Okay, I thought I’d seen everything — or at least I thought I’d seen the upper limit in the line of differently-abled tap dancers in the person of Peg Leg Bates. Uh-uh. The other day I was watching the very cool artifact Boarding House Blues and comes the scene of the big talent show (to raise money for the rent – -same old story), when, from out of the nowhere, the first act in the show is THIS man.
Born in Cuba in 1923, Henry Heard became a professional dance at around age 13. He lost his right arm and right leg in an automobile and train accident in Memphis, Tennessee in either 1938 or 1941 (I’ve seen both accounts). But he just kept on plugging; so remarkable was the visual impression of his act that he became a headliner in black vaudeville and nightclubs. Still, he seemed a magnet for bad luck. In 1959 he was robbed of a thousand dollars on his way to a gig in Canada (what kind of person does that?). The following year, he suffered a bad fall as the result of a stroke, breaking several bones. I’ve not been able to learn when he died (imagine the difficulty of Googling using the search terms “crip” and “obituary”. A needle in a haystack.)
His major day in the sun came in that appearance in the 1949 film Boarding House Blues. The producers made the mistake of putting him on first. Talk about an impossible act to follow.
To find out more about the variety arts 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. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.