John W. Cooper
John W. Cooper (1873-1966) was an African-American ventriloquist of the early 20th century. He was the first black ventriloquist on the predominantly white vaudeville circuit, and later in his life taught ventriloquism to Shari Lewis.
He began his career in 1886 with the Southern Jubilee Singers, touring the country for four years. He joined Richards and Pringles Georgia Minstrels for their 1900-01 season. Unlike the other performers in the group, however, Cooper was not a typical minstrel show performer. Instead of singing and dancing in the stereotypical manner of minstrel shows of the era, he performed as a ventriloquist, and neither he nor his dummy, Sam Jackson, wore blackface as part of their act.
His break into the vaudeville circuit came as a result of a white vaudeville union's strike in 1901. Cooper ignored the strike and became a fixture on the vaudeville circuit, leading to performances on many radio shows throughout the rest of his life including a weekly performance on "The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour."
Through his vaudeville days, parts of Cooper's act included Sam Jackson claiming he was a cousin of Charlie McCarthy, the famous dummy of Edgar Bergen. Background research performed as part of a PBS series discovered that both McCarthy and Jackson were made by Theodore Mack, a prominent puppet maker from Chicago. This was verified in the televised program by Alan Semok, a recognized expert in the field of puppets and particularly ventriloquial figures (in addition to being an actor and voice artist, Semok is well known within the profession as "The Dummy Doctor"). It has been determined that Sam in fact predates Charlie McCarthy, possibly by as much as ten years, although the exact span of time remains unclear.
- Transcript of PBS' History Detectives episode featuring Cooper
- Shari Lewis biography citing Cooper
- Ventriloquists in the Vaudeville Years