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Portrait of the American stage in black and white

September 1, 2008 |  6:47 am



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On Aug. 20, 1938, The Times noted the passing of Thomas K. Heath, who was once one of vaudeville's biggest stars. A little research showed that he and his partner Jim McIntyre performed in blackface for many years after they teamed up in 1874. I'd never heard of them, so I wondered who they were. 

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Dec. 24, 1895.
Then in researching Heath and McIntyre, I ran across another team, perhaps not as well known: Bert Williams and George Walker.  But instead of two white comedians pretending to be black, Williams and Walker were African American. Better yet, according to The Times, they were from Los Angeles. These fellows sounded fairly interesting and worth investigating.



Once extremely popular, blackface minstrel shows vanished from the American stage decades ago, and only survive in a few jarring clips from old movies, like one of the sketches in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." So here's a brief history of minstrel shows from New York Sun, republished in The Times:
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Los Angeles Times file photo

Above, McIntyre and Heath in a publicity photo without makeup.

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Los Angeles Times file photo

And here are Heath, left and McIntyre in character. Personally, I find this photo grotesque and shocking, but this kind of entertainment was a sensation in its day.


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Los Angeles Times file photo

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to locate any photos of Williams and Walker as a team, but here's Bert Williams as a solo performer after Walker's death in 1911. And would I like to see him perform? Absolutely.

Both teams appeared many times in Los Angeles, almost always at the Orpheum (which would have been second Orpheum on South Spring Street). Curiously enough, in May 1898, in some quirk of booking, they appeared on the same bill: McIntyre and Heath, "the great Blackface Comedians," and Williams and Walker, "the real Colored Comedians."


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"The Ham Tree," Jan. 6, 1914.

McIntyre and Heath's most famous routine was "The Ham Tree," a sketch that was so well known The Times never described it.  The general premise is the misadventures of two men after one talks the other into quitting his job at a livery stable so they can go on the road in a minstrel show.


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Aug. 22, 1897.
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Above, Williams and Walker also had a popular saying that they turned into a song: "You Ain't So Warm." At left, in an 1897 Times interview, Williams describes how he explained the act to British audiences.

Click on the play button to hear "You Ain't So Warm" and other tunes of the era.
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Then, in 1898, the two teams shared the stage of the Orpheum. At left, the May 3, 1898, Times review of the show featuring the blackface act of McIntyre and Heath and the African American team of Williams and Walker.

"Williams and Walker, the two darky Angelenos, are back from triumphs in foreign lands and eastern cities to the scene of their initial success and were given an ovation," The Times says.

"They are as funny a pair of mokes as their race has ever given to the comedy sketch, and the cake walk which concludes their act, which comprises in addition to the two principals a pair of dusky damsels who are high-steppers, and a band master who twirls the baton with fine skill, is the very poetry of darky motion."

"As for McIntyre and Heath," The Times says,  "those who in other days have seen this pair of darky impersonators need be told but little.... Last night's audience laughed at these two until there was not a dry eye or a side without a pain in it upstairs or down; indeed, the audience did not simply laugh, it yelled and shrieked in its ecstasy of merriment and the curtain went down with the roar of its cachinations still echoing among the rafters."   



The Times interviewed the Williams and Walker again in 1898. It's wonderful to stumble across these first-person accounts. How about this quote from Feb. 14, 1898, the year before Scott Joplin published "The Maple Leaf Rag": "Ragtime has been overdone and the public is getting tired of it." Or the observation that many tunes by African Americans were written to a preconceived idea, presumably that of white publishers. 


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1911_0107_walker Although McIntyre and Heath performed for many years in vaudeville, Williams and Walker did not survive very long. George Walker died Jan. 6, 1911, in a New York sanitarium, having been ill for a year. The Times didn't even report his death; the above clipping is from the Chicago Tribune. According to the New York Times, he was buried in Lawrence, Kans. Born in 1873, he was 37 or 38.
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Egbert Austin "Bert" Williams died March 5, 1922, at the age of 48, and his obituary appeared on the front page of The Times. His father was a Danish envoy in Nassau, the Bahamas, and his mother was "part Spanish and part African," The Times said. He graduated from high school in San Pedro.

Williams obituary, part 1

Williams obituary, part 2

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In November 1938, Flournoy E. Miller, another famous African American performer who was one of the writers of "Shuffle Along," looked back at the days of Williams and Walker and said there was a need for "clean old real Negro shows."



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May 17, 1925: A review of McIntyre and Heath at Orpheum on their farewell tour. They also staged a final performance in Philadelphia in 1934. McIntyre died Aug. 18, 1937, at the age of 89. Heath died exactly one year later at the age of 85 without ever being told that his partner was dead.

Postscript: These performers may seem like nothing more than forgotten relics of an ancient past. But they shared the stage with actors who are influential even now. McIntyre and Heath, for example, signed the autograph book of young vaudeville performer Buster Keaton and wished him well in his career. McIntyre and Heath also appeared at the Orpheum in January 1902 with a young "eccentric juggler" named W.C. Fields. (Fields had previously performed in Los Angeles in 1900). 


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McIntyre and Heath and W.C. Fields at the Orpheum, Jan. 5, 1902.




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