Theatre yesterday and today



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This being the birthdate of Bert Williams, I am reposting (in a fashion) a column from June 20th, which was a date in his career (and in theatre history) that had great significance for African-Americans:

Bert Williams in his prime (circa 1915)

Born in Nassau, Bahamas in 1875, Egbert Austin Williams lived in New York, then California with his family as a boy. A self-taught musician, he possessed a comic mimicry that were only part of his special gifts. He managed to go to Stanford, but had to cut his studies short to earn a living, which is when he entered show business. It was on many a rough road outside Los Angeles that saw him as a barker for medicine shows, almost exclusively selling fake cures for whatever ailed people. Moving north to San Francisco's Barbary Coast, he was a saloon singer and comedian, catering to sailors on shore leave. This led to his beginnings in more legit surroundings, taking to the various stages of music halls in San Francisco, mostly (due to his color) as someone to sing in front of the curtain while sets were being changed backstage.

As he continued this apprenticeship, Williams developed characters that brought nuance and dignity for a black performer than had never occurred to management or even to audiences. Not only was he funny and a strong singer, but he had abilities as a mime that made his work different from anyone else in his class (and whether there were any others in his class is a good question). Though it was a slow climb, it eventually brought Williams to the top, even if as an African-American he almost always appeared in blackface, the norm for its time. It was in 1910, when he was already one of the most famous names on the vaudeville circuit, that Williams became the first person of color to share the bill with white performers on Broadway. This accomplishment could only have happened as he was in the rarified position as the first black American admired by people of all races. Still, the mingling of the races was something which made many Americans nervous.

Audiences of 1910 might not have been all that shocked to see a black performer appearing on stage with white performers, as they were always in blackface. How could they really tell who was who? But the idea that anyone buying a ticket to The Ziegfeld Follies wasn't looking out for the moment Bert Williams hit the stage was next to impossible. Not only did audiences want to see him, but he couldn't be hidden, because with this particular Follies, Florenz Ziegfeld fully intended (for the first time) to showcase Williams and bill him as a star attraction alongside Lillian Lorraine and Fanny Brice. Ziegfeld's biggest problem wasn't whether or not this might go down with the public, but more about whether members of his company would go out on stage with him. Several cast members demanded Williams be fired. Standing tough, Ziegfeld told them, "I can replace every one of you, except [Williams]."

It was Ziegfeld alone who made it possible for Bert Williams to take his place where he belonged, side by side with the other great vaudevillians of the day, on the opening night of The Ziegfeld Follies of 1910. Beloved by those who saw him on the stage, his masterful comic timing, pantomiming and singing can now only be glimpsed in bits and pieces of film. But the genius is all there.

One of his most famous characters was that of Mr. Nobody, whose signature song would later be sung by everyone from Nina Simone to Johnny Cash. It was also the inspiration for "Mr. Cellophane," the song written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for Chicago in 1975.

There are recordings available of Williams singing, as well as some silent shorts (produced by Williams himself, as no one else would back them). As primitive as they are, at least they are preserved and can give some indication of what he was capable of as a mime. A YouTube video below showcases one of his most famous routines. Made in 1916, the final 3 minutes of A Natural Born Gambler allows for "the poker game," a mime performance that still holds up today:

At the height of his fame, one of those with whom Williams shared the stage was the comedian W.C. Fields, who is quoted as having said of his friend: "He was the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever met."

Williams left this earth too soon, from what many reports have indicated was a life of overwork. He couldn't bear disappointing his audiences if he was too sick to go on, and often performed when ill. One night, fighting a serious case of pneumonia, he collapsed on stage and was said to have remarked after being taken off into the wings, "That's a nice way to die. They was laughing when I made my last exit.”

His life ended within a week. He was forty-six years old.

Ron Fassler's Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: