Stage performer George Dewey Washington (1898-1954) was born on this day. Named after an Admiral in the Spanish-American War, George Dewey Washington was a African American bass-baritone who sang in vaudeville in the 1920s and 30s dressed in a tramp costume: battered top hat, patched pants, ragged coat, in the tradition of Bert Williams.
Born in Rock Island, Illinois, he spent most of his childhood in Salt Lake City where he preacher father started the first Baptist church. From there the family moved to Portland when Washington was 16, and he later moved to Seattle, doing all sorts of odd jobs. In 1922 he moved to San Francisco to be a singer. After trying and failing to get hired at every theatre in town (rejected because of his color), a man named Paul Ash gave Washington a chance at his Granada Theatre. Washington was held over for 42 weeks, his salary going from $50 to $350, very big money in those days. Soon, he was touring the entire vaudeville circuit. Almost everyone who speaks about Washington talks about his remarkable diction and articulation (especially notable because he was untrained). This gave him a tremendous stage presence. In later years, his repertoire included old fashioned sentimental weepies like “Old Man River” and “Laugh, Clown,Laugh”. He worked Harlem nightclubs, did a couple of all black stage shows Old Kentucky (1932) and Rhythm Hotel (1935), was in the 1933 Broadway stage show Strike Me Pink and some early talkie movie shorts in 1929 and 1930 (the photo above is from 1930’s Ole King Cotton.)
Washington continued performing in night clubs at least through 1949 (the latest newspaper reference I could find). He passed away in 1954 (thanks, Walt S. for the research that uncovered that!)
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 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