Stars of Vaudeville #243: Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates
As the name implies, Peg Leg Bates was a one-legged tap dancer who abjured a modern prosthetic for a Captain Ahab model. The consummate show-man, he had many different colored pegs, which he would coordinate with his costumes.
What keeps this act from being a “freak act” is that Bates was such an extraordinary dancer. He began at age five on the South Carolina cotton plantation where his family sharecropped, barefoot and with no music, just the rhythm of hand claps. His father having abandoned the family, Bates went to work at a cotton gin at age 12, which is where he lost the bottom of his right leg in an accident. He loved dancing so much he never stopped. It took him eighteen months to get the hang of the broom handle-like contraption at the end of his knee, and then he went right on dancing, horseback riding, bicycling and playing baseball, never realizing that it was completely remarkable. By age 15, he was quite the professional. Burning with ambition, he endeavored to surpass many two-legged tap dancers, which he succeeded in doing. He developed a unique sound, creating a special wooden leg with a tip that was half rubber and half leather, allowing him to achieve all sorts of rhythmic effects.
Bates danced his way up the ladder from minstrelsy to the TOBA circuit (where he performed from 1922-26) to a major Broadway revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (1929). Only then did he go into white vaudeville, where he performed on the Keith, Loews, and Franchon and Marco circuits. He continued to perform in the presentation houses when they began to supplant the vaudeville theatres. In 1938, he toured the Tivoli Circuit in Australia where vaudeville was still going strong. After this he played night clubs, where he was spotted by (then) columnist Ed Sullivan, who became a life-long supporter from the 1930s on. He made 21 appearances on Sullivan’s TV show, which is more than any other one legged tap dancer! In 1951, established the first African American country club in Kerhonkson, New York, which was in operation until 1987. Bates passed away in 1998 at the age of 91.
To find out more about vaudeville 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.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see 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