From the Daily Mirror mailbox
September 12, 2008 | 5:47 am
The inbox, Williams and Walker
My Sept. 7 piece in "Then and Now" on the black minstrel teams of McIntyre and Heath and Williams and Walker -- based on this Daily Mirror post -- drew a fair number of responses.
It's really nice to have such great readers, and folks, you are welcome to criticize me all you like, but please base it on what I actually said rather than what you think I said. I wrote: "While researching Heath and McIntyre, I ran across another team of entertainers who were far more obscure: Bert Williams and George Walker."
You may notice that in my original Daily Mirror post, I said: "In researching Heath and McIntyre, I ran across another team, perhaps not as well known: Bert Williams and George Walker." Somewhere in the process of turning the post into a story, the "O-word" was introduced, possibly by me or possibly by someone else--I don't recall now. But my name is on the story, so I'll take ownership of it.
My point was (and remains) that in their day, specifically the 1898 booking where they appeared together at the Orpheum in Los Angeles, the team of Williams and Walker wasn't as prominent as the team of McIntyre and Heath. I think that's a pretty defensible argument.
I would invite you to read Bert Williams' March 6, 1922, obituary from The Times, which was evidently based on material Williams provided. Notice that it says he went to school in San Pedro. Curiously enough, it makes no reference to his appearances with the Ziegfeld Follies, but says that Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. sent flowers upon learning of Williams' death. Although the original writer isn't around to answer why there's no mention of Williams' achievements in his later solo career, the Daily Mirror is fortunate to have readers who can add their voices in ways The Times could never imagine in 1922.
Bert Williams obituary, Part 1
Bert Williams obituary, Part 2
Thanks for reading!
ps: Here's a wonderful item I found on Bert Williams from 1920 (and not listed in imdb). Unfortunately, it appears that the movies were never made.
McIntyre and Heath in an undated photo that was published in some editions of The Times when McIntyre died in 1937.
McIntyre and Heath
I was glad to see your piece on McIntyre and Heath in today's paper. In their time, they were among the biggest of acts, and probably the longest-lasting partnership in all of show business. Both were also fabulously wealthy from their investments in Long Island real estate. An interesting interview with Jim McIntyre is in an early issue of VARIETY (actually sworn testimony in court). Both men had long since abandoned the minstrelsy, yet McIntyre described himself and his partner as "nigger singers," a common show-biz term for a pair of minstrels.
It's generally the case with modern accounts of those days to deplore the use of such language and such characters, and to write them off as the products of insensitive times. True, perhaps, but a reading of the trade press of the time shows that a number of potentially-offensive acts existed for any ethnic or racial stereotype you can possibly name. Blacks, of course, get the majority of the attention today, but there were also character Jews, Germans, Mexicans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Swedes--you name it. And each had an associated stereotype with characteristics that would readily play in front of a cold vaudeville audience--cheap, hungry, lazy, etc., etc. If a performer had just 14 minutes to put an act over, he or she had to work quickly. Coming out in character makeup was instant familiarity.
In the trade, these character types were generally labeled with the roughest of slang. But never the performers--just their characters. I firmly believe this is where the racial and ethnic stereotypes we so deplore today originated. They were characters on the vaudeville stage, and they later migrated to radio. Scratch Amos and Andy and you'll get McIntyre and Heath. You will find a pretty fair introduction to McIntyre and Heath in my 2003 biography of W.C. Fields. McIntyre's papers, incidentally, surfaced a few years ago and are now in a university library in the Pacific Northwest.
Two points to be made about Bert Williams: He was so light skinned he had to wear blackface on stage. Moreover, as I understand it, he grew up in Riverside. The other day I was driving through one of those vintage neighborhoods adjacent to the Mission Inn and got to wondering if Williams' house still stands. The local history museum in Riverside, of course, makes no mention of him. A little film of him survives, along with some crude recordings. It's too bad he didn't live another ten years, so that his great routines could have been preserved on the talking screen. There are at least three book on Williams, the earliest published in 1923, the latest in 2005. The best known, NOBODY, was a minor bestseller in the late 1960s.
Just wanted to say how moving I found your piece about blackface. It was so interesting how early the black guys died and how long the white guys lived...
Also look forward to the time when our current crop of performing drug addicts, exhibitionists, criminals, porn addicts and losers become as extinct as this form of "entertainment"...
Just one grandma's opinion.
Jheri St. James
Los Angeles file photo
Bert Williams in his solo act after the death of partner George Walker.
Williams and Walker
Larry, I very much enjoyed your article on McIntyre and Heath. As a collector of old sheet music of that era I have a substantial number of sheet music covers that featured the images of blackface performers. Below is a copy of an 1897 song featuring Williams and Walker. A dealer presently is offering a copy for $200.00.
Williams was not considered black enough, so when he appeared on stage he was corked up in “blackface.”
Williams (left) and Walker 1903
While Williams and Walker may have been more “obscure” as you stated, but Bert Williams was a giant in the entertainment industry. He wrote successful songs, was one of the most successful recording stars of the era, starred in the Ziegfeld Follies, starred in film.
I have numerous music sheets with his image and many of his must successful songs.
I have attached a slightly redacted copy of his bio from Wikipedia. Give us some more articles like this.
James Nelson Brown, Esq
Themiddle ma is an off-handed depiction of the dignified interlocutor, who was addressed as Mr. Interlocutor by Mr. Bones, or whoever.
Bert Williams was one of the most famous performers of his day. His song, "Nobody" is still considered a show-stopping classic.
In today's Los Angeles Times, I found your article about McIntyre, Heath, Williams and Walker interesting. I was surprised that you weren't familiar with Williams & Walker.
In 1987, when my wife and I lived in Atlanta, we saw a wonderful play called "Williams & Walker". It was put on by Jomandi Productions, National Black Touring Circuit, Inc., and American Place/Federal Theater Production. The play starred Ben Harney and a young Vondie Curtis-Hall.
I'd like to see you do a follow up article and talk about Williams & Walker in more depth. I'm sure Vondie Curtis-Hall would be a wealth of knowledge. Also, I've included a helpful link below.
Enjoyed your LA THEN AND NOW article today. I am the Executive Director of the Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks. We have announced our 2009 season which includes a new musical "Bert n' Eddie" the story of Bert Williams and Eddie Cantor. It covers the Ziegfeld Follies time in these two performers lives. The author and composer of original music and lyrics is Richard DeBenedictis who has
been a TV, film and stage composer here and in New York. I have been easearching Bert Williams in preparation of our production next year. Upon reading your article I thought you might appreciate what Bert Williams did after his partner George Walker passed away. He became a Broadway headliner for Ziegfeld and worked with WC Fields, Will Rogers, and did an onstage skit with Eddie Cantor in blackface.
See attached. Yours truly, Dick Johnson.
Fine article in today's times. I had never heard of McIntyre and Heath, but I was familiar with Bert Williams mostly through a wonderful Ry Cooder album (is there any other kind) called "Jazz" released in 1978. On it is a Bert Williams composition with a beautiful melody and brilliant lyrics called "Nobody". If you get a chance give it a listen if you haven't already. I think it reveals a lot about the deep soul that was Bert Williams.
In your piece "Jarring look at an earlier entertainment era" (9-7-08), you wrote "these fellows sounded fairly interesting and worth investigating" about the team of Bert Williams and George Walker. Hello! Did you not as a professional writer fortunate to have a job as a writer immediately recognize Bert Williams needed no investigation as he is a legend, the first African-American superstar performer, the first Black man to headline Broadway, the performer all subsequent African-Americans emulated? You failed to mention this in your research. A paragraph explaining he went on to major stardom following his going solo was needed to round out your piece. And you get a paycheck for such sloppiness?
I have been a Bert Williams fan and was happy to learn he graduated from San Pedro high school but Wikipedi says he graduated from Riverside High . Do you know for sure ? MARK BEGOVICH San Pedro
I love Ry Cooder's version of his song NOBODY !
I enjoyed seeing the article about McIntyre and Heath and Williams and Walker in today's L.A. Times. However, you missed the most compelling story. Williams and Walker had a career that went way beyond what African-Americans of that time ever conceived of - producing some of the first all-black musical-comedies and bringing them to Broadway. As a solo performer, Bert Williams became the only African-American to work in the Zeigfeld Follies - the pinnacle of variety entertainment at the time. No less a person than W.C. Fields called him "the funniest person I ever met...and the saddest." He grew up in Riverside. For more on this era, check out Allen Woll's "Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls" or Ann Charter's "Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams." As far as I know, Bert Williams and George Walker never played in minstrel shows. They did blackface entertainment in the saloon variety shows out of which vaudeville developed.
Liberal Arts & Sciences
Otis College of Art & Design.
I’m glad you ran the article on both white and Black minstrel performers in L.A. What Larry Harnisch didn’t mention was that after his partnership with George Walker broke up (in 1909, two years before Walker’s death), Bert Williams went on to major stardom, becoming the only African-American ever to star in a “Ziegfeld Follies,” recording for Victor and Columbia and even making three short films, two of which he produced himself. At least four biographies of Williams have been written, and his most famous song, “Nobody” (which he wrote), is still performed occasionally.
For anyone who wants to hear the team of Bert Williams and George Walker, at least two of their records — “My Little Zulu Babe” (1901) and “Pretty Desdemone” (1906) — are available as free downloads on the Web site www.archive.org
Mark Gabrish Conlan
In the late forties, while having lunch with Eddie Cantor and Steve Barrie, p.r., for American Cancer Society and a double for Cantor, and being entertained with Cantor’s experiences in vaudeville, in early films and radio, I happened to bring up Bert Williams. Although I had never seen Williams I said how much I enjoyed the weekly minstrel shows at Steel Pier in Atlantic during my 12 week summers. It was there I originally met and became friendly with Lou Costello, who was part of the minstrel shows with Bub Abbott.
“Barney, Bert was the sweetest, loving, human being I ever had the pleasure of working with” Cantor began.. He was the kind of man you wanted as a friend. When I said I would like him to travel with me on some of my engagements he balked.”
“Mr. Eddie” he said, “Traveling with you would mean trouble with my hotels. I wouldn’t like sleeping where black folks can while across town you’re in some ritzy white man’s palace. I’d feel hurt we couldn’t be together”.
“Well…I know what I had to do” Cantor continued. “I didn’t want him to be separated from me. He was my friend. I made him a promise that wherever I stayed, he would stay, too”.
“What are you some kind of a magician” Bert asked with a smile.
“And I quickly replied, ‘Bert, I’ve got to be a magician. Who else has five daughters’. Well….we both laughed and I made it happen. Whatever all-white hotel I was booked into, I made arrangements with the manager. If he would let Bert have a room, that both Bert and I would enter and leave the hotel by the service entrance”.
“How wonderful” I interrupted. “And if not, you probably would have stayed with him where the colored folks stayed”.
“I never thought of that, Barney” Cantor replied with a frown. “I would never ever let that happen. I just thought I could make the manager see that by using the service elevators we’d be invisible to the rest of the guests. And you know what I never figured….how Bert would take such an arrangement. But I soon found out”.
“You mean he was upset that he could stay in a while hotel but resented the way he had to come and go”.
“Let me tell you, Barney….precisely what happened.” Cantor offered. “It was in Detroit. Opening night. The audience went wild with the show. They must have applauded for five minutes. We were so pleased. In fact, we were overjoyed. And as we left the theatre, Bert was quiet. He was so loquatious. Not this time. Knowing Bert like I did I thought he’d tell me when he was ready. That night we did.
“While riding up in the service elevator Bert kept repeating, ‘I just don’t get it. Eddie I just don’t understand’.
“What is there to understand” I replied with a chuckle, “We’re together. We’re both riding up in the service elevator together. There’s no shame”.
“You don’t understand, Eddie” Bert continue almost in tears. “Yes, I’m going up to my room in this service elevator…but don’t you understand, Eddie….I can still hear that thunderous applause in my ears. And it was from the white folks. There were no coloreds in the theatre. Just plain white folks who came to be entertained…..and I’m riding up in the service elevator”.
“Look at this way, I said to Bert…. Yes….the theatre was packed with white folks….and look at me….I’m white….and I’m still riding up in the service elevator”.
Your LA Then and Now in today's L A Times misses some points about vaudeville and minstrel shows that I think are terribly important.
To say that Bert Williams was obscure is totally unfounded. He was a great star of vaudeville, recording for Columbia Records. His "Sermon on Throwing Stones" was a classic.
Minstrel was an important part of American entertainment. Unfortunately "politically correct" dialogue doesn't even allow a fair telling of the story.
I enjoyed your article in Sunday's paper; wonderful tidbits exhumed from
the Times's morgue about some famous old time entertainers. Perhaps you
already know, but Williams's life has been amply documented: two
biographies have been published, one by Anne Charters, and the other, just
this year, by Camille Forbes. Also, all of Williams's recordings have been
reissued on CDs. By the way--though he may have been "from" Los Angeles at
the time of the Times's article, he was born in the Caribbean--Jamaica, I
Portland OR (temporarily in Ojai)
I am writing in response to the excellent article.
While much of the emphasis was on McIntyre and Heath, I was especially impressed with your segments on the life of Bert Williams.
I first encountered him in a graduate music course at Brooklyn College and have been enthralled with him ever since.
Most people have not heard of Bert Williams, but he was a tremendously influential pioneer who opened doors for Black entertainers.
He was the first Black member of the Ziegfeld Follies. When the rest of the troupe threatened to quit if Ziegfeld hired him, Ziegfeld told them that they were all expendable, except for Bert. They shut up immediately.
I have studied screen writing with a professor at New York University for several years and one of my projects was a screenplay about the life of Bert Williams. After copious research, I wrote the initial draft. It has had numerous revisions and re-writes, and a staged workshop reading. I have recently breathed new life into it.
My screenplay is a lively and sometimes gut-wrenching account of Bert's ascendancy to show business stardom.
I re-create scenes in which Bert and his partner, George Walker, were threatened with violence and humiliated unmercifully.
I show Bert's initial hostility to the practice of blackface and his eventual success in that idiom. He became the highest paid entertainer in the world, his salary exceeding that of the President.
I believe passionately that Bert's story needs to be told.
Black and white audiences alike should be aware of this man's singular achievements and accomplishments.
If this email goes on a blog, I would like to invite any interested actor or director to contact me.
Thanks again for shining the spotlight on this exceptional man - Bert Williams.
Queens, New York
I was delighted to see Bert Williams featured in the Times (LA Then & Now, Sept. 7), but puzzled by Larry Harnisch's characterization of Williams as "obscure." During the height of his career, Williams was arguably the country's most popular comic of any race. Williams and Walker's 1902 production "In Dahomey" was the first major Broadway musical written and produced by black artists. Williams was the recording industry's first black star; his 1906 signature hit, "Nobody," was later voted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. He was also Broadway's first black artist to receive star billing, appearing in eight editions of Ziegfeld's Follies, and the first black member of Actor's Equity.
Larry Harnisch contention that the comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker was "far more obscure" than McIntyre and Heath may be accurate, however any reference to Williams as obscure is wildly off the mark.
Bert Williams - likely due to his "blacking-up" - had over 25 recordings carried by the "Lilly white" shops on the hit list of the era (Joel Whitburn: Pop Memories 1890-1954) and his trademark song, "Nobody" (written by Williams) sold over a million copies both as sheet music and recording.
In addition Williams leapt from vaudeville to Broadway in the early 1900 going on solo to headline the Ziegfeld Follies. There are films of many of his performances. Among the best are featured in Broadway: The American Musical: Episode One.
He became one of the countries most popular singers and comics for the 2 decades before his death. Hardly obscure. Name :Hugh Harrison
Minstrel showsI think you have written a very pleasant article about a bygone era that not many people know about. I see them occasionally on AMC or Turner Classics on TV. You did an admirable job of discussing the entertainment of that time, in a short article and the read was compelling.
But, your setup to an article that was written by the Times in 1898 was childish.
You wrote, "Be warned: The racial references in the Times review from 1898 will set your teeth on edge."
Why are you apologizing for an article that was written over 100 years ago. All you had to say was that this was the story written by the Times in 1898 and thats it. Its like your distancing the Times from that article, which they themselves wrote at that time. Do you have a guilty conscience about something? Did you write that article in 1898?
A have a feeling you do not consider yourself a great writer yet, because the great ones just write and dont apologize, they let the reader figure it out. Nowhere in the article did you make a judgement about Minstral shows (pro or con), you were just translating a story about two sets of comedians. And you did it well! Then you had to make an incorrect judgment call on something that had no bearing on the story you were telling. Dont manipulate the reader. I read the story and the one thing that still sits in my mind is "will set your teeth on edge", because it didnt and you said it would. I feel like I missed something.
Be a better writer and leave those setup comments out of future writings.
In closing, again you did a good job and am looking forward to future offerings. Gary Popiela
so nice to see History and education in the paper instead of all the woe & hardships, Death & distruction.Not only to our humanity, but to our lands as well!
I rember as a child seeing the "darkies" as they decided not to leave the employ of our family! We never mistreated or demeaned the "coloreds" as they preferred to be called.
throughout my lifetime we have gone from a variety of "names" for them in society. However we always called them as they did us "Miss Rita" Mr James" "Miss Louella" "Miss Agusta" or "Mr Tomas"..no different ! however I must say it was whimsical when you reffered to the one gentlemans mother being "Spanish and African-American" that was Porto Rican to us! (Just FYI)
I enjoied your article Mr Larry....
~~ Rita R. Doyle ~~
Your article points out (indirectly) that minstrel shows afforded many black performers another entry into showbiz, where they were recognized for their often considerable talents.
A friend of mine, now deceased, came from an Afrcan American family which worked in theatres doing Uncle Tom's Cabin part of the year.
There are those who are guilty of superimposing today's "political correctness values" on events of the past, seeing everything in extreme either/or terms (black & white as opposed to gray terms). Minstrel shows were part of vaudeville, and were copied in miniature by marionette vaudeville performances, which also depicted horse races and wild west shows on the puppet stage.
Last Spring, my alma mater, Pomona College for the first time, omitted singing the Amla Mater during Aumni Reunions and at Graduation Ceremonies because some annymous person(s) rediscovered the fact that the first airing of the Alma Mater was during a student minstrel show. They came across a college recording made in the 1970s which mentioned that history on an LP record cover. So suddenly after numerous generations that the Alma Mater brought students, faculty, administration and alumni together, this song was deemed offensive.
I'd be very surprised if it was ever sung again during a student minstrel show.
Gary Jones, a Black puppeteer now headquartered in Los Angeles (previously working in Chicago with the once-famous Kungsholm Restaurant's mniature puppet opera theater) once performed his own show set in a Southern plantation, presided over the white owner & his wife, who entered, were seated to watch a series of Black puppets sing or dance. One could see this as a parallel to minstrel shows.
Gary performs under the name "Blackstreet", which I think is still HQ'd on Washington Blvd, L.A.
In the 1970s, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery presented an exhibition of art by local Black artists, and each was allowed to pick another artist of any color to also exhibit. This was probably the only official City event that year in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the opening reception, they served watermelon. (A Black person on the food committee thought it would be funny.
Obviously perceptions change over time, but we must not rewrite history as Joe Stalin and Adolf Hitler did, or we wll be unable to learn how we got where we are and where we go next.
Perspective is needed. I hope a certain committee in Claremont CA has read your helpful article on local minstrel history, and will refrain from throwing baby out with the bathwater, and bring censorship of a serviceable Alma Mater to a quick end.
Now if you would just write another article about white people's perspectives of American Indian culture, that might help folks at Pomona College too---one of the classic college songs, TORCHBEARERS---was also censored last Spring on the Claremont campus
There is a wonderful mural in Frary Dining Hall at Pomona College, by Jose Clemente Orozco, a major force in Mexican mural history in the 1930s. It depicts Prometheus bringing fire to human beings (ie: enlightenment to the people) Campus authorities came perilously close to whitewashing it because it showed a naked man). Now it is an international art treasure.
Campus censorship can be very dangerous and counter-educational.
ALAN COOK, Pomona College Class of 1953.
Curator, International Puppetry Museum, Pasadena