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: Early years: 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. The brother subsequently adopted the name of "Percy" and under that name achieved recognition as a musician. Early career: 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. 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. He teamed up with a young Al Jolson, with Jolson singing while Robinson danced for pennies or to sell newspapers. 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. 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. Vaudeville: 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. 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). 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. 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, but Robinson volunteered immediately and performed gratis for thousands of troops, in both black and white units of the Expeditionary Forces, receiving a commendation from the War Department in 1918. 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. The publicity that gradually came to surround him included the creation of his famous "stair dance" (which he claimed to have invented on the spur of the moment when he was receiving an honor from the King of England, who was standing at the top of a flight of stairs - Bojangles' feet just danced up to be honored); his successful gambling exploits; his bow ties of multiple colors; his prodigious charity; his ability to run backward extremely fast; his argot, most notably the neologism copacetic; and such stunts as dancing down Broadway in 1939 from Columbus Circle to 44th Street in celebration of his 61st birthday. Broadway: 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 tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. Consequently, blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites, for example, his nickname "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for "squabbler." So successful was Adelaide Hall's collaboration with Bojangles, they even appeared together on stage at the prestigious Palace Theatre (Broadway) before they were teamed up together again by Marty Forkins (Robinson's manager) to star in another Broadway musical titled, "Brown Buddies", that opened in 1930 at the Liberty Theatre, where it ran for four months before commencing a road tour of the States. During 1930, Adelaide Hall and Bojangles also appeared together on stage at New York's Palace Theatre on Broadway for one week. Film career: After 1930, black 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. His most frequent role 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, or Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky (1935). Robinson was the first African-American male to appear on film dancing with a white girl, Shirley Temple (The Little Colonel, 1935). Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. 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, he played a romantic lead opposite African-American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks. He only appeared in one film intended for black audiences, Harlem is Heaven, a financial failure that turned him away from independent production. In 1939, he returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta produced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in All in Fun (1940), failed to attract audiences. His last theatrical project was to have been Two Gentlemen from the South, with James Barton, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually come together as equals, but the show did not open. Thereafter, he confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance well in his late sixties, to the continual astonishment of his admirers. He explained this extraordinary versatility--he once danced for more than an hour before a dancing class without repeating a step--by insisting that his feet responded directly to the music, with his head having nothing to do with it. Personal life: Little is known of his first marriage to Lena Chase in 1907. They had no children before the marriage ended in 1922. His second wife was Fannie S. Clay whom he married on January 27, 1922 in Chicago shortly after World War I. They divorced in 1943. His third marriage was in 1944 to Elaine Plaines in Columbus, Ohio, and they were together until he died, never having any children with any of his wives. Robinson served as a rifleman in World War I with New York's 15th Infantry Regiment, National Guard. The Regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry while serving under France's Fourth Army and earned the nickname the "Harlem Hellfighters". Along with serving in the trenches in World War I, Robinson was also the 369th "Hellfighters Band" drum major and led the regimental band up Fifth Avenue on the 369th's return from overseas. Political figures and celebrities appointed him 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. Death: Despite earning more than US$2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless in 1949, at the age of 71 from heart failure. His funeral, which was arranged by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan, was held at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory 369th Infantry Regiment (United States) near Harlem and attended by 32,000 people. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. gave the eulogy, which was broadcast over the radio. Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York. Legacy: 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. 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: 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., Filmography: 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

Source: Wikipedia

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