Bert Williams (New Providence, Nassau, British West Indies, November 12, 1874 – New York, March 4, 1922) was arguably the most important black star of early vaudeville and was the first to cross the color line and the first to work openly with white performers in a major Broadway venue. He was a Mason and was the first black man buried with Masonic honors. And yet he fell victim to the blatant discrimination that prevailed during his lifetime so that he was not even permitted to watch his own show sitting in the preferred seats in the audience.
At age 11 Bert’s family moved to Florida and at the age of 19 he joined a minstrel troupe where he partnered with George Walker (circa 1973 – 1911) which resulted in a successful black vaudeville team where the fast-talking Walker tried to get the slower-witted Williams to go along with his ideas and schemes. When Walker became ill and eventually died of syphilis, Williams went on as a single, attracting the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld who courageously placed him as one of the stars of the 1910 Ziegfeld Follies, whe
re he performed for seven years. Since he was the first of his race to ever be in such a position, he had to set an example as many performers would not share a stage with him. Within the show he developed a long friendship with one of vaudeville’s rising stars, Eddie Cantor, who agreed to do vaudeville sketches with him.
Williams became famous for his timing. His pantomime scenes inspired vaudeville and film /tv comedian Red Skelton in his own later pantomime work and his routine of a losing poker player became a classic. His delivery was slow and often one could see the punchline or end of the monologue coming but the fun was in waiting for him to finally get to it. His delivery was often slow and almost slurred and his singing often more talking. His subject matter was the problems of everyday life particularly of the down and out, and some of his songs such as (I Ain’t Got) Nobody were tinged with pathos while at other times he would recount his fear of encountering a ghost in the dark of night, to highly comic effect. More than anything else, Williams was a monologist, a story-teller with a gift for slowly evoking an image in one’s mind of the individuals he is describing. His ability to wait and leave the listener time to imagine everything was one of his special gifts.
One of his few films entitled A Natural Born Gambler survives, and was made by the American Biograph Company in 1916. It features some of his poker game routine and shows off his pantomime skills. It also shows that Williams always performed in blackface, blacking up with burnt cork before each performance. This was a tradition that went back to the popularity of minstrel shows where white performers wore blackface and imitated poor and ignorant blacks. When “colored” minstrel shows with actual black people began to imitate the white minstrel shows, the black performers would also “blacken up” as it used to be called. The writer of these lines, when he was growing up in vaudeville, used to perform in blackface in 1954 – 1956 regularly as a white vaudevillian, and sing about his mammy in the deep south. During this time it was possible to see black comic performers such as Pigmeat Markham performing at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in blackface himself. The practice did not actually cease among those of us performing until ca. 1958 although in some cases “blackening up” is known to have occurred even into the 1960s.
Bert Williams faced enormous prejudice against black performers working with whites or performing in white venues. The constant fear and stress and even death threats may have contributed to his heart condition and his onstage collapse and ultimate death at the age of only 47. Racism at this time was widespread in America in the north as well as the south and it was the norm for blacks to never be allowed to sit in select seats in public theaters. There were usually separate box offices or ticket windows around the sides of theaters so that whites would not even have to see blacks when they went to a theater and blacks could be seated in an obscure section of the theater balcony where they would be less visible within the theater, or there would be separate theaters entirely for “colored”.
In 1929 an attempt was made by one of Hollywood’s more liberal-minded and socially conscious directors King Vidor to produce the first talking picture with an all-black cast, called Hearts in Dixie. But instead of breaking through the color line as Williams had managed to do, it stereotyped blacks as happy-go-lucky joyful plantation dwellers doing the cakewalk, strumming banjos and constantly chanting spirituals. On this film was a black Assistant Director, one of the first ever in Hollywood, known only by the name of Slickum. He tried to come to the premiere of the film and managed to obtain tickets to get in in the name of King Vidor. He was planning to sit next to the party headed by the great director Cecil B. De Mille. The white patrons were astounded and outraged and Slickum was escorted outside and finally given a seat in an obscure section of the balcony. Such discrimination was typical and it was the sort of thing that weighed heavily on Bert Williams who was beloved by white America until he stepped off the stage.