Archive for the African American Interest Category

The Ongoing Saga of the Hottentot Venus

Posted in African American Interest, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by travsd

First of all, we no longer say “Hottentot”. The proper name for this tribe of Southern African hunter-gatherers is Khoikhoi; Dutch colonists dubbed them “Hottentot” in mockery of their click-based language shortly after first encountering them in the 17th century. In the 19th century, when Africans were often exhibited in Europe and America as curiosities and “missing links”, khoikhoi were among the more popular examples, due to their small stature and the condition present in many of the females known as steatopygia, which refers to large accumulations of tissue in their buttocks and thighs.

More than one woman was exhibited by Europeans as a “Hottentot Venus”; the best known was a woman named Sarah (sometimes Sara or Saartje) Baartman (sometimes Bartman, Bartmann, or Baartment), ca. 1790-1815. Baartman was brought to London in 1810 by two unscrupulous men and exhibited as a freak on the stages of Picadilly for four years. In 1814 she was acquired by another man who brought her to Paris where she was exhibited by an animal trainer and examined by scientists from the Museum of Natural History. When she died in 1815 her body was dissected and a plaster cast was made of her body, and the results were on public display in Paris for over a century. Her remains were finally returned to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

In 1995 Suzan-Lori Parks fictionalized Baartman’s story and transferred its themes of racist colonial exploitation to her OBIE-winning play Venus. The Signature Rep has revived the work as part of their season devoted to Parks’ plays. Performances began this week, with an opening day announced for May 15. Tickets and more information are here at the Signature Theatre’s site. 

Nine Favorite Chuck Berry Covers

Posted in African American Interest, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 19, 2017 by travsd

This is how Chuck Berry looked on tv when I was a kid. He just died at 90. Wake up call!

Rock in Peace, Chuck Berry! I have little to add to the tribute I wrote in 2010, except 90 is a damn good run, Rudolph. One good measure of the value of a songwriter is the number and quality of cover versions of songs you wrote, and the prestige of those who perform them. Here are some covers of Berry’s songs I have particularly enjoyed,in no particular order:

1.”Come On” — The Rolling Stones.

I love the original version of course (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bass) but I also love the Stones’ arrangement with its manic key changes, wacky energy, and harmonica punctuation. For some reason the Stones changed Berry’s more forceful “stupid jerk” to “stupid guy” — always wondered about that.

2. “Memphis” — Johnny Rivers

“Memphis” may well be Berry’s most covered song. It is haunting and poignant and sweet and wonderfully constructed, with that touching twist in the last verse, and original turns of phrase like “hurry-home drops”. Rivers practically made an entire career covering Berry tunes, but this may be his best known one (and perhaps the best known version) of the song. (Another version I’ve always loved is the Beatles’, from the Cavern years. John Lennon’s performance pulls the heart strings; he seems to invest a lot of emotion into it)

3. “Roll Over, Beethoven” — The Beatles

Well, it’s hard to choose just ONE Beatles Chuck Berry cover — their version of “Rock and Roll Music” absolutely tears it up. But I’ve always had a particular affection for their cover of “Roll Over, Beethoven” as one of George Harrison’s earliest moments to shine; he has a lilt in his voice I’ve always loved, and I like the way the Beatles version flows even more than the original. The whole thing is much more frenetic.

4. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — Jerry Lee Lewis

Okay, this song is dirty whether Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis is singing it, given their mutual penchant for VERY under-aged girls. But Lewis MAKES it more dirty in his virgin. Berry’s a writer; when he performs his version you at least IMAGINE the singer is also a teenager. When Lewis does it, nope, he’s 24…then 34…then 44. Probably still be tryin’ it at 84.

5. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — Buddy Holly

We all know that this began life as “Brown-SKINNED Handsome Man”, but that hasn’t stopped white skinned men from interpreting it. Buddy Holly, as he often did, brings a bit of Bo Diddly clave rhythm energy into it, and I hear Holly’s voice just as easily as Berry’s whenever I think of the song.

6. “Too Much Monkey Business” — The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds live version (from 1963’s Five Live Yardbirds) of this tears up. When one thinks of the Berry version one thinks mostly of the lyrics, it’s just a tour de force of language and vocal performance. With the Yardbirds, it’s all about the heavy, amplified bass and guitars. Keith Relf’s vocal performance is def proto-punk.

7. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — The Beach Boys (as “Surfin U.S.A.”)

As even a child can tell, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is simply “Sweet Little Sixteen” with altered lyrics, with that wonderful stop-and-start energy, and Carl Wilson’s almost note for note homage to his master (Wilson was probably Berry’s foremost acolyte as a guitar player. Yes, Keith Richard and George Harrison, too, but those guys absorbed and synthesized a lot of OTHER guitar players. With Wilson, you just hear the influence of Chuck.) The Beach Boys also had a hit with Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, one of their biggest hits of the 1970s, but I find the arrangement cluttered and simply don’t like it as much.

8. “Johnny B. Goode” — Jimi Hendrix 

Hendrix wasn’t just a musical, aural genius — we often forget that he was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing showman — much like Berry himself. The blues was always the foundation of what he did, no matter how psychedelic he got. His interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is a great illustration of the range of the performer, and the adaptability of the song itself.

9. “Around and Around” — The Animals

“Around and Around” is a great party song, it’s all about a fun time, “what a crazy sound”. It lent itself well to the Animals’ quintessential sixties wildness, with Eric Burdon’s rough, raw vocals, with Alan Price’s organ helping it swing.

Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Louise Beavers: Started as a “Lady Minstrel”

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Louise Beavers’ (1902-1962) birthday is today.

Originally from Cincinnati, Beavers moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at age 11. Her mother was a singing instructor. Through her, Beavers started singing in choirs and amateur concerts, eventually joining a group called “The Lady Minstrels” which played dates in vaudeville and presentation houses. In early adulthood she worked as a domestic to stars like Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, an irony given the large numbers of servants and house slaves she would play during her movie career. As was sadly common at the time, those sorts of characters were almost exclusively what she got to play.

Her first film work was as an extra in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When talking films came in she instantly progressed to small speaking roles. She’s in Mary Pickford’s first talkie Coquette (1929), the lost classic Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Bombshell (1933) and dozens of others.

In 1934 she attained the highlight of her career, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in the classic race drama Imitation of Life (1934). While she had ample chance to shine in that movie, and received plenty of good notices, it unfortunately didn’t lead to lots of similar work. She was instantly relegated back to the same sort of domestic roles in films like General Spanky (1936), No Time for Comedy (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), although she did get a fine part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as the star player’s mother. In the 1950s she was a familiar face on television on shows such as Beulah (1952) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-1954).

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Ruby Dandridge: In Her Own Right

Posted in African American Interest, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , on March 3, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the pathbreaking Ruby Dandridge (Ruby Jean Butler, 1900-1987). Dandridge was one of the few “pushy stage mothers” of famous performing children to achieve a substantial show biz career in her own right.

The daughter of a sometime performer (and “minstrel man”) from Jamaica, Dandridge grew up in Witchita Kansas. In 1919 she married minister and cabinet maker Cyril Dandridge and the pair moved to Cleveland, Ohio where their daughters Vivian and Dorothy were born. The perpetually jobless Cyril was soon out of the picture, and Ruby began a romantic relationship with a woman named Geneva Williams, who now became the mother figure to the daughters.

With Geneva as their manager the girls began performing as “The Wonder Children” in 1934. A third girl Etta Jones was added and their professional name became the Dandridge Sisters, which rapidly became an act of national stature, winning a Los Angeles radio talent show, and headlining at New York’s Cotton Club. Soon the girls were appearing in films like The Big Broadcast of 1936 and A Day at the Races (1937). The group broke up in 1940, with Dorothy going on to become the most successful, becoming the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for her performance in Carmen Jones (1954).

Meanwhile, Ruby had launched her own career as well. She began as an extra in horror films like King Kong (1934) and Black Moon (1934). She became one of the voices of the racist Warner Bros. cartoon character Bosko in the mid 30s. Her squeaky voice served her well there and on radio shows like Amos and Andy, The Judy Canova Show, and Beulah, and in other cartoons such as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943) and Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears (1944). Her epic size (larger by far than even Hattie McDaniel) was an asset on screen as well. You can see her in such films as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Saratoga Trunk (1945), Tap Roots (1948) and A Hole in the Head (1959), as well as the tv version of Beulah(1952-53), and one season of Father of the Bride (1961-62). The bulk of her roles were maid parts, a typical indignity for the time. She also performed in the occasional stage production and night club date.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Aida Overton Walker: Queen of the Cakewalk

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914): singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, comedienne and “Queen of the Cakewalk”. Her birthday: today.

Born Ada Overton (she later embellished the spelling for professional reasons) in Greenwich Village, Overton was the daughter of a waiter and a seamstress. Her dancing talent was so evident from a young age that her parents provided her with formal training. She was only 15 when she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, an all-black minstrel show in 1895. In 1896-97 she was a member of the legendary Black Patti’s Troubadours.  In 1898, the comely chorine answered a call to model for an advertisement for Walker and Williams vaudeville revue at Koster and Bial’s. This led to her joining the show in the chorus, which then led to her being a featured performer with her partner Grace Halliday. Overton and Halliday performed as the Honolulu Belles in the first of the Walker and Williams musicals The Policy Players (1899).

That year, she also married George Walker and attained star status in the company, essentially becoming a third partner in the most celebrated African American act of the era. Overton was to choreograph all the Walker and Williams shows, as well as Cole and Johnson’s 1911 show Red Moon. The  Walkers became the most celebrated cakewalking couple in the country. Overton was to gain inroads into white society by teaching the dance at private functions. Meanwhile, she was in the process of becoming the top female African American stage performer of her day. In The Sons of Ham (1900) she made a hit with “Miss Hannah from Savanna”.  In Dahomey (1902) was the show that turned the decades-old cakewalk into a dance craze with whites as well; it toured as far as London, where the company gave a Command Performance for King Edward VII. Next came Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). The latter show featured Overton’s tasteful, refined take on the Salome dance craze then sweeping the nation.

As Salome

As Salome

In 1909 George Walker collapsed while they were still performing Bandanna Land, incapacitated by late-stage syphilis. Overton took over his role in the show in addition to her own, an indication of the scope of her talents. Walker passed away in 1911,but Overton remained in the limelight. She appeared in and choreographed Cole and Johnson’s Red Moon (1909), co-starred with J.S. Dudley in the Smart Set Company’s production of His Honor the Barber (1910). And she toured Big Time Vaudeville. In 1912 she performed her Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The following she returned at the head of an entire troupe. She also donated her time organizing benefit shows charities.

When she died suddenly and mysteriously of kidney failure in 1914 it was mourned as a great loss throughout the African American community. She was only 34. Bert Williams would pass away only 8 years later.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Child Stars, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.

As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.

The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.

Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.

 

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