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Posted on 08/09/2013


Photo taken on August  1, 1903


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Bert Williams

Bert Williams
He Was The First Black Person To Become a Major Vaudeville Star

[b. 1874 - d. 1922]

W. C. Fields, star of the silent screen, called Bert Williams "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest." As a central figure on America's vaudeville circuit, Williams sang, danced, and pantomimed in clubs, cabarets, and theaters across the country. Williams was one of, if not the most, famous African-American performers in the 1900s. In an age when the "white vaudeville stage did not welcome black performers," Williams pioneered an important role for black performers who had so profoundly shaped the genre. With unfortunate regularity, he was often the only African American on stage. In the 1900s Williams was the toast of the cities he toured, and in 1904 he played a command performance in England for King Edward VII.

Racial prejudice shaped Williams' career. Unlike many other blackface performers, Williams did not play for laughs at the expense of other African Americans or black culture. Instead, he based his humor on universal situations in which any members of his audience might find themselves. In the style of vaudeville, Williams performed in blackface makeup like his white counterparts. Blackface worked like a double mask for him. It emphasized the difference between Williams, his fellow vaudevillians, and his white audiences.

Many white vaudevillians refused to appear on the same bill with Williams, and others complained that his material, which he wrote himself, was better than theirs. Williams, like many black performers, faced discrimination from the hotels and restaurants in which he often performed. Hotels routinely refused to let Williams ride in the same elevators used by their white patrons. He once told a friend how much such seemingly petty discrimination hurt. "It wouldn't be so bad. ... if I didn't hear the applause [from his performance] still ringing in my ears."

Williams was born in New Providence, Nassau, in the British West Indies, in 1874. He became a showman in 1893, when he joined Martin and Seig's Mastodon Minstrels. While performing with the Minstrels he met African American song-and-dance man George Walker, and the two men teamed up. The twosome debuted in New York's Casino Theatre in 1898 in a short-lived show, "The Gold Bug." Their act consisted of songs, dance, and quick-paced patter that centered on Walker trying to convince the slower Williams to join him in get-rich-quick schemes. Williams and Walker's popular act continued until Walker's death in 1911.

Williams pioneered an important role for black performers who had so profoundly shaped the genre.

Ziegfeld Follies. Williams struck out on his own when, in 1909, Walker became too ill to perform. In 1910 Florenz Ziegfeld hired Williams to be one of the stars of "The Ziegfeld Follies." He performed in the "Follies" almost continually, and his national popularity and fame grew. In 1918 Williams broke another color line when he topped the bill at New York City's Palace. Williams became famous for his pantomimed poker game. In this skit a single spotlight illuminated Williams' head and shoulders as he mimicked all the gestures of the player, from drawing cards to losing the game. The popularity of this skit led to a brief film career in the summer of 1916 when Williams appeared in the film A Natural Born Gambler. In addition to the poker-game skit, Williams introduced many popular songs to audiences across the country, such as "You Ain't So Warm," "Nobody," "That's Harmony," and "You Got the Right Church but the Wrong Pew."

In 1920 Williams left the "Follies" and signed with another New York company, the Shuberts. On 21 February 1922 Williams collapsed onstage while touring with the production of "Under the Bamboo Tree." Williams returned to New York City, where he died a month later.
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In 1915 the Biograph Company in an unprecedented move gave Bert Williams the authority to produce, write, direct, and star in two Biograph films both made in 1916, the "Natural Born Gambler" and "Fish", making him the first African American to have full control and produce his own films for a general audience. No other film company at that time had done such a thing.

Here is a link to the film 'Natural Born Gambler' from 1916 in its entirety:
www.archive.org/details/natural_born_gambler

Cavendish Morton, Photographer

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