To honor Black History Month, I will take each week and focus on different professions and disciplines and the various African Americans who influenced them. This week is my favorite area, of course, Entertainment: Stage and Film but in the early 20th Century.
Today’s Person of the Hour is Bert Williams.*
Having to quit his study of civil engineering at Stanford for financial reasons, Bert Williams turned his musical skills and comic mimicry into a career. In 1892 he worked at the San Francisco Museum singing in front of the curtain while sets were being changed backstage. A year later, he joined the Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrel Show. He then partnered with George W. Walker and the two billed themselves as “Two Real Coons” going on to become one of the most successful comedy teams of their era. By 1903 they were on Broadway where their act became a full-scale musical comedy. Their production titled In Dahomey (1902), which they produced, wrote and starred in, was the first Black musical comedy to open on Broadway. Unfortunately, Walker died in 1909, leaving Williams to become a single act. He became the first black actor to become a star comedian on Broadway and Theatre Magazine called Bert Williams “a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage.” He was also the first black actor to join Actor’s Equity thanks to the efforts of W.C. Fields. Though he had to play to familiar Jim Crow characters (dimwits, dumb characters), his acting strength and popularity allowed for him to step out a little from behind the stereotypes that such characters pushed, but it was still a struggle, something he wrestled with his entire life.
Williams is also the first black comedian to ever appear in a movie, debuting on screen in 1914 in a movie titled Darktown Jubilee. It, however, wasn’t received well by white audiences and was quickly pulled from circulation by distributor Biograph.
He went on to direct and produce various films, as well as continuing to perform on stage. He created his most famous vaudeville character named Mr. Nobody whose sad song would later be sung by everyone from Nina Simone to Johnny Cash. Despite his success, the color of his skin still limited his potential and he had a lot of trouble reconciling the praise he received when onstage versus the treatment he received when off it. This often manifested itself into depression, heavy drinking and insomnia. Eventually he contracted pneumonia and on February 25, 1922, halfway through an evening performance at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago, Williams collapsed. He went back to his home in New York City where he died on March 4, 1922 at the age of 47. He is looked upon as one of the most significant contributors to the history of American show business.
“I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient – in America.” – Bert Williams (1874-1922).
Audio of Bert Williams performing Mr. Nobody:
* Biographical information gathered from here.