Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson.jpg
Robinson in 1933
Luther Robinson

May 25, 1877
Died November 25, 1949 (aged 72)
Occupation Dancer, actor, activist
Years active 19001943
Spouse(s) Lena Chase
(m.19071922; divorced)
Fannie S. Clay
(m.19221943; divorced)
Elaine Plaines
(m.19441949; his death)

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (May 25, 1877 November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor, the best known and most highly paid African-American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century. His long career mirrored changes in American entertainment tastes and technology. He started in the age of minstrel shows and moved to vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, Hollywood, radio, and television. According to dance critic Marshall Stearns, "Robinson's contribution to tap dance is exact and specific. He brought it up on its toes, dancing upright and swinging", giving tap a "hitherto-unknown lightness and presence."[1]:pp. 186187 His signature routine was the Stair Dance, in which Robinson would tap up and down a set of stairs in a rhythmically complex sequence of steps, a routine that he unsuccessfully attempted to patent. Robinson is also credited with having introduced a new word, copasetic, into popular culture, via his repeated use of it in vaudeville and radio appearances.

A popular figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the musical Stormy Weather (1943), loosely based on Robinson's own life, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Robinson used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers, including becoming the following:

  • one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup
  • one of the earliest African-American performers to go solo, overcoming vaudeville's two colored rule [2]
  • a headliner in Broadway shows
  • the first African American to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Temple in The Little Colonel, 1935)
  • the first African American to headline a mixed-race Broadway production

During his lifetime and afterwards, Robinson also came under heavy criticism for his participation in and tacit acceptance of racial stereotypes of the era, with critics calling him an Uncle Tom figure. Robinson resented such criticism, and his biographers suggested that critics were at best incomplete in making such a characterization, especially given his efforts to overcome the racial prejudice of his era. In his public life Robinson led efforts to:

  • persuade the Dallas police department to hire its first African-American policemen
  • lobby President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II for more equitable treatment of African-American soldiers
  • stage the first integrated public event in Miami, a fundraiser which, with the permission of the mayor, was attended by both black and white city residents

Despite being the highest-paid black performer of the era, Robinson died penniless in 1949, and his funeral was paid for by longtime friend Ed Sullivan. Robinson is remembered for the support he gave to fellow performers, including Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, Jesse Owens, and the Nicholas brothers.[citation needed]


Early years

Luther Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia, and raised in its Jackson Ward neighborhood. His parents were Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. His grandmother raised him after both parents died in 1884 when he was six years oldhis 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. Eventually, the exchange between the names of both brothers was made.[5] The brother subsequently adopted the name of "Percy" and under that name achieved recognition as a musician.[6]

Early career

At the age of five, Robinson began dancing for small change, appearing as a "hoofer" or busker in local beer gardens and in front of theaters for tossed pennies. A promoter saw him performing outside the Globe Theater in Richmond and offered him a job as a "pick" in a local minstrel show. At that time, minstrel shows were staged by white performers in blackface. Pickaninnies were cute black children at the edge of the stage singing, dancing, or telling jokes.[5]: p. 3940

In 1890, at the age of 13, Robinson ran away to Washington, D.C., where he did odd jobs at Benning Race Track and worked briefly as a jockey.[7] He teamed up with a young Al Jolson, with Jolson singing while Robinson danced for pennies or to sell newspapers.[5]: p. 42 In 1891 he was hired by Whallen and Martel, touring with Mayme Remington's troupe in a show titled The South Before the War, performing again as a pickaninny, despite his age.[1] He travelled with the show for over a year before growing too mature to play the role credibly.

In 1898, he returned to Richmond where he joined the United States Army as a rifleman when the SpanishAmerican War broke out. He received an accidental gunshot wound from a second lieutenant who was cleaning his gun.[5]:p. 45


On March 30, 1900, Robinson entered a buck-and-wing dance contest at the Bijou Theater in Brooklyn, New York, winning a gold medal and defeating Harry Swinton, star of the show In Old Kentucky and considered the best dancer of his day.[8] The resulting publicity helped Robinson to get work in numerous traveling shows, sometimes in a troupe, more frequently with a partner, though not always as a dancer (Robinson also sang and performed two-man comedy routines).[5]:pp. 50, 53

By 1912, Robinson was a full partner in the duo, which had become primarily a tap dancing act, booked on both the Keith and Orpheum Circuits. The team broke up in 1914, and vaudeville performer Rae Samuels, who had performed in shows with Robinson, convinced him to meet with her manager (and husband), Marty Forkins. Under Forkins' tutelage, Robinson matured and began working as a solo act, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week. Forkins accomplished this by inventing an alternate history for Robinson, promoting him as already being a solo act. This technique succeeded, making Robinson one of the first performers to break vaudeville's two colored rule, which forbade solo black acts.[6]:pp. 943944

When the U.S. entered World War I, the War Department set up a series of Liberty Theaters in the training camps. The Keith and Orpheum Circuits underwrote vaudeville acts at reduced fees,[9] but Robinson volunteered to perform gratis for thousands of troops, in both black and white units of the Expeditionary Forces, receiving a commendation from the War Department in 1918.[5]:p. 98

Throughout the early 1920s, Robinson continued his career on the road as a solo vaudeville act, touring throughout the country and most frequently visiting Chicago, where Marty Forkins, his manager, lived. From 19191923 he was fully booked on the Orpheum Circuit, and was signed full-time by the Keith in 1924 and 1925. In addition to being booked for 5052 weeks (an avid baseball fan, he took a week off for the World Series), Robinson did multiple shows per night, frequently on two different stages.[5]:p. 166

Tap Dance Style

As aforementioned, Stearns' chapter "Bill Robinson: Up on the Toes," Jazz Dance (1966), describes that Robinson introduced dancing "up on the toes" to tap dance. This was a new advent to King Rastus Brown's popular "flat-footed wizardry."[1]:187 Moving primarily from the waist down, Robins maintained impressive control of his body. Pete Nugent is said to have remarked, "Robinson was the absolute tops in control."[1]:187 That Robinson infrequently dropped his heels marked a significant change in popular tap technique. Due to his adroit ability to be both light on his feet and distinct in his percussive taps, Robinson was called the Father of Tapology.[10]

In 1918 at the Palace Theater in New York, Robinson performed the Stair Dance. Claims to the origin of the Stair Dance were highly disputed, however Robinson was widely accredited with the dance because his performances brought the dance into popularity.[10] The dance involved "a different rhythm for each step--each one reverberating with a different pitch--and the fact that he had a special set of portable steps enhanced his claim to originating the dance."[5]:100 The popular sensation of the Stair Dance led Robinson to try to secure a patent on the routine through the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C to no avail, however this did not infringe on Robinson's professional command of the Stair Dance. The entertainment community began to associate the Stair Dance exclusively will Robinson as the routine became a standard part of his performances in 1921. Haskins reports that dancer, Fred Stone sent Robinson a check for having performed the routine.[5]:100-101

Robinson's talents transcended far beyond his famous Stair Dance. The steps itself were not essential to Robinson's performances, rather Robinson would naturally shift into "a little skating step to stop-time; or a Scoot step, a cross-over tap" or plenty other tap steps involved in his particular movement quality. [1]:187 Robinson changed rhythmic meters and tap steps and syncopated breaks seamlessly. Often Robinson would talk to his audience, share anecdotes, and act as if he was surprised by the action of his feet. His amusing personality was essential to his performances and popularity. Robinson is said to have consistently performed in split-soled wooden shoes, handcrafted by a Chicago craftsman.[10]


In 1928, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928 on Broadway, a black revue for white audiences starring Adelaide Hall and Bill Robinson along with Aida Ward, Tim Moore and other black stars. The show was a huge success on Broadway, where it ran for over one year to sell-out performances. On stage, Adelaide Hall and Robinson danced and sang a duet together, which captivated the audiences. From then on, Robinson's public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. So successful was Adelaide Hall's collaboration with Bojangles, they even appeared together on stage at the prestigious Palace Theatre (Broadway)[11] before they were teamed up together again by Marty Forkins (Robinson's manager)[12] to star in another Broadway musical titled, "Brown Buddies",[13] that opened in 1930 at the Liberty Theatre, where it ran for four months before commencing a road tour of the States.[14]

In 1939, Robinson returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The show opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, with Robinson cast in the role of the Emperor. His rendition of My Object All Sublime stopped the show and produced eight encores. After Broadway, the show moved to the 1939 New York World's Fair, and was one of the greatest hits of the fair. August 25, 1939, was named Bill Robinson Day at the fair.[5]:p. 260

Robinson's next Broadway show, All in Fun (1940), was with an all-white cast. Despite having Imogene Coca, Pert Kelton, and other stars, the show received poor reviews at out-of-town tryouts in New Haven and Boston. When the white stars and co-producers, Phil Baker and Leonard Sillman, withdrew, Robinson became the star, the first time an African-American headlined an otherwise all-white production. Although the reviewers were enthusiastic about Robinson, they panned the show, and it failed to attract audiences. All in Fun closed after four performances.[5]:pp. 273275

Film career

After 1932, black stage 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 and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances.

Early films

Robinson's film debut was in the RKO Pictures 1930 musical Dixiana. RKO was formed in part by a merger of the Keith and Orpheum theater circuits, with whom Robinson had performed as a headliner for many years. He was cast as a specialty performer in a standalone scene. This practice, customary at the time, permitted Southern theaters to remove scenes containing black performers from their showings of the film. Dixiana was followed by Robinson's first starring role, in Harlem Is Heaven (1932), which is sometimes cited as the first film with an all-black cast, even though all-black silent films preceded it and the cast of Harlem Is Heaven includes a white actor with a speaking part, as well as a few white extras. The movie was produced in New York and did not perform well financially, leading Robinson to focus on Hollywood-produced movies after that.[5]:p. 206

Shirley Temple

The idea for bringing a black dancer to Fox to star with Temple in The Little Colonel was actually first proposed by Fox head Winfield Sheehan after a discussion with D. W. Griffith. Sheehan set his sights on Robinson but, unsure of his ability as an actor, arranged for a contract that was void if Robinson failed the dramatic test. Robinson passed the test and was brought in to both star with Temple and to teach her tap dancing.[15] They quickly hit it off, as Temple recounted years later:

Robinson walked a step ahead of us, but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand, but he hadn't looked down and seemed unaware. Fannie called his attention to what I was doing, so he stopped short, bent low over me, his eyes wide and rows of brilliant teeth showing in a wide smile. When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking in silence. "Can I call you Uncle Billy?" I asked. "Why sure you can", he replied... "But then I get to call you darlin.'" It was a deal. From then on, whenever we walked together it was hand in hand, and I was always his "darlin.'"[15]

Robinson and Temple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history. The scene was controversial for its time, and was cut out in the south along with all other scenes showing the two making physical contact. Temple and Robinson appeared in four films together: The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner.[citation needed]

Robinson and Temple became close friends as a result of his dance coaching and acting with her. Robinson carried pictures of Temple with him wherever he traveled, and Temple considered him a lifelong friend, saying in an interview "Bill Robinson treated me as an equal, which was very important to me. He didn't talk down to me, like to a little girl. And I liked people like that. And Bill Robinson was the best of all."[17]

Other films

On rare occasions, Robinson departed from the stereotypes of African-Americans imposed by Hollywood studios. In a small vignette in Hooray for Love (1935), he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; in One Mile from Heaven (1937), he played a romantic lead opposite African-American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks.[citation needed]

In 2001, Stormy Weather was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[19]

Radio and sound recordings

From 1936 until his death in 1949, Robinson made numerous radio and occasional television appearances. The distinctive sound of Robinson's tap dancing was frequently featured, but Robinson also sang, made sound effects, and told jokes and stories from his vaudeville acts.[5]:pp. 266270 He also addressed the audience directly, something very rare for a black radio performer in that era.[20]

Robinson also made several recordings, including one in which he demonstrated each of his tap steps and their corresponding sounds. It was also on the radio and in his recordings that Robinson introduced and popularized a word of his own invention, copasetic, which he had used for years in his vaudeville shows, and which was added to Webster's Dictionary in 1934.[21][22]

Personal life

Little is known of Robinson's first marriage to Lena Chase in 1907. They separated in 1916, and the marriage ended in 1922. His second wife was Fannie S. Clay whom he married shortly after his divorce from Chase. They divorced in 1943. His third marriage was in 1944 to Elaine Plaines in Columbus, Ohio, and they remained together until Robinson's death in 1949. There were no children from any of the marriages.

Political figures and celebrities appointed Robinson an honorary mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of policemen's associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team. Robinson reciprocated with open-handed generosity and frequently credited the white dancer James Barton for his contribution to his dancing style.


The last theatrical project for Robinson was to have been Two Gentlemen from the South, with James Barton as the master and Robinson as his servant, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually the two come together as equals, but the show did not open.[1]:p. 188

Robinson's final public appearance in 1949, a few weeks before his death, was as a surprise guest on a TV show, Ted Mack's The Original Amateur Hour, in which he emotionally embraced a competitor on the show who had tap-danced for the audience. A friend remarked, "he was handing over his crown, like him saying, 'this is my good-bye. '"[23]

Despite being the highest-paid black performer of the first half of the twentieth century, earning more than US$2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless in 1949, at the age of 71 from heart failure. His funeral was arranged and paid for by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan. Robinson lay in repose at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in Harlem, where an estimated 32,000 people filed past his open casket to pay their last respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the funeral, which was broadcast over the radio. Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. conducted the service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and New York Mayor William O'Dwyer gave the eulogy.[24][25] Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens, Brooklyn, New York.


Robinson in 1942

Robinson was successful 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.[21]

Despite earning and spending a fortune, his memories of surviving 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 caught between the heat of traffic to retrieve their ball. 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", sculpted by Jack Witt, at the intersection of Adams and West Leigh Streets was established in a small park at the intersection.

Robinson co-founded the New York Black Yankees baseball team in Harlem 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 was desegregated.

In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared "National Tap Dance Day" to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson's birth.[3][4]

Robinson was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

The origin of the nickname "Mr. Bojangles"

Tales about the origin of Robinson's nickname even varied across the color line, a consequence of differing opinions of him by blacks and whites. To whites, for example, his nickname "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Fletcher claimed it was slang for "squabbler."[28] Robinson himself said he got the nickname as a child in Richmond; it is the most commonly accepted version.[5]: p. 37

World record for running backward

One of Robinson's methods for generating publicity in cities where he wasnt the headliner was to engage in "freak sprinting" races, such as running backward. In 1922, Robinson set the world record for running backward (100 yards in 13.5 seconds).[29] The record stood until 1977, when Paul Wilson ran the distance in 13.3 seconds. [30] Although Robinson's speed running backwards is undisputed, the circumstances in which this feat was accepted as a world record are unclear, and were likely the result of a staged publicity event rather than a sanctioned athletic contest.

The song "Mr. Bojangles"

Jerry Jeff Walker's 1968 folk song "Mr. Bojangles" indirectly makes reference to Robinson. According to Walker, it was inspired by Walker's encounter with a white street performer in the New Orleans first precinct jail, a street performer who called himself "Bo Jangles", presumably taking his pseudonym from Robinson.[31] In the song, the street performer is a heavy drinker and has a dog that died. By Robinson's own account and those of his friends, he neither smoked nor drank (although he was a frequent and avid gambler),[8]:p. 121 and he never had a dog.


Uncle Tom roles

Robinson came under heavy criticism for playing stereotyped roles, and took offense at such claims. Once, after being named as an "Uncle Tom" in the New York newspaper The Age, Robinson went to its office in Harlem, pistol in hand, demanding to see the editor. In his eulogy at Robinson's funeral, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell argued against the claim that Robinson was an Uncle Tom figure, focusing on Robinson's ability as an entertainer and a person to transcend color lines.[25]

In 1973, the film historian Donald Bogle, in his history of African Americans in American film, refers to Robinson's role in The Littlest Rebel and other Shirley Temple movies as the "quintessential Uncle Tom."[32] Other critics noted that such criticism fails to account for the genuine affection and chemistry between Robinson and Temple that came through on the screen, and that the role represented a breakthrough for Hollywood stereotypes in that it was the first time a black man was made the guardian of a white life. Bogle later modulated his criticism by noting that the reliable, articulate Uncle Billy character in The Littlest Rebel was a cut above the characters portrayed by Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry.[5]:pp. 229230

Haskins explains that critics calling Robinson an "Uncle Tom" often disregarded the discriminatory limitations Robinson endured and combated throughout his career. In addition to the impact of Jim Crow policies and the Depression, Haskins writes, "That Bill traveled, at least professionally, in increasingly white circles was not so much a matter of choice as one of reality."[5]:204 Having overcome numerous policies inhibiting his success to reach an unmatched level of stardom, Robinson had limited performance venue opportunities for a performer of his caliber.[5]:204-205

In 1933, Robinson was named an honorary "Mayor of Harlem" for his philanthropic contributions to his community and for his renown success. He took this role seriously performing over three thousand benefits in the course of his career, aiding hundreds of unorganized charities and individuals.[5]:214-215

Trial and imprisonment

On March 21, 1908, as a result of a dispute with a tailor over a suit, Robinson was arrested in New York City for armed robbery. On September 30, he was convicted and sentenced to 1115 years hard labor at Sing Sing prison. Robinson had failed to take the charges and trial seriously and paid little attention to mounting a defense. After his conviction, Robinson's partner, George Cooper, organized his most influential friends to vouch for him, and hired a new attorney who produced evidence that Robinson had been falsely accused. Though he was exonerated at his second trial and his accusers indicted for perjury, the trial and time spent in the Tombs (Manhattan's prison complex) affected Robinson deeply. After he was released, he made a point of registering his pistol at the local police station of each town where he performed. Robinson's second wife, Fanny, also sent a letter of introduction with complimentary tickets and other gifts to the local police chief's wife in each town ahead of Robinson's engagements.[5]:p. 164

Café Metropole and Jeni Le Gon


In 1937, Robinson caused a stir in the Harlem community by choosing a white dancer, Geneva Sawyer, as his dance partner over Jeni Le Gon in the Twentieth Century Fox film Café Metropole (1937).[36] Le Gon had danced with him in Hooray for Love (1935) and had received favorable reviews. Sawyer had been Shirley Temple's dance coach during the time Temple and Robinson made movies together, and Sawyer had taken tap lessons from Robinson while he was teaching Temple and choreographing her routines. Robinson suggested to the producers that Sawyer could be cast as his partner if she wore blackface.[8]:pp. 125126 Le Gon's career suffered as a result, and she never worked with Robinson again. Although the scene was shot with Sawyer in blackface, the studio became convinced that a mixed-race adult couple dancing together would be too controversial: both scenes with Robinson were cut from the final version of the movie and the deleted scenes were only released in 2008 as part of a Fox DVD boxed set of Tyrone Power movies.[37]



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