(Page 2)
"Mr. Bojangles" (cont.)

  Bill finally left Cooper’s show with the desire to do a solo act, but Vaudeville had a "two color rule" which meant at least two black performers had to be on stage to entertain the predominately white audiences of the better theaters. It was a rule so rigidly enforced that no one had even tried to break it. The rule incensed Bill but he couldn’t find a way around it.
  At age 36, Bill approached the very successful white theatrical agent Marty Falcons and asked him for help. Marty admired Bill’s work, in fact he loved it. He also admired Bill’s ambition and decided to devise a plan to make Bill the first solo black dancer in Vaudeville history.
  Marty was so respected by Bill that he became Bill’s lifelong manager.
  Actor and dancer Gregory Hines remembers that, "Marty was very aggressive in trying to make things happen for him (Bill). I don’t think there were a lot of people who had mangers who believed in them so much."
  In 1916, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson made history by becoming the first black entertainer to perform without a partner. It was at Chicago’s Marigold Gardens Theater. He had finally broken vaudeville’s sacred rule and the entertainment world’s color barrier. His solo dance act soon became a fixture in all the best clubs.
  Bill finally had money. A lot of money. But even though he could afford to eat in the finest restaurants and sleep in the best hotels, the racial climate of the day forced him to take his meals in the kitchens and sleep in the Negro only hotels in the cities he was playing in.
  While Bill accepted the fact of segregation and racism, he would never tolerate injustice. Even if it meant a battle (and he could use his fists) Bill stood up for his rights as a human being. He was always ready to fight for self-respect and often did.
  In 1921 Bill married drugstore clerk Fanny Clay. She was very protective of her new husband and was often referred to as his second mother. They eventually decided to move back to Harlem where Bill was in immediate demand by the many fine clubs that were part of the Harlem renaissance. It was the Roaring Twenties and white audiences came to Harlem in droves to be entertained and party. It was during this time that Bill took a young white boy under his wing and began teaching him a few steps and even taking him into the all black night clubs where whites were normally not allowed. His young protégé would eventually grow up to be the well known Donald O’connor. It was the time of the glamorous Cotton Club and everything was swinging.
  Bill made his Broadway debut in the musical comedy "Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928," and he was finally on top of the New York entertainment world, becoming the highest paid black entertainer in the world, but it wasn’t meant to last. The stock market crash of 1929 brought the efflorescence of Harlem to an end. To Bill’s horror, soup kitchens sprang up next to theaters all over Harlem.
  The plight of blacks in Harlem during the Great Depression broke Bill’s heart. He felt a kinship to the dispossessed and would often pay a family’s back rent and then pay someone to move the families furniture back into their apartment. He also sent a $200 check to the mayor and asked that half be spent on needy black children and half on needy white children. (Consider that at that time a new Chevrolet coupe cost $445, an electric refrigerator $130 and a bar of Ivory soap just $.08.) His overwhelming generosity soon made him a hero in Harlem. People called him "Uncle Bo" and named him honorary mayor of the city. The New York City police force loved and trusted him so much even gave him a special gold and silver pistol along with a special badge that carried the department’s authority to arrest someone should the need arise.

(cont. next column) >

"Mr. Bojangles" (cont.)

  Bill devoted countless hours to various benefit and fundraising efforts for Harlem’s poor. He would dance for any reason to raise money if would help the dispossessed. He became known in entertainment circles as the "Benefit King." It was during this time that Hollywood became interested in the "Hero of Harlem."
  In 1933, Bill starred in his first all black movie "Harlem In Heaven," but Bill wanted more than to make movies for all-black audiences. He wanted to dance in movies that everyone could enjoy. He got his first break in the movie "Dixiana" and then, in 1934, he was finally offered a starring role opposite Shirley Temple in "The Little Colonel." The little actress fell in love with Bill and for the rest of her life Shirley would call him Uncle Billy. The feelings were mutual, and Bill loved Shirley like the child he never had.
  In their free time during the filming of "The Little Colonel," Bill taught Shirley a simplified version of his famous staircase dance routine and after the director saw them doing it he decided toput in on film. The rest is Hollywood history.
  In Darryl F. Zanuck’s "The Littlest Rebel" Bill once again made film history. Even though he didn’t have the starring role, it was the first time a black character was pivotal to a movie’s story line. It was also the first time a black actor was given on-screen responsibility for a white child. In a time when showing a black and white hand even touching was taboo, the film was a ground breaking and financial success.
  Bill proceeded to make picture after picture, albeit in servant roles that were demeaning and that he was never comfortable with. He was proud and wanted to star in a picture where he was a legitimate leading man and although Bill never accomplished all of his Hollywood goals, his efforts and demands for self respect smoothed the path for the black actors who came after him. He was the first to break both the Broadway and Hollywood taboos that would allow future black actors the right to legitimate roles.
  At age 60, Bill returned to Harlem and was asked to join the parade for the World’s Fair of 1939. As he rode and then danced down the streets of New York, he was welcomed back with open arms by both blacks and whites alike. He had become New York’s favorite son.
  Despite his age, Bill was cast in Mike Todd’s production of "The Hot Mikado," the most elaborate all black musical ever brought to the Broadway stage. Bill was a major hit. The production was so good in fact that the opening night audience included J. Edgar Hoover, Mayor Dewey and several battalions of the NYC police department. When the curtain came down, Bill received eight encores for his performance.
  In 1939, to celebrate his 61st birthday, Bill danced down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th St. to the delight of his New York fans. The day was wonderful with Bill looking and acting like a kid again. He was happy, and the press credited Bill with creating the expression "Everything is copasetic." Copasetic being a Jewish word meaning everything is good or okay.
  During World War II, Bill danced for countless bond raising benefits to support the war effort.
  Actor Danny Kaye once remarked, "At one bond raising benefit, Bill actually took off his shoes and sold them for $10,000 for the fund raising effort."
  Amid Fanny’s complaining about Bill’s failing health and his affair with a Broadway chorus girl, Bill and Fanny divorced in 1943. Soon after, 65 year-old Bill "Bojangles" Robinson married 24 year-old chorus girl Elaine Plaines on January 27, 1944, in Columbus, Ohio. The new marriage was a quiet affair and not much is known of their relationship, but that was the way Bill wanted it.
  Also in 1943, President Roosevelt was pushing for wider employment for black

(cont. next column) >

"Mr. Bojangles" (cont.)

Americans.
  Despite a growing problem with shortness of breath and recurring chest pains, Bill accepted the lead role in Warner Brothers’ big screen all black production "Stormy Weather." Bill’s co-stars included Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, and Fats Waller. The movie was a gigantic success but it took a toll on Bill’s failing health.
  Bill went back to New York and continued to dance in several plays but at the same time, he managed to fit in as many benefit shows as his schedule would permit. In fact, by this time in his life, Bill had performed over 3,000 benefit shows for charity. As the best loved actor in New York, Bill was enjoying his celebrity and what it allowed him to do to help other people.
  At age 68, Bill decided to mount a road show. The tour was called "Bill Robinson’s Concert Review," and his manager, Marty Falcons, expressed his lifelong loyalty and friendship to Bill by giving up all his other clients so he could go with Bill on the road. It was the ultimate gesture of love that Falcons could give to his best friend.
  Bill’s last major stage production was to be "Two Gentlemen From The South" with white actor James Barton, whom Bill often credited as a friend and great contributor to his dancing style.
  The play was another ground breaker where black and white roles were to be reversed with the two men eventually coming together as equals. Unfortunately, the play never opened. After this disappointment, Bill only gave occasional stage performances, but even in his late sixties he could still dance like a teenager. At a dance class, he once danced for over an hour for the students, never repeating a single step. He explained his virtuosity by saying it was all in his feet. He never thought about the steps, letting his feet just react to the music.
  But on November 14, 1949, Bill’s amazing talent and energy were cut down when he suffered a massive heart attack. He lingered for days at Columbia Presbyterian Center in NewYork City, but finally, on November 25, 1949 Bill "Bojangles" Robinson died at the age of 71.
  So revered was Bill Robinson that people came from around the world to join New Yorkers gathered on every street corner and in every park just to get a glimpse of Bill Robinson’s funeral procession. It was the largest funeral in New York City history with over a million and a half people lining the streets from Harlem to Brooklyn. His body laid in state in Harlem’s Armory because it was just about the only place large enough to handle the huge crowds.
  At the time of his death, Bill had either gambled or given away all of his fortune. He died virtually penniless. His friends and colleagues raised the money needed for his funeral.
  Ed Sullivan coordinated the funeral and honorary pall bearers included Duke Ellington, Joe Lewis, Bob Hope, Joe Dimagio, and Irving Berlin. He was buried in the cemetery of the Evergreens in New York City.
  Adam Clayton Powell gave the eulogy at Bill’s funeral and so correctly said, "Bill wasn’t a credit to the Negro race. He was a credit to the human race. He wasn’t the greatest Negro dancer. He was the world’s greatest dancer."
  And so he was.
  Today, a generation has grown up singing along to the song "Mr. Bojangles" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, perhaps not even knowing it was written in tribute to this wonderful man. And an even greater tribute is the statue of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson sculpted by Jack Witt that stands on the corner of Leigh and Adams Streets in Richmond, Virginia – Bills hometown and former capitol of the Confederacy.
  A fitting tribute to a man who did so much, not just for the black race, but for the race of mankind.