Bert Williams 1874-1922
"I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient -- in America."
"A black face, run-down shoes and elbow-out make-up give me a place to hide. The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories."
Born in Nassau, Bahamas in 1875, Egbert Austin Williams moved to New York and then California with his family as a boy. Forced to abandon his college study of civil engineering at Stanford to earn a living, he turned his self-taught musical skills and gift for comic mimicry into a lifelong career.
Bert first entered show business as a barker for medicine shows in the Riverside area. At the time, medicine shows traveled the small towns and villages throughout the country giving people a bit of entertainment in exchange for gaining their attention for a sales pitch for mostly worthless patent medicines. Williams told tall tales, sang songs and extolled the virtues of the show waiting for audiences just inside the tent.
Later he worked as a singer, performing in the smoky, poorly lit "free and easies" of San Francisco's Barbary Coast. The area catered to sailors on shore leave, and inside the crowded saloons the quiet, soft-spoken young crooner had to shout his songs to be heard above the din.
Bert Williams got his start on the musical hall stage in 1892, when he began working at the San Francisco Museum, where someone was needed to sing in front of the curtain while the sets were being changed backstage.
In 1893 he joined Martin and Selig's Mastodon Minstrel Show. It was soon thereafter that he began his partnership with George W. Walker, and billing themselves as "Two Real Coons" they went on to become one of the most successful comedy teams of their era. By 1903 their partnership elevated from the vaudeville circuit to Broadway, where their act evolved to full-scale musical comedy. They produced, wrote and starred in In Dahomey (1902), the first Black musical comedy to open on Broadway.
Williams and Walker
After Walker's death in 1909 from syphilis, Williams joined the shows of Florenz Ziegfeld and starred in the Follies from 1910 to 1919. He created the persona of the "Jonah Man" the unluckiest man in the world, resigned to his fate with rueful self-pity that transcended his color. Williams' trademark character was an expansion of the traditional and simplistic darky role to create a fuller fleshed-out character. Bert introduced a new aspect to the classic dimwit, adding a dimension that audiences applauded not only for its humor but also for its illustration of his talents as an actor. Jonah Man was a dumb coon in appearance only. The man underneath was both dubious and contemplative.
As a single act, Bert Williams was the first black to become a star comedian on Broadway. Shortly after his opening on Broadway, Theatre Magazine called Bert Williams "a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage." He was the first Black featured in a Broadway revue and was the first Black actor to join Actor's Equity. In London he played a command performance before King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.
Through mime, Bert Williams displayed an emotional range that transcended the boisterous performance style of minstrels or the broad physical comedy of vaudeville. Although the performance was comedic, beginning and ending in laughter, it was also dramatic, touching upon his emotional depth. Although Bert played the familiar Jim Crow character, his performance enabled him to step a bit out of the heavy shadow that the stereotype cast.
Williams became the first Black comedian to ever appear in the cinema, debuting on screen in 1914, in Darktown Jubilee. A screening of the independent black film in Brooklyn produced boos, cat-calls, and a near race riot from a white audience who rejected the all-black film. Darktown Jubilee was quickly taken out of circulation by the distributor, Biograph.
In 1916, he
produced, directed and starred in A Natural Born Gambler.
The film features his most famous pantomime routine, that of a poker
player who goes through all the motions of dealing, placing bets and
ultimately...losing. His facial expressions and gestures were subtle, in
contrast to the standards of the day, and yet more expressive. He was
able to convey a wide array of emotions as his character rode the
emotional highs and lows of a single hand.
Also in 1916, Bert produced, directed and
starred in Fish, about a boy who spends hours digging for worms and
wants to spend his afternoon fishing, but when he returns home for his
pole he finds chores waiting. He sneaks out on the chores and goes fishing
anyway. After he catches a big fish he tries to sell it to one of his
neighbors, but the neighbor runs him off. The boy's family catches up with
him and drags him back to his chores. At 42, Bert's attempt to portray a
"boy" was not well received. Bert was frustrated with the
limitations of primitive cinema and Fish was his last film.
Bert Williams continued to play the vaudeville circuit and record songs from his shows for the fledgling recording industry. His phonograph records were more numerous than his films and provided a more extensive view of his talents and abilities. Considered by some to be one of the finest recording stars of the time, he cut seventeen titles during his four-year contract with Columbia Records. While most of his recordings are said to have been “simple parodies of conventional stage humor of the period,” others were more serious songs which showcased his considerable talent.
Bert's most famous vaudeville character was Mr. Nobody, whose sad song would later be sung by everyone from Nina Simone to Johnny Cash:
When life seems full of clouds and rain,
comes, all cool and clear,
When I was in that railroad wreck,
I ain't never done nothin' to nobody,
Occasionally Williams managed to transcend the racial stereotypes his audiences expected of him, but for the most part he was trapped in a degrading role all of his life. Off-stage a tall, light skinned man with poise and dignity, on stage Williams became a shuffling, inept "nigger." He pulled a wig of kinky hair over his head, applied blackface make-up, and concealed his hands in gloves. Usually he wore a shabby suit and a pair of oversized, battered shoes.
Bert Williams was over six feet tall, weighing more than 200 pounds. He possessed a wonderfully inept clumsiness when he moved his big feet or body, and long graceful hands that expressed complex emotions with a simple gesture's economy. His voice was deep and low, with smooth Southern dialect and inflection born of long hours of practice and experiment. He delivered his lines very slowly and deliberately, as though from the recesses of some dimly private self-regard. When he sang it was with an inimitable syncopation -- rhythmic slurs, pauses and off-beats that kept his songs freshly individual. He was able to express a human presence behind the blackface, even if his humor was usually confined to racial material.
Bert Williams is remembered today not only for his comic gifts, but also as a man whose life was a struggle against racial prejudice. The hostility he encountered as a Black male limited his professional achievement and ultimately also destroyed his chances for personal happiness.
Despite 20 plus years as one of the most successful and respected stage performers in New York, Williams had never been invited to join Actors Equity. It was thanks to the efforts of W C Fields that Williams was eventually allowed to join Actor's Equity. W. C. Fields once said that Bert Williams was "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew."
Eddie Cantor told the story of Bert in a St. Louis bar, ordering gin from a bartender reluctant to serve a Black man. The bartender frowned at Williams and said, "I'll give you gin, but it's $50 a glass." Without hesitation, Bert took out his wallet and produced a $500 bill. "Give me ten of them," he said.
Williams could never reconcile the adulation he received onstage with the Jim Crow treatment he received offstage and it ate at him. As the years went on, Bert began to suffer from almost chronic depression. Heavy drinking and insomnia also took a toll on his health, but he never missed a performance.
Williams continued to work even after contracting pneumonia. Finally, on Saturday, February 25 1922, with both a matinee and evening performance to give at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago, Williams collapsed halfway through the evening show. Gravely ill, he returned to his home in New York City, where he died on March 4, 1922, at the age of 47.
Unable to realize his highest ambitions, yet able to illuminate a degrading caricature with rare humanity, Bert Williams is regarded as one of the most significant figures in the history of American show business.
"The man with a real sense of humor is the man who can put himself in the spectator's place and laugh at his own misfortunes."
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