Songwriters live off the income generated by a major hit song—sometimes enjoying a payoff for decades to come. Similarly, sometimes an old song will be a surprise hit decades later—bringing its writers an unexpected boost in revenue. This is what happened with Sissle and Blake’s song “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” one of the hits from the original 1921 production of Shuffle Along.
In 1947, during the presidential run of Harry S. Truman, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” became his unofficial theme song. Even before the campaign began, columnists predicted the song would be used to help promote his candidacy: “Somehow, we believe ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ a grand old tune of yesteryear, will pick up a lot of extra enthusiasm when the President runs again in 1948.” Several other major columnists suggested the song be adopted by the Democratic Party for its 1948 campaign, while headlines about everything from ballplayers named Harry to gorillas named Harry were captioned with the song’s title. Throughout the campaign, Truman was greeted by bands playing the song, along with spontaneous outbreaks of singing by the crowds at speeches and fundraisers. The song also became code to show support for the candidate, who was believed to be trailing his opponent, Thomas E. Dewey. Oscar Levant sang it as his “favorite Gershwin song” on the Bing Crosby radio show, quipping it was “nothing political, of course,” but signaling his support for the President.
Following Truman’s victory, a company called Song Distributing Corporation entered into partnership with Sissle and Blake to split the profits from the sale of 20,000 copies of the music to be placed on consignment with news dealers across the country. A group of pop stars and singers from the Metropolitan Opera gathered at RCA’s New York studios to record a special presentation disc of the song to be given to the newly elected president; it was the first recording made following the lifting of ASCAP’s recording ban. An amateur pianist himself, Truman was happy to dash off the song for any and all listeners; he was so appreciative of the duo’s contribution to his campaign that he invited Sissle and Blake to his inauguration, which was duly noted in the black press. The song’s renewed sales success helped Eubie get another bump in his ASCAP rating and also renewed his and Sissle’s faith in the Shuffle Along score.
One of the most revealing experiences we had writing Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race, was in reading the contemporary reviews of Shuffle Along and the other musicals that Eubie scored. The (mostly white) reviewers in the mainstream press—whether intentionally or not—often revealed their own strong racial prejudices in their reaction to the first all-black produced, staged, and performed show on Broadway.
One of the earliest reviews in the white press appeared on May 29, 1921, in the Chicago Daily Tribune. It began on a sour note, before admitting the many virtues of the show: “Negro humor is better in print or in the synthetic face of Frank Tinney [a white comedian in the minstrel tradition] than coming from the mouths of its originators. Fifty Negroes have banded together into a musical comedy company which is playing to white audiences . . . ‘Shuffle Along’…makes brave attempts to entertain the white folks in the intervals between its gorgeous songs. … But racial genius grips the cast and you when the songs begin.. . . In two semi-quavers you are quivering to the same magic that has set all these spontaneous musicians to reeling melodiously. You may resist Beethoven or Jerome Kern, but you surrender completely to this…”
This reviewer repeats all the racist tropes about black performers: they are not “trained” singers and dancers but come to their talents “naturally” through their “racial genius.” They perform “spontaneously” not from years of training. And, the greatest insult, that white “delineators” (blackface performers) offer a truer picture of black humor than do the “real” performers themselves.
Many white critics found the show lacking in sufficient echoes of what they described as originating in the “deeper jungles,” as well-known critic Heywood Broun stated in the New York Tribune. His review didn’t appear until July, when the show itself was already the hit of the season. While he admired the show’s energetic troupe and the “frenzy and rigor” of their dancing, he found that “On the whole, “Shuffle Along” follows Broadway models. The African contribution is not large. Most [of] the music is lively and agreeable, but not much of it is new. The book could be rewritten for any pair of German dialect comedians.”
The expectation was for more stereotypical depictions of blacks, particularly in the show’s non-comedic moments. Not surprisingly, Broun singled out for praise “the choral work [and] … the singing of a male quartet” for their “primitive power,” reflecting the white belief that all best black music was spirituals sung in harmony.
Even after the show was a major hit and it was well-known that Eubie was a highly trained, sophisticated musician, the white papers couldn’t resist running such bunkum as found in the following clip. The anonymous reporter gives the totally preposterous story that Eubie got his musical skills via his 90-year-old grandmother, “the pet of the old Southern plantation.” Again, the implication is that Eubie is blessed with “natural” capabilities, but—to avoid the corrupting influences of the big city—he makes sure to play every new song for his “grandmother’s” approval. Of course, Eubie didn’t have a living grandmother; his family was long removed from plantation life, living in inner-city Baltimore. And the “old plantation” was hardly the idyllic place this writer seems to imply.
The terms “jazz” and “blues” came into widespread use in the late teens-early 1920s, but their meaning was not the same as they hold today. There’s been ample discussion of the original of the words themselves, but it’s interesting to note that–just as today when a new style hits the pop charts—suddenly everybody is composing and performing new songs that they style as either “jazz” or “blues.”
Although Sissle often pooh-poohed blues songs as inferior to Broadway show tunes, he and Blake were not above adding songs with “blues” and “jazz” to their repertoire and to Shuffle Along. The production featured two blues—“Gypsy Blues,” “which was influenced by Victor Herbert’s Broadway song, “Gypsy Love Call,” and “Oriental Blues.” Both were dug out of their back catalog of items they’d written and sung on vaudeville before the show opened.
The “vaguely Oriental” costumes that Shuffle Along inherited from a previous production staged by its producer) were used for the song “Oriental Blues” (which Blake quipped was “neither Oriental nor a blues”). The song came from the duo’s trunk. Its origin was especially interesting and illustrated the close relationship of Sissle and Blake. As he recalled: “W.W. Watson’s father bought him a seat on Wall Street, [for] $250,000. And each time we’d go to his home to entertain. Sissle’s over here and you know I don’t write melodies at the piano. And Watson said, ‘Write me an Oriental number.’ I’m writing down the rhythm and I don’t know what Sissle is writing over there. When [Watson] came out and asked us, “You got my song ready?,” Sissle says, “Yes, we do.” Sissle writes under pressure and he’s over there writing the lyric. Sissle don’t hear no melody. And the thing fit together. I don’t know what he’s got over there and he don’t know what I’ve got. We were tuned into each other. I had to change about five notes from the verse and chorus. That actually happened. Twice it happened.”
Another song taken from the Sissle and Blake back catalog was “I’m Just Simply Full of Jazz.” Here “jazz’ means spirit or pep. Soon after Shuffle Along’s success, Blake commented on the need to find the right balance between jazzy rhythms and singable melodies in the show: “The successful song writer of today must be something more than a mere juggler of harmonious sounds. He must be a student of what the public wants—a sort of a psychologist. The mushy, sobby, sentimental love songs of twenty or more years ago would not be at all popular today. Nor would the semi-martial music of songs popular during the United States’ participation in the war make a hit now. What the public wants today are lively, jazzy songs, not too jazzy, with love interest, but without the sickly sentimentality in vogue a generation ago.
Blake made a similar point in another contemporary interview. To be a hit, a song had to combine both a danceable rhythm and a memorable tune: “A modern song, to make any kind of a hit at all, must have ‘pep’ to it, and also must have a ‘catchy’ tune that unconsciously sticks to the mind of the listener.” The balancing of “hot” rhythm with singable melody was one of the great achievements that Blake brought to the Broadway musical. Blake’s analysis of the contemporary song scene reflected America’s fascination with black music and its danceable syncopations, at the same time it revealed the audience’s hesitancy to fully embrace it. A successful song should be “jazzy” but “not too jazzy,” as Blake stated. The trick was to give the audience a taste of the “exotic” new sounds without alienating them.
To follow up on the success of Shuffle Along, Sissle and Blake hoped to create a more “sophisticated” show that would feature even less of the comic stereotypes that had been a feature of their previous hit. The show began its life titled In Bamville, and opened in Rochester, New York, in early March 1924. Later in March, the company moved to Detroit and then on to Pittsburgh, where Sissle was interviewed backstage by a reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier. Sissle commented on what the duo had learned from Shuffle Along’s success on the road: “We learned what the white audience wants, and why. We learned that the whites without question will accept colored artists and production of merit. They do not demand that we be buffoons and clowns, either. Of course, there must be comedy for an audience comes to a musical comedy primarily to laugh, but the more art we can work into the different scenes and situations, the better the show takes with the public. … And we portray Negro characters—not try to give an imitation of whites. Our love scenes are not as romantic as the whites, but they have the same universal touch and are applauded and appreciated.”
It’s interesting that Sissle still was sensitive to the question of the portrayal of black romance on stage; for many, the idea of romantic attraction that went beyond the mere sexual among blacks was unimaginable.
From the earliest planning of the new show, Sissle aimed to create a more “sophisticated” production—not only in terms of production values, but also in contents. He clearly wanted to set their work apart from the “lower” comedy of Miller and Lyles. One of the chorus numbers featured the girls in hoop skirts and broad hats, in the kind of glamourous display associated with white revues like the Ziegfeld Follies. Blake thought this was going too far, telling producer B. C. Whitney, “That scene is too beautiful for a colored show,” to which Whitney responded, “Eubie this is a not a colored show. This is Sissle and Blake’s show for Broadway.” According to Blake, the white audience always gasped when they say this number, shocked by the idea of fashionable black women. While emulating white musical comedies, Sissle still emphasized the unique “colored” flavor of the plot, music, and dancing. Trying to straddle the fine line between “colored” and “white” musicals would prove to be the key challenge and ultimate undoing of the duo’s new work.
The show’s next stop in April was Chicago, where Shuffle Along had previously played to capacity crowds. The Chicago Daily News critic noted that the new production opened just after D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was shown at the same theater, comparing the two disparate pictures of black life:
“In Bamville” … arrived at the Illinois [Theater]…close upon the heels of Griffith’s noble picture, “The Birth of a Nation,” suspected and maligned by the same race so proudly acclaiming the Sissle and Blake products. Nothing could have been more effective in pointing out a good reason for objecting to [Griffith’s portrayal of] their own nation… than the advantage of following the frowned-upon work of film art … Because not only was the Illinois stage blossoming with splendid talent entirely of the race who were slaves when the nation was in the throes of birth, but the delightful music and book, written by colored men, were both illuminative of their race and delivered by the colored actors in a way no white people could hope feebly to imitate…
The critic praised the production created by “100 percent black-and-tan American[s] and that means much to this country just after the glorious service the same race gave us in the big war.” Nonetheless, while acknowledging its inherent quality, the critic underscored that the players did not try to encroach on white theatrical styles:
They keep the comedy their own kind of comedy, they tune the jazz and balladry their own way and they dance…as only those whom we call Afro-Americans…There’s a lot of “Africa’s sunny clime” in Sissle’s music and a lot of the orient in their dances but it is American. And nobody on earth can dance exactly as they do no matter what great white dancers try to imitate our blacks.
Even worse than describing the cast as “our blacks,” this critic also noted that most of the players were not truly dark skinned, instead they were “mostly mulattos or octoroons fairer than they need be … and were black only when made up with burnt court.” While blacks viewed fair skin as a desirable trait, clearly whites were more comfortable with darker skinned actors keeping to stereotypical roles on stage.
While the Daily News critic compared In Bamville to Birth of a Nation, O. L. Hall writing in the Chicago Journal referenced Eugene O’Neill’s latest controversial play: “While Eugene O’Neill employs the title of an old spiritual to aver in his new and much debated multi-part drama that ‘all God’s chillum got wings.’ The authors of ‘In Bamville’ do not discuss matters of the soul, but their show decisively proves that all God’s chillum got dancin’ feet…While O’Neill, his brow furrowed with world-shaking thought, writes of miscegenation, these chanting, crooning, caroling, humming negroes just throw back their heads and let their hearts sing.
Clearly, the questioning of laws against racial admixture that O’Neill portrayed made this critic uncomfortable, who preferred “humming negroes” who didn’t push against social norms. The critic assures us that In Bamville is a show that won’t offend delicate white sensibilities: “You never saw a cleaner musical comedy in all your born days. There is never the slightest offense of speech or action; there always is a great outpouring of negro humor and melody.”
When directly asked whether they approved of O’Neill’s production, Sissle (speaking for the duo) typically took a conservative position, not questioning the artistry of the work but uncomfortable with confronting prejudice head on: “Personally, we would prefer not to have any play on the stage that may tend to stir up racial prejudice, which we are endeavoring to avoid. There’s too much prejudice as it is…Live and let live is our motto. But prejudice exists—that fact can not be doubted and we have reason to know. So why add fuel to the flames?”
Despite the mixed reviews, In Bamville had a solid run in Chicago, continuing through April.
James Hubert Blake was born on February 7, 1887, in Baltimore, Maryland—not in 1883 as he would say through most of his life. Why Eubie added four years to his age is anyone’s guess, although his first wife, Avis, was older than him and he may wanted to make their ages closer. Also, he claimed to have composed “Charleston Rag” in 1899, which would have been less believable if he was only 12 years old at the time, rather than 16 as he claimed.
The key piece of evidence for his actual birth year can be found on his World War I draft paperwork. Eubie wasn’t enthusiastic about serving abroad—unlike his employer, bandleader James Reese Europe and his composing partner, Noble Sissle, both of whom enlisted in the 15th New York National Guards, a regiment in late September 1916. Organized by Colonel William H. Hayward, this regiment was created to bring African-Americans into the war effort. Although they could not be members of the US Army due to their race, their unit would eventually see action when it was assigned to the French army. (They didn’t actually sail to France until December 1917, arriving on January 1st, 1918.) Hayward encouraged Europe to form a band as a means of encouraging enlistment and building morale. With funding from Hayward, Europe traveled to Puerto Rico that was known to be the home of many talented brass performers “of color” (most actually of Spanish or mixed Spanish and African descent), while Sissle (as drum major for the band) remained in New York to recruit local players.
While both Sissle and Europe were enthusiastically preparing for the war, Blake showed little interest in serving abroad. Claiming in some later interviews that he was too old to serve—which wasn’t in fact true—Blake more honestly said that he simply had no interest in putting himself at risk for his country. Eventually, Eubie had to register for the draft, but Armistice was declared before he was called up to serve. After the war, Europe and Sissle endlessly needled Eubie for avoiding service, despite the fact that, in Eubie’s words: “everybody [knew] they’re goin’ to the war, but they’re just gonna be musicians. Ain’t none of us was a fighter, you know. But they’d introduce me to girls and they’d say, ‘This is Eubie Blake, the slacker.’”
Eubie stayed in New York and managed the Clef Club orchestra while Europe and Sissle were abroad. Although Blake had not travelled to France, the rosy picture painted by Mitchell of an easy life of gainful employment there was very tempting to him. That temptation was understandable since by early 1918 the opportunities for black musicians had dried up. He must have expressed concerns to Europe about his ability to succeed financially working as his factotum in New York. Europe wrote to Blake on April 14, 1918, to reassure him that, once the war was over, there would be good, lucrative work to be had with his organization: “I know business must be dull for I see and hear it from everybody I know over here. … Just stay on the job and take your medicine. If you think of the comforts you are having over there and think of the hardships we are having over here you’d be happy I am sure to go on ‘suffering’… I have some wonderful opportunities for you to make all the money you need. Eubie, the thing to do is to build for the future, and build securely and that is what I am doing. When I go up I will take you with me. You can be sure of that.”
The early ‘30s was also the beginning of the so-called “big band” era, and many black composers/performers were beginning to achieve success leading bands, including Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. From his work in Shuffle Along and subsequent productions, Blake had established himself as a Broadway conductor, and also had played private dates for wealthy patrons. Hoping to ride the popularity of other African-American bands, in April 1931 Eubie signed a one-year contract with agent Harry A. Romm. Romm was confident he could get Eubie’s band dates and also arrange for a recording session with Victor and a spot on radio. Before sending him out on the road, Romm warned Eubie to “get someone you know to stay in [the] box [office] to see that you do not get the worse of it”—as dance promoters were likely to underreport the attendance in order to pocket a bigger profit. Indeed, by late May, Romm was writing Eubie in desperation trying to collect his share of the proceeds, while also lamenting that the band was not drawing as well as he had hoped.
The band tour revealed that Eubie was a poor business manager, unable to navigate the shark-infested world of small-time promoters. He couldn’t keep track of the cash payments and complained to Romm about the problems he was having collecting his fees. Blake also took little pleasure in trying to keep tabs on the orchestra’s musicians, who were often late to gigs, drunk, or failed to show up at all: “I didn’t like the band. I have nothing against the person that drink. The guys come on the show, I didn’t want that. … I had a boy named George Richmond…everybody thought he was a white boy. He could play the piano. And I give him shots there to play. … He was a tough man to follow. I says, “George take a bow.” Nothing, he didn’t have nothing. The guy was dead. … he was drunk all the time.”
Individual musicians could create problems for the band going beyond tardiness or being unprepared for a gig. Late one night, one of Eubie’s trumpeters, Calvin Jones, got into an argument with two other musicians and was stabbed; he subsequently passed away. The publicity reflected poorly on Eubie’s band and furthered the notion that black musicians minimally consorted with—if not belonged among—society’s lowest members. Eubie’s concern was always to reflect well on his race, so incidents like this were difficult for him.
While still on the road playing dance dates, Eubie was hired to conduct the band for a new Broadway production, Singin’ the Blues, produced by Aarons and Freedley. The producing duo had previously had success with white jazz-flavored shows like Girl Crazy, and were known for their lavish productions. While they wanted Blake to conduct the show, they hired the popular white duo of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields—who had written the songs for Blackbirds of 1928—to compose the music. Nonetheless, the producers included Blake’s name in all of the promotions for the show, as if having him on hand added extra authenticity to their all-black production. This must have been particularly frustrating to Eubie, who was shut out of an opportunity to compose for Broadway.
Billed as a comedy-drama, Singin’ the Blues followed in the wake of the success of Show Boat in dramatizing a story that was not usually the subject of musical comedy. The action was set behind the scenes at a “Negro night club” in Chicago, with the grim murder of its male protagonist bringing down the curtain on the performance. White critics were baffled by its blend of music and drama—particularly in a black show. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle critic repeated the racist trope that it was up to “skillful white producers” to capture the true spirit of African-American life on stage: “[The production] had the air of a thing in which skillful white producers had successfully harnessed the strange talents of the Negro actors, giving the Negro spirit a better setting than it has ever had in the Broadway drama before.” This critic found McHugh and Field’s songs “not so fetching” as their previous more up-beat numbers, although he did note that “Eubie Blake and his orchestra play the[ir] tunes seductively.”
May 23, 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of Shuffle Along on Broadway, the groundbreaking musical scored by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. We’re celebrating here at the Eubie Blog all this spring with a special emphasis on the show, newly found material, and we hope soon to be created exciting podcasts.
It was natural for the show’s creators to celebrate the unique achievement of staging a musical written by, staged, choreographed, produced, and acted by an all-Black cast. To celebrate the first year anniversary of its New York run, this small pocket charm was issued noting that “You are taking no chances” by booking a ticket for the show. Also on the anniversary of the show’s year on Broadway, members of the touring company, then playing Brooklyn, joined the cast at the 63rd Street Theatre for a gala midnight performance. There were 140 performers on the stage and the reaction was tumultuous.
The Broadway production of Shuffle Along closed on July 15, 1922 after 504 performances. At the time of its closing Shuffle Along could boast it had the eleventh longest run of any Broadway musical up to that time including Show Boat, which ran 572 performances. And the show had two numbers in the top 50 songs of the year, “Bandana Days” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Shuffle Along’s achievement in New York made it among the top ten longest-running and most successful shows of any Broadway production—and the only one steered by African-Americans—of the ‘20s.
While not the only reason for the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, Shuffle Along certainly contributed to the remarkable blossoming of black entertainment’s inroads to popular song and theatre. In 1923, the Cotton Club opened its doors. Though it catered to white audiences and its songs were written by the likes of white songwriters Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler and the team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, the casts were all black and featured such future stars as Lena Horne. The Shuffle Inn opened on 1921 and soon had its name changed to Connie’s Inn. That nightspot sported black songwriters Thomas “Fats” Waller and Andy Razaf in a series of all black revues including Hot Chocolates and Keep Shufflin’. Razaf would soon become one of Blake’s major collaborators. And Small’s Paradise at 229 ¼ Seventh Avenue mainly hosted white audiences but blacks were also welcomed. There were other venues around Harlem particularly on “Jungle Alley,” 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues. And it was Shuffle Along that helped jumpstart it all, making black entertainers safe for white audiences and giving a leg up to hundreds of African-American singers, dancers, choreographers, writers, and songwriters.
The closing of Shuffle Along on Broadway was just the beginning for Sissle and Blake as the show hit the road, spreading the popularity of this innovative show. The show’s success would have a deep impact on Blake personally and professionally, putting strains on his marriage and his partnership with Sissle. Although the show should have opened doors for its creators, it still was not easy for African-Americans to succeed in the cutthroat entertainment world—as Sissle and Blake would quickly discover.
A touring company took the original cast to major cities including Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, where it ran successfully for sold-out engagements. A second “B” company toured more extensively, even venturing into the Deep South, returning for a second engagement to many theaters it played in its first year of travel. You can track the show’s tours here on our website: http://www.eubieblake.net/exhibits/show/shuffle-along–tours-1921-1923
After the New York run of Shuffle Along ended and the lead company took to the road, the plan originally was to go to London in April 1923 under the auspices of British producer Charles Cochran. Born in London, Cochran first established himself as an actor in American vaudeville in the 1890s, and then turned his sights to managing and promoting other acts. Returning to London by the turn of the 20th century, he began producing Music Hall revues, taking on the management of London’s Oxford Music Hall in the mid-teens. During the ‘20s, he partnered with Noel Coward in the production of his comedic plays and musicals, promoting stars like Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence. Like Ziegfeld in the US, his shows became famous for his chorus line of “Cochran Young Ladies,” who were said to represent the “ideal British girl” besides, of course, displaying just enough flesh to titillate his audience.
When Cochran saw Shuffle Along in 1922, he was bowled over by Florence Mill’s talents. Cochran wrote of his admiration for Mills, “Florence Mills was one of the greatest artists that ever walked on to a stage. But for her color she would have been internationally accepted as one of the half dozen leading theatrical personalities of this century, and worth all the money in the world.” He signed a contract to bring Shuffle Along to London but when Mills exited the show, he lost interest in the property. Recently a piece of sheet music for the show’s hit “I’m Just Wild About Harry” showed up that was published in London apparently in anticipation of Cochran’s production that never occurred.
Instead, working with Mills’ new manager Lew Leslie, Cochran brought Mills to London to star in the revue Dover Street to Dixie that opened in May of 1923 at the London Pavilion. The show made Mills an international star and was a major hit on the British stage. Many other talents from Shuffle Along were employed, including conductor/music director Will Vodery. The show also featured comedic actor Johnny Hudgins, who would soon star in Sissle and Blake’s next show, Chocolate Dandies.
When Sissle and Blake subsequently toured the UK in 1925, Cochran commissioned the duo to write the song “Tahiti” for his 1926 Revue, where it was sung by the show’s stars, Elizabeth Hines and Basil Howes. Not to be out done, his rival in producing comedic productions on the London stage, Andre Charlot, commissioned Sissle and Blake to compose “You Were Meant for Me” for his 1923 production of London Calling!, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward. It was Coward’s first musical for which he provided the lyrics and music, and introduced the song “Parisian Pierrot,” among his first hits. Sissle and Blake’s song was the only non-Coward number sung in the show.
It wasn’t easy to tour an all-black show during the days of Jim Crow—even when the show was playing Northern towns. The company had to find restaurants and lodgings that would accommodate black patrons. Getting accurate accountings from each theater for box office receipts was often tough, too. Eubie explained how the company managed during its pre-Broadway days: “We’d play one-night—if we were lucky, two-night—stands. No one knew us, so they’d only book us for a short time. We’d get good reviews in one town, but before they could do us any good we’d be on to another town—that is, if we had the money. One night Sissle and I were sitting on the steps of a building, and Sissle was writing out checks. They weren’t any good until we could wire the box office receipts into the New York bank—we were always one day behind at the very least. I looked up. “Sissle”’ I say, “Do you know where you’re sitting?” “No,” he said, and looked around. We were sitting on the steps of the jailhouse, writing bum checks! We broke up in a fit of laughing and couldn’t stop.”
To save money on lodgings, the company booked rooms in boarding houses and private homes in exchange for tickets for the show. On one occasion they had no money so Lyles talked a cab driver into lending them some cash to pay for their lodging with the promise that the New York office would repay him later. As Blake told it, “There were five of us. Miller and Lyles slept in one bed, Sissle in another; Paul Floyd, who was in the show, was in the bed with me. All night long the chinches [bedbugs] had a picnic, and Paul kept waking me up, slapping the chinches.”
The next morning, they tried to sneak out of the rooming house but the large proprietor blocked the steps demanding his money. They couldn’t get past him no matter what. He berated them, “I didn’t trust you minstrel n****rs! You’re all no good!” Lyles replied, “Sir, the boy will be here with the money very soon.” Astoundingly, the cabbie actually came and paid the bill.
But the show’s creators did not starve. As Flournoy Miller said, “You learn a lot of tricks on the road. Sissle and I would visit people who were boarding some members of the cast—always at mealtime—and I would take a bite of everything on the table and insist that Sissle taste it too, because it was so delicious. Then we’d go to another house and do the same thing—we usually had plenty to eat.”
As much as the main company had difficulty on the road, the “B” or second company—led by producer George Wintz—faced even more problems because it primarily toured cities in the Deep South. The show’s producers were so desperate that they took the unusual step of running a display advertisement looking for rooms while they were appearing in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for an upcoming booking in Springfield, Missouri. It must have been deeply humiliating for the black cast to have to scramble to find places to eat and sleep.