Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson Biography – The History of Musical Theatre

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was most legendary of all Black American tap dancers that lived in the 20th century. Bill was also an actor who was known best for his film roles and Broadway performances. Bill dancing style that involved dancing upright, while extracting and swinging his light footwork, took tap from the previous flat-footed shuffling style and developed tap dancing art to a delicate perfection, pushing performers to their toes. Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson was born on 25th of May 1878 in Richmond, Virginia. He was a son of Maxwell who served in a machine shop and Maria who was a singer in a choir. Bill was named as Luther Robinson after birth. However, he later exchanged his name Luther with his brother’s Bill at an early age, when he started professional performances. He claimed to have applied physical force to achieve that. Robinson lost his parents in 1885, at the age of seven, a situation that forced him to be brought up by Bedilia, his grandmother, who served as slave in her early life. He later got “Bojangles” nickname as a young man due to his prickly tendencies (Biography.com, 2017).

Robinson started dancing at the age of six. He dropped out of school at the age of seven and started taking part in professional dances a year after. He performed in various resident beer gardens for a living. He joined touring troupe named MaymeRemingtons in 1886 and shifted to a travelling company in 1891. Heperformed later as a vaudeville actor. Robinson attained great success as musical-comedian and nightclub performer. At early stage of his career, Robinson almost exclusively performed in black theaters, which only hosted black audiences, with his performances including movies and musical stage. Robinson performed locally for a while by 1900, he had managed to travel to New York, and grew rapidly to be among the most loved American music comedy and nightclub performers. In 1908, Bill met Marty Forkins in Chicago who ended up being his lifetime manager. He started working on a solo act under Forkinsmanagement mostly in nightclubs, increasing his popularity and earnings (Biography.com, 2017).

Robinson introduced the stair dance in 1918, which later became his signature bit. Irrespective of his success, his chances were still restricted to black American venues, due to racism. However, in 1928, Robinson managed to get chance to face white audiences for the first time where he starred on Broadways, which included his popular stair dance. As a star, Robinson performance immediately managed to captivate White audiences. In the following decade, Robinson performed 14 motion pictured for Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO. He played opposite Shurley Temple in his most repeated role of an old Antebellum in a number of films that include Just Around the Corner published in 1938, The Little Colonel in 1935, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Far in 1938, and The Little Rebel in 1935. Irrespective of his fame, Bill was unable to transcend the slim range of black actor stereotypical role at the time. By taking these roles, Robinson managed to maintain his professional position even at his old age. At the age of 61, Robinson starred in The Hot Mikado, a Sullivan and Gilbert’s operetta jazz-inspired interpretation. He publicly celebrated his 61stbirthday by dancing down 61 Broadway blocks (Blackpast.org, 2007).

Robinson became famous for taking part in stage dances, and movie starring among others. However, these are not the only things that he did in his lifetime. Robinson took performance break to serve in the World War I as a rifleman. Together with trenches fighting, Robison was in addition a drum major that headed the disciplined band up Fifth Avenue after the return of regiment from Europe. Robinson was as well engaged in baseball where 1936 he cofounded Harlem baseball team, named as New York Blank Yankees. New York Blank Yankees remained in Negro National League up to the time when the first racial integration of the Major League Baseball took place in 1948. The team was all along financed by James Semler.  Bill also had an involving personal life. He marriedthree times, with his first marriage taking place in 1907 and divorce following in 1922, the second marriage took place in 1922 and ended in 1943, while the third marriage took place in 1944, and lasted until his death.(Atdf.org, 2002).

Robinson hardly had any education.  He was described to be quarrelsome, confrontational, nasty demeanor, and heavy gambler and drunkard. However, he had extraordinary dancing, particularly his scenes of Tap dance with little Shirley Temple, that were said to be legendary and endearing. He performed for the best part of his life from the age of six to a few months to his death. Robinson died in 1949 of heart attack, which impacted his breathing, walking and initiated talking sleeping. This made his doctor to advise against taking part in more dancing. Despite having earned over two million dollars in his lifetime, Bill died a poor man. He died at the age of 71 (Black-face.com, n.d.).

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