Leonard Reed is credited with having invented the Shim Sham Shimmy. If you’ve never seen it, surely you’ve heard of it! Born in rural Oklahoma in 1907, Reed was ½ white, ¼ black, and ¼ Choktaw Cherokee. The exotic mixture produced a stunningly handsome man, who could pass for any of the above races. Because of this, he was in the unusual position of being able to perform both as a white in mainstream vaudeville, and as a black on the TOBA circuit. Had there been a Choctaw vaudeville, he might have performed in that, too.
Raised by foster parents, Reed moved to Kansas City as a child. He learned to dance the Charleston while working the candy counter of a local theatre. Whenever dancers came to town, he would ask them to show him their moves. He went on to win several Charleston contests. His first professional engagement was with a carnival, where he not only danced but worked as a barker and even boxed. He was still just a kid of 15 when he was hired for Hits and Bits of 1922, an all-black touring revue. While performing with that show, he gained three years of constant performing experience, and learned the rudiments of tap.
In 1925, he found himself in Harlem, where, by spending time at the so-called Hoofers Club, a hang out for African American dancers, he finally finished his pedigree – learning all the latest steps from the top people in the business. In the late 20s, he hooked up with Willie Bryant and the two formed the team “Reed and Bryant – Brains as Well as Feet”. The two made it as far as the Palace. But they also made the mistake of filling in their down time with gigs in the TOBA circuit. Someone finally caught on in 1933 and they were “blacklisted” from white vaudeville. But who cared? It didn’t exist any more anyway! Reed went on to be a producer of shows up in Harlem. In later years, he worked as a tap instructor at his Hollywood dance studio, a job that kept him busy well into his 90s. He passed away in 2004 — one of the very last of the real vaudevillians.
To find out more about Leonard Reed 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.