Movie buffs would recognize this great Hollywood character in a second. This square-jawed, gruff tough guy had roles in They Live by Night (1950), Winchester 73 (1950), Oklahoma! (1950), Flying Leathernecks (1951), The Wild Ones (1954), The Killing (1956), How the West Was Won (1962), Cat Ballou (1965), and Firecreek (1968), among countless others stretching back to the 1930s. In vaudeville his identity was completely different. He’d begun at age 14 in blackface minstrel shows.** By the twenties, he was a well known comic both in blackface and out, although audiences preferred him with the cork.
There’s an amazing sample of his work in this field in an extant Vitaphone short I presented at the Cinema Arts Center on Long Island. To those who chiefly know him as the grizzled old tough guy, the stuff is a revelation. He’s very funny, and rather compulsively uses his cigar as a prop. It’s available to buy on DVD and the audio of its available here. (Thanks to Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project for putting me onto it):
Flippen played in numerous Broadway shows, and starting in 1926, headlined at the Palace many times until the end of the two-of-a-day. In one of my many conversations with Joe Franklin about his show biz memories, he recounted seeing Flippen host at the old Paramount Theatre, one of the biggest of the Presentation Houses. Flippen passed away in 1971.
To learn more about the history of vaudeville, including legendary performers like Jay C. Flippen, 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.