Everybody in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is somebody, even if it takes a little digging to find out who they are. I keep thinking I’ve written about everyone in that film, but then keep discovering that I haven’t. This will probably keep happening until the day I die. At any rate, I’d long wondered about the African American farmer in the rickety truck that gets pushed down a steep grade, shedding his load along the way, and then says to his wife, “I said it before and I’ll say it again: I didn’t want to move to California!” I first saw the movie in the 1970s, when the actor who plays the part had ceased to be a recognizable face. Given the caliber of the cast you’d expect somebody instantly spottable. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is elsewhere in the film, of course. But one could reasonably be forgiven for expecting someone like Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit or Willie Best in this role. I’m sure I looked up who it was (Nick Stewart) at some point in the past, and decided he was just a bit player and let it go at that.
But how wrong I was! I simply didn’t look hard enough. Horace Winfred “Nick” Stewart (1910-2000) was a pretty important guy in show business, one whose legacy is still being felt. On stage and screen his character was often known as “Nicodemus” — hence “Nick”. He started out dancing at the Cotton Club and the Hoofers Club in Harlem and in black vaudeville. His first of 60 screen credits came in Prosperity (1932) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, in which he played the first of his many train porters. (That, and shoeshine boys, were a staple of his career as late as Silver Streak in 1976). He was probably most famous as Lightnin’ on the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy (1951-53), but he had also been in Mae West’s Go West Young Man (1936), Jack Benny’s The Meanest Man in the World (1943), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), Follow the Boys (1944), Zombies on Broadway (1945), Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945), Night and Day (1946), Carmen Jones (1954), St. Louis Blues (1958), and of course It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Stewart also did memorable (if now controversial) voiceovers in Walt Disney’s Dumbo (1941) and Song of the South (1946). He was also in the Broadway shows Swingin’ the Dream (1939) and Louisiana Purchase (1940-41). His final film role was in Hollywood Shuffle (1987).
I mentioned a lasting legacy though, and he has one, beyond all of his screen credits. In 1950, Stewart and his wife Edna founded the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles, which produced live theatre productions starring African Americans. For nearly half a century it was a major gathering spot for Hollywood showfolk, with well known celebrities in the casts and in the audience. The theatre occupied its own building (in various locations) until the late 1990s, when it was closed and demolished due to code violations. Stewart only outlived his theatre by a couple of years. The organization he built continues to produce shows and other work without the permanent brick and mortar headquarters.
To learn about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; and for more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube