Foottit and Chocolat: Groundbreaking Interracial Comedy Team of Fin de Siècle Paris

It is interesting to speculate whether the French comedy team Foottit and Chocolat could have worked with popular success in American vaudeville. The “Master and Man” aspects of their stage relationship approximates those of minstrelsy’s interlocuter-and-end-man, but also the “Zip Coon” + Tambo or Bones combination which later influenced many an American vaudeville team. And yet America’s IRL racism meant that racially integrated teams like theirs were banned from most U.S. theatres. There were certainly simulated ones, by way of blackface, but outside of certain temporary sketches and scenes on the legit stage, there were no black-and-white teams in American entertainment back in the day. Foottit and Chocolat were the toast of Paris from circa 1890 through 1910, which were peak years in American vaudeville — but also of American Jim Crow. So it wasn’t to be, though it might have done American audiences a lot of good to experience them.

George Foottit (1864-1921) came from English circus folk on both sides of his family. He made his clown debut at age three as a sort of comical mini-me to his father. Foottit pere, like Joe Keaton, was a bit of a drunkard. He died of cirrhosis of the liver when the boy was 10. His mother then married an equestrian named Thomas Batty, from whom Foottit learned to ride expertly. He also became a skilled tumbler and wire-walker. When he got older, his mother sent him to a relative, “Lord” George Sanger, at the time one of England’s top circus impresarios, in whose circus he further honed these skills. Sensing that he was never going to set the world on fire as an acrobat and horseman, Foottitt decided to revert to clowning while performing with the Cirque Continental in France. Initially Foottit was an equestrian clown like Poodles Hanneford; one of his first audience hits was a drag parody of the then-popular ballerinas on horseback. He became a star of the Nouveau Cirque in Paris, where he trotted out scores of characters. Drag continued to be a specialty; one of his biggest hits was a parody of Bernhardt as Cleopatra.

In the early 1890s, Foottit formally teamed up with Chocolat (Rafael Padilla, 1860s-1917), a top auguste, who’d partnered with many clowns at the Noveau Cirque up until that time. Chocolat had been born to Cuban slaves, was raised by a foster parent in a Havana slum, and then “sold” (though technically free) to a Spanish businessman. Chocolat fled from his slave-like position as a house servant, and worked for several years as a quarryman, a train porter, and a dock worker. The great auguste Tony Grice spotted his natural antics on a pier one day, and hired him to be his personal servant, and it was from this situation that Chocolat worked his way into the act and a place as a star of the Nouveau Cirque, much as Shorty Blanche became part of W.C. Fields’s act. Dressed in the dandy-ish clothes of a man about town, Chocolat went from being a real servant (with all of the trials that that implies) to playing one for laughs.

When paired with Foottit, the pair formed a magical clown-auguste relationship that proved to have lasting influence on European clowning. At their height they were stars of the Folies Bergère and preserved on film by the Lumiére brothers (check ’em out on Youtube!). They were sketched by Toulouse-Lautrec, and mentioned in the fiction of Colette. In time fashions changed, however. Their vogue fell away and they returned to the circus. Foottit and Chocolat split in 1910 and neither fared very well apart from one another. Each struggled for jobs, and were considered throwbacks to earlier times, not at all part of the coming Jazz Age (ironic considering how much we associate Jazz Age Paris with performers of African descent like Josephine Baker and Mabel Mercer.)

Groundbreaking as they were in France, references to Foottit and Chocolat in America are rare. Gene Kelly based a number in An American in Paris (1951) on Lautrec’s sketches of Chocolat. Footit and Chocolat are depicted in John Huston’s 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Also recommended is the 2016 French bio-pic Chocolat starring the great Omar Sy (perhaps known best to Americans as the title character in Lupin) and James Thierrée (a grandson of Charlie Chaplin).

It wouldn’t be until over a half century after Foottit and Chocolate parted ways that America would get its first interracial comedy team Tim and Tom (if you don’t include Jack Benny and Rochester, which is actually worth considering, or Bert Williams and his temporary comedy scene partners in the Ziegfeld Follies, like Leon Errol). Better known to the contemporary public would be Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, who teamed up temporarily for several movies in the fashion of Hope and Crosby, and that’s not ’til the mid 1970s.

To learn more about variety arts history please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous