Monday, February 9, 2009
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949)
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson dances the stairs with Shirley Temple from "The Little Colonel" (1935)
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film. At the age of six, Robinson began dancing for a living appearing as a "hoofer" or song-and-dance man in local beer gardens. At seven, Bill dropped out of school to pursue dancing. He invented a type of dancing called stair dancing in 1884. Two years later in Washington, DC, he toured with Mayme Remington's troupe. In 1891, at the age of 12, he joined a traveling company in The South Before the War, and in 1905 worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville team. He gained great success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway. Not until he was 50 did he dance for white audiences, having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the black theater circuit.
Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928, a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. From then on, his public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem.
After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Just Around the Corner (1938), or Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky.