BLACK HISTORY MONTH Honoree: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

By Allan Jamail

February 27, 2024 ~ North Channel Star’s writer Allan Jamail selected Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a famous Black tap dancer, as the NC Star finalizes their recognition of achievements for this year’s Black History Month.

From February 1, 2024 – March 1, 2024, people in the United States celebrate the achievements and history of African Americans as part of Black History Month. It began in 1976.

Born Luther Robinson; May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949, Bill Robinson, nicknamed Bojangles, was an American tap dancer, actor, and singer, the best known and the most highly paid Black entertainer in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. His long career mirrored changes in American entertainment tastes and technology. His career began in the age of minstrel shows and moved to vaudeville, Broadway theatre, the recording industry, Hollywood films, radio, and television.

According to dance critic Marshall Stearns, “Robinson’s contribution to tap dance is exact and specific. He brought it on its toes, dancing upright and swinging,” adding a “hitherto-unknown lightness and presence.” His signature routine was the stair dance, in which he would tap up and down a set of stairs in a rhythmically complex sequence of steps, a routine that he unsuccessfully attempted to patent. He is also credited with having popularized the word copacetic through his repeated use of it in vaudeville and radio appearances.

He is famous for his dancing with the white childhood actor Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the musical Stormy Weather (1943), loosely based on his own life and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. He used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers. Robinson was one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear as Black without the use of blackface makeup, as well as one of the earliest black performers to perform solo, overcoming vaudeville’s two-color rule. Additionally, he was an early black headliner in Broadway shows. Robinson was the first black performer to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, 1935) and the first black performer to headline a mixed-race Broadway production.

The idea for bringing a black dancer to Fox to star with a white child star Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel was first proposed by Fox head Winfield Sheehan after a discussion with D. W. Griffith. Sheehan set his sights on Robinson but, unsure of his ability as an actor, arranged for a contract that was void if Robinson failed the dramatic test. Robinson passed the test and was brought in to star with Temple and to teach her tap dancing. They quickly hit it off, as Temple recounted years later.

“Robinson walked a step ahead of us, but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand, but he hadn’t looked down and seemed unaware. Fannie called his attention to what I was doing, so he stopped short, bent low over me, his eyes wide and rows of brilliant teeth showing in a wide smile. When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking in silence. ‘Can I call you Uncle Billy?’ I asked. ‘Why sure you can,’ he replied. ‘But then I get to call you darlin.’’ It was a deal. From then on, whenever we walked together it was hand in hand, and I was always his ‘darling,’” Temple said.

Robinson came under heavy criticism for his apparent tacit acceptance of racial stereotypes of the era, with some critics calling him an Uncle Tom. He strongly resented this, and his biographers suggested that critics were underestimating the difficulties faced by black performers engaging with mainstream white culture at the time, and ignoring his many efforts to overcome racial prejudice. In his public life, Robinson led efforts to persuade the Dallas Police Department to hire its first black policeman; lobby President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II for equal treatment of black soldiers; and stage the first integrated public event in Miami, a fundraiser which was attended by both black and white city residents.

Robinson was a popular figure in both black and white entertainment worlds of his era, and is remembered for the support that he gave to fellow performers, including Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Lena Horne, Jesse Owens and the Nicholas Brothers. Sammy Davis Jr. and Ann Miller credited him as a teacher and mentor, Miller saying that he “changed the course of my life.” Gregory Hines produced and starred in a biographical movie about Robinson for which he won the NAACP Best Actor Award.

Robinson’s talents transcended his famous stair dance. The steps were not essential to Robinson’s performances; rather, Robinson would naturally shift into “a little skating step to stop-time; or a scoot step, a cross-over tap” or many other tap steps involved in his particular movement. Robinson changed rhythmic meter and tap steps and syncopated breaks seamlessly. Often Robinson would talk to his audience, share anecdotes, and act as if he were surprised by the action of his feet. His amusing personality was essential to his performances and popularity. Robinson is said to have consistently performed in split-soled wooden shoes, handcrafted by a Chicago craftsman.

Robinson’s early life… 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, D.C., where he did odd jobs at Benning Race Track and worked briefly as a jockey. 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. He later teamed up with a young Al Jolson, with Jolson singing while Robinson danced for pennies or to sell newspapers.

In 1898, he returned to Richmond where he joined the United States Army as a rifleman when the Spanish–American War started. He received an accidental gunshot wound from a second lieutenant who was cleaning his gun.

Despite being the highest-paid black performer of the time, Robinson died penniless in 1949, his funeral paid for by longtime friend Ed Sullivan. In 1989, Congress designated Robinson’s birthday of May 25 as National Tap Dance Day.

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