One of the most important and yet forgotten acts in vaudeville was the comedy team of Butterbeans and Susie, who were really Jodie Edwards (July 19, 1893 – October 28, 1967) and Susie Edwards (born Susie Hawthorne, December, 1894 – died December 5th, 1963).
The couple began with independent careers, he as a singer and dancer and she in black theater as an actress and vocalist specializing in brassy blues numbers. While performing with a show/minstrel troup called Smart Set, they are believed to have been put together to replace a comedy team of a bickering husband and wife known as Stringbeans and Sweetie May after the actor portraying Stringbeans (Butler May?) died suddenly.
Smart Set was owned by the early African-American performer, ragtime composer and entrepreneur Sherman Houston Dudley (1872 – 1940). Dudley was able to put together a circuit primarily serving the African-American community and featuring many legendary black stars. His organization came to be known as TOBA for Theatre Owners Booking Association and within this group Butterbeans and Susie became major stars, even though they remained virtually unknown to the white community. Life on the TOBA circuits was no bed of roses. Pay was steady if considerably less than white vaudeville stars would earn and living accommodations for blacks were usually clean but perfunctory. Public access to even basic things such as water fountains or certain public streets were limited and there were sometimes unofficial curfews by which time they had to be off the designated streets or they might encounter problems with the police. TOBA could, however, also go “high class” as when they booked on circuits Sisieretta Jones, known as The Black Patti, a term she was called in reference to famed opera singer Adelina Patti. Jones often toured with TOBA but had an international following which led to her singing for four presidents and becoming an African-American national treasure and symbol of what blacks could do and become. But she never made much money despite her world-wide fame. She died completely broke.
The act of Butterbeans and Susie consisted of singing and dancing, often featuring a cakewalk and a duet or two, but it was centered around Butterbeans portraying a long-suffering husband half-trapped in a marriage with a big, domineering woman. The comedy was emphasized by having him wear super-tight, non-fitting pants and an overly small bowler hat. Usually, he would perform in blackface as it was a tradition with white peformers to put on blackface to portray African-Americans and so black performers started doing it as well, especially black comedians such as Bert Williams or Pigmeat Markham.
At the end of their constant and sharp fighting on stage, often describing Butterbeans’ failure in the bedroom, they would make some comments to suggest that they nonetheless loved each other and after this they might sing a song together that confirmed this. Butterball was also an eccentric dancer known for doing a routine wherein he appeared to be suffering terrible itchiness and ended up by contorting himself as he scratched all over his body because he had gotten the “Heebie Jeebies”, a term which spread all over America in the early 1920s and referred to someone who was incredibly agitated but often didn’t know why. At one point early in their careers, as a publicity stunt, the couple had a mock marriage to each other right on stage but it isn’t clear if they ever otherwise married or took the stage stunt as their official wedding ceremony.
Butterbeans and Susie could never be breakaway stars for the white community because their act was too coarse. White vaudeville remained largely sanitized due to the influence of early entrepreneurs such as Tony Pastor and Benjamin Franklin Keith who did not want performers working blue, despite the lurid early aspects of vaudeville in beer halls such as Koster and Bial’s. Sexual and double entendre jokes gradually became the typical stuff of burlesque shows and not vaudeville. Butterbeans and Susie specialized in off-color material which was purchased often surreptitiously as “race records” by white audiences as well as black. Their recording contract with Okeh Records between 1924 and 1930 featured many of these scurrilous songs although some were considered too hot to release. Songs with sexual innuendo in the title were their stock and trade, including such numbers as Get Yourself a Monkey Man and Make Him Strut His Stuff, Hydrant Love – Turn It On, Shut It Off and their hottest number I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll. Such records were the forerunners of recordings by Moms Mabley and even Rusty Warren into the 1950s. These recordings are also important because they used legendary black musicians such as Clarence Williams, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
Thecomedy timing of Butterbeans and Susie was legendary in the business. Their enormous influence can be seen in the comedy and timing of black comedians such as Mantan Moreland, Jackie “Moms” Mabley (whom they discovered) and even Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart, with their war of the sexes routines and henpecked lover and off-color jokes. The mass media today functions more as a censor on this sort of comedy but when the newer performers work on HBO or in the clubs, whether white or black now, they revert to the kind of raw comedy peppered with salty language that Butterbeans and Susie were known for, even though they had to be careful about using words considered obscene and they were forced to go the double entendre route.
Their act endured for more than 40 years, closer to 45, and after the death of Susie in 1963 her daughter stepped in to keep the act going well up into the 1960s until finally Butterbeans walked on stage to begin his routine in 1967 and fell over dead. It was quite a fitting finale for someone so addicted to performing. They lived long enough to perform with Motown recording artists in Showtime at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Unlike most black entertainers who often were cheated out of salaries or forced to work for next to nothing, Butterbeans and Susie made a great deal of money due to being in constant demand and finding employment with TOBA and other organizations so that they were able to move into an elegant home in Chicago where they were known for opening their doors to other black entertainers who might need a little help getting through life after their careers had stalled. Such a regular visitor was black comedian Stepin Fetchit, as he was called in many movies and shows; he ended up becoming unpopular in the 1950s after the American black community was struggling for equality and he was seen as tied to the old Uncle Tom way of thinking since he always portrayed a slow-witted, shuffling, bumbling black man in many films and shows.
The work of Butterbeans and Susie seems raw and simplistic today but in their day they were a guaranteed laugh from black audiences who appreciated how they could take the problems of living in poverty and struggling for success in a difficult world and make light of them. They provided both identification for their audiences and temporary escape.