Bill Robinson
Overview
 
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dance
Tap dance
Tap dance is a form of dance characterized by using the sound of one's tap shoes hitting the floor as a percussive instrument. As such, it is also commonly considered to be a form of music. Two major variations on tap dance exist: rhythm tap and Broadway tap. Broadway tap focuses more on the...

r and actor of stage and film. Audiences enjoyed his understated style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug in favor of cool and reserve; rarely did he use his upper body, relying instead on busy, inventive feet, and an expressive face.

A figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple Black , born Shirley Jane Temple, is an American film and television actress, singer, dancer, autobiographer, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia...

 in a series of films during the 1930s.
Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

 to Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer.
Unanswered Questions
Quotations

When a man loves a women, shenanigans go down!

Just remember one thing: Manners and behavior can take you where money can't take you, regardless of what color you are in America.

Encyclopedia
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dance
Tap dance
Tap dance is a form of dance characterized by using the sound of one's tap shoes hitting the floor as a percussive instrument. As such, it is also commonly considered to be a form of music. Two major variations on tap dance exist: rhythm tap and Broadway tap. Broadway tap focuses more on the...

r and actor of stage and film. Audiences enjoyed his understated style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug in favor of cool and reserve; rarely did he use his upper body, relying instead on busy, inventive feet, and an expressive face.

A figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple Black , born Shirley Jane Temple, is an American film and television actress, singer, dancer, autobiographer, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia...

 in a series of films during the 1930s.

Early years

Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

 to Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. He was raised by his grandmother after both parents died when he was an infant—his father from chronic heart disease and his mother from natural causes. Details of Robinson's early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Robinson himself. He claimed he was christened "Luther"—a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. When Bill objected, Luther applied his fists, and the exchange was made.

Career

At the age of six, Robinson began dancing for a living, appearing as a "hoofer" or busker
Busking
Street performance or busking is the practice of performing in public places, for gratuities, which are generally in the form of money and edibles...

 in local beer gardens. He soon dropped out of school to pursue dancing as a career. In 1886, he joined Mayme Remington's troupe in Washington, DC, and toured with them. In 1891, at the age of 12, he joined a traveling company in The South Before the War, and in 1905 worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville
Vaudeville
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill...

 team. He gained great success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway. Not until he was 50 did he dance for white audiences, having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the black theater circuit.

In 1908, in Chicago, he met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins' tutelage, Robinson matured and began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week. In 1928, he starred with Adelaide Hall
Adelaide Hall
Adelaide Hall was an American-born U.K.-based jazz singer and entertainer.Hall was born in Brooklyn, New York and was taught to sing by her father...

 on Broadway in the hugely successful musical revue Blackbirds of 1928 written by Dorothy Fields
Dorothy Fields
Dorothy Fields was an American librettist and lyricist.She wrote over 400 songs for Broadway musicals and films...

 and Jimmy McHugh
Jimmy McHugh
James Francis McHugh was a U.S. composer. One of the most prolific songwriters from the 1920s to the 1950s, he composed over 270 songs...

, in which he performed his famous stair dance. In 1930, he returned to Broadway to star with Adelaide Hall in Brown Buddies.

The publicity that gradually came to surround him included the creation of his famous "stair dance" (which he claimed to have invented on the spur of the moment when he was receiving an honor from the King of England, who was standing at the top of a flight of stairs – Bojangles' feet just danced up to be honored); his successful gambling exploits; his bow ties of multiple colors; his prodigious charity; his ability to run backward extremely fast; his argot, most notably the neologism copacetic; and such stunts as dancing down Broadway in 1939 from Columbus Circle
Columbus Circle
Columbus Circle, named for Christopher Columbus, is a major landmark and point of attraction in the New York City borough of Manhattan, located at the intersection of Eighth Avenue, Broadway, Central Park South , and Central Park West, at the southwest corner of Central Park. It is the point from...

 to 44th St. in celebration of his 61st birthday.

Little is known of his first marriage to Fannie S. Clay in Chicago shortly after World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, his divorce in 1943, or his marriage to Elaine Plaines on January 27, 1944, in Columbus, Ohio
Columbus, Ohio
Columbus is the capital of and the largest city in the U.S. state of Ohio. The broader metropolitan area encompasses several counties and is the third largest in Ohio behind those of Cleveland and Cincinnati. Columbus is the third largest city in the American Midwest, and the fifteenth largest city...

.

Robinson served as a rifleman
Rifleman
Although ultimately originating with the 16th century handgunners and the 17th century musketeers and streltsy, the term rifleman originated from the 18th century. It would later become the term for the archetypal common soldier.-History:...

 in World War I with New York's 15th Infantry Regiment, National Guard. The Regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry while serving under France's Fourth Army
Fourth Army (France)
The Fourth Army was a Field army of the French Army, which fought during World War I and World War II.-World War I:*General Fernand de Langle de Cary *General Henri Gouraud...

 and earned the nickname the "Harlem Hellfighters". Along with serving in the trenches in World War I, Robinson was also the 369th "Hellfighters Band" drum major
Drum Major
A drum major is the leader of a marching band, drum and bugle corps, or pipe band, usually positioned at the head of the band or corps. The drum major, who is often dressed in more ornate clothing than the rest of the band or corps, is responsible for providing commands to the ensemble regarding...

 and led the regimental band up Fifth Avenue on the 369th's return from overseas.

Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928, a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. From then on, his public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club
Hoofers Club
The Hoofers Club was an African-American entertainment establishment and dancers club hangout in Harlem, New York, in the early to mid twentieth century. The club was a legendary site of some of the best of jazz and tap performers , particularly in the 1920s and 1930s...

, an entertainer's haven in Harlem.

Consequently, blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites, for example, his nickname "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for "squabbler." Political figures and celebrities appointed him an honorary mayor of Harlem
Harlem
Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, which since the 1920s has been a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. Originally a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands...

, a lifetime member of policemen's associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants
San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants are a Major League Baseball team based in San Francisco, California, playing in the National League West Division....

 major league baseball
Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball is the highest level of professional baseball in the United States and Canada, consisting of teams that play in the National League and the American League...

 team. Robinson reciprocated with open handed generosity and frequently credited the white dancer James Barton for his contribution to his dancing style.

After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation — also known as 20th Century Fox, or simply 20th or Fox — is one of the six major American film studios...

 and Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures Corporation is an American film production and distribution company, located at 5555 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Founded in 1912 and currently owned by media conglomerate Viacom, it is America's oldest existing film studio; it is also the last major film studio still...

. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple Black , born Shirley Jane Temple, is an American film and television actress, singer, dancer, autobiographer, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia...

 in such films as The Little Colonel
The Little Colonel
The Little Colonel is a 1935 American comedy drama film directed by David Butler. The screenplay by William M. Conselman was adapted from a novel of the same name by Annie Fellows Johnston, and focuses on the reconciliation of an estranged father and daughter in the years following the American...

, The Littlest Rebel
The Littlest Rebel
The Littlest Rebel is a 1935 American dramatic film directed by David Butler. The screenplay by Edwin J. Burke was adapted from a play of the same name by Edward Peple and focuses on the tribulations of a plantation-owning family during the American Civil War...

, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938 film)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a 1938 American musical film directed by Allan Dwan and starring Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, and Bill Robinson. The screenplay by Don Ettlinger and Karl Tunberg is loosely based on Kate Douglas Wiggin's novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm...

and Just Around the Corner
Just Around the Corner
Just Around the Corner is a 1938 American musical film directed by Irving Cummings. The screenplay by Ethel Hill, Darrell Ware, and J. P. McEvoy was based on the novel Lucky Penny by Paul Girard Smith. The film focuses on the tribulations of little Penny Hale and her architect father after he is...

, or Will Rogers
Will Rogers
William "Will" Penn Adair Rogers was an American cowboy, comedian, humorist, social commentator, vaudeville performer, film actor, and one of the world's best-known celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s....

 in In Old Kentucky. Robinson was the first African–American male to appear on film dancing with a Caucasian girl, Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple Black , born Shirley Jane Temple, is an American film and television actress, singer, dancer, autobiographer, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia...

 (The Little Colonel 1935).

Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in Hooray for Love
Hooray for Love
"Hooray for Love" is a song title that appears on two separate songs. The earlier song was composed by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, for a 1935 RKO-Radio movie of the same title....

he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; in One Mile from Heaven, he played a romantic lead opposite African-American actress Fredi Washington
Fredi Washington
Fredericka Carolyn "Fredi" Washington was an accomplished dramatic film actress, most active in the 1920s- 1930s. Fredi was a self-proclaimed Black woman, who chose to be identified as such, and wished for others to do so as well...

 after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks. He only appeared in one film intended for black audiences, Harlem is Heaven, a financial failure that turned him away from independent production.

In 1939, he returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado
The Hot Mikado (1939 production)
The Hot Mikado was a 1939 musical theatre adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado with an African-American cast. Mike Todd originally produced it after the Federal Theatre Project turned down his offer to manage the WPA production of The Swing Mikado .The Hot Mikado was jazzier than The...

, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist W. S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan . The two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S...

 operetta produced at the 1939 New York World's Fair
1939 New York World's Fair
The 1939–40 New York World's Fair, which covered the of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park , was the second largest American world's fair of all time, exceeded only by St. Louis's Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Many countries around the world participated in it, and over 44 million people...

, which was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in All in Fun (1940), failed to attract audiences. His last theatrical project was to have been Two Gentlemen from the South, with James Barton, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually come together as equals, but the show did not open. Thereafter, he confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance well in his late sixties, to the continual astonishment of his admirers. He explained this extraordinary versatility—he once danced for more than an hour before a dancing class without repeating a step—by insisting that his feet responded directly to the music, his head having nothing to do with it.

Death

Despite earning more than US$2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless in 1949, at the age of 71 from heart failure. His funeral, which was arranged by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan
Ed Sullivan
Edward Vincent "Ed" Sullivan was an American entertainment writer and television host, best known as the presenter of the TV variety show The Ed Sullivan Show. The show was broadcast from 1948 to 1971 , which made it one of the longest-running variety shows in U.S...

, was held at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory near Harlem and attended by 32,000 people. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was a pastor who developed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York as the largest Protestant congregation in the country, with 10,000 members; a community activist, author, and the father of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr....

 gave the eulogy, which was broadcast over the radio. Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Cemetery of the Evergreens, Brooklyn
The Cemetery of the Evergreens is a non-denominational cemetery in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, colloquially called Evergreen Cemetery. It was incorporated in 1849, not long after the passage of New York's Rural Cemetery Act spurred development of cemeteries outside Manhattan. For a time, it was...

 in Brooklyn
Brooklyn
Brooklyn is the most populous of New York City's five boroughs, with nearly 2.6 million residents, and the second-largest in area. Since 1896, Brooklyn has had the same boundaries as Kings County, which is now the most populous county in New York State and the second-most densely populated...

, New York.

Legacy

A statue of Bill Robinson sculpted by Jack Witt in Richmond, Virginia
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

, at the intersection of Adams and West Leigh Streets.

Robinson was dogged by lifelong personal demons, having great success despite the obstacle of racism. A favorite Robinson anecdote is that he seated himself in a restaurant and a customer objected to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson leave, he smiled and asked, "Have you got a ten dollar bill?" Politely asking to borrow the manager's note for a moment, Robinson added six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up, then extended the seven bills together, adding, "Here, let's see you pick out the colored one." The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.

A man with a big heart, he was a soft touch for anyone who was down on their luck or had a good story. Despite earning and spending a fortune his haunting memories of surviving on the streets as a child never left him, prompting many acts of generosity. In 1933, while in his hometown of Richmond, he saw two children risk speeding traffic to cross a street to get their ball, because there was no stoplight at the intersection. Robinson went to the city and provided the money to have one installed. In 1973, a statue of "Bojangles" was erected in a small park at that intersection.

Bojangles co-founded the New York Black Yankees
New York Black Yankees
The New York Black Yankees was a professional baseball team based in New York City, Paterson, NJ, and Rochester, NY which played in the Negro National League from 1936 to 1948. The Black Yankees played in Paterson, New Jersey from 1933-1937 and then from 1939-1945. The 1938 season saw the Black...

 baseball team in Harlem
Harlem
Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, which since the 1920s has been a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. Originally a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands...

 in 1936 with financier James "Soldier Boy" Semler. The team was a successful member of the Negro National League until it disbanded in 1948, after Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball is the highest level of professional baseball in the United States and Canada, consisting of teams that play in the National League and the American League...

 was desegregated and began to absorb the top Black talent available.

In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared "National Tap Dance Day
National Tap Dance Day
National Tap Dance Day falls on May 25 every year and is a celebration of tap dancing as an American art form. The idea of National Tap Dance Day was first presented to U.S. Congress on September 15, 1988 and was signed into American law by President George H.W. Bush on November 7, 1989...

" to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson's birth.

Robinson was inducted into the National Museum of Dance C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame
National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame
The National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, in the Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga, New York, was established in 1986 and is the only museum in the nation dedicated entirely to dance. It contains photographs, videos, artifacts, costumes and biographies. The museum is located in the former and...

 in 1987.

In popular culture

  • Fred Astaire
    Fred Astaire
    Fred Astaire was an American film and Broadway stage dancer, choreographer, singer and actor. His stage and subsequent film career spanned a total of 76 years, during which he made 31 musical films. He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute...

     paid tribute to Bill Robinson in the tap routine Bojangles of Harlem from the 1936 film Swing Time
    Swing Time
    Swing Time is a 1936 RKO musical comedy film set mainly in New York City and stars Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Eric Blore and Georges Metaxa, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields...

    . In it, he famously dances to three of his shadows.
  • Duke Ellington
    Duke Ellington
    Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and big band leader. Ellington wrote over 1,000 compositions...

     composed "Bojangles (A Portrait of Bill Robinson)", a set of rhythmic variations as a salute to the great dancer.
  • Bill Robinson's biography was published in 1988 and a made-for-television film titled Bojangles
    Bojangles (film)
    Bojangles is an American biographical drama that chronicles the life of entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson . This film boasts some incredible tap dance routines and a complicated, if not unique, interpretation of the main character by Gregory Hines, who also served as an executive...

    was released in 2001. The film earned the NAACP Best actor Award
    NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
    The NAACP Image Award winners for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special:...

     for Gregory Hines
    Gregory Hines
    Gregory Oliver Hines was an American actor, singer, dancer and choreographer.-Early years:Born in New York City, Hines and his older brother Maurice started dancing at an early age, studying with choreographer Henry LeTang...

    ' performance as Bill Robinson.
  • While Jerry Jeff Walker
    Jerry Jeff Walker
    Jerry Jeff Walker is an American country music singer and songwriter. He is probably most famous for writing the song "Mr. Bojangles.-Biography:...

    's 1968 folk song "Mr. Bojangles
    Mr. Bojangles (song)
    Mr. Bojangles is the title of a song originally written and recorded by American country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker for his 1968 album of the same title...

    " is often thought to be about Robinson himself, it was actually inspired by Walker's encounter with a street performer in the New Orleans first precinct jail.
  • Arthur Duncan, an exceptional tap dancer in his own right, frequently paid homage to Bill Robinson with the stair routine on The Lawrence Welk Show
    The Lawrence Welk Show
    The Lawrence Welk Show is an American televised musical variety show hosted by big band leader Lawrence Welk. The series aired locally in Los Angeles for four years , then nationally for another 27 years via the ABC network and first-run syndication .In the years since first-run syndication...

    .
  • Is mentioned in the Larry Norman song "Nightmare" from "So Long Ago the Garden":
  • Bojangles is also the name of a franchise fried chicken restaurant chain in the southeastern U.S.

Filmography

Year Title Role
1929 Hello, Bill Specialty Dancer
1930 Dixiana Specialty Dancer
1932 Harlem is Heaven Bill
1933 The Big Benefit Himself
1934 King for a Day Bill Green
1935 The Big Broadcast of 1936
The Big Broadcast of 1936
The Big Broadcast of 1936 is a Paramount Pictures production, directed by Norman Taurog, and is the second in the series of Big Broadcast movies...

Specialty
The Little Colonel
The Little Colonel
The Little Colonel is a 1935 American comedy drama film directed by David Butler. The screenplay by William M. Conselman was adapted from a novel of the same name by Annie Fellows Johnston, and focuses on the reconciliation of an estranged father and daughter in the years following the American...

Walker
The Littlest Rebel
The Littlest Rebel
The Littlest Rebel is a 1935 American dramatic film directed by David Butler. The screenplay by Edwin J. Burke was adapted from a play of the same name by Edward Peple and focuses on the tribulations of a plantation-owning family during the American Civil War...

Uncle Billy
In Old Kentucky Wash Jackson
Hooray for Love Himself
1937 One Mile from Heaven Officer Joe Dudley
1938 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938 film)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a 1938 American musical film directed by Allan Dwan and starring Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, and Bill Robinson. The screenplay by Don Ettlinger and Karl Tunberg is loosely based on Kate Douglas Wiggin's novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm...

Aloysius
Up the River
Up the River (1938 film)
Up the River is a 1938 prison comedy film starring Preston Foster and Arthur Treacher and featuring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. The movie was directed by Alfred L. Werker and is a remake of a 1930 film with the same title directed by John Ford and starring Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart in the...

Memphis Jones
Cotton Club Revue Himself
1942 Let's Scuffle Himself
By an Old Southern River Specialty Dancer
1943 Stormy Weather
Stormy Weather (1943 film)
Stormy Weather is a 1943 American musical film produced and released by 20th Century Fox. The film is one of two major Hollywood musicals produced in 1943 with primarily African-American casts, the other being MGM's Cabin in the Sky, and is considered a time capsule showcasing some of the top...

Bill Williamson

External links

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