“Fourteen Thousand Negro Actors in This Country Now Performing,” read a headline at the start of the 1922 theatrical season. “In vaudeville alone there are more than six hundred acts, of which are about sixty are now in Europe. There are twenty-two Negro minstrel shows touring the south.” According to Billboard, “368 theaters in the United States [are] devoted entirely to the colored race.” Among them, in Philadelphia: the Standard near 11th and South Streets, the Royal near 15th and South and the Nixon on 52nd Street. Plus the only theater built, owned and operated by African Americans: the Dunbar at Broad and Lombard.
From the moment it opened at the Dunbar on April 11, 1921, Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along” demonstrated the power of the African American Jazz Sensation. “A ball of merriment rolling at aero-plane speed,” “Shuffle Along” would complete its run on Broad in Philly and return again before opening on Broadway in New York where critics raved. “The biggest hit New York has witnessed in years… a breeze of super-jazz blown up from Dixie” that would, over the next 60 weeks, establish a 500-performance legacy before going on tour.
“Whether you like jazz or not,” admitted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Leopold Stowkowski in 1924, “it is a modern featurization of our hectic times and it is with us to stay.” Eubie Blake suggested that jazz’s “flash and fire” generated “flamboyant effectiveness” both artistically and commercially. It offers up “ingredients of freshness in a world where there must be freshness constantly.”
“Shuffle Along” would become the gold standard for American musical theater and for the Dunbar. Time and time again, managers would mount jazz and vaudeville productions hoping for another hit. They promoted “Liza” as the “musical thrill that won’t let your feet behave,” the “logical successor to ‘Shuffle Along.’” They opened “Carolina Nights” with choreography by Charlie Davis, the “dancing cop” from “Shuffle Along.”
In the first half of the 1920s, Dunbar audiences would enjoy “Creole Follies,” “Harlem Follies,” “Ebony Follies” and “Charleston Fricassee.” They came out for “Come Along Mandy;” “Runnin’ Wild;” “Banville Dandies Revue;” Jimmie Cooper’s All Colored Revue “Hotsy Totsy” and Mamie Smith and her “Syncopators’ Revue Cyclonic Jazz Band.” None took off quite like “Shuffle Along.”
“There is no color line in the theater” proclaimed one Inquirer critic, claiming the broad and sustained appeal of “Shuffle Along” as proof. Yet there was a color line, possibly even several. Racial discrimination by mainstream theaters was one of the reasons the African American community built the Dunbar in the first place. And as quickly as the blockbuster “Shuffle Along” found a home at the Dunbar, after the extended Broadway run, it would return, but to greener pastures on Broad Street. In May 1923, “Shuffle Along” opened for a four-week run not at the Dunbar, but at the Forrest Theatre, then at Broad and Sansom Streets, a mainstream venue with a much larger stage and, more to the point, 400 additional seats for eager ticket buyers. Ironically, the success of African American productions would undercut the success of the Dunbar.
And this time, “Shuffle Along” came to Philadelphia with the 16-year-old Josephine Baker on its chorus line.
“When the best part of a capacity house singles out one little girl in the chorus and gives her attention every time she appears,” raved a critic, “it shows the recognition of qualities as stars are made of. There is a girl like this in the all-colored musical success, ‘Shuffle Along,’ at the Forrest Theatre. She is a sturdy youngster with a winning way and comedy that asserts itself in everything she does. She is one of the happy-honeysuckles and her name is Josephine Baker. Jolly as she seems to be in her work, the stage romping is serious business with Josephine. … Miss Baker has been in the professional only a short time but she has done much during that period. She knows how to make people laugh and how to sing and dance.”
Would Josephine Baker ever debut at the Dunbar?
She would. In November 1924, Baker performed in “Chocolate Dandies,” another Eubie Blake show. “With snap and zest and to the tune of much musical melody, ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ ‘strutted their stuff’ into Philadelphia… The lid was off and it was a race all evening” and the double-jointed “Josephine Baker carries off the honors.”
When “Chocolate Dandies” closed, it was Baker’s last appearance at the Dunbar and her next to the last appearance on Broad Street. In February 1928, after Baker had relocated to Paris and performed at the Folies Bergèr, a clip of her famous “banana skirt” dance made its way into a film travelogue, “Paris by Night,” being shown at the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets. No matter that the film had been “viewed by more than 150,000 people and 15 cities without creating criticism on its alleged impropriety.” One Philadelphia “patron” had lodged her complaint about Baker’s “lack of garb” and the censors deleted Baker’s performance from all subsequent screenings.
It wouldn’t be the last time official censors would have their way with African-American artists and their work on stage in Philadelphia.
[Sources include: “Dunbar Theatre To Open Monday, December 29th ,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 27, 1919; “Shuffle Along,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1921; “Shuffle Along: Biggest New York Hit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1921; “There are Many Colored Thespians,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1922; “’Shuffle Along:’ Breezy Musical Show Scores a Big Hit at the Forrest,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 8, 1923; “She Is a Real Comedy Chorus Girl,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1923; “How a Jazzer Views Such Music,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 1924; “Chocolate Dandies Score at Dunbar,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 25, 1924; “Paris Night Life Scene Cut From Travel Film,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1928.]