon that was hiring black performers, they decided to take their chances and move there in hopes they could bluff their way in. Their plan was to work their way east with a traveling medicine show. The scheme was rudely interrupted in Texas by a lynch mob, however, who were offended by Walker and Williams’ flashy, expensive clothes (which, by the way, were a professional necessity for vaudevillians). The mob tore off their clothes and gave them burlap sacks to wear. The good “doctors” of the medicine show did not defend them, and so they were left naked and penniless to make their way to the next town. How they managed to do so is not recorded for posterity. After this incident, the boys vowed never to work the South again, a promise on which they made good.
Miraculously, they managed to make it to Chicago and get a week’s try-out in The Octoroon – but they flopped and were let go. The set-back provided them with an opportunity to take stock of their act and decide on some improvements. In the next few months, they developed the basic characteristics of the act that would make them world famous.
First, Williams bit the bullet and decided to black up. It was common for African Americans to wear blackface in those days. In fact, that was how blacks broke into show business in the first place, by performing in minstrel shows as “genuine coons”. As with so many performers, the blackface seemed to work a miracle on the naturally shy and introverted Williams – it released his inhibitions and freed him up to be funny. He finally let go of his dignity (which is a fine thing for a man to possess, but a handicap for a clown), and started going for the bellylaughs. The character he became known for was a loser, a sort of shabby pessimistic everyman in threadbare clothes, or as he sang in one of his more popular songs, “The Jonah Man” – the guy to whom everything bad happens. In contrast, Walker was a flashy dude in smart clothes, a ladies’ man, a talker, a schemer, the eternal optimist, and the motivating force behind the plots of all their stories. The two characters, of course, were exaggerations of the men’s actual personalities.
Billed as “Two Real Coons”, the two traveled with their constantly improving act starting in 1896. In 1898 they were spotted by a scout in French Lick, Indiana and tapped to perform in a Broadway show The Gold Bug which lasted one week. A succession of prestige vaudeville gigs followed, though: Koster & Bial’s, Proctor’s, Hammerstein’s Olympia, Tony Pastor’s Music Hall, the Keith Circuit. They were credited with introducing the cakewalk to mainstream America in their act, a popular dance which evolved from the minstrel show walkaround. Comical dancing became a highlight of their act, Walker high-stepping and lively, Williams, shuffling and clumsy.
In 1898, they toured with Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk, a book musical that further helped to legitimize African Americans on stage. They followed this up with a tour of “A Lucky Coon” , a sort of compendium of their minstrel bits, in 1899.
In 1901, Walker and Williams made history by becoming the first black recording artists, and the cylinders they cut sold well enough to put them among the first black best-sellers. Walker and Williams went on to star in and produce many important musicals over the next few years, including The Sons of Ham (1901), In Dahomey, the first all-black musical to open on Broadway (1902-05), and Bandanaland (1908). In 1903, Walker and Williams became the first African Americans to give a command performance for an English Monarch (Edward VII). George Bernard Shaw said of their performance: “the best acting now in London is that of Williams and Walker in In Dahomey.”
In 1905, Williams started singing Nobody, which was to be his theme song.
When I was in that railroad wreck
And thought I’d cashed in my last check
Who took that engine off my neck? Hm…not a soul…
In 1908, Walker contracted syphilis, which in those days was without a treatment. By 1909, the condition was affecting his performance and though he struggled valiantly to control the symptoms, he began to stutter, forget his lines, and lose his motor control on stage. That year, he retired from the act. By 1911, he was dead.
For a brief while, his wife Aida Overton Walker (a dancer who had performed with the team for years), went on as his replacement in drag. After a period of uncertainty, Williams developed a solo act, and in so doing, revealed himself to be one of the great comic artists of the 20th century. In addition to his classic character songs like Nobody with their distinctive mix of pathos and humor, he also told dialect stories, (or “lies” as he called them) in the great tradition of African American folklore, and pantomime, which he claimed to have learned in Europe from a man named Pietro. His “poker routine”, in which he silently portrayed every player in a card game, conveying several distinct characters right down to what hand each man was holding, was legendary (and, luckily, was preserved on film). He toured the country in vaudeville with this material, almost never receiving the top billing he deserved because of the prejudice of the times, although there times when he was next to closing at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue and Hammerstein’s. From now, through the rest of his life, Williams was in the strange position of being hailed as a genius, universally beloved and respected by his colleagues, adored by his audiences…yet forced to leave the theatre by the back door, stay in separate “colored” hotels and boarding houses (in towns that had them), and avoid local troublemakers (including law enforcement officers) who relished making life hell for “uppity” Negroes. A touching anecdote has Joe Keaton finding himself sitting at the same bar with Williams and noticing that they are opposite ends. “Come down and have a drink with me, Bert,” Keaton offered. But the bar was segregated and Williams was at the black end, so he mumbled an embarrassed but polite refusal, and Keaton, realizing the situation, came down to his end of the bar to join him.
In 1910, Williams became the first major black star in motion pictures, a series of one-reel silent shorts for Biograph. In 1911, Ziegfeld hired him for his Follies – the first black to be so honored. When most of the cast threatened to leave, Ziegfield is reported to have said, “Go if you want to. I can replace everyone of you, except the man you want me to fire.” Though getting his foot in the door at Ziegfeld’s was an achievement, it didn’t spell the end of racism in his life. In the show, while given many chances to shine, they were plenty of times when the roles he was given to play were an unfortunate reflection of the attitudes of the times: red caps, cab drivers, or some other type of lackey to his white co-stars were the typical parts given to this grandson of a diplomat. In 1914, he headlined at the Palace, another first for an African American, and the very pinnacle of success for a vaudevillian. Perhaps it was such triumph that gave him the serenity of mind to best a racist bartender in St. Louis. In a not-too-subtle effort to oust Williams from the bar on account of his skin color, the barkeep attempted to charge him $50 for a glass of gin. Williams calmly put a $500 bill down on the bar and said, “I’ll have ten of them.” On another occasion, Lionel Barrymore was backstage watching Williams work, and a stagehand came up and said, “Like him, huh?” Barrymore said, “Yes, he’s terrific.” Just as Williams got offstage the stage hand said loudly, “Yeah, he’s a good n–ger, knows his place.” and Williams said, “Yes. A good n–ger. Knows his place. Going there now. Dressing room ONE!”
The racism becomes even more risible when you contemplate the fact that he was one of the great performing geniuses of his day. Fortunately, there is just enough visual record to verify the contemporary raves. The best is the circa 1913 feature Lime Kiln Field Day, which only saw the light of day a few years ago when it premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. I was there for the historic occasion; my account of the film is here. And there are the two well-known shorts, A Natural Born Killer (1916) and Fish (1916). Would there were more, but at least there’s these three performances.
Williams’ last years were spent working the Follies, the Frolics and the Keith vaudeville circuit, but by the late teens his health began to fail. He died of a combination of heart failure and pneumonia while performing in Under the Bamboo Tree, a Shubert show in Detroit. He was only 47. I visited his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in 2015 — a very moving experience.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and great vaudeville acts like Walker and Williams, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.