Bert Williams: Star of the Ziegfeld Follies

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    With the breakup of the famous comedic team of Williams & Walker, Bert Williams quickly came into his own as a solo artist. In 1910, he joined the cast of the world-famous Ziegfeld Follies. During the ensuing decade, he’d become one of Broadway’s most beloved comedians and a great hero to African Americans. Even though he still wore blackface, he was finally able to create characters with universal appeal and rarely seen humanity. His teaming with the rubber-kneed Australian comic Leon Errol had audiences rolling in the aisles, as did his outrageous rooster costume and his pantomime poker game.

    Despite the presence of stars such as Anna Held, Ed Wynn, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, and Bert Williams, the biggest draw of Ziegfeld’s glittering, sophisticated Follies was invariably the bevy of alluring women strutting their stuff in chorus lines and stylish production numbers. Unlike burlesque, attending a Ziegfeld production was something to brag home about. Williams appeared in all but one of the Ziegfeld Follies staged between 1910 and 1919.

    The Follies of 1910 played on Broadway’s New York Theatre from June 20th through September 3rd. In his reference book American Theater, Gerald Bordman wrote, “Two newcomers were the major improvement this year – Fanny Brice and Bert Williams, probably the two finest performers Ziegfeld ever presented. Both had an almost incredible range, from hilarious ethnic travesty to broad human pathos. For Williams the debut signaled the acceptance of a major black artist in an otherwise white musical. Williams’ numbers in his debut included ‘You’re Gwine to Get Something What You Don’t Expect,’ ‘That Minor Strain,’ and ‘I’ll Lend You Everything I’ve Got Except My Wife.’ In this tune, Williams made a generous offer to lend the audience anything he owned except his wife. After a pause, he confided, ‘I’ll make you a present of her.’” Reviewing opening night, the New York Times praised Williams’ rendition of “Constantly” as “his best success” and declared, “There is no more clever low comedian on our stage today than Bert Williams, and few, indeed, who deserve to be considered in his class.” Bert’s starting salary with the Follies was a whopping $1,100 a week.

    After a four-year recording hiatus, Williams resumed recording for Columbia during the summer of 1910, making a pair of two-sided 78s: “I’ll Lend You Anything”/“Constantly” and “Something You Don’t Expect”/“Play That Barber-Shop Chord.” He then went on tour with the Follies. In an old theater scrapbook, I found the original program for the production at San Francisco’s Columbia Theatre during April 1911. It’s headlined “Staged by F. Ziegfeld, Jr., The Follies of 1910.” Act I featured a variety of skits and songs sung by Shirley Kellog, Lillian Lorraine, Fanny Brice, Bobby North, and other cast members. Act II began with a dance starring Shirley Kellog, Vera Maxwell, and Evelyn Carlton, followed by the Reminiscent Ragtime Revue featuring Kellog’s “Yankiana Rag,” Lorraine’s “Temptation Rag,” Maxwell’s “Wild Cherry Rag,” and other songs. Then Bert Williams came onstage to perform “Constantly,” “Believe Me,” and Alex Rogers and Will Marion Cook’s Dixie number “In the Evening.” He was brought back onstage midway through Act III to perform unlisted songs in a piece entitled “Scene – The Watermelon Patch.”

    Ralph E. Renaud reviewed the opening night for a San Francisco newspaper. Beneath the headline “Ziegfeld Offers Big Attractions” was the subhead “Bert Williams Is a Scream.” “To be honest,” Renaud wrote, “Williams is just a trifle disappointing, probably because he has such a colossal reputation to live up to. His slow-spoken and drawling songs, with their eloquent half-gestures, are amazingly funny up to a certain point, but they begin to pall when they continue to exhibit a certain sameness. He is the original of a score of imitators, and it is too much to expect him to spring anything new. Yet he does it with his pantomimic poker game, in which he deals himself a lemon without a spoken word. As a study in expressions it was certainly a study in pristine cleverness.”

    The Follies of 1911 opened at on Broadway at the Jardin de Paris on June 26, 1911, and ended on September 2nd. A highlight was Bert’s portrayal of a Grand Central Station redcap helping nervous tourist Leon Errol across the ironwork maze of a subway construction site. The characters were joined at the waist by a rope, and through a series of comic mishaps, the diminutive Errol wound up taking several plunges off the beams, only to be hauled back to safety by the nonplussed redcap. After spoiling his guide’s lunch, Errol offered him an “especially big tip” of a nickel. The next time he fell, his insulted guide let the rope go free. Muttering “five cents,” the disdainful redcap tossed the tourist’s luggage after him. Peering into the audience, Williams ended the skit with “There he goes. Now he’s near the Metropolitan Tower. If he kin only grab that little gold ball on the top . . . um, he muffed it.” In another segment, set against the painted backdrop of a rooftop garden, Bert sang “Ephraham Played Upon the Piano” and “Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree,” an early Irving Berlin composition. Bert’s song “Dat’s Harmony” was issued as sheet music.

    The Ziegfeld Follies of 1912 delayed its opening until October 21st and played into early January 1913. Bert performed the comic song-and-monologues “You’re on the Right Road But You’re Goin’ the Wrong Way,” “My Landlady,” and “Blackberrying Today,” a Williams original about a deacon presiding over a funeral. The show included the famous skit in which Williams portrayed the driver of a dilapidated taxicab, with impatient Leon Errol as his nervous fare. In its review of the Follies of 1912, the New York Times reported, “The real humorist, of course, is Mr. Bert Williams, and the funniest minute of ‘The Follies of 1912’ introduces him as a driver of a broken-down hansom and the most woe-begone stage horse that ever crossed its legs against the side of a proscenium arch. Mr. Williams has some good songs. In the best of them he describes the conditions under which he could be induced to lend money to a friend.”

    During January 1913, Bert recorded four new two-sided 78s for Columbia. “You Can’t Do Nothin’ Till Martin Gets Home” and “How? Fried!” were recitations without musical accompaniment – funny stories, essentially. The other three 78s featured an excellent studio orchestra led by Charles A. Prince: “My Landlady” backed with a remake of “Nobody,” “Woodman, Spare That Tree”/“I Certainly Was Going Some,” and “Borrow from Me”/“On the Right Road.” After headlining a vaudeville revue at Keith’s Colonial Theatre in New York City, Williams went on tour. A program from Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in San Francisco shows his act sandwiched between Will Rogers (billed as “The Oklahoma Cowboy”) and the 3 Keatons (“Joe, Myra and Buster – Father, Mother and Son”).

    In February, at what was to be his only 1914 recording session, Williams waxed “You Can’t Get Away From It”/“Darktown Poker Club.” The Ziegfeld Follies of 1914 opened on June 1st. The New York Times declared this edition “short of the mark set in the past,” and pointed out that “Bert Williams is in the piece in spots, but he has less to do than usual, although he makes the most of his opportunities.” These amounted mainly to his performing the specialty numbers “I’m Cured,” “The Vampire,” and the “Darktown Poker Club,” which he followed with his famous one-man pantomime poker game.

    Today, the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 is best remembered for giving W.C. Fields his first spoken lines – previously, he’d worked as a silent juggler. The audience took special delight in Field’s billiard skit. Williams’ main contribution was to portray a put-upon houseboy. His role with the Follies diminishing, Williams expressed his frustration in an interview published in the Chicago Defender on March 27, 1915: “Singing a half dozen coon songs and telling a few Negro dialect jokes does not satisfy my ambition. I want to be the interpreter of the Negro on the stage, not the Negro as you see me now – that is the burlesque Negro, just as the stage Jew’s a Jew drawn with red paint and not with faithful black ink. The Negro has a place – and a big one – in the history of this country, and he has to be shown in the drama just as he exists in real life. For hasn’t he heart throbs? Doesn’t he lie awake nights smarting under the customs that make him a pariah in the life of the community? Isn’t the flow of his life being checked as it gets underway? In fact are there comparable dramatic situations possible in the life of the average white man today? I want to be the expositor of all this sort of thing.”

    During August and September 1915, Williams recorded three new 78s: “I’m Neutral”/“Indoor Sports,” “Purpostus”/“Never Mo,” and “Everybody”/“Samuel.” Two more songs, “Hard Times” and “Eph Calls Up the Boss,” were withheld from release. In 1916 he produced only one 78, “The Lee Family”/“I’m Gone Before I Go,” both written by others. That year’s Ziegfeld Follies brought back Fanny Brice and added Will Rogers to the lineup. As part of the show’s Shakespearean theme, Williams donned blackface to do a comic turn on Othello. “You should see the scene from ‘Othello,’” reported the drama critic for the New York Times, “with Bert Williams not to be outdone by any Frank Tinney as the Moor. He chokes his Desdemona (who has been flirting with one Vernon Cassia) till he is tired, and then beats her with a sledge hammer, but it only irritates her. This is the only amusing moment in the Shakespearean revue. You should hear him sing his songs, particularly the one about the nouveau-rich darkey who renamed his children from the advertisements and Holy Writ, calling the youngest Hallud after ‘Hallud be Thy name.’ He has had better songs in other years.

    Bert Williams on Film

    That summer, Williams made a pair of films for the Biograph Company, reportedly becoming the first African-American to write, direct, and star in motion pictures made for public release. Both were filmed in the Bronx. In A Natural Born Gambler, Williams wore more exaggerated blackface than the film’s other players. The plot concerns the rascally leader of the black fraternal organization who tries to preside over a backroom poker game without getting arrested. The other film, Fish, cast him as a friendly, lazy country bumpkin who must sell his catch before it spoils. Exhibitors balked at the notion of paying the asking price of fifty dollars per day for a five-reeler starring African Americans, and there was fear the films would cause racial tension in the South. So the films were trimmed to two-reelers. A third film was reportedly in the works, but Biograph went out of business before its completion.

    The two-reel version of Bert Williams’ A Natural Born Gambler can be viewed at http://www.archive.org/details/natural_born_gambler. Early on, the sets include a barroom, its backroom which doubles as “de library” and a gambling parlor, and a cemetery. Dialog cards feature dialect such as “De kitty am to pay de expenses ob de game.” White actors portray the sleuth, the policemen who haul everyone away, and the judge who sentences Williams’ character to jail. Wonderful close-ups show Williams’ expressive face as he’s betrayed by a black lawyer in court and then plays a pantomime poker game in his jail cell. During the ensuing years, other Bert Williams film projects were mentioned in the press, but none of these came to fruition.

    Bert was filmed one final time in 1916, though, turning in an unintentionally funny performance during a well-attended October parade. The occasion was solemn and uplifting: The New York National Guard’s 15th Regiment of Infantry, the state’s first all-black regiment, was en-route to receive its colors from Governor Whitman. Williams, a captain in the regiment, was asked to ride behind Colonel Hayward as he led the parade. Then, the New York Times reported, “Bert’s horse, a light gray charger, began to waltz about the street the moment the Captain-comedian got into the saddle. Colonel Hayward gave the command to march. The band struck up ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’ The long column moved – and Williams’ horse, ears straight back, tail out, and feet flying, dashed ahead. The rider was taken by surprise, but clung to his saddle and succeeded in stopping his charger. . . .”

    Williams and his steed rejoined the parade. Turning down Fifth Avenue, the column was greeted by thunderous applause. “Captain Bert’s temperamental mount once more abandoned the parade,” continued the account. “Down the avenue the animal rushed, Bert staying in his seat, but apparently his self-confidence had been left with the regiment. He did not even notice that the runaway was dashing straight at four active motion picture cameras set to record the approaching regiment, and eagerly putting on film every one of the multitudinous movements and expressions registered by himself and the horse. Two mounted policemen ay Thirty-Ninth Street stopped the runaway and saved Bert – the whole occurring in the focus of the cameras. The policemen held the animal’s bridle until he seemed quiet and then let go. The rescue accomplished, the applause broke out again, and Bert’s horse made another dash. But a traffic policeman at the corner caught him at his fourth leap – and Bert didn’t stay to continue his act any longer. He slid from his saddle to the ground and planted the well-known Williams feet on the pavement with more emphasis than he ever waved them over the footlights.” It’s unknown whether any of this footage still exists.

    Bert Williams’ Follies Finale

    The 1917 Ziegfeld Follies starred the greatest comedic lineup of the day – Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, and Bert Williams – alongside a dazzling array of American beauties. In his best-remembered skit from that year, Bert played a Grand Central redcap who continually brags to co-workers about his son in college. As Ann Charters described in Nobody, “Finally, when the son – Eddie Cantor in blackface – appeared, an effeminate youth wearing glasses with broad white rims, Williams’ embarrassment and the eloquent difference in personalities between the two comedians stopped the show. But these moments of greatness were infrequent and fleeting.” Once again, the sole Bert Williams 78 issued that year, “There’s No Place Like Home”/“Twenty Years,” featured songs written by others, as did his only 1918 release, “O Death Where Is They Sting”/“When I Return.” His take of “You’ll Find Old Dixieland in France” was rejected.

    Bert Williams did not appear in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918. A June 14th newspaper article reported, “The reason is that Mr. Williams felt he was not given enough work to do. In other words, his name was carried to help the show, but he was not given parts commensurate with his ability or reputation. Mr. Williams is the first and only Colored man to star in a white company, and when he first joined it he was given all the spotlight, but in late seasons he has been pushed back.” He did participate in two other Ziegfled productions. He premiered “You’ll Find Old Dixieland in France,” a serious tribute to African American soldiers, in a show called 9 O’Clock Frolic, which also featured Fannie Brice and Lillian Lorraine. He also sang a couple of numbers in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic. By now Williams, who smoked cigarettes, avidly consumed Three Star Hennessey, and suffered from depression and poor circulation, was noticeably slowing down. It took him longer to climb stairs, and he often complained that his feet hurt him. At one point he became so ill he had to spend a week in a sanitarium.

    Still, he carried on. During 1919 he played vaudeville two-a-days and returned to the Ziegfeld Follies. With the recent wartime rationing, Prohibition, taxes, high rents, and cabaret restrictions, he had plenty to complain about during his Follies numbers “Bring Back Those Wonderful Days,” “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar,” “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea,” and “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” The sheet music for “It’s Nobody’s Business But My Own,” about a preacher beset by scandal, identified the song as “Bert William’s big 1919 riot in Ziegfeld’s Frolic.” Bert’s song “I’m Sorry I Ain’t Got It You Could Have It If I Had It Blues” certainly hints at the hokum craze that blossomed during the Roaring Twenties. The first act’s finale, “The Follies Minstrels,” presented Eddie Cantor and Williams playing the end-men for a spirited rendering of “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show.” “Whatever sense of timing I have,” Cantor later scribed, “I learned from him.” These shows would mark the end of Williams’ association with the Ziegfeld Follies.

    During his Ziegfeld heyday, Bert Williams, the highest-paid African American entertainer, played to countless fans and sold hundreds of thousands of 78s. He and his wife Lottie threw sumptuous parties at their estate at 2309 Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Still, he was continually relegated to using side entrances, riding in freight elevators, and sleeping in segregated hotels. “It is no disgrace to be a Negro,” he once quipped, “but it is very inconvenient.” Eddie Cantor recalled that after one show, they walked back to the hotel together. As Williams headed for the “Negroes only” entrance, they exchanged sympathetic looks, and then Bert said, “It wouldn’t be so bad, Eddie, if I didn’t still have their applause ringing in my ear.” The knowledge that he could never transcend being a “nigger” to most Americans indelibly wounded Williams.

    A Theory of Comedy

    Bert Williams’ intelligence, articulation, and depth of understanding shone through in his American Magazine essay “The Comic Side of Trouble,” which reiterated his “Jonah Man” theory of comedy: “One of the funniest sights in the world is a man whose hat has been knocked in or ruined by being blown off – provided, of course, it be the other fellow’s hat! All the jokes in the world are based on a few elemental ideas, and this is one of them. The sight of other people in trouble is nearly always funny. This is human nature. If you will observe your own conduct whenever you see a friend falling down on the street, you will find that nine times out of ten your first impulse is to laugh and your second is to run and help him get up. To be polite you will dust off his clothes and ask him if he has hurt himself. But when it is all over you cannot resist telling him how funny he looked when he was falling. The man with the real sense of humor is the man who can put himself in the spectator’s place and laugh at his own misfortunes.

    “That is what I am called upon to do every day. Nearly all of my successful songs have been based on the idea that I am getting the worst of it. I am the ‘Jonah Man,’ the man who, even if it rained soup, would be found with a fork in his hand and no spoon in sight, the man whose fighting relatives come to visit him and whose head is always dented by the furniture they throw at each other. There are endless variations of this idea, fortunately; but if you sift them, you will find the principle of human nature at the bottom of them all.”

    Williams insisted that being funny was arduous work: “I do not believe there is any such thing as innate humor. It has to be developed by hard work and study, just as every other human quality. I have studied it all my life, unconsciously during my floundering years, and consciously as soon as I began to get next to myself. It is a study that I shall never get to the end of, and a work that never stops, except when I am asleep. There are no union hours to it and no letups. It is only by being constantly on the lookout for fresh material, funny incidents, funny speeches, funny traits in human nature that a comedian can hope to keep step with his public. . . . If I could turn myself into a human boomerang; if I could jump from the stage, fly out over the audience, turn a couple of somersaults in the air, snatch the toupee from the head of the bald man in the front row of the balcony, and light back on the stage in the spot I jumped from, I could have the world at my feet – for a while. But even then I would always have to be finding something new.”

     

    The Final Years

    For Columbia recording artist Bert Williams, 1919 and 1920 proved to be watershed years. He recorded eleven issued songs each year. Featuring “Somebody” on its flip side, his topically relevant “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine” – Prohibition had just become law – became his best-selling record. “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar”/“It’s Nobody’s Business But My Own” was another strong seller. His blithe, satirical “Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Generosity” and “Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Throwing Stones” featured an occasional “Amen!,” “Ain’t it the truth,” or spirited whoop from Alex Rogers, Bob Slater, and Mary Straine, on hand to simulate members of a congregation. Williams resurrected his deacon character for 1920’s “Save a Little Dram for Me,” another spirited recording. Accompanied by an expressive orchestra, Williams spoke the verses and sang the chorus, in the process telling the story of a parson who smells gin among his congregation and demands a share.

    In 1920, America’s blues craze kicked in when Mamie Smith released “Crazy Blues.” Two of Bert’s recordings that year used the word “blues” in the title – “Unlucky Blues” and “Lonesome Alimony Blues” – but neither were true blues songs. In another recording, the Tin Pan Alley song “You Can’t Trust Nobody,” he described a blues singer:

    “That dark brown lady sang a wicked blues –

    I said, a wicked blues

    Full of moanful news.

    It ain’t no use to arguefy,

    For the blues is blues

    And you can’t deny it,

    It’s hard to listen to such sad tales

    But to everyone that lady would wail”

    Bert Williams, in fact, never recorded a blues song.

    From September through December 1920, Williams appeared with Eddie Cantor in Broadway Brevities, which Williams reportedly financed himself. Critics raved about Cantor’s dentist office skit and Bert’s performances of “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine” and “I Want to Know Where Tosti Went (When He Said Goodbye).”

    Noticeably ill, Bert continued to push himself onstage during 1921. His recording output dwindled to four songs. Only two were released, but they were memorable. “Brother Low Down” told the story of a razor-toting New Orleans preacher who “wields the wicked blade”:

    “Now all you satin blacks and chocolate browns,

    When I pass this hat around,

    If you want to keep from sin

    Drop you little nickels in, yassir,

    And help poor Brother Low Down”

    Classic Williams, “Unexpectedly” told of a thief who gets in trouble with the judge – not for stealing, but for not stealing enough!

    “Got some work in a swell café,

    And I took me home a little fresh meat every day, just a small piece

    And the boss got wise to me in some kinda way –

    Unexpectedly. Uh-huh.

    On the next morn the judge says,

    ‘What have you to say about that?

    Your boss says he caught you

    With two pork chops under your hat.’

    I said, ‘Not guilty, sir.’

    He says, ‘Take six months for that!’

    And it came so unexpectedly, whee!

     

    “’Twas then I found out, yassir,

    Whole lot of meaning in that little word –

    Unexpectedly.

    It seems like I never knew till then

    Of things could happen so –

    Unexpectedly.

    He said, now, had I taken a steak and a ham or goose,

    Then ‘I mighta found some way that I could let you loose,

    But for two measly pork chops, let you free?

    Officer, take him and throw away the key!’

    Oh, it was so unexpected – never mind the ly!”

    Williams recording in the 1920s.

    In February 1922, Bert Williams made his final recording, “Not Lately,” staying to true to a theme that had resonated on many of his 78s:

    “I was so cute when I was young,

    My name was on most every tongue,

    Yassir, the gals ’round home would fight to see

    Which one could hold me on her knee [laughs]

    If perchance, then, I should weep,

    They’d tuck me in their beds to sleep,

    That was the way it used to be, yassir –

    But not lately.”

    Bert’s final stage role was starring in Under the Bamboo Tree, which was originally named The Pink Slip. The show opened in Cincinnati on December 4, 1921, with Williams the only African-American in the cast, and then played in for several weeks at the Studebaker Theatre in Chicago. Williams caught a cold that turned into pneumonia, but insisted on performing. The show moved on to Detroit. On February 27th, he collapsed onstage. He was bundled up and sent by train to New York City, where he underwent transfusions.

    On March 4, 1922, 47-year-old Bert Williams died at his Seventh Avenue home. At his request, his Masonic medal adorned him as he lay in state. On the day of his funeral at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, more than 5,000 people showed to pay tribute. The Masonic services held the following day drew another 2,000 spectators. New York City’s St. Cecil’s Lodge later reported that Bert Williams was the only African-American of his era to be buried alongside white Masons. In an obituary, the New York Times praised Williams for having “a comedy method all his own. The slow, shambling gait, the balanced intonation, the clear diction, the skillful pauses, are familiar to most theatre-goers of this generation. Although not really a great singer, he could ‘put over’ with great effect a song that was really a funny story told to music.” W.C. Fields eulogized Bert Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.”

    In a letter composed during the final weeks of his life, Bert wrote this prescient message to a friend: “I was thinking about all the honors that are showered on me in the theater, how everyone wishes to shake my hand or get an autograph, a real hero you’d naturally think. However, when I reach a hotel, I am refused permission to ride on the passenger elevator, I cannot enter the dining room for my meals, and am Jim Crowed generally. But I am not complaining, particularly since I know this to be an unbelievable custom. I am just wondering. I would like to know when (my prediction) the ultimate changes come, if the new human beings will believe such persons as I am writing about actually lived?”

     

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

     

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