Charles “Slim” Timblin (ca. 1892-1962) was known for a single signature bit in vaudeville, a comedy monologue he did in blackface** as an African American preacher. He does the bit in the 1930 Vitaphone short called Revival Day, which is chiefly the thing most folks know him today for. Oddly, the film is shot in a church set for an audience of actual African Americans, an awkward spectacle to behold.
Thanks to reader Joseph Scott for digging up the details of Timblin’s birth and death. Timblin was from Butler, Pennsylvania and started out as a musician in local theatres. The earliest references to him performing in vaudeville I’ve found were in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1920 and Connersville, Indiana in 1922. A 1924 item in the Healdsburg (California) Tribune mentions that his wife Ella Russell was joining him on the circuits in a “blackface skit”. He’s in a vaudeville bill that opens for a movie at Brooklyn’s E.F. Albee Theatre in 1929 along with prima ballerina Jeanne Devereaux and Smith and Dale. His act is described as a “blackface comedy skit”. The following year he opens for a movie at New York’s Paramount Theatre, doing a sketch with his company called “Old Virginny”.
Revival Day, released in 1930 was his first film appearance. In 1934, he’s in a short called Broadway Varieties with another blackface performer named Warren Boyde, along with singer Adelaide Hall, the Mosconi Brothers, acrobat James Wong, and “midget tenor” Murray Wood.
In 1936, his other major claim to fame: he was booked as a replacement in the role of Jeter for the touring production of the Broadway smash Tobacco Road. This ushers in a new period for Timblin, in which he essays “cracker” parts rather than blackface ones. In 1937, he did this sort of thing in two Hollywood films: a Republic B movie with Robert Livingston and Smiley Burnette called Larceny on the Air; and a Paramount comedy set in the Ozarks called Mountain Music, directed by Robert Florey and featuring Martha Raye, Bob Burns, Gabby Hayes, Jan Duggan and Fuzzy Knight.
But then it was back to blackface. I guess he thought it was “sure fire”. Here’s a photo I found of Timblin and an elephant, supposedly taken backstage at the Chicago Palace in 1937 by George Mann of the team of Barto & Mann.
We lose track of him for several years after this, though this ad looks like it’s from the ’40s.
Timblin next turns up on bills at the Palace Theatre when they attempted several vaudeville revivals. He played there in 1949 and was called the “biggest hit on the bill.” But his old blackface preacher seemed to wear out its welcome quickly. He appeared there again the following year with lady magician Joan Brandon and the Hilton Sisters, and a critic for Billboard rightly castigated him for doing this antiquated racial material when times were so clearly changing. Yet he was booked to do this act there again in 1954. All I can think is that they were seeking an “old time vaudeville” flavor for these revivals, and one of the easiest ways to telegraph that intention was to book an act like Timblin’s. However, 1954 was also the year of Brown vs. the Board of Education. His act was increasingly untenable, and indeed I find no record of it after this. He was living in Dallas, Texas at the time of his death in 1962.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.