Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mae West: Keith & Proctor's, Harlem

• • MAE WEST was an admirer of The Clef Club. As rehearsals began in early July 1922 for "The Ginger Box Revue," the producer had decided to book this exciting group — — New York's premiere African-American musicians — — to play between the acts, perhaps upon Mae's insistence. This organization had been established by James Reese ["Jim"] Europe [1881 — 1919] and Henry Creamer, two gentlemen whose musicianship found a lifelong fan in Mae West.
• • Two members of The Clef Club were Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. In an interview published in 1976, Eubie Blake explains why black vaudevillians went on in second place — — and tells about the time they were booked in the same Harlem showplace on 125th Street as Mae West in 1919, Keith & Proctor's Vaudeville Theatre.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
• • • • MAX MORATH: James Reese Europe was best known, I think, as the composer-conductor for the famous dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, until Vernon Castle died in a World War I training accident.
• • • • EUBIE BLAKE: I begged him! I begged him not to fly. Listen, one Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Castle are going down to Texas. He says, “Well, I’m going to Texas and teach some of the guys to fly.” So I said to Mr. Castle, “Do me a favor, don’t fly any more. You’re too valuable a man to fly.” And he laughed at me and said, “I’d rather fly a plane than go down in that subway.” And I don’t know what day it was, but a couple of days after that a guy was flying and he did something wrong and Castle ducked under him to catch him with his plane and POW [claps his hands together]! Both of them.
• • • • MM: And then Jim Europe was murdered.
• • • • EB: Yeah, in May 1919. A drummer in his band. Crazy.
• • • • MM: Ironically, it was Jim Europe’s death that led to the formation of Sissle and Blake as a performing team — — wasn’t it?
• • • • EB: Well, [Noble] Sissle said, “You know what we could do? We could go into vaudeville.” Sissle was always more aggressive than I was. So Pat Casey — — he’d booked Jim Europe’s band — — Pat Casey’d heard Sissle, Sissle told him about me, and Casey said put an act together. And we did something no act has ever done, then or since. We opened, played four days in New Haven. Then three days in the Harlem Opera House — — not the Apollo, the Apollo was a burlesque house then — — then right to The Palace. We screamed them! ...
• • • • MM: Did you continue playing the entire Keith Circuit?
• • • • EB: We didn’t play the deluxe houses, like the Paramount. They said we drew Negroes. We didn’t draw Negroes. We didn’t have a Negro act. I did a little light Negro comedy, a bit of dialect. Sissle didn’t like that. Sissle never sang in dialect. He was right out of college — — Butler, Indianapolis. We’d just sit and entertain, wrote all our own material. When I’d play piano, I’d play a pop song, but I wouldn’t announce it. We had an act you couldn’t follow. But usually we had to work number two.
• • • • MM: Number two — — you mean second place? In an eight-act bill? Why was that?
• • • • EB: All colored acts used to go on second. And they dressed on the last floor next to the toilet. Now, this story I’m going to tell you is about Joe Kennedy — — before he was ambassador to London. Old Man Kennedy. We were playing that theatre way up Broadway [211 West 125th Street, New York, NY] — — Keith vaudeville, you hear what I’m saying? That’s the first time I saw Mae West. We were on the bill with her. Anyway, Joe Kennedy comes backstage and says to this man in charge, “Who told you how to line up a vaudeville show?”
The man don’t know who he is. I’m standing there; I don’t know either. I says, “Why?”
Joe Kennedy explains, “Because you got Sissle and Blake on number two and the show’s top-heavy. Why do you put them on number two?”
And the man said, “All colored acts go on number two.”
• • • • MM: What was the reason for that?
• • • • EB: The newspapers — — the writers — — don’t come in till the third act or so. When they come in, you’re already off. You don’t get in the write-ups. You’re like the also-ran at the races. Every time they moved you down, you’re supposed to get more money. But not us. I don’t know about other colored acts, I’m talking about Sissle and Blake. They’d move us down, next to closing — — that’s the star’s place — — and we still got three hundred dollars a week. That’s all we got. Well, we got four hundred to play the Palace.
• • • • MM: Did you ever work next to closing — — the star’s spot — — on the opening night of a run?
• • • • EB: Plenty of places we played the sticks — — three a day. We starred in those places. ...
— — Excerpt: — —
• • Interview: "The 93 Years of Eubie Blake"
• • Interviewed by Max Morath
• • Published by American Heritage Magazine
• • Published: October 1976, Volume 27, Issue 6

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
• • About Eubie Blake & Noble Sissle, Clef Club members • •
• • Born in Baltimore as James Hubert Blake [7 February 1887 — 12 February 1983], Eubie Blake was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music.
• • In 1917
he became assistant conductor to Jim Europe at The Clef Club. After Jim's death in May 1919, Eubie forged a vaudeville team with Noble Sissle.
• • In 1921, Eubie Blake and long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote the Broadway musical "Shuffle Along," one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans.
• • Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Noble Sissle [10 July 1889 — 17 December 1975] was an American jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer, and playwright.

• • Come up and see Mae every day online: http://MaeWest.blogspot.com/
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • Keith & Proctor's Theatre • •
• • Feed — — http://feeds2.feedburner.com/MaeWest
Mae West.

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