Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mae West: Aida Overton Walker

MAE WEST opened for Aida Overton Walker at Hammerstein's in the summer of 1912.
• • A versatile sweetheart and a "triple threat" stage star who could sing, dance, and act, Aida also mastered the art of the choreographer as well.
• • Born in the Richmond, Virginia in the month of February — — on 14 February 1880 — — Aida Overton's family moved to New York City when she was young, and that is where she gained an education and considerable musical training.
• • Aida Overton Walker dazzled early-twentieth-century theater audiences with her original dance routines, her enchanting singing voice, and her penchant for elegant costumes. At 15 years old, she joined John Isham's Octoroons, one of the most influential black touring groups of the 1890s, and the following year she became a member of the Black Patti Troubadours. Although the show consisted of dozens of performers, Overton emerged as one of the most promising soubrettes of her day.
• • In 1898, she joined the company of the famous comedy team Bert Williams and George Walker, and appeared in all of their shows — — The Policy Players (1899), The Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1905), and Bandanna Land (1907).
• • Within about a year of their meeting, George Walker and Aida Overton wed on 22 June 1899. After the marriage, Aida Walker worked as a choreographer for Williams and Walker, her husband's vaudevillian comedy duo.
• • Since Bert Walker was one of Mae West's idols, and she attended many of his shows before meeting him in person [1903], it's safe to assume she saw these three stage stars performing together.
• • While George Walker supplied most of the ideas for the musical comedies and Bert Williams enjoyed fame as the "funniest man in America," Aida quickly became an indispensable member of the Williams and Walker Company. In The Sons of Ham, for example, her rendition of Hannah from Savannah won praise for combining superb vocal control with acting skill that together presented a positive, strong image of black womanhood. Indeed, onstage Aida refused to comply with the plantation image of black women as plump mammies, happy to serve; like her husband, she viewed the representation of refined African American types on the stage as important political work. A talented dancer, Aida improvised original routines that her husband eagerly introduced in the shows; when In Dahomey was moved to England, Aida proved to be one of the strongest attractions.
• • After a decade of nearly continuous success with the Williams and Walker Company, Aida's career took an unexpected turn when her husband collapsed on tour with Bandanna Land. Eventually, Aida began touring the vaudeville circuit as a solo act. Less than two weeks after George Walker's death in January 1911, Aida signed a two-year contract to appear as a co-star with S. H. Dudley in another all-black traveling show. She was celebrated for her part in the spectacular "Salome" at Oscar Hammerstein's Victoria Theater in New York City.
• • "Salome" and Aida and Mae in August 1912
• • After a 16-week tour of the Midwest, vaudevillian Aida Overton Walker returned to her homebase in The Big Apple in July of 1912. Impresario Oscar Hammerstein invited her to reprise her role as Salome at his roof garden theatre on Broadway and West 42nd Street in the first week of August. Houdini and Mae West were also on the stagebill along with Edgar Berger, Fields and Carroll, Dan the talking dog, and the usual "nut" acts.
• • Critic Robert Speare reported that Aida "is the only colored artist who has ever been known to give this dance in public." He praised her performance as "a graceful and interesting version of the dance."
• • Although still a relatively young woman in the early 1910s, Aida began to develop medical problems that limited her capacity for constant touring and stage performance. The talented thespian died suddenly of kidney failure on 11 October 1914 when she was only 34 years old. The New York Age featured a lengthy obituary on its front page. She was, in the words of the New York Age's Lester Walton, the exponent of "clean, refined artistic entertainment."

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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • Hammerstein's • •
Mae West.

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