Stars of Vaudeville #126: Willie Covan
Willie Covan is credited with creating many tap techniques and steps still widely used today, including the Rhythm Waltz Clog and Around the World. Born on this day in Georgia in 1896, he was already dancing by age 5. By his late childhood, he was tap dancing professionally as a “pick” or pickaninny in minstrel shows, notably with Cosy Smith and her Six Pickaninnies. In the teens he appeared with his wife, brother and a friend in the Four Covans. In 1922 he was cast in the pathbreaking African American production Shuffle Along. Two years later, he appeared with Florence Mills in the British hit Dover Street to Dixie, which became Dixie to Broadway when it moved to New York. Also in 1924, he could be seen across the country in the film On With The Show with Ethel Waters.
Covan next teamed with fellow hoofer Leonard Ruffin. The pair appeared at the Palace in 1926, where they introduced the song “Sweet Georgia Brown” and stopped the show. In fact, success became his enemy. His repeated curtain calls every night confounded the managers who couldn’t or wouldn’t bump white performers who were further up the bill. This conundrum cost him his gig at the Palace, as well as his next one at the Hippodrome. He finally opened his own night club in L.A. in the late 20s, where he could dance when and where he liked. In the 30s, Eleanor Powell got him a job as head dance instructor at MGM, where he coached the likes of Shirley Temple, Mae West, Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller and countless others. He was teaching dance to Hollywood performers well into the 1980s. He “shuffled” off this mortal coil in 1989.
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.