Bill Robinson

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Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson.jpg
in 1934
Born Luther Robinson
(1878-05-25)May 25, 1878
Richmond, Virginia
Died November 25, 1949(1949-11-25) (aged 71)
New York City, New York
Occupation Dancer, actor
Spouse(s) Lena Chase
(m.1907-1922; divorced)
Fannie S. Clay
(m.1922-1943; divorced)
Elaine Plaines
(m.1944-1949; his death)

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film. Audiences enjoyed his understated style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug in favor of cool and reserve; rarely did he use his upper body, relying instead on busy, inventive feet, and an expressive face.

A figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the musical Stormy Weather (1943), loosely based on Robinson's own life.

Life and career[edit]

Early years[edit]

Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia and raised in its Jackson Ward neighborhood. His parents were Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. His grandmother raised him after both parents died in 1885 when he was 7 years old—his father from chronic heart disease and his mother from natural causes. Details of Robinson's early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Robinson himself. He claimed he was christened "Luther"—a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. Eventually, the exchange between the names of both brothers was made.[1] The brother subsequently adopted the name of “Percy” and under that name achieved recognition as a musician.[2]

Early career[edit]

At the age of five, Robinson began dancing for small change, appearing as a "hoofer" or busker in local beer gardens and in front of theaters for tossed pennies. A promoter saw him performing outside the Globe Theater in Richmond and offered him a job as a "pick" in a local minstrel show. At that time, minstrel shows were staged by white performers in blackface. Pickaninnies were cute black children at the edge of the stage singing, dancing, or telling jokes. .[1]: p. 39–40

In 1890, at the age of 12, Robinson ran away to Washington, DC, where he did odd jobs at Benning Race Track and worked briefly as a jockey.[3] He teamed up with a young Al Jolson, with Jolson singing while Robinson danced for pennies or to sell newspapers.[1]: p. 42 In 1891 he was hired by Whallen and Martel, touring with Mayme Remington's troupe in a show titled The South Before the War, performing again as a pickaninny, despite his age.[4] He travelled with the show for over a year before growing too mature to play the role credibly.

In 1898 he returned to Richmond where he joined an army unit as a drummer when the Spanish–American War broke out. He received an accidental gunshot wound from a second lieutenant who was cleaning his gun.[1]:p. 45


On March 30, 1900, Robinson entered a buck-and-wing dance contest at the Bijou Theater in Brooklyn, NY, winning a gold medal and defeating Harry Swinton, star of the show In Old Kentucky and considered the best dancer of his day.[5] The resulting publicity helped Robinson to get work in numerous traveling shows, sometimes in a troupe, more frequently with a partner, though not always as a dancer (Robinson also sang and performed two-man comedy routines).[1]:pp. 50, 53

In 1905 Robinson worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville team, replacing Cooper's partner on short notice, and performing under the name Cooper & Bailey for several months until the existing booking contracts were completed. In January, 1903, the team was renamed Cooper & Robinson, and was one of only six black acts signed by the Keith Circuit, which catered to white vaudeville audiences. Cooper and Robinson was a comedy act, with Robinson playing the buffoon to Cooper's straight man, and Robinson did little dancing in the act. The Keith circuit paid $100 / week, with 26 weeks guaranteed, boosting Robinson's income significantly.

By 1912, Robinson was a full partner in the duo, which had become primarily a tap dancing act, booked on both the Keith and Orpheum Circuits. The team broke up in 1914, and vaudeville performer Rae Samuels, who had performed in shows with Robinson, convinced him to meet with her manager (and husband), Marty Forkins. Under Forkins' tutelage, Robinson matured and began working as a solo act, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week. Forkins accomplished this by inventing an alternate history for Robinson, promoting him as already being a solo act. This technique succeeded, making Robinson one of the first performers to break vaudeville's two colored rule, which forbade solo black acts.[2]:pp. 943–944

When the U.S. entered World War I, the War Department set up a series of Liberty Theaters in the training camps. The Keith and Orpheum Circuits underwrote vaudeville acts at reduced fees,[6] but Robinson volunteered to perform gratis for thousands of troops, in both black and white units of the Expeditionary Forces, receiving a commendation from the War Department in 1918.[1]:p. 98

Throughout the early 1920s, Robinson continued his career on the road as a solo vaudeville act, touring throughout the country and most frequently visiting Chicago, where Marty Forkins, his manager, lived. From 1919–1923 he was fully booked on the Orpheum Circuit, and was signed full-time by the Keith in 1924 and 1925. In addition to being booked for 50–52 weeks (an avid baseball fan, he took a week off for the World Series), Robinson did multiple shows per night, frequently on two different stages.[1]:p. 166


In 1928, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928 on Broadway, a black revue for white audiences starring Adelaide Hall and Bill Robinson along with Aida Ward, Tim Moore and other black stars. The show was a huge success on Broadway, where it ran for over one year to sell-out performances. On stage, Adelaide Hall and Robinson danced and sang a duet together, which captivated the audiences. From then on, Robinson's public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. So successful was Adelaide Hall's collaboration with Bojangles, they even appeared together on stage at the prestigious Palace Theatre (Broadway)[7] before they were teamed up together again by Marty Forkins (Robinson's manager)[8] to star in another Broadway musical titled, "Brown Buddies",[9] that opened in 1930 at the Liberty Theatre, where it ran for four months before commencing a road tour of the States.[10]

In 1939, Robinson returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The show opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, with Robinson cast in the role of the Emperor. His rendition of ‘’My Object All Sublime’’ stopped the show and produced eight encores. After Broadway, the show moved to the 1939 New York World's Fair, and was one of the greatest hits of the fair. August 25, 1939, was named ‘’Bill Robinson Day’’ at the fair.[1]:p. 260

Robinson’s next Broadway show, All in Fun (1940), was with an all-white cast. Despite having Imogene Coca, Pert Kelton, and other stars, the show received poor reviews at out-of-town tryouts in New Haven and Boston. When the white stars and co-producers, Phil Baker and Leonard Sillman, withdrew, Robinson became the star, the first time an African-American headlined an otherwise all-white production. Although the reviewers were enthusiastic about Robinson, they panned the show, and it failed to attract audiences. All in Fun closed after 4 performances.[1]:pp. 273–275

Film career[edit]

After 1930, black stage 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.

Early films[edit]

Robinson’s film debut was in the RKO Pictures 1930 musical Dixiana. RKO was formed in part by a merger of the Keith and Orpheum theater circuits, with whom Robinson had performed as a headliner for many years. He was cast as a specialty performer in a standalone scene. This practice, customary at the time, permitted Southern theaters to remove scenes containing black performers from their showings of the film. Dixiana was followed by Robinson’s first starring role, in Harlem is Heaven (1932), the first film made with an all-black cast. The movie was produced in New York and did not perform well financially, leading Robinson to focus on Hollywood-produced movies after that.[1]:p. 206

Shirley Temple co-star[edit]

The most frequent role in which studios cast Robinson was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner.

As a result of this casting, Robinson and Temple were America’s first interracial dance couple, debuting in The Little Colonel (1935).[11] Temple had already appeared in 5 films released in 1934, and had performed a tap routine with James Dunn in Stand Up and Cheer!.[12] After Robinson was signed by 20th Century Fox, it was decided that he would perform his famous stair dance with Temple. While Robinson liked the idea, he quickly realized that he couldn’t teach his complex stair dance to a seven-year-old in the few days permitted by the shooting schedule. Instead, he taught Temple to kick the riser (face) of each stairstep with her toe. After watching her practice his choreography, Robinson modified his routine to mimic her movements, so that it appeared on film that she was imitating his steps. The sequence was the highlight of the film,[1]:pp. 225–226

Robinson and Temple became close friends as a result of his dance coaching and acting with her. Robinson carried pictures of Temple with him wherever he traveled, and Temple considered him a lifelong friend, saying in an interview "Bill Robinson treated me as an equal, which was very important to me. He didn't talk down to me, like to a little girl. And I liked people like that. And Bill Robinson was the best of all."[11]

Other films[edit]

On rare occasions, Robinson departed from the stereotypes of African-Americans imposed by Hollywood studios. In a small vignette in Hooray for Love he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; in One Mile from Heaven (1937), he played a romantic lead opposite African-American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks.

Robinson appeared opposite Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky (1935), the last movie Rogers made prior to his death in an airplane crash. Robinson and Rogers were good friends, and after Rogers’ death, Robinson refused to fly, instead travelling by train to Hollywood for his film work.

Stormy Weather[edit]

Robinson’s final film appearance was a starring role in the 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather. Lena Horne co-starred as Robinson’s love interest, and the movie also featured Fats Waller in his final movie appearance before his death, playing with Cab Calloway and his orchestra,. The Nicholas Brothers are featured in the film’s final dance sequence, performing to Calloway’s "Jumpin' Jive," in what Fred Astaire called "the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen".[13]

In 2001, Stormy Weather was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[14]

Robinson in The Hot Mikado
Jack Witt's statue of Robinson in Richmond, Virginia

Radio and sound recordings[edit]

From 1936 until his death in 1949, Robinson made numerous radio and occasional television appearances. The distinctive sound of Robinson’s tap dancing was frequently featured, but Robinson also sang, made sound effects, and told jokes and stories from his vaudeville acts.[1]:pp. 266–270 He also addressed the audience directly, something very rare for a black radio performer in that era.[15]

Robinson also made several recordings, including one in which he demonstrated each of his tap steps and their corresponding sounds.

Personal life[edit]

Little is known of Robinson's first marriage to Lena Chase in 1907. They had no children before they separated in 1916, and the marriage ended in 1922. His second wife was Fannie S. Clay whom he married shortly after his divorce from Chase. They divorced in 1943. His third marriage was in 1944 to Elaine Plaines in Columbus, Ohio, and they remained together until Robinson’s death in 1949. There were no children from any of the marriages.

Political figures and celebrities appointed Robinson an honorary mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of policemen's associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team. Robinson reciprocated with open-handed generosity and frequently credited the white dancer James Barton for his contribution to his dancing style.


The last theatrical project for Robinson was to have been Two Gentlemen from the South, with James Barton as the master and Robinson as his servant, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually the two come together as equals, but the show did not open.[4]:p. 188

Robinson’s final public appearance in 1949, a few weeks before his death, was as a surprise guest on a TV show, Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour, in which he emotionally embraced a competitor on the show who had tap-danced for the audience. A friend remarked, “he was handing over his crown, like him saying, 'this is my good-bye. '”[16]

Despite being the highest-paid black performer of the first half of the twentieth century, earning more than US$2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless in 1949, at the age of 71 from heart failure. His funeral was arranged and paid for by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan. Robinson's casket lay in state at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in Harlem, where an estimated 32,000 people filed past his casket to pay their last respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the funeral, which was broadcast over the radio. Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. conducted the service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and New York Mayor William O'Dwyer gave the eulogy.[17][18] Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.


A statue of Bill Robinson sculpted by Jack Witt is in Richmond, Virginia, at the intersection of Adams and West Leigh Streets.

Robinson was successful despite the obstacle of racism. A favorite Robinson anecdote is that he seated himself in a restaurant and a customer objected to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson leave, he smiled and asked, "Have you got a ten dollar bill?" Politely asking to borrow the manager's note for a moment, Robinson added six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up, then extended the seven bills together, adding, "Here, let's see you pick out the colored one". The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.[19]

Despite earning and spending a fortune, his memories of surviving the streets as a child never left him, prompting many acts of generosity. In 1933, while in his hometown of Richmond, he saw two children caught between the heat of traffic to retrieve their ball. Since there was no stoplight at the intersection, Robinson went to the city and provided the money to have one installed. In 1973, a statue of "Bojangles" was established in a small park at that intersection.

Bojangles co-founded the New York Black Yankees baseball team in Harlem in 1936 with financier James "Soldier Boy" Semler. The team was a successful member of the Negro National League until it disbanded in 1948, after Major League Baseball was desegregated.

In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared "National Tap Dance Day" to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson's birth.

Robinson was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Fred Astaire paid tribute to Bill Robinson in the tap routine Bojangles of Harlem from the 1936 film Swing Time. In it, Astaire famously dances to three of his shadows.
  • Duke Ellington composed "Bojangles (A Portrait of Bill Robinson)", a set of rhythmic variations as a salute to the great dancer.
  • A biography of Bill Robinson by Jim Haskins and N. R. Mitgang, Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson (Morrow), was published in 1988.

"Bojangles" the musical, premiered as the centerpiece of Barksdale Theatre's (at Hanover Tavern) 40th anniversary season in 1993. Playwright Doug Jones collaborated with composer Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, Applause) and Academy Award-winning lyricist Sammy Cahn.

  • A made-for-television film entitled Bojangles was released in 2001. The film earned the NAACP Best actor Award for Gregory Hines' performance as Robinson.
  • While Jerry Jeff Walker's 1968 folk song "Mr. Bojangles" is often thought to be about Robinson, it was actually inspired by Walker's encounter with a street performer in the New Orleans first precinct jail.
  • Arthur Duncan, an exceptional tap dancer in his own right, frequently paid homage to Bill Robinson with the stair routine on The Lawrence Welk Show.
  • He is mentioned in the Larry Norman song "Nightmare" from the album So Long Ago the Garden.
  • In the All in the Family episode "Lionel Steps Out" Robinson's dancing with Shirley Temple was referenced.
  • The Grateful Dead mention Billy Bojangles in the song Alabama Getaway.


Year Title Role
1929 Hello, Bill Specialty Dancer
1930 Dixiana Specialty Dancer
1932 Harlem is Heaven Bill
1933 The Big Benefit Himself
1934 King for a Day Bill Green
1935 The Big Broadcast of 1936 Specialty
The Little Colonel Walker
The Littlest Rebel Uncle Billy
In Old Kentucky Wash Jackson
Hooray for Love Himself
1937 One Mile from Heaven Officer Joe Dudley
1938 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Aloysius
Up the River Memphis Jones
Cotton Club Revue Himself
Just Around the Corner Corporal Jones
1942 Let's Scuffle Himself
By an Old Southern River Specialty Dancer
1943 Stormy Weather Bill Williamson

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Haskins, James; Mitgang, N. R. (1988). Mr. Bojangles: the Biography of Bill Robinson. New York: William Morrow and Company. pp. 26–28. ISBN 0688072038. 
  2. ^ a b Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New : An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge. p. 942. ISBN 0415938538. 
  3. ^ Kantor, Michael (2004). "Broadway: The American Musical Online". PBS & WNET. 
  4. ^ a b Stearns, Marshall; Stearns, Jean (1968). Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: The Macmillan Company. p. 180. ISBN 9780306805530. 
  5. ^ Valis Hill, Constance (2009). Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 20–21. ISBN 9780195390827. 
  6. ^ Durham, Weldon (2006). Liberty Theatres of the United States Army: 1917–1919. McFarland &Company. p. 146. 
  7. ^ pages 216-218, 'Underneath A Harlem Moon ... the Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall' by Iain Cameron Williams. ISBN 0826458939
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b Elizabeth Blair (February 14, 2014). "Shirley Temple And Bojangles: Two Stars, One Lifelong Friendship". National Public Radio. 
  12. ^ Constance Valis Hill (May 30, 2012). "Shall We Dance? Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson : Hollywood 's First Interracial Couple". Huffington Post. 
  13. ^ Associated Press (January 25, 2006). "Dancer Fayard Nicholas dies at 91". USA Today. 
  14. ^ "National Film Registry Titles 1989 – 2013". National Film Preservation Board (Library of Congress). November 20, 2013. Retrieved April 9, 2014. 
  15. ^ The Rudy Vallee show. NBC Radio Collection. 1936-09-24. 
  16. ^ Karla FC Holloway (2002). Passed On: African American Mourning Stories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 121. 
  17. ^ Trager, James (2004). The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People, and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present. HarperCollins. p. 571. ISBN 0-06-074062-0. 
  18. ^ Wintz, Cary D.; Finkelman, Paul (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Taylor & Francis. p. 1069. ISBN 1-57958-458-6. 
  19. ^ Current Biography 1941, pp. 721.


  • Some biographical material is from the International Tap Association Newsletter, May/June 1993. The biographical material was extrapolated from The American Dictionary of Biography and Webster's American Biographies.
  • Haskins, James; Mitgang, N. R., Mr. Bojangles: the biography of Bill Robinson (New York: William Morrow, 1988). ISBN 0-688-07203-8

External links[edit]