Today is the birthday of Amanda Randolph (1896-1967), a theatrical Renaissance woman and pioneer on many fronts. Originally from Kentucky, her professional career began as a teenager playing piano and organ in Cleveland, OH theatres. She is the only known African American woman to have recorded piano rolls (at least in the original era when people were making piano rolls.) Billed as Mandy Randolph, she also wrote several songs and cut several record albums in the early 1920s.
Throughout the twenties and early 30s she worked in black vaudeville and also in several African American musicals, including two Sissle and Blake shows Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, as well as Lucky Sambo in which she appeared with Tim Moore. In 1936 (after taking a few years off to help her husband run his popular Harlem restaurant) she came back like gangbusters, appearing in films and on radio, cutting new records, and performing live. In the early 40s, she also appeared in several Broadway shows, including The Male Animal, Harlem Cavalcade and The Willow and I.
But it was in television that she was the true pioneer. She was the first African American to star in her own tv show, The Laytons, on the DuMont Network in 1948. The show only ran two months and the network itself was short-lived, helping to explain why this fact is not better known. Randolph was also the first African American to have her own daytime program Amanda, which ran on Dumont from 1948 to 1949. Other tv shows she worked on included Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah, and The Danny Thomas Show. Most of her earliest films were so-called race films, many produced and directed by independent African American entrepreneur Oscar Micheaux. Here’s one of ’em! Swing! made in 1938:
To learn more about the history of show business, 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 please 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