Johnny Hudgins: The Wah-Wah Man

Johnny Hudgins and Florence Mills (and chorus) rehearsing Lew Leslie’s “Blackbirds”

Baltimore-born Johnny Hudgins (1896-1990) was billed in vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs, and musicals as “the Wah Wah Man”. The nickname arose from his act, which consisted of a comical dance he performed whilst the trumpeters in the band played through a plunger or mute. Because he rarely spoke from the stage and his act was movement-based, it was sometimes described as pantomime. Critics of the time called him a “colored Charlie Chaplin.

Hudgins started out dancing in small clubs in Baltimore. For nearly a decade he toured the TOBA (black vaudeville) circuits and burlesque. Like many African comedians of the days (e.g. Bert Williams, Pigmeat Markham) he actually performed in blackface for comic, dramatic and stylistic effect. On Broadway he showcased his patented Wah-Wah dance in the Sissle and Blake show The Chocolate Dandies (1924) with Josephine Baker and others. The following year he was in Lucky Sambo (1925) with Tim Moore. Next he toured with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in 1926. This was where he worked with Florence Mills. Hudgins also appeared in Harlem nightclubs and venues like the Apollo Theatre, the Lafayette Theatre, and the Cotton Club, and toured to London and Paris. In Paris in 1927 he was a star of the Parisian Revue Negre with his friend Josephine Baker. he also appeared with Baker and Fredi Washington in a befit for the American Legion in Paris in September of that year. Around the same time, he appeared in Jean Renoir’s film Charleston Parade (1927).

After this, Hudgins is said to have toured South America. There is no record of him performing in the U.S. after this. He was married to fellow performer Mildred Martien. 

To find out more about history of vaudeville, please avail yourself of  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever brassy books are sold.