George Walker (vaudeville)

George Walker (vaudeville)

George Walker (1873 - 1911) was an African American vaudevillian. In 1893 in San Francisco, Walker met Bert Williams who became his performing partner. Walker and Williams appeared in "The Gold Bug" (1895), "Clorindy" (1897), "The Policy Player" (1899), "Sons of Ham" (1900), "In Dahomey" (1902), "Abyssinia" (1906), and "Bandanna Land" (1907). He was married to dancer and choreographer Ada Overton Walker.

Walker retired from performing after he fell ill during the run of "Bandanna Land".

George Walker and Bert Williams

Two prominent figures of the minstrel era were Bert Williams and George Walker. When this duo appeared on the minstrel scene they debuted themselves as the "Two Real Coons," at the Casino Theatre in New York City in 1896. The debut of Williams and Walker was considered to be significant to black comedy and black professional theatre because of their innovations that they contributed, such as the hit musical comedy "In Dahomey," that toured Europe and the U.S. popularizing the cakewalk, and professionalizing black theatre by founding professional black organizations for black entertainers.

In 1893, the famous duo of George Walker and Bert Williams was formed. The two met in San Francisco and they formed a vaudeville act. Williams was a very talented, light skin, fine voice, and played all instruments very well. He would be considered the "straight man," and singer. Walker was a great comedian, dancer, dark skin, and would play the fool. The two realized that they were much funnier when they reversed their roles, so "...Walker became the straight man-dressed a little too high-style and spending all the money he could borrow or trick out of the lazy, careless, unlucky Williams-and Williams became the blumbery, sorrowful, comical-in-spite-of-himself patsy." Bert Williams's first ambitions were to attend Stanford University and become an engineer. Since he could not afford to go, he worked as a singing waiter in hotels in San Francisco. George Walker began performing in traveling medicine shows and he ended up in San Francisco and joined up with Williams and their act started out as Williams and Walker. Now that they became organized, they needed a selling point to get their names out in the theatre world. Their act grew popular in West coast theatres where the minstrel shows were now being called vaudeville.

At the same time, white duos were billing themselves as "coons." Since Williams and Walker were not in agreement with the white duos, they decided to market themselves as the "Two Real Coons." In 1896, they appeared in a New York production called "The Gold Bug" at the Casino Theatre. It was a short run and the production did not receive good reviews, but then they were hired by another theatre for a record run of twenty-eight weeks, which during that time they popularized the cakewalk. This dance became very popular in high white society in New York. Their next project was "The Sons of Ham." Willams wrote a song for it called, "I'm a Jonah Man," and Alex Rogers composed it and the song became a trademark for Williams.

When Bert Williams and George Walker appeared on the scene, they wanted to change the dynamics of the theatre with their creative minds and talents. But, there were strict limits on the changes they wanted to make because white people were buying the theatre tickets, and they had to present to their standards. They made these changes through three innovations. The first one was taking an already established dance and popularizing it. The cakewalk was rooted in West African festive dances commonly performed during harvest festivals. Couples would form a circle, promenaded, pranced with buckets of water on their heads to the sound of banjos playing, and hand clapping. The winning couple got the cake. When it got to Williams and Walker, "the dance had many variations and in some was apparently a slightly veiled comic parody of their masters' pretentious posturing and high falutin attitudes." When Williams and Walker performed this dance in their acts, the cakewalk started appearing in stage shows, exhibitions, contests, and ballrooms, but only opened to the wealthy to middle class to lower class white communities. It eventually spread through the United States and on over to Europe.

Since 1893, after the two met, they always wanted to incorporate African themes and characters into American shows and planned to do it when they got an opportunity to do their own show. That opportunity came during "In Dahomey." Williams and Walker teamed up with Will Marion Cook and Jesse Ship to produce the musical comedy, "In Dahomey," the first black show ever to open on Broadway. This musical comedy had all original music and had detailed scenery and props. It also had a complete story line from beginning to end. Some found it similar to the story lines of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope films. "The Crosby/Hope films may well have been inspired by Williams and Walker shows like 'In Dahomey'." This show generated so much success that it received great reviews over in London and it toured throughout the United States.

Williams and Walker worked very hard to produce quality theatre. They wanted their sets and costumes to be just as extravagant as the white theatres. They also had great lighting and elaborate props. Walker was the more business savvy of the two and handled most of the management responsibilities of their productions. Walker's goals was to elevate the professionalism in black theatre and achieved this by founding an organization for African American professional entertainers in 1908. It was a network for black entertainers to get together and socialize in order to get to know the other famous black entertainers and to start a support base. His organization called the Frogs held events that included black acts, dining, dancing, and encouraged young performers to achieve a standard of excellence in their stage work. After George Walker died, Williams had a hard time keeping the companies operating.

After George Walker's death, Williams was approached by Florenz Ziegfield to perform in the "Follies." Williams agreed and signed a three-year contract. The white actors threatened to revolt because they did not want to perform onstage with a black actor, but changed their minds when Ziegfield said he could replace any of them except for Williams because he was unique and talented. After his contract was up, he was such a big hit that he stayed on for three more years. By 1913, he gained success as a recording star and went to star in two short films, Fish and Natural Born Gamblers, in 1916. In 1920, he appeared in the "Broadway Brevities of 1920," followed by "Shuffle Along," in 1921, that reopened Broadway to black musicals. Then he worked hard to produce an all black show called "Under the Bamboo Tree," which was not a great success. His health began to fail him and then he died on March 4, 1922. He was a great comedian and may have been the first black superstar.

ee also

*The Frogs (club)
*African American musical theater

External links

* [ George Walker at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]


Biography Resource Center. Gale Group Inc. November 2002. March 27, 2004 []

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Gale Group Inc. 2002. March 27, 2004 []

Haskins, James. Black Theatre in America. New York: Harper Collins, 1982.

Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: A history of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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