|Born||Flournoy Eakin Miller
April 14, 1885
Columbia, Tennessee, United States
|Died||June 6, 1971
Hollywood, California, US
|Other names||F. E. Miller|
|Occupation||Vaudeville entertainer, actor, playwright, theatre producer|
Flournoy Eakin Miller (14 April 1885 – 6 June 1971), sometimes credited as F. E. Miller, was an African American entertainer, actor, lyricist, producer and playwright. Between about 1905 and 1932 he formed a popular comic duo, Miller and Lyles, with Aubrey Lyles. Described as "an innovator who advanced black comedy and entertainment significantly," and as "one of the seminal figures in the development of African American musical theater on Broadway", he wrote many successful vaudeville and Broadway shows, including the influential Shuffle Along (1921), as well as working on several all-black movies between the 1930s and 1950s.
He was born in Columbia, Tennessee, the second son of the editor of a black newspaper; his older brother Irvin C. Miller also became a noted vaudeville performer and theatre producer. He studied at Fisk University in Nashville, where he began performing as one half of a comedy duo, Miller and Lyles, with his childhood friend Aubrey Lyles. From 1905, Miller and Lyles were hired by Robert Mott to be resident playwrights with the Pekin Theater Stock Company in Chicago. They performed with the company in blackface, and in the show The Colored Aristocrats introduced the characters Steve Jenkins (Miller) and Sam Peck (Lyles), with which they would be associated for many years.
With Marion A. Brooks, Miller founded the Bijou Stock Company in Montgomery, Alabama in 1908. One of the first black theatre companies in the South, it folded soon afterwards and Miller returned to Chicago. In 1909, Miller and Lyles traveled to New York, where they started to perform on the vaudeville circuit, uniquely relying on comic performances rather than incorporating song and dance. They developed comedy devices later copied by others, such as a prizefighting routine which contrasted Miller's height and Lyles' short stature; completing each others' sentences; and "mutilatin'" the language in their phraseology. In 1915, they appeared in André Charlot's production Charlot's Revue in England, and upon their return to the U.S. appeared with Abbie Mitchell in Darkydom, a musical with score by James Reese Europe that was the first major black musical comedy.
For several years they continued to work together on the Keith vaudeville circuit, as well as writing and producing plays. Miller's script for The Mayor of Dixie was the basis for Shuffle Along which premiered in 1921, a Broadway musical with music by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Noble Sissle. The show "set the style for more than a decade, inspiring many imitations," and showcased the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry". Miller and Lyles also starred in the show, as Steve Jenkins and Sam Peck. Although the book for Shuffle Along is credited to Miller and Lyles, Miller was the principal author. Also in 1921, Orlando Kellum made a short film with Miller and Lyles performing their song "De Ducks" in Kellum's short-lived Photokinema sound-on-disc process.
Shuffle Along ran in theatres until 1924. Between 1922 and 1925, Miller and Lyles also made a number of recordings for the OKeh label. The pair wrote a three-act play, The Flat Below, and Miller also wrote another play, Going White. Miller and Lyles continued to work together for several years writing and performing in Broadway shows including Runnin' Wild – one of the first shows to popularize the Charleston, in 1923, with a score by James P. Johnson – Rang Tang (1927), which they co-directed; and Keep Shuffling (1928) which featured music by Fats Waller. They split up the act in 1928, while Miller worked with Eubie Blake in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930 on Broadway. Miller and Lyles later reunited to perform on radio, and also threatened to sue Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, writers and performers of the Amos 'n' Andy radio show, for plagiarising their own act. However, the case was dropped after Lyles' death in 1932, at a time when the duo were trying to put together a new show, Shuffle Along of 1933.
During the 1930s, Miller became increasingly involved with the film industry, working in particular with the comedian Mantan Moreland with whom he also performed in vaudeville. He performed in, and wrote for, several all-black movies between the 1930s and 1950s, including the Westerns Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Harlem Rides the Range (1939), and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939). He moved to Hollywood, but retained an interest in theatrical productions, including presenting the unsuccessful show Shuffle Along of 1952. He also worked with the producers of Amos 'n' Andy, becoming a script consultant and recommending Tim Moore to take part in the TV version.
Influence and commemoration
Miller was posthumously nominated for a Tony Award in 1979 for his contributions to musical theater, as described in Eubie!, based on the life of Eubie Blake. The book Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake by William Bolcom and Robert Kimball (Viking Press, 1973), tells the story of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles's involvement with Shuffle Along.
- Cary D. Wintz, Paul Finkelman (eds.), Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y, Taylor & Francis, 2004, pp.792-793
- Jon C. Hopwood, "F. E. Miller", IMDb.com. Retrieved 11 July 2014
- Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows, Scarecrow Press, 2013, pp.72-74
- Flournoy Miller collection, New York Public Library Archives. Retrieved 11 July 2014