George Walker (vaudeville)

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For the African-American composer born 1922, see George Walker (composer).
George Walker, 1903

George Walker (1872 or 1873 – 1911) was an African-American vaudevillian. In 1893, in San Francisco, Walker met Bert Williams, who became his performing partner. Walker and Williams appeared in The Gold Bug (1895), Clorindy (1897), The Policy Player (1899), Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1907). He was married to dancer and choreographer Ada Overton Walker.

Walker retired from performing after he fell ill during the run of Bandanna Land.

George Walker and Bert Williams[edit]

Williams & Walker

Two prominent figures of the minstrel era were Bert Williams and George Walker. When this duo appeared on the minstrel scene, they dubbed themselves the "Two Real Coons" at the Casino Theatre in New York City in 1896. The debut of Williams and Walker was considered to be significant to black comedy and black professional theatre because of their innovations, such as the hit musical comedy In Dahomey that toured Europe and the U.S., popularizing the cakewalk, and professionalizing black theatre by founding professional organizations for black entertainers.

In 1893, the famous duo of George Walker and Bert Williams was formed. The two met in San Francisco that year and formed a vaudeville act. Williams was very talented, with light skin and a fine voice, and he played all instruments very well. Under the expectations of the time, he would be considered the "straight man" in comedy routines. Walker was a great comedian and dancer, with dark skin, and would be expected to play the fool. The two realized that they were much funnier when they reversed their roles, so "...Walker became the straight man--dressed a little too high-style and spending all the money he could borrow or trick out of the lazy, careless, unlucky Williams--and Williams became the blumbery, sorrowful, comical-in-spite-of-himself patsy." Bert Williams's first ambitions were to attend Stanford University and become an engineer. Since he could not afford to go, he worked as a singing waiter in hotels in San Francisco. George Walker had performed in traveling medicine shows before ending up in San Francisco and joining up with Williams. Once they became organized, they needed a selling point to get their names out in the theatre world. Their act grew popular in West coast theatres, where the minstrel shows were now being called vaudeville.

At the same time, white duos were billing themselves as "coons." Williams and Walker decided to market themselves as the "Two Real Coons." In 1896, they appeared in a New York production called The Gold Bug at the Casino Theatre. It was a short run and the production did not receive good reviews, but then they were hired by another theatre for a record run of twenty-eight weeks; during that time, they popularized the cakewalk. This dance became very popular in high society in New York. Their next project was The Sons of Ham. Williams and Alex Rogers wrote a song for it called "I'm a Jonah Man", and the song became a trademark for Williams.

When Bert Williams and George Walker appeared on the scene, they wanted to change the dynamics of the theatre with their creative minds and talents. But, there were strict limits on the changes they wanted to make because white people were buying the theatre tickets, and they had to present to their standards. The cakewalk was rooted in West African festive dances commonly performed during harvest festivals. Couples would form a circle, promenade, prance with buckets of water on their heads to the sound of banjos playing, and clap their hands. The winning couple got the cake. When Williams and Walker worked with the cakewalk, "the dance had many variations and in some was apparently a slightly veiled comic parody of their masters' pretentious posturing and high falutin attitudes." After Williams and Walker introduced this dance into their act, the cakewalk started appearing in stage shows, exhibitions, contests, and ballrooms, but only open to the wealthy to middle class to lower class white communities. It eventually spread through the United States and over to Europe.

From 1893, when the two met, they always wanted to incorporate African themes and characters into American shows and planned to do it when they got an opportunity to do their own show. That opportunity came during In Dahomey. Williams and Walker teamed up with Will Marion Cook, Jesse Ship, and poet/lyricist Paul Laurence Dunbar to produce the musical comedy, In Dahomey, the first musical to open on Broadway written and performed entirely by African-Americans.[1] This musical comedy had all original music and had detailed scenery and props. It also had a complete story line from beginning to end. Some found it similar to the story lines of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope films. "The Crosby/Hope films may well have been inspired by Williams and Walker shows like 'In Dahomey'." This show generated so much success that it received great reviews over in London and it toured throughout the United States.

Williams and Walker worked very hard to produce quality theatre. They wanted their sets and costumes to be just as extravagant as those in the white theatres. They also had great lighting and elaborate props. Walker was the more business-savvy of the two and handled most of the management responsibilities of their productions. Walker's goal was to elevate the professionalism in black theatre, and to achieve this he founded an organization for African-American professional entertainers in 1908. It was a network for black entertainers to get together and socialize in order to get to know the other famous black entertainers and to start a support base. His organization, called the The Frogs (club), held events that included black acts, dining, and dancing, and encouraged young performers to achieve a standard of excellence in their stage work. After George Walker died, Williams had a hard time keeping the companies operating. By 1906, Williams and Walker were active in organizing an African-American actors' union called The Negro's Society. Two years later, the team produced and starred in two more successful plays, In Abyssinia and in their final show, Bandanna Land (1907), but George Walker fell ill and was forced to retire from show business in the middle of the 1908-1909 season.

Death[edit]

While touring with Bandana Land in 1909, George Walker began to stutter and suffer memory loss, both well-known symptoms of syphilis. Over the next few years such notables as Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, Scott Joplin, and Louis Chauvin would succumb to this same scourge. An incurable disease at the time, it hit the ranks of African-American performers so hard that by 1911, most of the small, close-knit group that had managed to bring their artistry to Broadway were dead, and it would be another eleven years before African-Americans returned to the stages of the Great White Way. Walker died on January 8, 1911 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, in his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas.

After George Walker's death, Williams was approached by Florenz Ziegfeld to perform in the Follies. Williams agreed and signed a three-year contract. The white actors threatened to revolt because they did not want to perform onstage with a black actor, but changed their minds when Ziegfeld said he could replace any of them except for Williams because he was unique and talented. After his contract was up, he was such a big hit that he stayed on for three more years. By 1913, he gained success as a recording star and went to star in two short films, Fish and Natural Born Gamblers, in 1916. In 1920, he appeared in the Broadway Brevities of 1920, followed by Shuffle Along, in 1921, that reopened Broadway to black musicals. Then he worked hard to produce an all-black show called Under the Bamboo Tree, which was not a great success. His health began to fail him, and he died on March 4, 1922. He was a great comedian and may have been the first black superstar.

There are accounts that Ernest Hogan died of consumption (TB) not syphilis. Also, Bob Cole suffered from depression...which lead to his suicide by drowning in the river, not syphilis.


Contributions[edit]

Fulfilling his role of a race leader rather than that of an entertainer,[2] George Walker has made many significant contributions through his shows and his management of his company (The William and Walker Company).

Contributions as an Artist[edit]

As a vaudevillian, George Walker transcended local vaudeville stages to bring their art to Broadway and beyond. Since vaudeville was famous for playing to the audience, creating an air of intimacy usually absent in legitimate theater (Sotiropoulos), many of Walker’s art pieces such as, In Dahomey (1903) and Bandama Land (1907-1909) played important roles in fighting against racism, challenging stereotypes as well as teaching white population about African American culture and appreciating their presence.

In Dahomey

In Dahomey (1903), the first full-length African-themed musical comedy led by Bert Williams and George Walker, broke the color line on Broadway. The musical tells a story about a group of African Americans who found a pot of gold and later moved to Africa to become rulers of Dahomey. A song “Swing Along” in In Dahomey, precisely captured the mindset of black artists. In this song, dialect speech encouraged his black audiences to “lif’ a’ yo’ heads up high, Wif’ pride an’ gladness beaming’ from ya’ eye,” encourage people to “swing along” despite the pervasive white gaze; to ”swing along” even though “white fo’ks jealous when you’se walkin’ two by two”; to “swing along despite the horrors and dehumanization of life under Jim Crow”.[2]

Bandama Land (1907 - 1909)

The story is about African American realtors putting one over on white folks. Preying on white fears of a black-owned, black-controlled public space, the realty corporation opened an African American amusement part and “organized a big noisy negro jubilee to raise such Hades that the people bought them out” at an inflated price. Again, Williams and Walker addressed segregated public space, white racist stereotypes, and African American exploitation of stereotype for economic gain. While most white reviews simply like this show for its “negro flavor,” or praise “picturesque rural scenery,” and naturalness,” they have no understanding that the larger joke was on the whites being taken due to their own racism.[2]

The phenomenal success of The Williams and Walker Company depended on pushing beyond the stereotypes but only so far as white audiences could accept. The boundary between pushing the limits and being offended has to be carefully manipulated on stage by artists. This was something the black critics fully appreciated.[2]

Contributions as a Business Owner[edit]

“We thought that as there seemed to be a great demand for black faces on the stage, we would do all we could to get what we felt belonged to us by the law of nature.” - George Walker [3]

As a leader of The William and Walker Company, Walker has provided a place for talented colored artists to gather and communicate which encouraged African American performers’ presence on stage.

Providing a meeting space for African American artists[edit]

Once Williams and Walker first became successful in New York with their 1896 vaudeville act, their “first move was to hire a flat in Fifty-third Street, furnish it, and throw our door open to all colored men who possessed theatrical and musical ability and ambition.” [2] They wanted to provide a space where “all professional colored people could meet and exchange views and feel perfectly at home,” and their own flat became “the headquarters of all artistic young men of our race who were stage struck.”[2] Walker explained, “by having these men around” he and Williams “had an opportunity to study the musical and theatrical ability of the most talented members of our race.” (Theater Magazine, August 1906) Later, this place was known as the most “culturally stylish” black area of the city, became the center of the black theatrical world offstage and was later referred as “Black Broadway” and “Black Bohemia.” [2]

Providing jobs for African American artists[edit]

George Walker and Bert Williams

In addition to offering a creative outlet to talented African American performers, The William and Walker Company were able to support their performers with pay. They put a lot of their earnings back to their company. Supporting the actors, writers, musicians, stagehands, and the rest of the personnel who made their company so successful. As Walker said, “Figuring out how many families that would support. Then look at the multifaceted talent we are employing and encouraging. Now, do you see us in the light of a race institution? ” (in Veronica Adams, “The Dramatic Stage as an Upbuilder of the Races,” Chicago Inter Ocean, January 17, 1909,) The New York Age commended him for bringing “about conditions providing positions for colored writers, composers and performers— positions paying large salaries,” and declaring him “the commander-in-chief of the colored theatrical forces.” (New York Age, March 12, 1908, emphasis mine;)

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Riis, Thomas L. (1989). Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890-1915. London: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 91. ISBN 0-87474-788-0. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Sotiropoulos, Karen. Staging Race : Black Performers in Turn of the Century America. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 November 2014. Copyright © 2006. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
  3. ^ © Forbes, Camille F., Aug 01, 2008, Introducing Bert Williams : Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star Basic Books, New York, ISBN 9780786722358

References[edit]

  • Biography Resource Center. Gale Group Inc. November 2002. March 27, 2004 [1]
  • St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Gale Group Inc. 2002. March 27, 2004 [2]
  • Haskins, James (1982). Black Theatre in America. New York: Harper Collins. 
  • Watkins, Mel (1999). On the Real Side: A history of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. 
  • Forbes, Caille F. (2008). Introducing Bert Williams : Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star Basic Books. ISBN 9780786722358. 
  • Sotiropoulos, Karen (2006). "Staging Race : Black Performers in Turn of the Century America". Harvard University Press. 

External links[edit]