Brown Skin Models of 1955


After the failure of the Broadway revival of Shuffle Along in 1952, Flournoy Miller and Eubie continued to collaborate together on new songs, hoping to launch another show.  In 1955, Miller’s brother Irvin invited the duo to score the latest edition of his long-running Brown Skin Models revue.  These revues combined comic sketches, song and dance, and parades of scantily-clad, light-skinned girls that Miller had produced since the 1930s as inexpensively as possible to tour the country.  The plan for the new show was to have a slightly higher quality of staging and scenery, with the idea of perhaps being able to attract Broadway interest.  The show was to star Miller and his regular sidekick Mantan Moreland, along with singer-dancers Mable Lee, Canadian-born Valerie Blake, and Lee Richardson, the singing Rhythmaires, and “fourteen beautiful chorus and show girls and Smalls Boykin and his dancing boys.” Blake was to lead a 12-piece orchestra for the show.

Flyer for Irvin Miller’s Brown Skin Models revue

Miller and Blake wrote an entirely new score for this show. Their songs were inspired by well-known hits (“Old Man River Is Lonely Now”), as well as crafted to suit novelty numbers (“The Thrill I Felt in Sunny Spain,” designed to accompany a Spanish-styled dance number, and the minstrel-flavored “Mississippi Honey Moon”).

Irvin Miller’s plan was to prevue the show at Washington’s Howard Theatre, before taking it to New York’s Apollo and then on the road, hoping eventually to reach Las Vegas and the West.  He pitched the show to the African-American press as a return to the glory days of high-class revues, like the Blackbirds series that were major hits on Broadway.  As the critic in the Chicago Defender noted:

The attempt to revive the dying Sepia show circuit will rest on the beautiful shoulders of “Brown Skin Models”…On a toboggan since the closing of the Lafayette Theatre [in New York] many years ago, the vaudeville show circuit has dwindled from forty-two consecutive weeks of theater to an alarming one.  Even that one, the Apollo theatre here, becomes none when summer rolls around.  Unless something is done to check the decline the complete death of this once great entertainment and avenue for the development of Negro talent is but a few seasons away.

The Defender’s critic suggested that the reason for the decline of interest in African American revues was the lack of “the entertaining family type shows with original music, solid performers and pretty girls which inspired producers to take to Broadway in the past.”  No mention was made of the fact that this style of entertainment—particularly in its broad, racial humor—was becoming increasingly outmoded by changes in society and the growing clamor for Civil Rights.

Despite Irvin Miller’s assertion that the new Brown Skin Models would be a true book production, the only really scripted scene was a sketch by Miller and Mantan titled “The Poker Game” that was probably reworked from earlier routines that Miller had written.  The rest of the show consisted of solo songs and production numbers, a few dance routines, and the requisite leggy showgirls.

When the show had its first performances in Washington, DC, Sissle sent a thoughtful telegram to Blake, Miller, and the cast, congratulating them on their opening:

34 Years ago almost to the month right here in the Howard Theatre four guys with a dream and with no one to disturb them and surrounded by faithful talented cast who believed in them saw their dream become a reality and a gem of an artistic entertainment was born … well here[‘]s hoping that once again within these historic walls there will be a rebirth of that same spirited breathless dancing harmonious soulfull [sic] singing and uproariously clean comedy that will once again bring to the legitimate theater that wholesome original style of entertainment the world is yearning

However, other than the performances in Washington and Harlem, the show never hit the road and there was no interest expressed in bringing it to Broadway.


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