Program InformationSeries: A Moment in Time
Year Produced: 2009
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1878 and raised by his grandmother, a former slave, legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson transformed the art of tap dancing.
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Lead: Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1878 and raised by his grandmother, a former slave, legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson transformed the art of tap dancing.
Intro.: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.
Content: Bill Robinson lost both parents when he was a young boy, and by the time he was six Robinson was dancing in beer gardens and on neighborhood street corners. All his life he carried the nickname “Bojangles,” but he could never be quite sure why. One story was that some of his friends had stolen a hat from a Broad Street haberdasher named Boujasson. He inherited the hat, along with the name youthfully mispronounced “Bojangles.” Robinson dropped out of school to pursue a career in dancing, and at seventeen, he was working the vaudeville circuit in the United States and Europe.
Robinson’s was not the conventional shuffling flat-footed style, but instead he danced with a light, swaying style on the balls of his feet. He refined the “stair dance” in the 1928 Broadway review Blackbirds and then with Shirley Temple in the 1935 movie The Little Colonel.
Vaudeville was fading by the late 1920s, but Robinson’s popularity in that medium helped him make the leap into a successful Broadway and motion picture career during the next two decades. This was during a time when there were limited opportunities for black actors and entertainers; many accepted roles such as Stepin Fetchit and Amos and Andy that, while pleasing to white audiences and paving the way for the Sydney Poitiers in the future, confirmed in their own era the worst kind of racial stereotype. Robinson frequently played a butler opposite Temple in movies such as The Littlest Rebel (1935). In one film, however, One Mile from Heaven (1937), he actually played a romantic lead opposite Lena Horne.
Robinson continued to dance into his 60s; however, due to a penchant for gambling and a generous spirit, he died penniless in New York in 1949 at the age of seventy-one. He was mourned by many fans, tens of thousands of whom attended his funeral which was said to be one of New York’s largest up to that time.
Research by Ann Johnson. At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.