1 of 2
2 of 2
Let us consider them. A late middle-aged African-American man in formal wear and a curly blond-headed tyke. And they burst with enjoyment as together they dance up and down a run of stairs. This is an old black-and-white movie, and if you’re sentient and experienced any cinematic culture during your life, you’ve seen a few snippets of this event. It is in a way remarkable: a black man and a white girl paired to dance in a film made during the Great Depression. Most everyone was in hard times, yet the color line was full in force. She is Shirley Temple, the first of many child stars from California, and he is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson from Richmond. Together, at the time, they are two of the most famous people on the planet.
We pause to remember them this week in honor of Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday at age 85. She performed in four movies with Robinson. Constance Valis Hill, an historian of tap dance, wrote a 2012 piece for the Huffington Post in which she cited Robinson and Temple as the nation’s first interracial media couple.
One of U.S. cinema’s classic popular moments comes in the The Little Colonel (1935). Household head Lionel Barrymore berates Robinson. It’s painful to watch. Hill writes: “Robinson was chipper and effervescent when he playfully jibed with the house servant played by Hattie McDaniel; he was even more so when he enticed the Southern patriarch's 6-year-old granddaughter (Temple) to go upstairs to bed by teaching her his famous stair dance. She took his hand and learned his steps, and they danced their way into cinema history as the first interracial tap-dancing couple, albeit a 6-year-old white girl and 57-year-old black man.”
"Theirs was the perfect interracial love match. For surely nothing would come of it," writes [African-American film historian] Donald Bogle. Though surely, he adds, The Littlest Rebel, which cast Robinson as Uncle Willy, the protective guardian-companion who accompanies Temple in search of her father who is captured by Union troops during the Civil War, was "certainly the first time in the history of motion pictures that a black servant was made responsible for a white life." Within the restriction of the servant role, Robinson masterfully stretched it into that which was more paternal, playing teacher, mentor and sage.”
Bill Robinson – born Luther in 1878 — grew up with his younger brother, Percy, in old Jackson Ward (in 1904, the city divided up the district between five other wards and removed its name from the maps). The 1885 deaths of his parents, Maxwell and Maria Robinson, put their sons under the charge of paternal grandmother Bedilia Robinson, born a slave.
He took the ”Bojangles” monkier before leaving Richmond for vaudeville. One account describes the nickname as coming from Robinson’s attempt to make off with a big hat he liked from a Broad Street store, but ultimately Robinson claimed he couldn’t recall where the name came from. Robinson may or may not have worked as a teenage waiter at The Jefferson Hotel while between show tours. Robinson’s white agent, Marty Forkin, told a tale of how he dined at The Jefferson, and after some slight, Robinson spilled soup on him. Somehow out of this, Forkin decided to sign him to a contract. Robinson danced at The Jefferson for the 1933 Beaux Arts Ball,though Jim Crow laws prevented him from staying there as a guest. The same weekend he came to perform for the ball, he inaugurated the traffic light where his statue stands today.
Robinson's role in advancing dance and the place of blacks in film is what led dancer Gregory Hines to create a 2001 television movie about Bojngles.
But in changing social times, the Bojangles persona became problematic. Lena Horne, miscast alongside him in Stormy Weather as a love interest despite a near half-century of age difference, didn’t care for him. In Horne’s biography, Robinson is described as a purposeful subservient, who carried a pistol, was poisonous to other blacks “and truly believed in the wit and wisdom of little Shirley Temple.” That Robinson had his troubled side is well known. So did an earlier, dramatic performer from the same Richmond neighborhood, Charles Sidney Gilpin. The two, though quite different in their approaches toward their art, nonetheless faced similar challenges of trailblazers. To survive as a headline entertainer for decades and to make a living, Robinson adopted a role that worked. In his later life, he gambled and died broke and was then given what, up to that time, was Harlem’s largest funeral.
Shirley Temple, though not African American, was a woman who came of age during the civil rights struggle. And though she had few of the challenges Robinson faced, there is something quite contemporary and a little odd about her rise. Today’s reality television focuses on childhood beauty pageants and little girls made to appear as adults. The American entertainment machine of the Great Depression in the 1930s latched onto Temple’s dimples and vivacity to make her the best known person in the world. Temple was trained to entertain, but when the lights went out and the cameras didn't roll for her anymore, she didn't crack up or end up as carrion for tabloid vultures to pick over. She re-started her life through politics.
Robinson gave huge amounts to black charities and became a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He co-founded a Negro Leagues Baseball team, the New York Black Yankees. He also fought in World War I as a member of New York’s 369th Infantry, termed theHarlem Hellfighters.
Robinson went into show business because he excelled at pleasing an audience, but he had no reason to know that after many years in the business, he'd end up on the stairs with Shirley Temple. At the age of 6, Temple was called an “actress” even though she later recalled that she didn’t know what one was. They both symbolized forms of delight and optimism. Robinson is credited with coining the term “copacetic,” which means things are beyond great, and Temple sang about the “Good Ship Lollipop.”
And she danced exuberantly with Bill Robinson.
Following a radical mastectomy, she became one of the first prominent women to speak about her experience. Robinson married three times; Temple, twice, the second and most enduring to businessman Charles Black, who admitted he’d never seen her films. They married in 1950, had a son and daughter. The couple were together until his 2005 death from a bone marrow disease.
Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson dance on those stairs whenever a clips compilation is made of such moments. They are in millions of people’s heads. But there is more to both of them than we see.