Original publish date: November 13, 2014
Republished: November 22, 2018
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the most famous of all African American tap dancers of the twentieth century. No wait, he was, race notwithstanding, the most famous tap-dancer of all time. Robinson used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers, becoming one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup (Yes, African American performers were required to perform in Blackface up until World War I). One of the earliest African American performers to go solo.The first African American to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Temple in The Little Colonel) and the first African American to headline a mixed-race Broadway production.
Offstage Robinson was the first Hollywood Civil Rights activist by using his fame to persuade the Dallas police department to hire its first African American policemen. He staged the first integrated public event in Miami, a fundraiser which, with the permission of the mayor, was attended by both black and white city residents. He also used his star power to lobby President Franklin D. Roosevelt for more equitable treatment of African American soldiers during World War II. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a grandmother who was a former slave, Bill Robinson was born to make a difference.
In the early 1920s, Robinson took his career on the road as a solo vaudeville act, touring throughout the country. He frequently visited Indianapolis, where he performed multiple shows per night, often on two different stages, at the B.F.Keith theatre. Robinson worked 51 weeks per year, taking a week off every season for the World Series. Bojangles was an avid baseball fan and co-founder of the New York Black Yankees of the old Negro National League in 1936.
Toward the end of the vaudeville era, Robinson joined other black performers on Broadway in “Blackbirds of 1928”, an all- black revue for white audiences. After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained popular with white audiences for more than a decade starring in 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. Robinson appeared opposite Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky (1935), the last movie Rogers made prior to his death in an airplane crash. Robinson and Rogers were good friends, and after Rogers’ death, Robinson refused to fly, instead travelling by train to Hollywood for his film work.
He was cast as a specialty performer in a standalone scene. This practice, customary at the time, permitted Southern theaters to remove scenes containing black performers from their showings of the film. Times being what they were, his most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler or servant opposite reigning #1 box office moppet Shirley Temple in films: The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Just Around the Corner (1938) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). In addition, he assisted in the choreography on one of her other films, Dimples (1936). Robinson and Temple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history and lifelong friends. The dance scenes, controversial for their time, were cut out in the south along with all other scenes showing Temple and Robinson making physical contact. By 1937 Robinson was earning $6,600 a week for his films, a strikingly high sum for a black entertainer in Hollywood at the time.
At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he returned to the stage in “The Hot Mikado”, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which quickly became one of the greatest hits of the fair. Consequently, August 25, 1939 was named ‘’Bill Robinson Day’’ at the World’s Fair. By the 1940s, although he continued to perform, Robinson was past his prime and showing symptoms of heart disease. Robinson’s final film appearance is considered by critics as his best when he starred in the 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather alongside Lena Horne.
From 1936 until his death in 1949, Robinson made numerous radio and occasional television appearances. It was during these appearances that Robinson introduced and popularized a word of his own invention, copacetic, meaning tip-top, which he had used for years in his vaudeville shows. It was added to Webster’s Dictionary dictionary in 1934. During the 1930-40s, Robinson was appointed as the honorary Mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of countless policemen’s associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team.
Onstage, Robinson’s open face, twinkling eyes and infectious smile were irresistible and his tapping was delicate and clear. Robinson had no doubts that he was the best at what he did, a self-confidence that some mistook for arrogance. Bojangles felt that he had more than paid his dues and sometimes brooded that, because he was black, he had to wait until he was in sixties before he could enjoy the fame and fortune given to less talented white dancers. Rivals and wags pointed to Robinson’s lack of education as the reason for his nasty demeanor and pegged Bill as confrontational, quarrelsome, and as a heavy drinker and gambler. But they could not deny that his dancing was extraordinary.
On March 21, 1908, as a result of a dispute with a tailor over a suit, Robinson was arrested in New York City for armed robbery. After being released on bail, Robinson failed to take the charges and impending trial seriously. He paid little attention to mounting a defense. On September 30, Bojangles was shocked when he was convicted and sentenced to 11–15 years hard labor in New York’s Sing Sing prison. Robinson’s influential friends hired a new attorney who produced evidence that Robinson had been falsely accused. Though he was exonerated at his second trial and his accusers indicted for perjury, the trial and time spent in the Tombs (Manhattan’s prison complex) affected Robinson deeply. After he was released, he never again traveled unarmed and made a point of registering his pistol at the local police station of each town where he performed. Robinson’s wife, Fanny, always sent a letter of introduction with complimentary tickets and other gifts to the local police chief’s wife in each town ahead of her husband’s engagements.
Robinson loved to play pool and insisted on silence when he attempted certain shots. At these times when the game was on the line, he would pull out his pistol, lay it on the edge of the pool table and take his shot, as the stunned patrons fell silent. African-American newspapers often derided Robinson as the quintessential Uncle Tom because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites on film. But in real life Robinson was the sort of man who, when refused service at all-white restaurants, would lay his gold-plated pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.
Despite these adverse incidents that appear to reveal more about the times than the man, in fact, Robinson was a remarkably generous man. His participation in benefits is legendary and it is estimated that he gave away well over one million dollars in loans and charities during his lifetime. Despite his massive workload, he never refused to appear at a benefit for those artists who were less successful or ailing. It has been estimated that in one year he appeared in a staggering 400 benefits. Often on two different stages in the same city on the same night. Despite earning and spending a fortune, his memories of surviving the streets as a child never left him, prompting many acts of generosity.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson held the world record for running backward. He learned this skill while a young vaudevillian and used the trick to generate publicity in cities where he wasn’t the headliner. He called them “freak sprinting” races and would challenge all comers, including Olympic Champion Jesse Owens. He never lost in his lifetime. Later, the duo became such good friends that Owens made a gift to Robinson of one of his four Olympic gold medals. In 1922, Robinson set the world record for running backward (100 yards in 13.5 seconds). The record stood until 1977, when it was beaten by two-tenths of a second.
After a series of heart attacks, doctors advised him to quit performing in 1948. Robinson maintained that though he had trouble walking, talking, sleeping and breathing, when he danced he felt wonderful. Robinson’s final public appearance was as a surprise guest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV show. He died a few weeks later on November 25, 1949. Despite earning more than $ 3 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless at the age of 71 from heart failure at Columbia Presbyterian Center in New York City . His funeral was arranged and paid for by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan.
Robinson’s casket lay in state in Harlem, where an estimated 32,000 people filed past to pay their last respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the funeral, which was broadcast over the radio. Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. conducted the service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and New York Mayor William O’Dwyer gave the eulogy. Newspapers estimated that one hundred thousand people turned out to witness the passing of his funeral procession. Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. 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.
Bill Robinson was successful despite the obstacle of racism. My favorite Robinson story finds Bojangles seated in a restaurant as a rude customer loudly object to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson left, Bill smiled and asked, “Have you got a ten dollar bill?” As the manager lays his bill on the counter, Robinson removes six $10 bills from his own wallet and adds them to the manager’s banknote. After mixing all of the bills together, Robinson says, “Here, let’s see you pick out the colored one”. The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.
So there you have it, a 2-part story of a true American hero. Now you know why I was so happy to find that suitcase of Big Band memorabilia containing items associated with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I’ve already told you about most of the contents in that suitcase. But there is one item that shines above all others. Well, to me at least.
It is a page out of an old fashioned scrapbook. On that page is a small photo of Deke Moffitt with his friend Bojangles. Moffitt is holding his son up and the trio are clowning with a toy pop-gun. The typewritten caption under the photo reads: “I think this was the last snap-shot ever taken of Bill Robinson. It was taken on July 13, 1949.” Of course, there is no real way to prove that claim, but it is certainly intriguing. Under the photo, also attached to the page is a small hand drawn self caricature titled “Bill” with an autograph above it reading “Best Wishes Bill Robinson”. The sketch was drawn by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson himself and it speaks to the innocence and purity of the image Mr. Robinson projected on screen all those years ago.