Mable Lee: Queen of the Soundies

Mable Lee (1921-2019) began performing in black vaudeville and nightclubs in her native Georgia when she was but four years old. A song and dance prodigy, her career took off in 1940 when she moved to New York and began performing regularly at the Apollo Theater, followed by several months at the London Palladium.

Her nickname comes from the fact that she appeared in hundreds of Soundies, those very short films that were shown on juke box like devices in bars and restaurants in the 40s. She also appeared in around a dozen movie shorts for theatrical release, including Swanee Showboat (1940) with Nina Mae McKinney and Pigmeat Markham; I Want a Big Fat Mama (1941); Your Feet’s Too Big (1941) with Fats Waller; The Joint is Jumpin’ (1941) also with Waller; Babbling Bess (1943); Pigmeat Throws the Bull (1945), also with Markham; Brother Bill (1945) with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson; Sizzle with Sissle (1946) with Noble Sissle; Baby Don’t Go Away From Me (1946); Reet, Petite and Gone (1947) with Louis Jordan; O’Voutie O’Rooney (1947); and The Dreamer (1948) with Mantan Moreland. By 1947 she was well known enough to be featured on the cover of Ebony magazine.

Next came legit stage work: the West End revue Here There and Everywhere (1947), the Broadway revival of Shuffle Along (1952), Off-Broadway’s The Hoofers (1969), and the national tour of Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976-78). In latter years she taught dance, and appeared at tap dance festivals. In fact…wait for it…her last performance was in 2018! She passed away the following year — this 2019 obit was how I learned of her. She was a real link in the chain between the old days and these.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous