Buck and Bubbles were a piano-playing, song and dance combination act with plenty of humor. (A famous bit had them moving the piano on stage and a non-pushing Buck telling Bubbles “you pull, my end’ll follow”.)
The act formed in Louisville when piano player Ford Lee Washington (“Buck”) was 9 and dancer John W. Sublett (“Bubbles”) was 13. Four years later they got their shot at Louisville’s Mary Anderson theatre, a Keith house, when an act that was playing their bombed and a replacement was quickly needed. Buck and Bubbles were balcony ushers at the time, and the house booker had seen them dance once at a party. Still, this was Kentucky in the nineteen-teens. Two black kids onstage would have precipitated certain violence. The team was forced to put on burnt cork and gloves so that no one would know that they were actually black. They were, in fact, the first African American to ever play on that stage. Louisville remained the only town where they ever put on blackface. Posterity remembers them as a pair of sharp-dressed men in derbies, with carnations in their boutonnieres.
The team went over big at the Mary Anderson. So big in fact, that when the engagement was over, they were immediately booked in a touring show called Kiss Me, which took them to New York. In order to make this happen, Bubbles actually had to sign a paper making him Buck’s guardian, for he was still a minor and still attending school. The year was 1919. Buck and Bubble were a smash at the Columbia Theatre, which got them a booking the following year at the Palace. They were the first African American act ever held over there. At this juncture, they were receiving better billing than either Burns and Allen or Mae West, who were on the bill with them. Throughout the twenties they toured the Keith circuit as headliners, driving from town to town because they couldn’t secure berths on trains. In 1928 they headlined at the Palace.
In Chicago in the early 30s, their 8-minute act was held over for 50 additional minutes.
They toured England throughout the 30s and played Mingo and Sporting Life in original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess in 1935. Films included Varsity Show (1937) and Atlantic City (1944). After Buck died in 1955, Bubbles did some solo performing, notably in Judy Garland’s 1967 show at the Palace. He passed away in 1984.
John Bubbles is ordinarily thought of as a tap dancer, but this audio track is so magical, I thought I’d share it. Bubbles sings; Buck, as always, plays:
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc