theatre

Brown Skin Models — sho nuf they’re coming to town.

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Wilson Daily Times, 1 December 1936.

Though booked at the whites-only Wilson Theatre, “Brown Skin Models” revue (featuring “struttin'” and “moanin’ low tunes,” uproarious comedy, and “spirituals as only the negro can sing them”) the show’s “special midnight midnight performance” was an accommodation that allowed an African-American audience through the doors.

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As adapted from Wikipedia:

Irvin Colloden Miller (1884–1975) was an African-American actor, playwright and vaudeville show writer and producer. He was responsible for successful theater shows including Broadway Rastus (1921); Liza (1922); Dinah (1923), which introduced the wildly popular Black Bottom dance; and Desires of 1927 starring Adelaide Hall. “In the 1920s and 1930s, he was arguably the most well-established and successful producer of black musical comedy.”

In 1925, Miller started an annual show, Brown Skin Models, inspired by the Ziegfeld Follies, but glorifying attractive black women and exclusively using black performers. The show toured the country with great success for forty weeks a year and during the Second World War toured army camps as part of the United Service Organizations. Although the shows included song, dance, and comedy, the focus was on the models themselves, who “did not necessarily sing or dance [but] merely appeared in costume, walked across the stage, and posed.”

The show was hailed by the Chicago Defender as a radical departure from stereotyped plantation song and dance shows. Miller continued to produce versions of the show with his wife Blanche Thompson, one of the leading models, until he retired around 1955.

And see here for more on Sammy Stewart’s orchestra.

Irvin Miller - Brown Skin Models - poster

Photos courtesy of Matthew F. Delmont’s blog, Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers.

“Chocolate Dandies” comes to town — one night only!

Wilson Daily Times, 12 November 1925.

“This li’l old typewriter hasn’t been reading programs for more than forty years, so it is unable to single out from the more or less confused card of the races that dancin’ colored boy who makes ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ stand out in an uncommonly good road season of uncommonly good road shows. In that jungle of names and numbers, his name is lost. This is regretted, seriously, for the reason that, without regard to color or condition, this keyboard is glad to pound out the fact that he is the most brilliant dancer of his type ever seen on the stage – certainly on the Richmond stage, and, be it remembered, the road sees the good dancers and good actors long before they are “discovered” by reviewers who cover Broadway shows. That statement must be qualified, of course, so as to except imported stars and manufacturer stars – such for example, as Mr. Belasco has fabricated. And, moreover – but this has nothing to do with the case.

“‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is an all-colored show after the general style of ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Runnin’ Wild,’ but, in so far as the road production is a guide, it is much more pretentious – to use the press agents’ favorite word – than its predecessors. It is slighter in its comedy than either of the others mentioned: but its costuming and setting are more elaborate and handsome than those of both the others put together. A long, gangling colored man named Lew Payton wrote the book and plays the comedy lead. He is so free from exaggeration in his work on the stage and has been so true to life in his comedy writing for the stage that it is quite easy for us down here to understand why this particular play and performance did not turn ‘em away in New York. At any rate, to those who fully realize how good this man is he is the acting star of his own show. That dancin’ colored boy walks away with the performance because his work is spectacular and brilliant and, in its own field just about unapproachable.

“It’s a fact, perfectly clean, amusing show, in which every member of the cast and chorus plays and dances as if for the love of it. The little orchestra carried by the company plays admirably. And the pianist-director, a woman, plays beautifully. One-man opinion is that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – provided the entertainment is not submerged by the pitiful tragedy of some of the performers, who are white – but colored.

“Why, several of them have well schooled voices, one of the women would make ‘White Cargo’ more realistic than ever it has been – but this is not moralization: it is supposed to be a report of a performance. Therefore, it is repeated that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – but what a piteous aching thing is this problem of ours!   — Douglas Gordon.”

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The Wilson Theatre‘s manager reprinted a Richmond critic’s bizarrely incomprehensible review to promote — to an all-white audience — a one-night performance of The Chocolate Dandies, a lavish musical meant to capitalize on the success of Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake‘s break-out Broadway production. Based on a book by Sissle and Lew Payton and with music by Blake, the stage show played 96 shows the 1200-seat New Colonial Theatre at 1887 Broadway at 62nd Street from 1 September through 22 November 1924. Josephine Baker — a few years away from her Paris debut — had a minor role, but it is not clear whether she took to the road with the traveling show. Douglas Gordon’s piece — which seems to be positive — aside, the critical reception was mixed.

Image courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

Even if these people are negroes ….

Five years before he was assaulting black teachers, school superintendent Charles L. Coon was writing letters to the editor complaining about vice and depravity incubating in an East Wilson theatre. In the paternalistic and unself-conciously racist language typical of the time, he limned the dangers the show place posed to “young negro school girls” and warned that even small children were carrying to school “suggestive songs” heard at the theatre.

CL Coon Vice letter 8 2 1913

Wilson Daily Times, 11 April 1913.

The Sanborn Company issued a new volume of fire insurance maps for Wilson in 1913, but no movie theatre or vaudeville hall is depicted along East Nash Street. However, check the previous volume, produced in 1908, and there it is — a “moving picture show” just across the tracks at the corner of Nash and South Railroad Street. (In 1913, this building is [mis?]marked as a restaurant.) This theatre, at 414 East Nash, predates Sam Vick‘s Globe Theatre, which at any rate was located in the next block. Who was its proprietor? What was its name?

Moving picture show

Sanborn map, Wilson, North Carolina, 1908.

[A personal aside: seventy years later, school girls were flocking to another spot in the 400 block of East Nash. In the mid to late 1970s, Midtown Lounge, located roughly where the restaurant and cobbler shop are shown above, lured in patrons in the very best smoke-and-mirror balls disco way. On Teen Night, I was one of them. — LYH]