African American actor-performer Mantan Moreland, best known today for playing the terrified comic relief in films like the Charlie Chan series, and for his immortal catch phrase “Feets, don’t fail me now!” was born this day in 1902 in Monroe, Louisiana. Moreland ran off and joined the circus on those unfailing feet when still a child, and worked his way up to black vaudeville, Harlem nightclubs, and eventually revues like Blackbirds of 1928 and The Chocolate Scandals of 1931. He was briefly teamed up with Flournoy Miller in several shows and films following the success of their interplay in a revival of Shuffle Along. When they moved to Hollywood in the 30s, ironically Moreland got cast and Miller did not. In addition to the eye-popping, jaw-dropping, fright-wig wearing bit parts in major films that paid Moreland’s bills during the 30s and 40s, he also had many starring roles in what were then called “race pictures”. Of special interest to vaudeville fans is that he was one of the performers (along with Nipsy Russell ) to star in a vaudeville revival at the Palace in 1949. He continued to perform (despite criticism from younger audiences about the demeaning nature of some of his portrayals) until his death in 1973.
Here he is with Russell in a clip purporting to be from the Apollo Theater in 1955:
To learn 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 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