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 Frogs, 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.

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. 

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. 

External links[edit]