This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
John W. Cooper (1873-1966) was the first African American ventriloquist to play the predominantly white vaudeville circuits. A Brookly native, he attended Professor Dorsey’s Institute, and worked as a stable boy at the racetracks in Sheepshead Bay.
He began performing in minstrel shows in the 1880s such as the Southern Jubilee Singers and Richards and Pringles Georgia Minstrels. He was not part of the minstrel company proper, i.e. wearing blackface as they did even in all black minstrel companies, or participating in the formal minstrel routines. He simply came into the olio and did his specialty number, which was his ventriloquist routine.
In 1901, he got his big break when the White Rats went on strike, creating an emergency need for talent on the big time vaudeville circuit. He billed himself variously as “The only Colored Ventriloquist in the World,” “America’s Representative Colored Ventriloquist,” and “Cooper, The Great Ventriloquist.” His primary dummy (the one pictured above) was named Sam Jackson. He also did a sketch called “Fun in a Barber Shop” where Cooper did six different puppet characters all in their barber chairs. In later years he was a regular on “The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour,” and became a mentor to Shari Lewis and other young ventriloquists. He didn’t retire until 1960 at the age of 87.
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.