Stars of the AVT #71: Scottie Davis
This post is one of a series profiling the hundreds of performers I’ve presented through my American Vaudeville Theatre in celebration of its 15th anniversary. Don’t miss the American Vaudeville Theatre’s 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza in the New York International Fringe Festival this August!
When I launched my enterprise Mountebanks (parent company of the American Vaudeville Theatre) in the mid 90s, I was fresh from an on-the-job crash course in arts management at Big Apple Circus, not to mention ACTUAL such courses with the Arts & Business Council, Arts Action Research and others, and a membership in ART/NY. I thought I was the cock of the walk in terms of know-how, and flush with the enthusiasm of a recent convert, I devised a special pamphlet and introductory letter, and mailed them to every member of ART/NY offering the American Vaudeville Theatre as a platform for samples of their work, a forum for cross promotion. I stand by the idea. One act plays were an important staple of vaudeville, and subsequently others (e.g. FringeNYC) have presented nights of these samplers to good result.
Long story short, if memory serves, I received only ONE positive response from the 250 or so companies on ART/NY’s mailing list. Disappointing? Yes. Discouraging? No — I’m still here, aren’t I? As a marketer one “knows” that a .4% response rate is not so bad for a cold mailing. Still with such an air-tight case and such a logical demographic one hoped for something more.
The good news is that this one was a perfect one, and I would book her at three separate junctures in the AVT’s history. “She” is Scottie Davis, chief bottle washer for the Salt and Pepper Mime Company from 1978-2008.
Well, not always. In the right hands, mime can be amazing. For example, most of his contemporaries thought Bert Williams was the greatest mime of his era.
There’s a little snatch of him here, along with some really excellent appreciations by familiar faces:
Anyway, one of Scottie’s several acts was a Bert Williams tribute number, which she came and performed for us in 1998, 2002 and 2007 (at Surf Reality, New-York Historical Society and the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge, respectively). Because the number is educational and a tribute and impersonation and not incidentally because Scotty herself is African-American, she is able to do it in blackface, viz:
As you can imagine, the effect produces gasps, but Scottie’s presentation makes it pretty clear that this is a conversation, not an exploitation. Minstrelsy is a vital part of the tradition, and Scottie does it the only way it CAN be done nowadays.
Says Scottie: “…Following the turbulence of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, I as a black performer wanted, demanded and needed the freedom to be any character I wanted to be without others dictating what I should be, and give Black children the chance to dream of being what they wanted to be…..thus Salt & Pepper Mime was born, embracing black & white culture through multi-cultural expression. Dr. Jacques O. Burdick was a fantastic professor and chairman of theatre at Adelphi University who lit my fire. Nicholas Petron was a professor who asked me to perform learn the cakewalk, spoons and introduced me to “Nobody” and Bert Williams.” She lists as other influences: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (and his cinematic partner Shirley Temple), Red Skelton, Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals and the Bowery Boys.
At any rate, I’m glad I sent out that mailer!
To learn 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.