Stars of Vaudeville #781: Jeni LeGon
Today is the birthday of Jeni LeGon (1916-2012), one of the first African American women to make a solo career in tap dance. She was already a professional by her teenage years, dancing in a chorus line for Count Basie that toured the Balaban and Katz Circuit, then working with the Whitman Sisters, then in a Detroit nightclub owned by Leonard Reed.
Her Hollywood career began with 1935’s Hooray for Love. She appeared in nearly two dozen movies through 1953, most of them consisting of specialty dance numbers in cabaret scenes and the like, although she also played small acting roles in some of the major studio pictures, and larger roles in race pictures. You can see her in Eddie Cantor’s Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), Stormy Weather (1943), and Easter Parade (1948). Over her career she got to dance with Bill Robinson, Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire, and to play Minnie the Moocher to Cab Calloway in Hi-Di-Ho (1947). The last stretch of her Hollywood career was spent in several spots on the Amos and Andy tv show in 1953. In the late 60s, she moved to Vancouver and opened a dance school. In her last years she racked up a few more film and tv credits, and was the subject of the award winning 1999 documentary Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way. Her last credit was in 2007.
Here’s her number from Ali Baba Goes to Town (alas, Eddie is in blackface):
And here she is in 2004 at the L.A. Tap Festival:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, 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 check out 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