Today is the birthday of Flournoy Miller, who, with partner Aubrey Lyles, formed the seminal African American comedy team Miller and Lyles. By seminal, I mean they were in on the ground floor — only Williams and Walker predate them. After early beginnings at the Pekin Theater Stock Company in Chicago (circa 1906-1909), they spent several years doing a crosstalk comedy act in vaudeville. Their act was one of a mere handful of African American acts to make it to the big time. While they followed the convention at the time of working in burnt cork, the characters were a couple of amusing hustlers as opposed to cheerful, childlike “darkies”. The act is said to have been a major influence on the Caucasian blackface** team of Moran and Mack, as well as (more significantly) Amos ‘n’ Andy (both the radio and television version of which Miller later wrote for and helped produce). Apart from that, the team’s most lasting and important legacy was having written the book to the landmark Broadway smash Shuffle Along, with music by Sissle and Blake. Remember their names. They deserve to be remembered.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consultNo 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.