vaudeville

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.

——

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.

Theatrical jottings.

Samuel H. Vick‘s Globe Theatre was the first black-owned moving picture theatre in Wilson. As early as 1914, the Globe occupied the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at 549-551 Nash Street and, in its earliest days, under the management of J.J. Privett, also hosted vaudeville acts.

Here, from the New York Age‘s weekly “Theatrical Jottings” column in 1914 are announcements of the Globe’s offerings:

1 22

22 January.

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29 January.

2 12

12 February.

3 19

19 March.

3 26

26 March.

9 17

17 September.

9 24

24 September.

A teenaged Ethel Waters joined the Hill Sisters act when it passed through Philadelphia and, on the road with them, gained the sobriquet “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” See Cullen et al.’s Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performances in America, volume 1.

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]

He has always conducted himself as an American citizen.

Wilson native Isaiah Prophet Thorne‘s peripatetic lifestyle criss-crossing Europe as an entertainer required that he periodically apply for passport renewals and demonstrate his continued allegiance to the United States.

In the earliest document I’ve found, dated 1909, 24 year-old Thorne asserted that he was a singer, that he had left the U.S. in 1898, and that he was temporarily living in Berlin, Germany.

IP Thorne 1.png

In 1915, his application required additional information revealing that his father was dead; that he was now working as a vaudeville artist in Naples, Italy; that he had last left the U.S. in February 1910; and that he needed his passport to travel in Italy, Egypt, Tripolitania [Libya], Greece, France, Spain and England “performing in vaudeville.”

IP Thorne 2

This application contained a small photograph affixed to its reverse and appears to list a contact relative: Warren Thorne, 604 Spring Street, Wilson.

IP Thorne 3

Two years later, Thorne again applied for a renewal, indicating that he was a theatrical performer who had left the United States in September 1907 (which conflicts with the statement above) and was now staying in Saloniki, Greece.

IP Thorne 6

World War I was raging, and Thorne had joined the British Colonial Force. He was required to submit an Affidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence and to Overcome Presumption of Expatriation. He confirmed that he had last been in the United States in 1907 and had spent the intervening years performing in England, Germany, Holland, Russia, Denmark, Romania, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Greece. He claimed that he did not pay income tax because he made too little income, and he was not sure when he would return to the U.S., but was willing to do so “if called for service.”

IP Thorne 7

The interviewing officer, American Vice-Consul H. Earle Russell, concluded that Thorne’s explanation for his protracted foreign residence was satisfactory and that he was “entitled to protection as an American citizen.”

IP Thorne 8

In 1920, Thorne again applied to renew his passport. This application erroneously asserted that he had first left the U.S. in 1888 (when he was only 3), but revealed that his father was named Preston Thorne. It also yields a beautiful black and white image of the man.

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Isaiah P. Thorne apparently never returned to the United States. I have found only one additional source of reference for his life — in the final pages of The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov’s astounding biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the Mississippi-born son of former slaves who built a fortune of millions as the owner and impresario of renowned restaurants and nightclubs in Moscow and Istanbul: “Frederick died … on Tuesday, June 12, 1928, at the age of fifty-five. Because [his wife] Elvira was out of the country, all funeral arrangements were made by his friends. One of these was Isaiah Thorne, a black man from North Carolina who had worked for him at Maxim and who became his token executor.”; “Isaiah Thorne effectively adopted [Frederick’s sons Bruce and Frederick Jr.] when [their mother] Elvira was away ….”; “On November 25, 1930, at Thorne’s instigation, Fred and Bruce went to the American consulate general in Constantinople to apply for a passport” because “he wanted to help them escape the hardships of their lives in Turkey by taking them with him to North Carolina, where he had family.”; but “Thorne did not succeed in taking the boys to the United States because he could not raise the money ….”

Box 4495, Volume 002: Constantinople, Emergency Passport Applications, Argentina thru Venezuela, 1906-1925; U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line], http://www.Ancestry.com