African-American performers, producers and writers Salem Tutt Whitney (born Indiana 1869 – Chicago, Feb. 12, 1934) and J. Homer Tutt (born Logansport, Indiana January 31, 1882- Los Angeles, February 10, 1951) billed themselves as brothers although they may have been half-brothers. In the early years of the 20th century they worked together to produce travelling shows, mainly across the southern United States and exclusively for black audiences in black theaters.
The fact that they were able to do this successfully for whole decades despite facing incredible discrimination and frustration which blocked them from performing in non-black venues is a testament to the quality of the talent they put forward in their shows. They specialized in the three-act musical comedy, pouring as much money as they could raise into the sets and costumes and having the show anchored by Salem Tutt-Whitney whose elegance, extraordinary speaking voice and powerful singing put him into the first rank of what in his time were called “colored comedians”.
He had attended the National School of Journalism and from there began to become increasingly interested in vaudeville and theater. He married prima donna soprano Emma Baynard who died very young in 1908. Homer Tutt was known in his shows for wearing fancy, expensive, overdone costumes and became known as the “Bronze Chesterfield”, in reference to the dressy double-breasted overcoats from England which were worn by the Earl of Chesterfield. He was also a prolific songwriter.
From 1888 to 1905 the two men toured in a show they had created called Silas Green from New Orleans, a show that was bought by black circus entrepreneur Eph Williams who managed to stiff the Tutt Brothers by never paying them for the rights to it. They then toured as comedians, performers and writers with the highly successful black show company known as Black Patti’s Troubadours.
The two men took over a group called The Smart Set Company circa 1910 and began to produce more hit shows. Their chorus girls were very talented and carefully chosen for beauty and dancing and singing ability and were sometimes known as the Pickanniny Black Patties, a reference to opera singer Adelina Patti who was very popular at the time. The George Washington Bullion series was produced by Trevor L. Corwell, a white English impresario who was able to get bookings for the group by entering into venues to line them up were a black man was unwelcome to go. Corwell had a thick skin and could put up with the racist abuse he often received for dealing for a black company.
The Bullion shows featured the title character, a black tobacco plantation owner with pretentions about getting into high society. The show ran for years and gave them courage to dare Broadway with a show called Oh Joy! set to star black superstar Ethel Waters but despite successful tryouts in Boston, no backers would come forward and no theater open its doors on Broadway to a black-starring black-produced musical. They were forced to rent a tennis court and put it on as one of their usual tent shows at which point Ethel Waters dropped out of it, taking the energy from it with her. The show did manage to open technically as a Broadway show even though its primitive viewing conditions crippled its reception and it closed within four weeks.
The University of Arizona is proud to have in its vaudeville collection rare original sheet music from the Tutt Brothers hit show George Washington Bullion Abroad, the sequel to their highly successful George Washington Bullion. These shows toured the country from 1910 (for the original show) and again from 1915 on (for the sequel).
In order to survive the Tutt Brothers acted in silent and talking pictures and on the Broadway stage, the latter being The Green Pastures in 1930. Movies included A Daughter of the Congo, with a speaking part in 1930. In 1929 Homer Tutt tried again with a new show called Deep Harlem which dealt incredibly realistically with the plight of the black man in America, including slavery and racism quite boldly in the first act. Some critics considered the play dangerous and it closed after only eight performances, assaulted by white critics. It would be Homer Tutt’s last major effort to become an accepted national playwright. And Salem Tutt Whitney died in 1934. During the Great Depression black audiences could not afford to go out to shows as so many were laid off from their jobs, and white audiences were not giving a chance to serious black composer/performer/producer types. The Tutts were basically hemmed in and shut down.
As late as 1937 Homer Tutt was still trying to make Broadway and managed to become featured in a production called How Come, Lawd? It had been produced by The Negro Theatre Guild, an organization dedicated to the promotion of black talent but which was slapped down every time it was able to mount a production of significance, such as their 1933 show Louisiana which was slapped down after only seven performances on Broadway. How Come, Lawd? only made it through two performances.
The Tutt Brothers were remarkable for their great talent in writing, producing and starring in more than forty revues which traveled successfully around the country. Ever hopeful and ambitious they forged ahead where few black Americans dared to go and even made, however briefly, to Broadway. They were among the great forgotten pioneers of African-American show business.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection contains the following extremely rare sheet music of the Tutt Brothers:
MANYANNA 1915 – lyrics by S. Tutt Whitney and J. Homer Tutt. Music by James J. Vaughan. “Sung by Blanche Thompson, introduced in the Musical Comedy GEORGE WASHINGTON BULLION ABROAD, presented by The Smart Set Company. Cover features S. TUTT WHITNEY and J. HOMER TUTT. Cover art by Starmer.